“Do you still believe the church has power?” said the Rev. Martha Simmons at the 9:15 a.m. morning worship service Friday in the Amphitheater. “Do you still believe that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains? Do you still believe Jesus’ promise in John 14 that you will do the works he does and, in fact, will do greater works? I’ll get back to that.”
She concluded her week preaching on “What Matters?” with a sermon titled “A Tale of Two Boys: Children Matter and, by extension, Families Matter.” Her selected Scripture was Mark 9:14-29.
In the text, faith was tested on a major problem — “Not an everyday, get-on-your-nerves kind of problem,” Simmons said.
Jesus and his posse were coming back down Mt. Hermon from the experience of the transfiguration, and he saw the other nine disciples arguing with some scribes. The scribes were too busy arguing, and the disciples were too disheartened because they had failed to heal the boy to answer Jesus’ question, “What are you arguing about?”
The father of the boy who was possessed by a demon had brought him to be healed by the disciples. They could not do it.
“His son’s existence was hell on earth,” she said. “I think he had DDD: He was deaf, dumb — an impolite way to say he could not speak — and demon-possessed. I think he had epilepsy. He does not have a name in Scripture, but I want to call him Ben, which means son,” she said.
The father was not a man of means or he would have gone to a physician. He could not take his son to the Temple because he was unclean. The father asks, if Jesus can, for him to heal his son.
“If,” Jesus said. “You may not know who I am, but do not confuse me with my disciples.”
“I believe; help my unbelief,” the father responded.
“This was a noble statement made by a desperate dad,” Simmons said. “ ‘I believe you, but I have doubt.’ Jesus can handle our doubts as long as we bring them to him.”
Jesus healed the boy, and when people thought he was dead, he took him by the hand and Ben stood up. Later, the disciples asked why they could not cast it out, and Jesus told them that prayer and sometimes fasting were required.
“They needed to be as spiritually fortified as possible,” Simmons said.
But, she said, this is a tale of two boys. Not just Ben, but Amaal, Adam, Andre, Jamal and others.
“Our boys have a major problem, too,” Simmons said. “Mothers and grandmothers are still bringing them for healing — even if it is on prayer lists or in person. They have DDD: They are dadless, dysfunctional and demon-possessed.”
These boys have jail records early in life, suffer from addiction, violence and hopelessness. They are shot up in schools or gun down others in schools.
“They are thrown into the fire that burns up dreams and the water that drowns potential,” she said.
The scribes in the text symbolize the 21st-century church.
“We have to transfigure the way we do ministry,” Simmons said. “The disciples were embarrassed and perplexed because they could not heal the boy. Aren’t you embarrassed and perplexed? Our boys are on drugs. They shoot up schools, celebrate violence and kill to become known and go out in a blaze of glory.
“Did you really think that boys who see all this violence would be alright?” she continued. “The churches are segregated and spend more time debating gay marriage or go to the suburbs. Children and, by extension, families matter. I did not come to Chautauqua just to name the problem, but to offer some solutions. There are several suggested by the text.”
First, the church has to get outside the church building.
“Jesus could reach Ben because he was outside the Temple,” Simmons said. “It may disturb our notions of respectability, but these boys are still part of you and me, and they want to be good. All they want is a good family, a decent job and to be loved. Their hoodies, tattoos, how they talk and loose pants are code words for ‘please see us.’ ”
Simmons shared the story of how she got involved with her three adopted sons. She had to get out of her apartment and get to know them as they used the recreation room in her condo complex. Encounter led to conversation, which led to three of them going to college.
“I had to go outside,” she said.
The second suggestion is that the boys need people who can attack the systems that are throwing them into fires and floods. They don’t know how to fight the prison-industrial complex.
“There are more African-Americans under correctional control — prison, jail, probation — than were enslaved in 1850,” Simmons said. “This is not by accident. Too many have been wrongly stopped, over-sentenced and stigmatized for life. And we have to fix the mental health system. Too many of them can’t afford help, which is pill-driven rather than people-driven with no one to pay for long-term care.”
Churches in the 21st century should collaborate, she said. Society does not need 500 individual programs in one city, but partnerships that create programs to help teen boys — “and teen girls, but that is another sermon.”
The third suggestion from the text is to have compassion on the parents.
“Ben’s father had doubts,” Simmons said. “We have parents who are suffering with their children’s demons, and they have doubts. Some are ill-equipped to be parents. Don’t preach down to them. Many of them are not in church anyway. They don’t know how to parent or they would do it.”
Churches should offer parenting classes, she said.
“Expand the horizon of your compassion,” Simmons said. “Get your Sunday School teachers to be advocates and help drowning parents. Hold events for a purpose — go and get the lost parents and boys, save their lives and their souls, and somebody will be healed.”
The fourth answer is found in the text: prayer.
“The solution for a major problem is prayer,” she said. “It is still the most important weapon. When we rely on government, we get what government can do. When we rely on education, we get what education can do. When we rely on ourselves, we get what we can do. When we rely on prayer, we get what God can do.”
She urged the congregation to keep at it. Ben looked dead but Jesus took his hand and he stood up.
“Many of our boys are on the doorstep of hell and if we ignore them, we will push them in,” Simmons said. “We need to reach out and pull them back. You may think they are dead, but they just look like it. Don’t give up on them. A gang leader might become a church deacon. A boy with mental health problems might become a church trustee. A drug dealer might become a pastor.
“Do you still have faith the size of mustard seed to move mountains? Do you still believe that you will do greater deeds than Jesus? Then it is time to move mountains and do greater works.”
The disciples failed but they were not failures, Simmons said. They became the keys to turn the world upside down. There is hope for you and me.
“If I have 10 of you who believe, you will save these boys and, by extension, their families,” she said. “We can get them off street corners, off drugs, get them to put their guns down and get educated and become good dads.
“We can turn the world upside down and right side up. We can turn the world upside down and right side up. We can turn the world upside down and right side up. What matters? Children matter. Families matter.”
The congregation stood and applauded.
The Rev. Ron Cole-Turner presided. Mary Lee Talbot, a lifelong Chautauquan, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Motet Choir which sang “Give Thanks Unto the Lord” by Richard Dirksen. The Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund and J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy supported this week’s services.