Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I Believe, Help My Unbelief

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Mark 16:1-8:

When the bracket came out for the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, better known as March Madness, after a 64 year hiatus, my Harvard Crimson were making the tournament for the fourth time in a row.  But their first game was going to be against the University of North Carolina.  While Carolina is not the team this year that they have been in the past, they were still a superior team to Harvard.  The not only played tougher competition, but they had all around better players.  And so when I went to fill out my bracket, did I pick Harvard?  No, I chose North Carolina.  It was sort of easy pick, and yet it wasn’t.  Because it’s not like Harvard hasn’t won in the tournament before.  In fact, they had won their first round games the last two years including beating a heavily favored and much better New Mexico team in 2013.  But I still picked North Carolina.  I did believe that Harvard stood a chance, but I didn’t actually believe it enough to pick them, or I might say I said I believed, but I wasn’t willing to actually live that belief out in my life.  And so as the game began, I wrote on facebook “I believe that Harvard can win this, help my unbelief.”  And then Harvard came as close as a last second three point shot, which would have won the game, clanked off the back of the rim.  “I believe, help my unbelief.”

That quote comes from a healing story we find in the gospel of Mark.  A young boy has epilepsy, although it’s not called that in the passage, and the boy’s father asks Jesus to help the boy, if Jesus is able.  And Jesus responds, “If you are able! – all things can be done for the one who believes,” and the father immediately cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  That is he believes it in his heart, but not in his head, or perhaps that’s reversed, he believes it with his head but not his heart, and so there is that modicum of doubt there, that piece of unbelief.  He knows that 9 times out of 10, North Carolina is going to beat Harvard on the hardwood, but he’s hoping for that one upset, that one miracle to occur, but while he’s hoping for that miracle, he’s not really ready to bet anything on it.  He wants desperately to believe, to act as if it is true, and yet he hesitates.  We can see the same thing happening with the disciples and with the women who go to the tomb.

Jesus has made several passion predictions for them.  He told them that he had to go to Jerusalem, and there he would suffer and die, but on the third day he would be raised.  He has told them all that, but none of them are acting as if they actually believed it.   Mary and Mary and Salome go to the tomb that morning not because they expect that Jesus won’t be there, even though that is what he said.  They go to the tomb on that first Easter morning with spices so that they can anoint his body in preparation for burial because there wasn’t time, according to Mark, to do it on Friday.  They are going to the tomb expecting to find the body there, and they even wonder who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb so that they might gain entrance.  They are not saying of the resurrection, I believe, help my unbelief, they don’t believe at all.  They are acting and living like resurrection is not even a possibility, it’s not even on their radar screen.

And so when they arrive at the tomb, they are first shocked to see the stone has been moved, and then they see a young man dressed in a white robe, and we are told that they were alarmed.  This is not what was supposed to happen.  This was not what they were expecting, and so they angel even has to remind them of what is and has taken place.  “Don’t be alarmed;” he says, “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here… But go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  The angel has to remind them that none of this should be surprising, because they had been told that this was exactly what was going to happen.  But they didn’t believe it. They couldn’t believe it.  They refused to believe it.  And what’s worse is they lived their lives, they lived those two days not in expectation, but in dread and fear, not believing.  Not believing that resurrection was possible.  Not believing that hope was possible.  Not believing that God could do such a thing.  And then we are told that they women flee from the tomb in fear and amazement, and they disobey the angels command to tell the disciples, or anyone else for that matter, because they are afraid.  They are afraid.

The truth is most of us live our lives and driven more by fear than by anything else.  Will I make enough money, do I have enough stuff, do I drive the right car, do they love me, will I have enough to retire on, can we keep the house, can my kids get into the right school, we will be able to afford it, and the list goes on and on.  But what we see is that our fear and anxiety is nothing new.  The women at the tomb were afraid, the shepherds in the fields at Jesus birth were afraid, but what are they told.  Fear not, don’t be afraid, don’t be alarmed.  Don’t let fear drive you.  Instead be driven by joy and celebration, by amazement and wonder, by hope and expectation.  Believe that not only can miracles happen, but that they do happen.  Believe not only that God can do great things, but that God does great things, for the women went to the tomb not even thinking of resurrection and yet resurrection is what they found.  Jesus told the disciples that he would be raised, but they didn’t believe it.  They didn’t believe it was possible, and so instead of spending the days after Jesus’ death in expectation, they spent them in fear.  Instead of spending them filled with hope, they spent them in morning filled with dread.  The true miracle is not that God could bring Jesus back from the dead, because Jesus said God could and would; the true miracle is that a rabbit learned how to hide eggs and make yellow marshmallow chicks.

Craig Groeschel who is the pastor of one of the fastest growing churches in America, wrote a book entitled The Christian Atheist, in which Groeschel talked about people, including himself, and even including me, who proclaim a belief in God, but live as if God doesn’t exist, that they claim they are putting their trust and belief in God, but live as if everything is still up to them and dependent upon them.  And because things are dependent upon us and we are driven by fear in the end we come to believe we cannot do some things, and we certainly live our life like we can’t do it, and as a result we don’t and we can’t.  But even worse we live our lives as if God cannot do it.

We make the proclamation about Easter, but we don’t live as an Easter people.  We don’t believe that great things can happen, we don’t believe in God overcoming obstacles, we don’t believe things can be resurrected and even worse we don’t believe in hope, which for me is what is central to the Easter story, the hope that things can change and the belief that God can bring about amazing results even when everything and everyone else is telling us that it can’t happen, and even more living into that belief and that possibility.  The question is, are we going to going to say that God is in charge, that God can bring Easter moments in our lives, but not live it out?  Or are we going to live into what we claim, live into being an Easter people, live into believing in the moment of Easter not just two thousand years ago, but today, right here and right now.

In 1983, North Carolina State University won the NCAA basketball championship in what many people believe is one of the greatest upsets in basketball history, and it happened right here in Albuquerque at the Pit, and can we start calling it the Pit again rather than Wise Pies Arena, what a ridiculous name.  Do we think anyone is scarred to play at the wise pies arena?  But the Pit was frightening to teams.  Anyways, the 1983 team was not very good.  They went 22 and 10 in the regular season, and only made the tournament because somehow they were able to win their conference tournament and gain an automatic bid.  But somehow they kept winning, against all odds, and made it to the championship game against the University of Huston, known as the Phi Slamma Jamma, because of their fast style of play and slam dunks.  They were one of the greatest college basketball teams ever, and had two future NBA hall of famers on the team, and no one really gave North Carolina State any chance against them.  But somehow, they were able to hang in against Houston, and keep the score close, and on a last second shot, they won the game, causing one of the famous scenes of March Madness of their coach Jimmy Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug.

But I later learned something about that team that makes their story not really all that remarkable, and that is something that Jimmy Valvano did with every one of his teams, and that is that he would practice cutting down the nets as if they had just won the national championship.  That would be how they would spend the entirety of one practice every year.  He would have them jump up and down and scream and yell and run around and hug each other, and then they would bring out the ladder and climb up to the net to cut their piece of the net off and hold it over their heads and celebrate as if they had just actually won it all.  He didn’t just do this with the good teams, he did it with his bad teams as well, but you know what it instilled in them?  Belief.  Belief that they could do it, that it could happen to them, because they had practiced just for this moment.   They believed in hope and miracles, and so that 1983 team didn’t just stumble into the championship, they had practiced being champions, knew what it felt like and believed that they could do it.  They were not basketball atheists saying they could win, but not truly believing it or living it.  Instead they lived it out and the belief became that much stronger.

Now even though I’m talking about basketball, I really don’t care for basketball.  Baseball is my sport, and today we get to combine the two best days of the year Easter and opening day, and today hope springs eternal for every team because every team has a chance of winning it all, the question is are we going to actually believe that, and live like that.  Now having some doubt is not the problem, after all the man is honest with Jesus and tells him that he believes, but help his unbelief, and Jesus still heals his son.  The problem is not whether we have some doubts, but whether we are going to put them aside and live like we believe.  That is really what faces us today, because we are an Easter people.  Easter is what forms us and grounds us as Christians.

Without Easter, the disciples scatter to the four winds and nothing happens and we are not here today.  But then when the women went to the tomb, they found it empty.  It was not what the expected, it was not what they believed in, but it’s what happened, and although we don’t hear it in today’s passage they believed it, and the disciples believed it, and Peter who is singled out by the angel because of the depth of his failure of belief in those last hours believed it.  But more importantly they lived it.  The lived out the reality of Easter, they learned to not only believe that God was in their lives and to turn their lives over to God, but they lived every day with that as their reality.

The same thing faces us today.  Are we going to run away from the grave and continue living our lives being driven by fear, of not believing?  Or are we going to believe in Easter, accept Easter and live like Easter people?  Live outside of fear, or live through our fear, to live in hope and the expectation of miracles, the expectation that with God all things are possible?  We are an Easter people and the choice is ours whether we are going to live with the reality of Easter and believe it, or are we going to say the right things but live our lives as if Easter never happened.  What are we going to do when we see that the grave is empty?  How are we going to respond?  How are we going to live? Are we going to say we are an Easter people, or are we going to believe it more importantly live as an Easter people, believing that hope is possible, miracles are possible, expectation is possible that resurrection is possible, and not only possible, but our reality.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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