Sunday, October 13, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Losing Belief, Finding Faith"

Mark 9:14-24

14 And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. 15 Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him. 16 And He asked the scribes, “What are you discussing with them?” 17 Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. 18 And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” 19 He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” 20 Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. 21 So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe,[a] all things are possible to him who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (CEB)

“Seeking God Anew: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed,” Week Six

She became world-famous at only 14…and so you might not need me to repeat her story to here, but here it is anyhow: born and raised in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai became the target of a Taliban assassination when she began publicly criticizing their fundamentalism.  And so a Talib assassin shot her in the head on a bus with a pistol at point-blank range.

Miraculously, she survived.  And now, two years later, she is the author of a book and is sitting down to be interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and of course he asks her—very gently—about the assassination attempt.  And this is what she said, in part:

I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me.  But then I said, “If he comes, what would you do, Malala?”  Then I would reply to myself, “Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.”  But then I said, “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib.  You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harsh(ness), you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.”  Then I said I will tell him how important education is, and that I even want education for your children as well.  And I will tell him, “That is what I want to tell you, now do what you want.”

What is amazing about this response—to me, at least—is something that might get lost on American audiences, and that is that Malala would want to hit her assailant with a shoe.  And in many Near Eastern and South Asian nations, feet and shoes are seen as something that can be profoundly insulting—anyone remember when George W. Bush had a pair of shoes chucked at him at a presser in Iraq?  And so this isn’t just self-defense that Malala is talking about here, it is about wanting to insult the people who persecute you.  And instead she reaches for something higher, and tells us to do the same, and when she does, I feel just like the father in this story whom Jesus tells that all things are possible for one who believes.  I want to cry out, “Then help me in my unbelief!”  Because the sinful side of me would rather insult, not have faith.

This is a new(ish) sermon series revolving around a new book, by a fairly new(ish) pastor, with a very un-new name: Jay Bakker, the son of the (in?)famous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, first pinged my radar when he came to speak at my seminary’s annual Earl Lectures series in 2010.  I have followed bits and pieces of his work ever since, and after beginning the Revolution church movement in Phoenix, he has gone on to plant Revolution churches in Atlanta and New York City, and he is now planting a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In the meanwhile, he has also taken to writing, and his latest book, entitled, “Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed” spoke strongly enough for me make a sermon series!  The chapter I am borrowing from this week is called “Losing Belief, Finding Faith.”  Jay writes in it (in part):

What should we do with all this uncertainty and doubt?  The risk of faith is exposure to the unknown.  No one wants the unknown.  We want to know.  We want to be certain.  We want a foundation, something to hang onto, because life is messy.  Life is tough…

I haven’t got it all figured out.  But I’ve decided to live as if life has meaning.  I’m going to live as though perhaps Jesus really was the Son of God.  I’m going to live in the idea of grace.  I’m going to love my neighbor as myself.  I’m going to work to free people from hell on earth.  I’m going to try to put food in the mouths of people who are hungry.  I’m going to try to help end suffering for the victims of the sex trade industry.  I’m going to work to end genocide in Darfur.  Even if life is meaningless, I’m going to work to end suffering.

Hold onto your truth, faith says, but your truth doesn’t have to hold onto you.  The freedom to have faith instead of belief is, to me, one of the most beautiful things about following Christ.

While nominally a healing or exorcism story—and the circumstances are pretty similar to most other such stories depicted the Gospels—this passage from Mark really isn’t about the son who is being healed at all.  It is about the boy’s father.

We are almost to Holy Week at this point in Mark—we are in Mark 9; Mark 10 depicts Jesus’ journey south to Jerusalem, and Mark 11 recounts His triumphal entry into the Holy City that we remember every year on Palm Sunday.  So there has been ample time for Jesus’ reputation as a healer and as an exorcist to spread throughout the land, and this father reaches the point that I have to think any parent of a child with a chronic, debilitating condition would: he’ll try anything, even if that “anything” is an itinerant rabbi with powers you know of only via hearsay.

So the father meets Jesus after first trying to see if one of the Disciples could heal his boy, and of course the Disciples—with their primary literary role of acting as Jesus’ bumbling, Keystone Kops-esque foils—fail.  And we cannot tell if Jesus’ harangue in reply, the “you faithless generation, how long must I be among you?” line, is in response to the father’s obsequiousness or in response to His own followers’ incompetence.  My guess is that it is in fact both, because of what Jesus says in verse 23: all things are possible for one who believes.  In other words, if the Disciples truly believed, they could have healed this boy.

But that task instead falls to Jesus, and in begging Jesus to do this, the boy’s father holds out a slender glimmer of faith: “but if YOU are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”  And of course, we know that Jesus is capable of doing anything, or at least SOMETHING to heal this boy, but as the New Testament scholar Douglas Hare puts it, the father’s “dialogue with jesus stands for many later believers, who would like to believe in the power of God as revealed in Jesus…but find their will to believe inhibited by skepticism based on everyday experience.”

And that is why this story is really about the father…because the father describes us perfectly.  We may or may not empathize with his son—if we suffer from epilepsy, we are probably apt to—but the father, well, the father is us, he is us crying out to Jesus, “Help me in my unbelief!”

The father is me.  And sometimes I’m crying out not only to Jesus, but to anyone who believes in Him as well.  That is how much the everyday experiences of the world can weigh down on a person’s faith—even pastors experience it.

I experienced it most recently after our building was flooded.  Like I told many of you, I took that freak act of God personally, when there was no possible way it could have been.

And so instead of you coming to me, saying, “Pastor, help me in my unbelief,” it was me saying to you, “Help me in my unbelief!”  Any many of you did.  You really did.

That is, at its core, what this story from Mark 9 is about, and what makes it so unique among all the healing stories that Mark includes in his Gospel.  Yes, a boy is made well.  But in so doing, a father’s desperation is exorcised as well.  OUR desperation is exorcised as well.

How often do you feel like you have been having an amazing day, an amazing week, an amazing year, and all of the sudden something terrible happens, and you plead with God, “If you can do something God, DO IT.”

And of course God does not work like that.  He is not a message box we can simply deposit our requests into.  But because life is messy, because life is tough, that is what we want Him to be.

So we turn to God when we see a teenaged girl shot in the head by religious fundamentalists and we say to Him, “Help me in my unbelief!”  And so He speaks to us through that little girl.

We look at God when we see our church harmed, whether by flood or by vandalism or by attempted arson, and we wonder who the hell would do this, and we scream at God, “Help me in my unbelief!”  And so He speaks to us through one another.

We look at the rest of this broken little world, with its poverty and its starvation, with its addictions and its homelessness, with its violence and its slavery, and at the people for whom this is their everyday experience, and we shout at God, “Help me in my unbelief!”  And so He speaks to us through Jesus Christ.

And in speaking to us, God helps us in our unbelief by giving us more than beliefs—by giving us faith…by giving us something to have faith in.

There are so many things I do not know.  That I may never know.  But this I know and believe with my whole heart and my whole mind: that God stands ready to help us in our unbelief if we ask Him to.  God is not so distant, not so cold, not so uncaring, as to ignore us.

Jesus could have sent this desperate, faith-lacking father on his way.  He could have dismissed him without talking to him, without acknowledging him, and certainly without healing the stricken son.  Jesus could have done that to this man.  We may feel like Jesus could do that to us.

But He didn’t.

That is the miracle that takes place here…yes, an illness is defeated by God’s healing.  But more staggeringly, indifference is defeated by compassion.  It is how we are helped in our unbelief.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 13, 2013

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