It Depends

Mark 9:14-29
February 28, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

One of the youth group’s favorite games is a card game called “Scruples.”  In this game, a player is presented with an ethical dilemma and asked how he or she would respond to it.  For example, a card might read, “The clerk at a store gives you too much change.  Do you pocket the extra money without saying anything?”  After the player answers the question, the rest of the group can either accept their answer or challenge it, after which lively discussion ensues.

Now, the rules specify that a player can only give one of three answers — ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘it depends’ — but I’ve modified those rules slightly to add that if a player selects ‘it depends’ as their answer, they must immediately add the factor upon which their answer depends.  In the above case, for example, a player might say, “It depends on whether I liked the clerk or not.”  I added that modifier because I quickly discovered that some youth choose to answer every single question with, ‘It depends,’ just to leave the door open to unforeseen extenuating circumstances.

“Would you park in a handicapped parking spot?”

“Well, it depends.”

“Would you ever gossip about a friend?”

“It depends.”

“If you could go back in time and prevent the birth of Hitler, would you?”

“Well, now, you know, it depends.”

You might think that that last example is an exaggeration but I remember a discussion in which one of the kids argued that if Hitler was not born and World War II had never happened, someone who originally died fighting in that war might have instead become a mad scientist later in life who nuked the whole world, so, you know, it depends.  In other words, there are always some kids who don’t want to commit themselves to a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ just in case there is some wrinkle they had not fully considered.  These are the kids can see every side of an issue, who think through every nuance of a decision, and who spin out every possible consequence of an answer so that seemingly simple questions become suddenly very complex.  While the game wants the players to be “for it,” or “agin’ it”; our youth are often caught in the murky middle, in the tension of the “not quite this” but “not quite that” either.

And if we are honest, many of us wouldn’t fare much better in the game, because after all, these are your kids.  We in this church tend toward an openness to the complexity of life and a accompanying resistance to simple answers.  We reject creeds in order to allow for a broad interpretation of the faith experience.  We have a policy that says we will not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation in order to respect the broad spectrum of biology that makes up humankind.  And, my favorite example of this church’s openness toward ambiguity is our church covenant.  The covenant reads, “We promise* to the best of our ability to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the welfare of the church; to regularly attend its services of worship….” etc. etc. pretty typical stuff for most church covenants, but here is where ours differs.  Next to the word “Promise” is an asterisk for a footnote that says *Either promise or express our intent may be used according to one’s personal preference.”  In other words, I will express my intent to strive for the welfare of the church but I won’t promise because there might be a time when the welfare of the church conflicts with the commands of Christ and I want to leave open the possibility that life is not always so black and white that I can predict without doubt how I will behave.

We, in this church, prize ambiguity which is not a popular stance in today’s culture.  Think of how many of today’s culture wars are being fought as if there are only yes or no answers to ethical questions:

Abortion — “Are you for it or agin’ it?”

Guns — “For ‘em or agin ‘em?”

Drug use — “Are you for it or agin’ it?”

Immigration — “Let ‘em all in or build a wall?”

“We want a simple, ‘yes’, or ‘no’,” society demands, and those of us who dare to see these as complex questions with complex answers are ridiculed and rejected by a society that seeks simplicity.

And if we find ourselves often in the “not quite this but not quite that” state on ethical and abstract questions, how much more murky do things become for us when we turn to our emotional and spiritual states of being?

In the passage from Mark, a man cries out to Jesus for help and then confesses, “I believe; help my unbelief!”  He admits to Jesus that his life has become so complex that he can’t even say with certainty if he is a sinner or a saint, an idealist or a cynic, a man awash in hope and faith or drowning in despair and doubt.  Or maybe he is all of these things at once because he is caught in the tension between the “not quite this but not quite that.”  On the one hand, he wants to say, “Yes, Jesus, I believe that you are “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made,” but his heart is flooded with worry and heartache over the suffering of his son; his tongue is tangled in the fear that his son will never know peace; the words will not come.  He is belief and doubt at the very same moment; hope and despair all rolled up in one because he is living in the tension of “not quite this but not quite that.”

We know that man because we have been that man, so many times.  The person whose loved one has died finds after several months to his surprise that he laughs at a joke, and immediately afterward he feels guilty for experiencing joy in the middle of his grief.  The hole in his heart remains and yet at the same time, life begins to reassert itself.  He is living in the tension of “not quite healed but not quite destroyed.”

The woman who is devastated by the betrayal of a friend, speaks words of forgiveness even while her anger refuses to abate.  She is living in the tension of “not quite forgiving but not quite hating still.”

We are sinful and yet striving for the good at the same time.  We are full of hope for the future and yet despair that nothing will ever change.  We despondent and determined, worried and confident, happy and sad, merry-go-sorry, in the murkiness of the complexity that is our experienced life.

A mother of a son with autism wrote an article in which she described her daily feelings in this way:

It doesn’t matter to me why Jack has autism.
But it might be good information to have.
There’s nothing wrong with him.
Maybe there’s a little something wrong with him because he just spent the last 45 minutes talking about all the different kinds of gum that Walmart sells.
I wouldn’t change a thing.
I might change a few things.
I celebrate autism and all of its spectacular wonder.
I hate autism because it makes my son talk about gum and Walmart so much.
He is broken.
He is whole.
 (“I Know What Causes Autism”; blog by Carrie Cariello, February 5, 2015)

We are all the man in the gospel, falling at Jesus’ feet and confessing, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

And Jesus doesn’t criticize the man for being in the murky middle.  In fact, the ones who are scorched by Jesus’ disappointment are the disciples who just a few minutes ago were so sure of themselves that they attempted the healing of this boy on their own.  Jesus had gone off to the mountain to pray and the disciples decided this would be a good time to show off their mastery of their faith, but they can’t manage to do a thing to ease the boy’s suffering.  And in just a few verses, the disciples who couldn’t even heal one little boy will get into an argument about which of them is going to get the luxury suite in the coming Kingdom.  How many times in the gospel do the disciples declare that they are square on the side of Jesus?

“No worries, Jesus,” they say as they strut confidently toward Jerusalem.  “We are with you.  We believe in you.  We’ve got your back.  We are without doubt your go-to guys, because you know, we are without doubt the best of the best, the brightest of the brightest because we are, you know, without doubt!”

Only, it turns out, they aren’t.  At the last moment, at the cross, when Jesus could really use a little company, they turn tail and run.  And after Jesus is dead, they go back to fishing as if all of this meant nothing.  Maybe if at some point in their following they had been able to admit to Jesus that they weren’t always so sure of themselves, God could have made something of them.  Maybe it was their unwillingness to admit their doubt, their refusal to confess the complexity of their own human hearts, their reluctance to show any weakness, any uncertainty, or any trembling of the soul before their Savior that left them so stopped up with themselves — so constipated with their own arrogance — that even God couldn’t get through them to use them to heal even one small boy.

“This can be healed only by prayer,” Jesus says.  It is only when we lower ourselves to our knees and confess that we are an awful mess of complex feelings and conflicted thoughts that God can use our uncertain hands to heal the awful mess of complex feelings and conflicted thoughts that is our world.

Take heart all of you in the murky middle —  in the not quite this but not quite that state of belief and doubt —  you are are in the place God can most use you because when you join your heart to God’s in prayer, your very uncertainty will leave a channel for God to work through you to bring healing to others.