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February 4, 2018

“The Doubt Journey”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Isaiah 40.21-31

Mark 1.29-3

February 4, 2018

                In college one of my favorite religion professors told a story about a woman in a congregation where he served. He went to visit her one day, and she asked him to read a scripture from her Bible. As he opened it up he found words and phrases underlined and highlighted. This Bible had been well-read. He also noticed off to the side that she had written the letters “T” and “P” beside many scripture passages. He inquired about these letters and she said they stood for “tested” and “proven.” Her faith was a little more literal than some, but she was confident in God. She sought out the different parts of the Bible and saw where a belief had been tested and proven, and that was acceptable to her. If one of these beliefs had been disproven, would it have mattered? Would it have shattered her faith?

            Journeys of faith go through ups and downs – sometimes we find ourselves devoutly faithful, and other times we find ourselves doubting and questioning. If we don’t do both – question and believe - then we aren’t growing – our faith is static. If you have ever doubted in your faith, you are not alone. I have explored my faith with questions, doubts, and confusion. There have been times when my call hasn’t been so clear, and I wish God would speak a little louder. There are times when I wonder how or if God will intervene. I have had times when I have wondered if God is present. Part of what kept me going was community – to remember who Jesus is and how he has promised to be with us for all the days of our lives.

            In the Gospel of Mark the community of faith is growing as Jesus goes on healing and exorcising demons. This passage we read today comes directly after the exorcism of last week, where a man recognizes Jesus in the temple, and Jesus silences him and heals him. There are four distinct parts to the scripture passage for today – a healing, another exorcism, a time of prayer, and then continued preaching.[1] So, we begin with the healing. Jesus is led to Simon’s mother-in-law’s house because she has a fever. At the time many thought fevers were akin to having a demon, especially as one might be delirious and say words and phrases that did not make sense.[2] So, this fever leaves her after Jesus touches her and helps her up. She stays standing up, not sitting back down to catch her breath, and immediately begins to serve the people in the home. Her response is to serve them and witness to the people how Jesus has healed her. In many ways, she has become the first deacon.[3] She is caring for those around her and attending to their needs, being hospitable. Her response is to show her great faith in Jesus Christ.

            The pericope after the healing is an exorcism, which we discussed last week. Perhaps the “demons” that plague us are not small, angry red creatures, but that which separates us from God and tells us we aren’t good enough, or tells us that we are too different from other people. Last week we weighed whether demons were beings or untreated mental illness or the stigma that goes with being “different.” Exorcisms are not something that we encounter every day, but seem commonplace for Jesus. The Messiah seeks to lessen the gap between “normal” and “different,” “accepted” and “rejected,” “powerful” and “weak.”

            In many ways, to have these healing stories one after the other can be encouraging. When we see result after result we are more apt to believe. Commercials and infomercials don’t advertise the customers who are displeased with their services because then you won’t buy their product. Is this to say that Jesus healed everyone, or that we only hear about the healings, because the authors of the Gospels didn’t want to include the times that people went on being sick or died or didn’t feel their prayers had been answered?

            Healings don’t always happen as we imagine – people become sick. People die. People go through struggles. Sometimes a miracle or an exorcism is too far from our experience and we cannot understand where God is in those moments. We must cry out to God, ask questions, and ask the age old theodicy question – why do bad things happen to good people? I’m not saying you’ll find an answer. I’m not saying your doubts will go away completely, but sometimes we have to grapple with God and ask, because if we just give up and walk away, we won’t grow closer to God. We have to be present when our friends are going through something similar, crying with them and asking the same questions – never trying to solve the problem or resolve their questions, because faith is filled with unanswered questions. We find God in the uncertainty, in the depths of life where it seems like there’s nowhere else to go but up.

            After the exorcism Jesus goes off to pray. This is very important. He rejuvenates and spends time with God, one on One. Community is very important, but time with God is extremely important. Being here Sundays helps build us up and gives us strength and teaches us about scripture, but daily devotional time with God can do that, too, in a different way. We must have a good balance of faith in community and faith with God alone.

            When the disciples find him, he is patient with their interruption. They are eager and anxious to talk with him, and probably do not realize he is praying. He understands that his rest is over and stands up and goes in a new direction. I find it interesting that he does not go back to the familiar, or to the people who are worshiping him and praising him. Instead, he goes to a new place, where he is a stranger; where he is needed most.[4] Sometimes we want to go back to where we are comfortable – to sit in the pew where we know we have space or where we know the people around us, but sometimes we also need to try something new, and be a comfort to someone else.

            The Isaiah passage offers comfort to the Israelites at the end of the Babylonian exile. The fortieth chapter begins the second part of Isaiah where hope becomes a more tangible part of their faith. The author asks rhetorical questions. “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” Did you not receive the memo? The author knows that the people do know – but is attempting to jog their memory.

            Our faith and our memories are inextricably linked.[5] We are to refer back to not only our own history with God, but also to the broader history of God, as told through the community and through scriptures. We remember how God has been with the Israelites, with the disciples, with Christians over centuries.

            Of course, our memories fail us – both because we quickly forget in the midst of stressful situations, and because as we age we sometimes have difficulty remembering. In those moments, we trust the community around us to help us to remember – to tell the stories and to guide us through struggles.

            Sometimes, even when we remember, or read these scriptures that offer hope, we struggle with believing, or at least struggle at the intersection of scripture and our lives. God healed the sick in the Gospels – why won’t God heal friends with cancer? God raised Lazarus from the dead – why won’t God raise the baby that died before it was even born? If God is so committed to the poor and outcast, why do so many churches turn away those they deem “sinners”?

            Rachel Held Evans wrote a memoir on her struggle with faith called Searching for Sunday. In her book she tells of growing up as an evangelical conservative Christian in Tennessee – fervently attempting to convert people to Christianity. Somewhere along the way she saw religion being misused, and started questioning her faith – secretly. She found no room for questions in the church she attended. She smiled on Sunday mornings, but went home and groused to her husband for hours on end about the inconsistencies of the church. She writes that she “felt like an interloper, a fake.”[6] Her doubts were secrets that she didn’t share. Then, she started a blog where people came out of the woodwork – asking the same questions. She found a community of faith outside her church – people who were wondering the same things, but not necessarily losing their faith.

            The church has to grapple with these difficult questions and to be willing to sit in the uncomfortable silence that follows the answer: “I don’t know.” We have to live with uncertainty. We have to recognize that in the times when we become tired – tired of asking questions, of losing members, of being the only ones doing certain tasks – that God will lift us up as if being on the wings of an eagle. God will carry us through our doubts and questions, and we will be stronger because of it – no matter the outcome. Let us ask questions – let us doubt, because it is in our deepest doubts that we can find the truth. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993), 97.

[2] Ofelia Ortega, “Mark 1.29-39” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 332.

[3] Ibid., 334.

[4] Craddock, 97.

[5] Richard A. Puckett, “Isaiah 40.21-31” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 315.

[6] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015), 58.