October 21, 2012

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC



Mark 9:14-29


I am so glad this story is in the Bible!  It’s a story, like many of the stories of Jesus, that ends with a miracle.  A little boy has this disorder that sounds like epilepsy to us.  It sounded like demon possession to them.  Jesus heals the boy.  The disciples had tried and failed.  This wasn’t a garden variety miracle.  Jesus confides in his disciples afterwards, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”  But the prayer works.  There is a happy ending.  I’m glad there’s a happy ending.  I’m glad for the boy.  But that’s not what makes me glad that this story is in the Bible.

I’m glad because of the honesty of the boy’s father.  He says to Jesus, Help “if you can”.  Jesus says, Of course I can.  “All things are possible to him who believes.”  And that’s when the father speaks those words that make him one so many have identified with down through the ages.  He says, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

Isn’t that the way it is with most of us?  We believe.  But we also  doubt.  Some believe almost all the time, but occasionally doubt  will creep in.  Others doubt almost all the time, but once in a while faith has a way of sneaking past their defenses.  And for many, it’s hard to tell which is stronger, their faith or their doubt.  It kind of depends on the day.

Henry Emerson Fosdick preached a great sermon a number

of years ago atRiversideChurchinNew York City.  He called it,

“The Importance of Doubting Your Doubts”.  He stole my title.

One good thing about using a Fosdick sermon as my starting point:  There is no temptation to plagiarize.  Fosdick has a unique style of communicating all his own and if I were to start talking that way, you’d probably wonder if I’d been possessed.  I will however be using some of his thoughts on this subject of how doubt and faith are related.

The first thing to say is that doubt is not always a bad thing.  It can be a very good thing.  It’s easy to just go along with what everyone else believes.  It takes courage to stand up and say, “I doubt that”.  I’m glad someone had that courage when everyone else believed that the world was flat.  I’m glad someone had that courage when everyone else believed the earth was the center of the universe.  Until someone challenged those long-held, dearly-cherished assumptions, scientific progress was impossible.  To be a  scientist you have to be a skeptic.  Not a skeptic about God, as we will see in a moment, but a skeptic about conventional wisdom about God’s creation.  The scientist tests everything.  The scientist assumes nothing.  The scientific method begins with doubt.

You’ve heard the story of Galileo.  He challenged the assumption that the earth stands still at the center of the universe and all the heavenly bodies move around it.  The Church in his day didn’t like that.  It threatened what they were teaching about God.  So Galileo was found guilty of heresy, his books were banned, he was forced to declare under oath that he had been wrong, the Church was right, the earth does not move.  And as the trial ended he was heard, muttering under his breath:  “But it does move.”

That’s healthy doubt.  Galileo knew what he was talking about when he said that “doubt is the father of discovery”.

Another in the pantheon of great doubters is one who might surprise you.  His name is Jesus.  From the day he was in theTempleat age 12 asking the religious scholars questions they couldn’t answer, he was always a skeptic.  Not about God, but about what everyone else was saying about God.  They said God’s Messiah would be a warrior king.  He doubted that.  They said God doesn’t want us to heal on the Sabbath.  He doubted that.  They said the Samaritans were an inferior race of people.  He doubted that.  They said “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”.  He doubted that.  His refrain was, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, but I say to you . . . ”

No one who ever lived has had stronger faith than Jesus.  But one reason his faith could be so strong was because it was his faith, not the faith others were hoping he would accept without question.  Jesus was always questioning.  He was always doubting.  Those doubts were the pathway that led him to faith.

People of faith fall into two categories.  Those who inherit their faith from others and those who fight for a faith that is truly their own.

It’s very common for children to reject the faith of their parents.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It’s part of growing up.  We need to differentiate ourselves from our parents.  We need to decide for ourselves the beliefs and values that will guide our lives.  Children who leave the faith in which they were raised often come back to it.  Not always, but often.  But whether they come back to the same faith in which they were raised or they find a different expression of faith, that faith is their own.  And since they reached it by questioning everything and accepting nothing blindly, it is a stronger faith than it otherwise would be.

I’m one who was raised by Christian parents and by a Christian church.  I went to Sunday school and earned perfect attendance pins.  I even taught Sunday school my four years of high school.  But in the process I was rejecting a lot.  First of all, I was rejecting theUnitedMethodistChurch.  I never left it, but I found myself drawn to more strict and narrow expressions of Christianity.  I even considered going to a college operated by the Worldwide Church of God.  That’s the Herbert W. Armstrong and Garner Ted Armstrong church.  I was making my parents real nervous.

I ended up going to a solid liberal arts school,WillametteUniversity.  A United Methodist school.  My faith though was still pretty conservative.  Then when God surprised me by calling me into ministry, I was led to a seminary that was on the other extreme of the theological spectrum.  The Iliff School of Theology calls themselves progressive.  Others call them liberal.  And some call them pagan.  It’s the kind of school with the reputation of ruining the faith of young Christians.  But that wasn’t my experience at all.  I was encouraged to question everything, including my own faith, including the more liberal faith of my professors.  I ended up with a faith that was my own, and much stronger as a result.  And having drifted away from theUnitedMethodistChurch, I ended up choosing theUnitedMethodistChurchas the church that best fits me.

So doubt is not necessarily a bad thing.  Doubt can be the father of discovery.  Doubt can be the pathway to a faith that is strong because it is your own.

But doubt can also be the pathway away from faith.  It can be the pathway as well as the destination.  Doubt can be a downward spiral toward cynicism and nihilism and despair.  So the question is: How does faith overcome doubt?  And the answer is:  Doubt everything, especially your doubts.

Some of you may have doubts about the existence of God.  You may wonder sometimes whether this life and this world is all there is and there is no Creator or purpose or meaning behind it all.   The communists say that faith is “the opium of the masses”.  Maybe sometimes you wonder if they are right.  Or to bring it closer to home, we have an organization called, “The Treasure Valley Coalition of Reason.”  You may have seen their billboards:  “Are You Good Without God?  Millions Are.”  Maybe it made you angry to see that, but maybe it got you to wondering, what if they are right?  How do you know they aren’t?

Well, one way is to just hold onto your faith.  That’s not a bad thing to do.  But what if your faith isn’t strong enough to hold onto?  Then you might just need to carry your seeds of doubt to their logical conclusion, until you start doubting your doubts.  Until you begin to see that disbelief is unbelievable.

Many if not most scientists have ended up as believers.  Their skepticism about everything came to include skepticism about the possibility that there is no God.  And they have concluded it takes more faith to believe there is no God than to believe that there is a God.

Jim Bishop wrote a newspaper column a number of years ago that carried atheism to its logical conclusion.

There is no God.  All of the wonders around us are accidental.  No almighty hand made a thousand billion stars.  They made themselves.  No power keeps them on their steady course.  The earth spins itself to keep the oceans from falling off toward the sun.  Infants teach themselves to cry when they are hungry or hurt.  A small flower invented itself so that we could extract digitalis for sick hearts.  The earth gave itself day and night, tilted itself so that we get seasons.  Without magnetic poles man would be unable to navigate the trackless oceans of water and air, but they just grew there.  How about the sugar thermostat in the pancreas?  It maintains a level of sugar in the blood sufficient for energy.  Without it, all of us would fall into a coma and die.  Why does snow sit on mountaintops waiting for the warm spring sun to melt it at just the right time for the young crops in farms below to drink?  A very lovely accident.  The human heart will beat for 70 or 80 years without faltering.  How does it get sufficient rest between beats?  A kidney will filter poison from the blood, and leave good things alone.  How does it know one from the other?  Who gave the human tongue flexibility to form words, and a brain to understand them, but denied it to other animals?  Who showed a womb how to take the love of two persons and keep splitting a tiny ovum until, in time, a baby would have the proper number of fingers, eyes and ears and hair in the right places, and come into the world when it is strong enough to sustain life?  There is no God?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.  Here’s what I think.  The reason we have atheists is because they haven’t taken their doubts about God to their logical conclusion — to the point where they have had no choice but  to doubt those doubts.

Of course, it’s possible to have faith in God and still have doubts about Jesus.  There’s a lot in the Bible about Jesus that is hard to believe.  Including today’s text about the healing of that little boy.  You read these stories and you have to wonder if it’s all true.  And if you decide it doesn’t all have to be literally true, how do you decide what is and what isn’t?  If you doubt one of the stories of Jesus, what keeps you from doubting them all?

Again I would say, don’t be afraid of doubt.  It’s OK to have questions.  It’s OK to wonder if it’s all true.  It’s even OK, or at least this is what they taught us at Iliff, to say that some layers of the record of Jesus’ life may be less reliable than others.  It’s OK to put on your detective cap when you read about Jesus and think critically.  Because when you do so, even when you approach Jesus first with doubt, you will eventually reach the same conclusion reached by the soldier at the foot of the cross:  “Truly this was the Son of God”.

I just finished reading “Gone With the Wind”.  It’s a four-hour movie.  It’s about a 40-day book.  But it’s well worth it.  The setting isGeorgiaduring and after the Civil War.  It views the war from the southern point of view.  Abraham Lincoln from the southern point of view was a villain, not a hero.  And it wasn’t just southerners who saw him that way.

WhenLincolngave his “Gettysburg Address”, an editor for the localHarrisburg,Pennsylvanianewspaper was in attendance, notepad in hand.  He wrote his story, reflecting on the speech many regard as the greatest speech ever given.  Here’s what he wrote:  “We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”  This newspaper editor had been standing in the presence of greatness and he didn’t even know it!

That could be said of many who lived while Jesus walked this earth.  The scribes, the Pharisees, King Herod, Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot, even the other eleven disciples, doubting Thomas included, even his own family —  they stood in the presence of greatness and they didn’t even know it!  They had doubts that Jesus was who he claimed to be.  And many of them couldn’t get past those doubts.  They didn’t carry those doubts far enough until they started to doubt their doubts.

Jesus is not offended by our doubts.  All Jesus asks is that you not reject him before you give him a chance to introduce himself to you.  Because once you have met Jesus, once you have gotten to know Jesus, you are eventually going to move through your doubts to that point where you will believe that he is who he said he is, “The way, and the truth, and the life.”

We can doubt God, we can doubt Jesus, and we can also doubt ourselves.  We can give up on ourselves.  We can hold such a low opinion of ourselves that we stop trying.  Now if you don’t believe in God, that doesn’t change the fact that there is a God.  And if you don’t believe in Jesus, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is the Son of God.  But if you stop believing in yourself, that does change what’s going to be possible for you.  You can say, “I can”, or you can say, “I can’t”.  Either way you are going to be right.  There is power in believing (or not believing) in yourself.

So what do you do if you don’t?  What do you do if your self-esteem is about as low as the October batting average of Alex Rodriguez?  You doubt those doubts.  You claim your rightful birthright as a beloved son or daughter of God.  You may not believe in yourself, but God believes in you.  You may have given up on yourself, but God will never give up on you.  God made you and God doesn’t make junk.  No matter how discouraging or desperate your life situation might seem, God can work a miracle in your life.

We started today with the miracle that healed that little boy.  We started with that little boy’s dad who was honest enough to say, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  We end by claiming the miracles that God is ready to work in our lives if only we will let him.

Harry Emerson Fosdick ends this sermon with the story of how he went to the radio station one day, as was his custom, after his worship service had ended atRiversideChurch.  He would broadcast his sermon each Sunday to a live nationwide audience.  This December day, Dr. Fosdick was into his sermon when the man in the control room waved his arms and stopped him.  He said, “You’ve been pre-empted.  The Japanese are bombingPearl Harbor.”

The pilot who led the attack onPearl Harborwas Mitsuo Fuchida.  Mitsuo Fuchida was almost the Osama bin Laden of that day.  He was hated.  He was despised.  No fate was too horrible for him.  Well, Mitsuo Fuchida survived the war.  He asked forgiveness for what he had done.  He became a Christian.  He became a missionary to his own people.  If God could change Mitsuo Fuchida’s life, God can change yours.

There’s another person who figures into this story that I want you to meet.  His name is Jacob DeShazer.  He grew up in my hometown,Madras,Oregon.  He was one of the Doolittle flyers who bombedTokyo.  He was shot down, captured, and held in a prisoner of war camp for two-and-a-half years.  It was in that camp that he met Jesus.  After the war, he returned toJapanand preached Christ to his captors.  It was Jacob DeShazer who led Mitsuo Fuchida to Christ.

You doubt that God is able to do miracles like that?  Doubt your doubts.  God is able to do “exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think”  (Eph 3:20).  If you doubt that, doubt those doubts and keep doubting them until you believe.

God, we believe.  Help our unbelief.  We are so thankful that we can be honest with you.  We are so thankful that you meet us wherever we are in our journey of faith.  For all of us, there is progress yet to be made on that journey.  Help us God, to grow in our faith in you, our trust in Jesus, and our belief in ourselves.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.