Sunday, May 8, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "All Things"

Mark 9:14-29

When Jesus, Peter, James, and John approached the other disciples, they saw a large crowd surrounding them and legal experts arguing with them. 15 Suddenly the whole crowd caught sight of Jesus. They ran to greet him, overcome with excitement. 16 Jesus asked them, “What are you arguing about?” 17 Someone from the crowd responded, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, since he has a spirit that doesn’t allow him to speak. 18 Wherever it overpowers him, it throws him into a fit. He foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and stiffens up. So I spoke to your disciples to see if they could throw it out, but they couldn’t.” 19 Jesus answered them, “You faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 They brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a fit. He fell on the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been going on?” He said, “Since he was a child. 22 It has often thrown him into a fire or into water trying to kill him. If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!” 23 Jesus said to him, “‘If you can do anything’? All things are possible for the one who has faith.” 24 At that the boy’s father cried out, “I have faith; help my lack of faith!” 25 Noticing that the crowd had surged together, Jesus spoke harshly to the unclean spirit, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you to come out of him and never enter him again.” 26 After screaming and shaking the boy horribly, the spirit came out. The boy seemed to be dead; in fact, several people said that he had died. 27 But Jesus took his hand, lifted him up, and he arose. 28 After Jesus went into a house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we throw this spirit out?” 29 Jesus answered, “Throwing this kind of spirit out requires prayer.” (Common English Bible)

“Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief,” Week Six

Four tours of duty in Afghanistan across a twenty-year military career.  Three times in those four tours, he was almost killed.  Yet still, Sergeant Joseph Serna returned to the United States at least physically intact, if not entirely mentally intact—as many soldiers from war zones sadly do, Sgt. Serna suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and it eventually landed him on the wrong side of the law as a result of substance abuse, and I’ll let the Washington Post pick it up here:

While Serna’s years in combat earned him three Purple Hearts and other military accolades, like many combat vets, he’s been unable to leave the battlefield behind him.  Since returning to the U.S., the decorated Green Beret has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and been charged with driving under the influence.  He entered the veteran’s treatment court program…over which…State District Court Judge Lou Olivera presides.

Serna had fought to stay sober, appearing before Olivera 25 times to have his progress reviewed.  He confessed to Olivera that he lied about a recent urine test last week…in response, Olivera sentenced Serna to one day in jail.

The judge drove Serna to the jail in a neighboring county…As Serna sat down on the cot in his cell…he heard the door rattle open again and saw Olivera standing before him.  Olivera sat down beside him.  Someone came and locked the door.

This was a one-man cell so we sat on the bunk and I said, ‘You are here for the entire time with me?’” Serna (said).  “He said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I am doing.’”

A Gulf War veteran himself, Olivera was concerned leaving Serna in isolation for a night would trigger his PTSD.

So, Olivera stayed with Serna the whole time, conversing with him and trying to help rebuild him.

In a moment of weakness, of unbelief in perhaps himself, or in whether he could actually live and cope with life, Serna had done something colossally dangerous to himself and others.  But he was also able to cry out, like the father in Mark 9, “Help me in my unbelief!”  And someone actually did.

This has been a sermon series for the church season of Easter, which is now almost up.  According to the church calendar, Easter lasts for the fifty days between the day the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene (and, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the other female disciples of Jesus) and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled followers of Jesus on Pentecost as described in Acts.

During the first forty of those fifty days, the newly-resurrected Jesus made several appearances to His followers so that they may know that He was well and truly brought back from the dead, and so that their belief in Him as the Son of God might be made complete.

But their belief was not—is not—enough.  Jesus commissions His followers to, in the words of His brother James in his own letter in the New Testament, to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.
And to be a doer of the Word, belief is only part of the recipe.  One must have faith as well.  After all, belief at its core is merely an intellectual assent to reality.  I believe that the earth is round.  I believe that milk spoils.  I believe the hokey pokey is what it’s all about.  But that’s all belief does.

That is why, whenever I baptize someone, I do not just ask for a statement of belief—the “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God” part, but also for an affirmative action of faith—“and do you accept Him as your Savior?”

Faith is acting on those beliefs, and that is where I think Christianity sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  We care so much about right doctrine that we lose sight of right faith and right action.

Right action, though is what is front and center for the father who comes up to Jesus here in Mark 9.  His son has been stricken—apparently for many years now—and when the son was presented to Jesus’s disciples for help, the disciples were unable to successfully exorcise the boy.

So the father does what you have to think any desperate parent would do for their child: he created a large commotion within the crowd in order to get Jesus’s attention.  After all, if the disciples cannot adequately utilize God’s healing capacities, you might as well try anything you can to go directly to the source right?  The father is successful in doing so, and pleads vividly and emotionally with Jesus, “If you can do anything, help us!  Show us compassion!”

To which he actually gets something that closely resembles a rebuke from Jesus, well, actually, he gets two of them.  The first is that “faithless generation” rebuke, the sort of thing my millennial ears have grown used to hearing about, you know, my generation’s noise/music, sense of fashion (or lack thereof), and our insistence that we’re all special snowflakes.

But the second rebuke is what I want to focus on: “If you can do anything? All things are possible for one who has faith (or believes, depending on your translation—see, isn’t this a needed sermon series after all?).”

That had to be mortifying for the father, don’t you think?  All you want—all you’re looking for—is for your son to be well and whole again, and the one person (well, God-in-flesh person) who can help you, and he’s going to correct your begging first?  As us faithless generation whippersnappers say, “WTF?”

But of course, Jesus’s gentle rejoinder—and really, it can also be seen as encouraging, rather than scolding, to tell the father that if he does indeed have faith, more and more possibilities open up—has the desired effect on our desperate dad, who cries out to Jesus the line that inspired and entitles this entire sermon series to this point: “I believe!  Help me in my unbelief!”

It is, for me, one of the most amazing, most powerful, most profound paradoxes in the entire Bible: I believe.  But help me in this unbelief I also have.

This father may believe, but it is impossible for him to do so every minute of every day.  He sees his own limitations in a moment of sheer, unadulterated humility—and even humiliation, if you consider that this is all taking place amid a large crowd, and they may well be judging him, thinking, as was a popular worldview at the time that sin (not germs or genes) caused physical conditions and illnesses, “What on earth kind of sin could you have possibly done to demonize your boy like this?’

Which brings us back to the fact that the father was causing a commotion to begin with.  He was willing to risk that level of humiliation and judgment in order to finally, at long last, maybe have a healthy son again.

Just as a judge in drug court was willing to risk a level of humiliation to stay in jail to maybe, just maybe, have a healthy fellow veteran living life again.

Can you imagine one of those two veterans sitting in the jail cell together, one saying to the other those same words of the anonymous father, “I believe, help me in my unbelief?”

Can you imagine the one, the battle-tested veteran with PTSD, pleading for help in his own quest for wholeness, and being encouraged in return, it’s possible.  It’s doable.  It.  Can.  Be.  Done.  All things are possible for one who has faith.

It is not just a platitude.  It is not something that you ought to find in the interior of a greeting card or a fortune cookie to glance at fleetingly and then cast away forever.  It is not a trite cliché to be trotted out in commencement speeches and motivational halftime speeches.

For it is what a wildly despairing father needs to hear in order to recognize and proclaim this vital truth about himself, that while he may well have faith, he still needs help in those moments when he does not, when that faith weakens, or is questioned, or goes missing.

Our faith may quiver and quaver, our beliefs may be tested and questioned, but Christ still remains.

Christ always remains.

And in Christ, the stricken boy is indeed made whole.

May we, like the boy, like the father, like the Green Beret, like the judge, like the puzzle and tapestry and maze of grace and wonder and hurt and goodness that is humanity.

For in the midst of that humanity, Christ still remains.

Christ always remains.

And He remains to help us in our unbelief.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 8, 2016

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