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Unbelievable! / Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 6:1–13

And He marveled because of their unbelief.

Jesus had just finished reading scripture in the synagogue of His hometown Nazareth. It caused a stir. People knew who Jesus was. He was a carpenter who worked with His father Joseph. Now, it seemed, He was putting on airs. The people didn’t like it one bit. And Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.

People are saying “Unbelievable!” a lot these days. Jesus said it too. Did you notice the last sentence of today’s Gospel reading? “And He was amazed at their unbelief.”

If you are the Son of God, co-creator of the world, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, how is it even remotely possible that anything can surprise, amaze or astound you? Yet here it is. Jesus was amazed at the unbelief of His own people in His own hometown!

We, too, are often amazed.

Did you see Steven Kwan’s performance on Thursday? Unbelievable!

DaVinci’s painting Salvador Mundi sold for almost a half a billion dollars in 2017! Unbelievable!

In many states, you might be 83 years old, bent over a walker, have an oxygen tube wrapped around your head and vented into your nose, and a face that looks like a topographical map of Tibet, but unless you supply your ID, the grocery clerk will not let you buy a bottle of Boone’s Farm or the beer on sale. Unbelievable!

I was about to pull into this parking spot at giant eagle the other day, and this jerk in a white Toyota coming the opposite way whipped right in front of me and took my space! Unbelievable!”

This is the mood Jesus is in as He leaves His hometown of Nazareth after teaching in the synagogue. The people He’d known all his life thought this college boy had come back home to show off his intellect and was putting on airs, strutting around like a peacock. He even “laid His hands on a few sick people and cured them.” But the Gospel says, “They took offense at Him.” No good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and that seems unbelievable as well.

Jesus was justifiably fazed and amazed. Imagine Jesus talking to you face-to-face right now. He’s saying: “You’d think My neighbors and family would be proud of Me. Instead, they think I’m crackers. I heal people. I cast out demons. I raise people from the dead. I feed more than 5,000 people with a few loaves and two fish. Yet they don’t believe in Me or My Father in heaven. It’s amazing! And you positively won’t believe this: Even after I change water into wine, they still don’t believe! Wine! WA-TER IN-TO WINE!! Can you believe it? No. I can’t either! Unbelievable!”

Unbelievers today

Not much has changed. Today, like Jesus, people of faith are “amazed at [the] unbelief” in the land. Granted, more than 80 percent of Americans still believe in God, but even that number is a new low. But what does this “belief” really mean?

It doesn’t mean that people are flocking to church, synagogues or mosques on the weekends. In fact, since about 1980, 40 million churchgoers have stopped going to church, and that’s not a good thing. As one observer notes, participation in a religious community generally correlates with better health outcomes and longer life, higher financial generosity, and more stable families, all of which are desperately needed in a nation with rising rates of loneliness, mental illness, and alcohol and drug dependency. Yet, according to the research, church attendance continues to decline.

Today, the overwhelming majority of adults who identify as Christians are known by clergy as E&C Christians: they’re in church for Easter and Christmas, and that’s it. Only about a quarter of the population could possibly be described as regular attendees at mass these days.

Unbelievable!

And then there are the “nones”, those adults who identify as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” If you were to ask a stranger to describe their religious affiliation, one in three would look at you as though you just fell off a turnip truck. What are you talking about?

So what about this poll that claims that 80 percent of Americans believe in God?

It doesn’t mean much. It means about as much as saying that Americans believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny because of the figurative fuzzy feelings. It’s hard, even risky, to deny that God exists. It would be better to hedge your bets … just in case … God does exist!

To be fair, some of these 80-percenters could be spiritual but not religious. They are in touch with their spiritual selves. Often, “spiritual but not religious” folks are what used to be called New Age devotees, those who might be found dancing naked in a forest at dusk around a sacred fire pit or totem pole, or who find strength in yoga and meditation, reiki, tarot readings and divination, healing crystals, oils and the like.

But these good people would typically not be big fans of Bible reading, Bible study and going to church. Not believers in that sense.

Let’s face it: our culture is essentially a secular state devoid of religious influence. Religion offers a lot, to be sure: meaning and purpose to life, social unity and stability, motivation to live as good citizens, physical and psychological well-being and strong incentives to work for positive social change.

But increasingly, people are living as though God and religion don’t exist. They don’t like sitting on hard, unforgiving pews or kneeling on prayer rugs. If you told your friend, “You need to get saved,” he’d think you’re one bubble off plumb. Many Americans don’t like the way some religions like to dabble in politics. They trust science; they don’t trust religion.

We are secular citizens, happy to be living without believing in the supernatural, including God, heaven, paradise, Jesus, Nirvana, hell, miracles or karma. Increasingly, folks are content to live one’s life outside the church, mosque, synagogue, ashram, or temple walls; to find community elsewhere, to celebrate elsewhere, and to raise one’s children in non-religious settings. Why is unbelief so strong?

Forty years ago, people still had a favorable impression of religion. But today, institutional religion has lost its exceptionalism. Why is this?

We are disillusioned. Sex scandals among the clergy in many major denominations has rightfully triggered mountains of scorn and derision upon a profession that routinely commanded the utmost respect. Not anymore. Regard for the clergy has sunk to all-time lows, as has admiration for politicians and lawyers. We shouldn’t be surprised. Even Jesus had more respect for a woman practicing the world’s oldest profession than he had for the clergy, politicians and lawyers of his day.

We are skeptical of institutions. It’s not just the church, synagogue or mosque. We don’t trust the government, either. We don’t trust “bigness” and brands. Institutions, government and organizations seem cold and impersonal. We love small business and hand-crafted things.

We value reason and science above faith. Although our alliance with science is not absolute and is influenced by a variety of factors, a majority of the public (almost 60 percent) think that science and religion are often in conflict. Generally, the less religion, the stronger the conflict.

We have better things to do. People work for 40-50 hours a week. The pull of the weekend is strong. We do actually “thank God it’s Friday!” Families have multiple events at which their children have required attendance. Parents, both of whom are working, find it difficult to find a work/home balance. They feel stressed, exhausted and caught in a rat race; short on quality time with their children, friends, hobbies. For a single parent, the stress is exponential. People need time to rest, relax, be with family, take a trip, go shopping. Go to church? Maybe not.

We are aware of the secularization of the culture. We know we live in a multi-ethnic, religiously pluralistic society. We know that often people of faith encounter hostility. So, how should we respond and live in a culture of unbelief?

First, do not be alarmed. Avoid getting sucked into the Elijah Syndrome, falsely thinking that you are the only True Believer left in all America. No, there is yet a strong remnant of believers whose faith in God is strong and who faithfully follow God’s ways.

Second, reexamine. Do inventory. Take time to reassess. How strong is your faith? How would you characterize your relationship with God? What do you believe with all your heart? Pray the prayer of David in Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Finally, believe. There is evidence of God and the people of God in all avenues of life. Believe it.

Actor Matthew McConaughey doesn’t like the word “unbelievable.” He thinks we should remove it from our vocabulary. “What’s so unbelievable about tragedy, about triumph, about people that raise us up or let us down?” he wonders. “We shouldn’t think that the most beautiful sunset or the greatest play or the greatest love of our life or the greatest moment of euphoria is unbelievable. Believe it! It’s happening right in front of you!”

Think of Louie Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.” The third stanzas goes: The colors of the rainbow / So pretty in the sky / Are also on the faces / Of people going by / I see friends shaking hands / Saying, “How do you do?” / They’re really saying / I love you.

So, let’s go ahead and believe in the so-called unbelievable goodness in life, believe in the incredible! God is at work. God is not finished with us yet. God’s word will prevail. Nothing shall separate us from the love of God!

Unbelievable! Thanks be to God.