A sermon preached on March 7, 2021 based upon Mark 9:14-27 entitled, “Strengthening Faith; Strengthening the Life Force”
Our Gospel reading comes from the 9th chapter of Mark. A lot has happened before we get to this point. I want to highlight a couple of things.
Early on, Jesus has called twelve disciples and if we ask what the criteria was to be called, it isn’t altogether clear. They clearly weren’t “the best and the brightest.” In fact, it is almost seems as though Jesus chose them for their ordinariness. He also seemed to have had an eye towards creating a group that were quite different from one another: they range from rough-handed fishermen to a soft-handed taxcollector. There was a political zealot whose political views would have been on the other end of the spectrum from that of the taxcollector in regard to what to do with the Roman oppressors. In other words, this is not a group naturally inclined to get along.
It is almost as if he intended to make them easy for ordinary folks like you and me to identify with, which I think is what we’re supposed to do. The twelve disciples were the original prototype for the church.
They travel around the country side with Jesus marveling at his power to heal and cast out demonic spirits, but we repeatedly get the sense their kind of dense when it comes to understanding what Jesus is about. But in spite of their ordinariness, it seemed clear that Jesus expected something extraordinary from them. For instance, during a night time boat ride across the sea of Galilee they become terrified, understandably when a nasty storm arises. They awaken Jesus who is napping, saying, “do you not care that we are going to perish?”
Awakened from a sound sleep, Jesus stands and silences the storm, after which he turns and rebukes the disciples, “O men of little faith, why did you doubt?” Apparently, he’s looking for more trust from this motley crew, and is disappointed he’s not seeing it.
In the sixth chapter Jesus sends the twelve out two by two on a short missionary trip. It seems clear this would be an exercise in learning to trust because he specifically he instructs them to go forth in a particularly vulnerable state, without food, or money, or weapons with which to try and make themselves feel secure. Jesus makes it clear that they will encounter some rejection – and when that happens, not to get caught up in it – simply “shake off the dust from your sandals” is how he put it and move on, proceeding with open hearts rusting they would eventually find a home that would show them hospitality and feed them.
And this is the most striking thing — going forth in a humble and vulnerable posture practicing open-hearted trust he gives them authority over the evil spirits that oppress people and diminish life – that same authority he had – and to their amazement in those homes where they are welcomed with open hearts, they astonished to discover they have the capacity to channel God’s healing power.
It seems like they showed significant progress in learning how to live by faith on their little missionary trip, but the faith walk is a bumpy one, and in the chapters that followed, the disciples continue to stumble when it comes to trusting and understanding what Jesus is up to.
Right before the story we are about to hear, Jesus took three of the disciples – Peter, James and John up on a mountain to pray – and there the great mystery that was the transfiguration took place – those three got a glimpse of the eternal light and love of God shining forth from Jesus’ body. Peter gives the impression he’d just as well prefer to stay up on that mountain forever, but the light fades and Jesus leads them back down the valley.
And that’s where we pick up the story. Listen for the word of the Lord.
When they came to the disciples, (that is the other 9 disciples who hadn’t gone up the mountain with Jesus) they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. (Take note of this – the 9 disciples were caught up in an argument with the scribes.)
When the whole crowd saw Jesus, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, (that is, the 9 disciples) ‘What are you arguing about with them?’
It is interesting that the only other time Jesus asks this question of the disciples – “what were you arguing about,” they didn’t answer because they were embarrassed – they’d been arguing over which of them was the greatest. Perhaps their argument with the Scribes had a touch of this in it. But before they can try to give an answer, a very distressed father cries out to Jesus.
Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ Notice that. The Greek used here implies that the disciples weren’t “strong” enough to do heal the boy. You’ll remember that previously on their little missionary journeys the disciples had managed to perform healings and cast out demons. But in this instance, they can’t — which raises the question, “Why not this time?”
Once more Jesus – expressing some very human frustration – lashes out at his disciples, indicating he expects more faith from them.)
Jesus answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.’
And they brought the boy to Jesus. When the spirit saw Jesus, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him…
Remember our working definition of evil – that force at work in the world that diminishes and destroys life. The boy is alive so obviously there is a life force inside him. But clearly there is an opposing force inside him as well – something we would call evil. The will to live is opposed by the will to die. We have no clue how this will to die got inside the boy so powerfully, but clearly the will to die part is winning the battle. The father continues…
If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’
Let’s pause to ask what is meant by “belief” here? It clearly doesn’t refer to is giving assent to some doctrine – like the Apostles’ Creed, say. The “belief” the father is talking about is the simple trust that the God working through Jesus loves us, hasn’t abandoned us, wants to help us.
This desperate father speaks for all of us: there’s a part of us that trusts God and a part that doesn’t. These two parts struggle against one another, in a way that is similar to the struggle inside the boy between the will to live and the will to die. Continuing…
When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’
It appears as though the power of death has won, kind of like it will a few chapters later when Jesus hangs on the cross.
But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, (kind of like God will lift Jesus up from the grave), and the boy was able to stand.
When Jesus had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’
Thus ends the reading, may God bless our hearing of the Word.
I want to honor the simple, open-hearted honesty of the father’s cry, “I believe, help my unbelief.” He speaks for all of us. There is a part of us that believes, that trusts – rising up out of the deepest part of our being which we call our soul that allows us to sing the song we sang earlier: “Why should I feel discouraged… Why should my heart be lonely… When Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is he, his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
But there is another part that arises from that little anxious self I talked about last week, that feels compelled to go it alone – that doesn’t trust, believes precisely the opposite, “I’ve got plenty of reason to be discouraged. To feel abandoned. To feel there is no God – or at least a God who really cares about me.”
And during the pandemic, there has been ample opportunity for that voice to get louder inside us.
And I would also suggest that inside each of us a similar struggle is taking place between the will to live and the will to die – or simply to give up — which is akin to the struggle between belief and unbelief.
Our role as the church is to proclaim to the world and to one another that in spite of appearances to the contrary, deep down the belief part has it right. That Jesus has come to reveal a God intent on setting us free from all those forces that diminish and destroy life.
We are here to strengthen the belief part – which goes hand in hand with strengthening the life force. And it begins with little things, like choosing to tune in to the online worship to connect with God and one another.
As I said before the disciples in our story represent the church, and in this case – well, they drop the ball. They have neither enough faith nor enough life force flowing through them to be of much help in the fight against the death forces at work in the poor child.
And how did this happen?
Well, we have one clue in that odd detail about how they were caught up in an argument with the scribes.
There are instances in which an argument can be a good thing – a little scary perhaps because of the emotions that it can raise up inside us. When there are problems in a marriage or any significant relationship if they go unaddressed they can steadily suck the life out of the relationship, creating a toxic atmosphere. At such times what we call an “argument” can be necessary to address the underlying problem, but for the argument to be successful it requires a willingness to listen, a true desire to solve the problem. A good, constructive argument can be healing — unleashing life-giving energies that have gotten stuck.
But unfortunately, this isn’t what happens in most “arguments.” Most arguments are battles of the wills, attempts to prove oneself smarter, superior to the person with whom we’re arguing. Such arguments sap energy and harden hearts.
Consider for instance the arguments that have taken place in the political sphere, or the arguments about human sexuality that have taken place in the church. Imagine if all the energy that has been devoted to such arguments could have been turned outward in love in service of our neighbors. Such, unfortunately is the nature of human sin.
It seems pretty clear that the argument the disciples were having with the scribes wern’t constructive – it just sucked up energy and hardened their hearts. They didn’t — as Jesus had instructed — just shake off the dust from their sandals. They just dug in harder in the battle to prove themselves superior to the scribes.
Perhaps the success they experienced on their little missionary journeys went to their heads, and instead of the humble open-heartedness they had previously been able to enter into, pride crept in. Maybe they started thinking they had this faith-thing down pat and began to imagine themselves not as a channel for God’s power to flow through, but rather that the power was their own which is a sure-fire way to lose access to this power.
And so, they were no use to this desperate father and his gravely tormented son.
Sometimes the pathway to deeper faith begins with acknowledging the truth of our unbelief, following the example of this father in embracing humility and the truth of where we find ourselves in the given moment, whether that be fear, desperation or whatever. Sometimes the path to greater strength begins with acknowledging our weakness.
Maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said some that some forms of evil can only be overcome with prayer. Prayer begins with humbling ourselves, emptying ourselves of our pride, of our sense of being “right”, of being superior. We empty ourselves so that God can have space to begin filling us with divine power.
Prayer is expressed in Holy Communion – the sacrament we will share together in a few minutes. As I always say, to receive the gift of grace expressed in the bread and the cup, you don’t have to have your beliefs all figured out. The one prerequisite is that you leave your pride at the door – to cry out with the desperate father who is our spiritual brother, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”