If You Are Able

February 18, 2018

Series: February 2018

Category: Lent

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Mark 9:14-29

When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and 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.” He 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.” And 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. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It 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.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When 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!” After 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.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”

If You Are Able

 Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I went to church camp every year. For a week each summer, I would travel up a winding dirt road to Camp Caz, a beautiful setting in the mountains of Cazadero up in Sonoma County.  For that week each year, all was right in the world.  All the teenage angst and issues we faced back home seemed to fade away once we traveled up the mountain to Caz.  It was a week when we really worked to embody God’s love for ourselves and for one another, and when we learned together how to best live as disciples of Jesus in the world.  As the week went on, there was inevitably talk about going back down the mountain.  Back to real life.  Back to our teenage angst and problems.  Back to a world where it seemed to us much more difficult to live as disciples of Jesus.  It was so tempting just to stay up on the mountain, but we knew we would have to return to the real world – to a world where the love of God was sometimes much more difficult to see and to feel than at Camp Caz.

 I think about Camp Caz every year when I hear the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, which we heard in worship last week. Jesus and three of his disciples go up a mountain, and there, Jesus is transfigured – his clothes become a dazzling white, God’s voice comes from a cloud calling him Beloved – there the disciples see Jesus in all of his divine glory.  Peter thinks maybe they should stay for a while.  He wants to set up some dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, who have also appeared on the scene.  But, just as I needed to go back down the mountain after each week at Camp Caz, it soon was time for Jesus and the three disciples to head back down their mountain, back to the real world.

 And what a mess they returned to. That is where the story we heard today picks up.  Jesus and the three disciples return from their mountaintop experience to find the rest of the disciples in a heated argument with the scribes.  The disciples had apparently been trying to heal a boy and had failed.  The were unable to cast the spirit out of the boy.  Welcome back to real life, Jesus!  Bet you wish you would have stayed up on that mountain! 

 His displeasure is apparent, telling them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” Yes, even Jesus was known to lose his temper once in a while.

 Jesus then turns from his disciples to the father of the ill child, and it doesn’t get any better for Jesus. The father asks him, “…if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”  If you are able?!?  This father is not quite sure that even Jesus himself can heal his boy!  Jesus, who has been healing person after person, who has been walking on water and stilling storms, who has been feeding thousands of people with just a few fish and loaves of bread, who has just been transfigured on a mountaintop and called Beloved by God.  Still the father does not wholeheartedly believe that Jesus will be able help.  “If you are able …” he asks.  Do you wish you were still up on that mountain now, Jesus?

 Now, to be fair to the father, he most likely has not seen any of the things that Jesus has been doing. He has probably heard about some of Jesus’ healings, but has not witnessed them first-hand.  Only three disciples witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration, and he ordered them not to tell anyone about what they had seen.  So it is understandable that the father has doubts.  Yet, even with these doubts, still he brings his son to Jesus.  Still he asks Jesus for help.  In spite of his doubts, still he seeks the healing that only Jesus can offer. 

 Jesus tells him that all things can be done for the one who believes, to which the man responds, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I love his response – so honest, so raw. There is some part of him that believes.  He has shown up.  He has brought his son.  He has asked for help.  Yet, he still has doubts.  “If you are able …” he says.  I do believe.  But help my unbelief also.  And Jesus, who is fresh off his mountaintop experience, back in the nitty gritty of the real world where he knows that discipleship is hard – heals the boy.  Jesus does not ask that the man be doubt free.  Jesus does not ask that the man be free of unbelief.  He heals the boy.

 I love this story, and I am so glad that Jesus heals that boy even in the midst of the father’s unbelief. Because for me, that throws wide open the possibilities of what faith looks like.  Faith is about trust and belief.  But faith also includes having doubts.  Faith includes asking questions.  Faith includes continuing to learn about the amazing ways that God shows up in our lives again and again.  And, as Jesus says at the very end of this story, faith includes coming to God in prayer.  The disciples ask Jesus why they could not cast out the spirit and he responds, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” With our doubts and with our questions and with our uncertainties, we come to God in prayer. 

 When I think about prayer these days, I think about one of my mentors, the Rev. Lizann Bassham. She was the youth pastor at my church as I grew up.  She was present at many of those Camp Caz weeks, and present in so many other ways in my life during those very formative years.  Back in August, she was diagnosed with cancer.  She has tumors in her cheek, lymph nodes, and lungs. She has been sharing her journey on Facebook, and I have been so blessed by how she has both requested and received prayers in the last several months.

On August 27, when she first posted about her diagnosis, she ended by writing, “I hold my beloved community in prayer as I know you will hold me.”

 Then, on September 5 – “Off to UCSF for another biopsy involving needles this morning. Prayer and healing energy welcome. May my body, particularly my nervous system and flesh at the site of the biopsy, receive this as a gift for my healing. Blessings on all your tender flesh and nervous systems as well.”

 September 28 – “Dear Ones asking for prayers for tomorrow morning when I am going back in for another biopsy. The first one went a bit awry and they had to stop. I pray all goes smoothly and they are able to get the needle in and out with ease. For those of you comfortable working with Jesus please join me in asking that The Compassionate Heart of Christ beat in my breast helping my body know this procedure is a necessary gift to help my further healing. Thank you however you pray or send healing energy. Continued blessings on your amazing bodies as well.”

 October 4 – “Dear ones - tomorrow about 10am I will begin my first immunotherapy treatment at UCSF. If you have a moment in the next few days to light a candle, say a prayer, take a healing breath for me I would receive that with deep gratitude. Blessings on all our amazing bodies.”

 Lizann is dearly loved by many, so after each one of these posts came a flood of comments – holding you in my prayers, praying hard for you, holding you in love and light, healing prayers ascending. In her weakened and weary state, Lizann responded to each and every comment, saying things like, “Thank you for the love and healing thoughts, I feel them course through my body with your care and compassion and love.  I feel the impact of your prayers. I am receiving your love for the journey with deep gratitude.”

She has no idea if she is going to survive this cancer journey. In fact, her post from last week very clearly lays out the three options she recently heard from her doctor.

 February 12 - “Worst case scenario is that although the therapy is working my body won’t be able to keep up with new cancer cell creation and it could create a situation that compromises a major system and I die. Best case is that the therapy works and has rebooted my natural immune system to take care of any new cells, so that at some point I am cancer free. The third scenario is something new in thoughts about cancer, this may become a managed disease like many heart or respiratory conditions. Through it all I am blessed with such good support from family, friends, ancestors, descendants, Jesus, Loki, Brigid, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. I am finding that this has in and of itself become a ministry through my writing and even random conversations at the grocery store. What a blessing. Thank you for being part of this journey with me.”

 I’m guessing Lizann has had plenty of doubts during this journey. I’m guessing her belief has gotten all mixed up with her unbelief. Yet, through it all, she has been very clear that prayer is making a significant difference. Will her cancer be healed? Nobody knows. But she has most definitely been healed each and every day. She has felt the impact of prayer, received the love and healing from prayer, and literally felt the prayers coursing through her body. It is prayer that has sustained and will continue to sustain her through her time of belief and her times of unbelief, through her times of certainty and her times of doubt.

 I share about Lizann and her experience with prayer on this first Sunday of Lent, because I hope that the Lenten season will be a prayerful time for you. Lent is the 40 day season prior to Easter that is traditionally a time of self-reflection, self-examination, and repentance. Repent means “to turn,” so during Lent we prayerfully consider turning away from that which separates us from God and turning toward that which brings us closer to God. We don’t need to have all the answers before going to God in prayer. In fact, it can be through prayer that we may better understand what in our lives might be calling for repentance. We don’t need to be free from doubt before going to God in prayer. In fact, let’s bring our doubts to God in prayer. Let’s bring our belief as well as our unbelief in prayer.

 Lent officially began last Wednesday, the same day that 17 people were shot to death at a school in Florida. After a tragedy like this, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” gets tossed around quite a bit. “My thoughts and prayers are with the families and the communities …” I wholeheartedly believe that prayer is vitally important at a time like this. I hope and pray that the families and friends of those victims feel the prayers of love and compassion coursing through their bodies just like Lizann does. I hope they will find strength and support through prayer that will uphold them through the very, very difficult days that lie ahead.

 But, this is the season of Lent, and the season of Lent reminds us that in a situation such as this, our prayers must also lead to repentance. After the shooting in Las Vegas last October, Rob wrote a blog post about “thoughts and prayers” that ended by saying, “Jesus thought. Jesus prayed. Both seemed to lead him into action. Do we follow him or not?” The sick boy’s father took action. He sought out Jesus even though he wasn’t even sure if Jesus could help. But still he came. Lizann has sought out the very best treatment possible to rid her body of those cancer cells. After we pray, what do we do following yet another mass shooting in our country. Perhaps, during this season of Lent, we repent. The Rev. James Moos, one of the national Executive Ministers of the United Church of Christ wrote on Wednesday, “Responsibility for these ongoing, senseless attacks rests not only with the shooters, but also with a society that refuses to repent from its idolatrous attachment to guns and gives virtually unlimited access to weapons capable of inflicting mass casualties.”

 Last Wednesday’s shooting certainly reminded us yet again that we are not living on an idyllic mountaintop. We are in the real world, where we must decide each and every day how we will live as disciples of Jesus Christ. I know that for me, both prayer and repentance have taken on a new urgency during this Lenten season. Alone, I am not able, but with God, all things are possible.