"I Want to Believe, But..."

Message from April 22, 2018
By Rev. Shawn Coons

This morning we begin a new series called, “I Want to Believe, But…”  And I think this series will speak directly to three groups of people, and I’d be willing to bet there’s at least one or two people from each of these groups here this morning.

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The first group of people this series will speak to, is to Christians, but specifically Christians who have faith and belief in God, but also have doubts, questions, and even objections to certain beliefs about God or specific teachings of the Christian faith.  Shortly after the message today, you will be invited to join in saying our affirmation of faith. This is the part of the service where we draw on creed, confessions, and other writings of our tradition to express shared beliefs of Christians and Presbyterians.  Today we will be using the Apostles’ Creed.

In the last church I served in Florida, I had a member there whose name was Clarence.  Clarence was a very thoughtful man, in the sense that he gave a lot of thought to his faith and his life.  He was a career scientist and a man of intellect and reason.  One time as we were talking he told me, “Shawn, I can’t recite all of the Apostles’ Creed with integrity.  On my good days I can get through most of it but when I come to “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,” I stumble. I can’t say those words, because as scientist I feel that belief of the church just goes too far.  You’re asking me too ignore science, biology and reason.”

Clarence died a few years ago, but this series speaks to all the other Clarences out there.  Those of you who have a sincere Christian faith but also question the miracles and demons in the Bible, or can’t quite understand or put trust in prayer having power in the actions and events in people’s lives.

The second group this series may speak to, is those who wouldn’t call themselves Christians.  Maybe they would say they are agnostic, or maybe they don’t choose any label.  In the churches, there have always been people who are interested in Christianity, who are drawn to the church for some sense of belonging and something greater, but they can’t quite bring themselves to buy into the whole system of Christian faith.  They are intrigued, and often very knowledgeable about Christianity, but there are questions and objections that keep them from calling themselves Christians.

They like the idea of a loving God, but then they look around and see so much pain and suffering in the world, and it’s just too much for them to believe that it can exist along with a God who should be doing something about it.  If you are one of these agnostics maybe you appreciate the good that can come out of a gathered community of Christians, you like this Jesus guy they talk about, until you they talk turns to all those who will go to hell if they don’t believe in Jesus as “lord and savior.”  And then you think, what kind of God sets up that system?

Then there’s a third group of people this series might speak to, and I might be stretching it with this one, but hear me out.  I think this is a series for those people who reject Christianity, who reject belief in God.  For you, there may be some good things in the teachings of Jesus, but by and large it seems like a big bunch of hooey.  They think it’s ridiculous to believe in some god up in the sky who has a an undead son, they’d just as soon believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster as the God of the Bible.

Someone may ask, Shawn, are those people even here this morning?  Why would someone who doesn’t believe in God come to church.  Well, people are funny, and who knows you may be here this morning.  But often, this describes a husband or wife who comes with their believing spouse or partner.  Maybe it’s a child who comes with their parents.  Maybe someone came into use the bathroom and we started while they were walking through and their too embarrassed to leave.

So how does this series speak to them?  Maybe what we discuss what convince them, and honestly the point of this series isn’t to convince anyone.  But maybe, just maybe it will help them understand how others can believe with sincerity or integrity.  Maybe, that person who doesn’t believe at all can say after listening to this series, “I don’t agree with your belief, and I’m not going to become a Christian, but I used to think that any Christian must be crazy and have to give up their reason and intellect to believe. But now, I can see how someone can have some of the same questions and skepticism I have, yet still choose to believe.

Because that’s what this series is ultimately about. Having belief and having doubt.  Having Christian faith and having objections to Christian faith. Believing in God, and believing there are valid questions about God.

“I Want to Believe, But…” We are going to take both parts of the series title seriously. We are going to take your belief seriously, and we are going to take your but seriously.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

At the end of today’s message, and at the end of this series here is the bottom line, here is what I want you to take to heart:

Don’t dismiss your objections easily, *and* don’t dismiss God easily.

I am convinced that the Christians with the deepest most meaningful faith and belief in God, have some of the deepest and most profound questions and doubts about faith as well.  And I believe they can co-exist, and I believe they should co-exist.

Don’t dismiss your objections easily, *and* don’t dismiss God easily.

Ok, so I’ve already preached about half of my morning message and we haven’t even gotten to scripture, so let’s do that. Because our passage this morning speaks directly to this main point – Don’t dismiss your objections easily, *and* don’t dismiss God easily.

We are going to read from Mark 9:14-29 and it is the story of Jesus casting out a demon from a young boy.  And some of you are rolling your eyes a little bit and saying, “Alright, Shawn, here is objection #1, I want to believe in God, but demons?  Really?”  Hold on to that, don’t dismiss it, we’ll get there in the next couple weeks. But for now, stick with me.

14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’17Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ 19He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’ 

20And they brought the boy* to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy* into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21Jesus* asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. 22It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ 23Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ 24Immediately the father of the child cried out,* ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’

 25When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ 26After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ 27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. 28When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ 29He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’* 

There’s a lot going on in this passage.  But at it’s heart is a father and a son.  What’s more is a father whose son is not well, not well at all.  Parents, you know how it feels when your child is sick. When your child is hurting, is suffering, and you can’t figure out what to do. You feel powerless to help them.  That’s what is going on here. It is easy to get distracted by the talk of unclean spirits, possession, and exorcism. We can speculate, was it a demon, or was it some sort of disease or condition that wasn’t understood then.  Was it possession or seizures? But it all boils down to a father who loves his son, has seen his son suffer for years, and only wants his son to be well.

So this father brings his son to Jesus’ disciples. He’s heard or even seen that they have healed other people, cast out spirits like the one that has a grip on his son.  He makes his way through town, maybe even from another town. Maybe he’s traveled miles with his son. Keeping the boy safe while traveling. Stopping on the road whenever his son has an episode, stopping wherever they are at that moment, in the countryside, in the middle of the city.  Focused on keeping the boy from hurting himself, keeping him from throwing himself into fire or water like has happened in the past.

The boy and his father come to Jesus’s disciples, hoping beyond hope that there is something that can help the boy, but probably not having too much hope, after all, they’ve tried so much and nothing has work yet. You can only get your hopes up so far when they’ve been crushed so many times. So now a boy and his father, hope and skepticism, stand before the disciples. And they pray and the lay hands on the young boy, but nothing happens.

The father is crushed.  The disciples are confused; they’ve done this before? Why didn’t it work? So they go to Jesus. And Jesus asks the father what’s happening, what’s wrong with the boy. The father patiently explains and then says to Jesus, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus says - and I love this because it feels a little sarcastic to me, and it makes me feel better to think that Jesus used sarcasm – “If you are able!”  He basically says, do you know who I am?  I don’t think he says this in a mean way or a mocking way.  I like to think it’s joyfully sarcastic yet confidently.

When the father heard this, he probably had a little hope. Jesus is laughing like this is a trivial thing for him. “Can I help you?  If you only knew!  Of course, I can!”  The dad has to be thinking this might be it, but then comes the next words of Jesus, “All things can be done for the one who believes.”

I don’t know how the dad hear Jesus words, but what Jesus says is basically, “I can do this, I can take care of this, I can make your boy well again!  As long as you believe.”  And it’s not longer about the power of Jesus, it’s about the belief of the father.  For years, his son’s health and happiness were beyond his control, now Jesus says that the boy’s healing is in the father’s hands and will be done as long as Dad believes.

And then he makes what I think, is possibly the most passionate and most authentic prayer in all of scripture.  He says, no, he doesn’t say, the Bible says he cries out, “I believe; Help my unbelief!”

“I believe; Help my unbelief!”  That’s the best he can do.  He can’t with integrity say, “Yes, Jesus, I believe 100%. There is no doubt in me.  I am rock solid in my faith!”  He can’t go there.  What he can say, what he can give to Jesus, is his belief and his doubts, his objections, his questions, his unbelief.

Writer Frederich Buechner says that “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief' is the best any of us can do really, but thank God it is enough.”

I believe; help my unbelief. Don’t dismiss your objections easily, *and* don’t dismiss God easily. That’s what this series is about. That’s what our Christian faith is about. 

Last week, you heard a message from Rev. Jim Pfeiffer about a similar subject. Do you remember it?  He preached on the ending of the gospel and Matthew, where Jesus disciples and followers were gathered with Jesus and he gave them the great commission, “Go into the world, baptize all nations, teach them what I’ve taught you, and I am with you always, always to the ends of the age.”

This fantastically powerful moments, and the scripture says, “They worshipped” I’ll bet the did. But that’s not all the Bible says, it says, “They worshipped, and some doubted.”  Even at this pinnacle moment of our faith, Jesus closest followers, the resurrected Jesus right in front of them, they worshipped and some doubted.

Jim told us last week, that when we doubt, when we have objections, when we have questions, this passage from Matthew reminds us that we are in excellent company.  The saints of our faith, had doubts, just like you and I.

Don’t dismiss your objections easily, *and* don’t dismiss God easily. I believe; help my unbelief.
It truly is the best any of us can do, and truly Thank God that it is enough.