Monday, September 21, 2009

Sermon for Trinity XV – Proper 19/20B
All Saints’ Church
September 20, 2009

Invisible ink, going nowhere, the silence is deafening, friendly fire, final draft, same difference, taped live, working vacation, jumbo shrimp. These are just a list of one website’s most popular oxymorons. As we all know, an oxymoron is something that pits two or more contradictory words together to stimulate rhetorical thought in the listener. Most of the time, an oxymoron is not an accident, but rather, intentionally used to invoke humor or to make a statement. In this morning’s Gospel lesson from St. Mark, one might wonder if the father of the child, possessed by the dumb spirit, is making a statement that might be considered an oxymoron.

Our gospel selection opens with a specific group returning to the disciples. There is a great crowd assembled, and they are in the midst of an argument. In reading the entire ninth chapter of Mark, we find out that the group that is returning is Jesus with Peter, James and John immediately after the Transfiguration. These three disciples have just seen perhaps the most remarkable event of their lives, and have truly embodied a “mountain top experience.” One can only imagine what is going through their mind as they come down the mountain, walk into a hostile scene and can tell no one what just happened to them. Jesus had sworn them to remain silent regarding what they had just witnessed.

Jesus then asks the crowd what they are discussing. One member of the crowd steps up and tells Jesus that he had brought his son to him for healing, and the disciples were unable to cast out the demon that possessed the boy. The faith of the father is established early with the fact that he brought his son to Jesus for help, and was trusting of the outcome. However, his faith is obviously shaken by the fact that the disciples were unsuccessful. The failure of the disciples seems to be heightened because just a few chapters earlier we heard the story of the commissioning of the disciples and the power they were granted to cast out demons in the name of Jesus. Why did they fail now?

Verse 19 poses an interesting question for the hearer: to whom is Jesus referring to when he calls the group a ‘faithless generation?’ Is it directed to all in attendance, the father of the child or just to the disciples? Whose faith is Jesus questioning? This is most likely one of those instances where we might answer our rhetorical question with a yes, and Jesus is speaking to all present when he calls them a faithless generation. After making two statements which seem to portray Jesus as someone who is at his wits end, he tells the father to bring the boy to him. As the boy is brought into Jesus’ presence, it is obvious that the demon knows exactly who Jesus is. This is very similar to the actions of demons as described in previous accounts in Mark’s Gospel. When the demonic spirit recognizes it is in the presence of Christ, it throws the boy down into a convulsion, and causes him to fall upon the ground, roll around and foam at the mouth. It is rather interesting that as this begins to happen, Jesus asks the father how long this has been happening. It almost sounds like the way a doctor asks a patient, ‘so how long have you been having these symptoms.’ The question almost seems to set the stage for Jesus’ ultimate lesson he wishes to have us take from this passage.

The father answers Jesus’ question by saying that the demon has gripped his son ever since his childhood, and described several ways in which he had been afflicted over the years. The next line from the father is where the issue of faith and belief begins to overshadow the story. The father pleads with Jesus to have pity on him and his son, “if you can do anything.” This line comes from the same man who had just before taken the initiative to come to Jesus in faith for help. He now just wants pity, if Jesus can simply do that. Jesus repeats back the father’s words in what sounds like disgust, and then makes a bold proclamation, “All things are possible to him who believes.”

Here we come to the point in our story where the father says what many might consider a Biblical oxymoron when he says, “I believe, help my unbelief.” What is to be made of that kind of statement? The father says he believes, but then wants help in dealing with his unbelief. If he says he has unbelief, does he really have belief in the first place? This seems like an incredible oxymoron, until you take it at face value. Are you and I not just like the father? Do we too not want to hedge our bets?

There are certainly times when we have had moments of clarity and feel like God has led us to a certain point in our lives, encouraging us to move forward and take the next step. We just received that new job offer we’ve been praying for; the acceptance letter for college has just come in the mail; perhaps it’s now time to make a critical life decision for a family member. Whatever our individual case may be, we reach that point where we firmly believe that our direction is clear – we declare with the father that we believe. Then the doubts creep in. Is the house going to sell for what we need for it to? Are the children going to like their new school? Are we going to be able to pay for that college? Now that Mom died, how are we going to tell Dad that it’s time to sell the house and move to an assisted living facility?

These are real questions, with real consequences. These are some of our “un-beliefs” that go hand-in-hand with our beliefs. What Jesus wanted the man and us too, to realize that they go together, and he will help us handle them both.

After the father’s declaration, Jesus commands the demon to leave the boy and never to return. With one final wrenching of his body, the boy is free! Free from what has trapped him his entire life. When all around saw what happened, they thought the boy was dead. However, the boy does what each of us must constantly do, now that we are free from what traps us – he allowed Jesus to reach down and lift him up.

But this is not the end of the story. The disciples still have that burning question: ‘what about us!?’ They still cannot figure out what went wrong. Jesus tells them in private that the only way that a demon such as this one can be cast out is through prayer. Belief is now inextricably linked to prayer. The disciples most likely had the belief part but were not steeped in prayer as they ought to have been. They had been following the model for prayer for quite some time now, and yet, were still lacking in this critical part of their lives. Jesus implies that he wants and expects both belief and prayer. The power of evil is experienced in many forms, and the ways in which we are to combat it is given by Jesus himself.

So where does this leave us? I must admit that I am a believer who everyday needs help with my unbelief. This is what every Eucharist service contains the recitation of the Nicene Creed after hearing God’s Word proclaimed and before we hear it preached. Why is it found at this point in the service? Why do we still say it at all? It is there because even though we hear the message from the sacred scriptures of the Good News of Jesus Christ and that we are called to believe in him, our minds race with examples of our needing help with our unbelief. We say the creed each time we gather around our Lord’s Table to remind us that each of us do in fact believe. But, our lives are inundated with occasions when we question that belief. We need to hear it again and again. Since Jesus says that some evil can only be defeated through prayer, might I suggest the next time we say the creed, we say it as a prayer to the Father in addition to it being a Declaration of our Faith.

Do I think that the father’s statement, “I believe, help my unbelief,” is an oxymoron? Absolutely Not! I think it is as honest a statement as could have been made. I empathize with the father when I spend time in my own unbelief. I then fall humbly upon my knees to the only source of strength that I know will there each and every time that I ask – the true source of belief: Jesus the Christ, the Son of God!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Scott Benhase elected on the 2nd ballot...results

Benhase 58 C 76 L
Gahan 17 C 41 L
Logue 25 C 24 L
Taylor 1 C 0 L
Willoughby 1 C 3 L
Zimmerman 1 C 2 L
Ballot # 1
Clerical Lay

Benhase 42 62
Gahan 19 42
Logue 25 25
Taylor 3 2
Willoughby 10 6
Zimmerman 5 9

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sermon for Trinity XIII – Proper 18B
All Saints’ Church
September 6, 2009

Last weeks Gospel lesson dealt with a theme that was one of the most pressing and contentious issues between Jesus and his detractors. If you remember the passage from the first part of Mark Chapter 7, the big brouhaha was over the fact that Jesus’ disciples were sitting at a table for dinner and were eating with unwashed hands. As our good friends the Pharisees were wont to do, they were right on hand to point out to Jesus and his disciples that they had the letter of the law perfected in their own minds and hearts, and were all to ready, willing, and able to share that with the regular vehemence, contempt, and scorn that they were regulars in showing. Of course, Jesus turns their understanding completely on its head when he tells them that what comes into a man from the outside cannot defile him before God, but rather, it is what proceeds out of him that causes the problem.

Of course in this instance in particular, Jesus is speaking directly about the ritual purity codes and cleanliness codes which pertained to food when he confronts the Pharisees here. He is not making a blanket statement here about what comes into our bodies from without. What we see; what we hear; what we perceive doesn’t necessarily defile us of its own volition, but what those things cause to come out of us and how it shapes and changes who we truly are is what Jesus is addressing here. We are to pay very close attention to what we expose ourselves to because the old slogan in the business world is just as true here as well, “garbage in equals garbage out.”

This brings us to the story of the deaf and dumb man that we heard about in this morning’s Gospel. There are several interesting details in this healing miracle that need further attention. First of all, the people who bring the man to Jesus in hopes that He might heal him beseech Jesus to touch him. That is an interesting request because just a few verses earlier Jesus heals the Syrophonician woman’s daughter merely by telling her that the demon had left her daughter and that she had been healed. In that instance Jesus doesn’t touch the girl, see the girl, he doesn’t even rebuke the demon specifically, yet the girl was healed instantly merely by Jesus saying the word, and it was so. Sounds allot like Genesis doesn’t it, “And God said let there be…and it was so!”

The man Legion was cured of his overwhelming demon possession again by only the spoken word rather than by Jesus’ touch. I’m sure these instances of healing had been known by the people who brought the deaf and dumb man to Jesus, and yet, their request was that he might touch him. Certainly we know that Jesus had the power to heal in any fashion He wanted, and yet, there was something special in Jesus’ touch. We know of course of the great faith of the woman afflicted with the discharge of blood who had faith enough to believe that merely the hem of Jesus’ garment was all she needed to know that this one man had the power to make her well and whole again.

For some, all it takes is hearing the word, for some it’s sight, for some it’s touch. We are quite familiar of one who required sight and touch before he believed. The Sunday following Easter, we hear the story of Thomas who told his fellow disciples that unless he saw the print of the nails and placed his hands in the spear wound in Jesus’ side, he would not believe. Whatever form it takes, our Lord desires that we seek him, and call upon him in our time of need. Perhaps the people who brought this man to Jesus needed believed that Jesus’ touch would be required to heal their friend. Whatever their motivation, they came to the one and only source for healing, and that was one thing they got absolutely correct.

A second observation about this passage is the setting in which the miracle takes place. Jesus has been followed by the crowds, and again those who follow are seeking a miracle of him. Rather than perform this wonderful sign of the power that was within, he takes the man apart from the crowd, and heals him privately. Jesus’ life was one in which he was constantly searching for privacy and solitude. On numerous occasions we hear of Jesus seeking to separate himself from the crowds only to find them pressing upon him more and more, or constantly being one step ahead of his movements.

One thing that is different about Mark’s Gospel has to do with what is known as the Messianic secret. I know I’ve mentioned this attribute of the Gospel before, but it’s always helpful to note this again when we come across passages from Mark such as this one where glimpses of this secret are so noticeable. We have Jesus performing a miracle apart from the crowd, and then beseeches them not to say anything. Of course, the more that Jesus asks people not to say anything the more they seem to do so.

The third observation about this passage seems to me to bridge the gap between last Sunday’s gospel and this one this morning. There is one word that is recorded which has given commentators much information to process over the centuries when they dig into this story and try to make sense of it. The word I refer to appears right before Jesus heals the man where Mark tells us that Jesus sighed.

It’s somewhat difficult to understand what is happening here when we catch an insight like this one into the life of Jesus. The word that is used here is only used 5 other times in the New Testament , and in no other case does it carry the connotation that it does here in reference to Jesus’ frame of mind as he is performing this miracle.

It is unclear whether this sighing was an outward sigh as we often make, or if it were an inward sigh or groaning of some sort. However, one of the best tools to interpret Scripture is Scripture itself. You might have been wondering why I spent time explaining some of the details of the Gospel from last Sunday. In light of the word that occurs here in this morning’s Gospel, I think this might very well be one of those places where Scripture helps with the interpretation. Certainly there is no consensus on this position, but it is one that struck me as I was studying these passages together.

Jesus had just had a conversation with the Pharisees and explained to them that what comes out of a man is what ultimately defiles him. Jesus is most definitely talking about what we say when he speaks of the things which come out of us. Think about the terms that we use when our words are used as weapons, and not as vehicles of God’s love for mankind.

We speak of words cutting us down.
We speak of words stabbing us in the back
We speak of words stinging us to the core
We speak of the pen (written words) being mightier than the sword

What does Jesus do in this miracle that we heard about this morning? He is loosening the very thing that could be used to do tremendous harm. He is giving the man the opportunity to do something that he had never had the opportunity to do before – speak plainly.

Perhaps this is why Jesus sighed. Perhaps he knew that there would be times when the man’s new found freedom would cause pain, and suffering to those around him. To me that seems like a logical reason why Jesus might have sighed in this instance.

But, in light of God’s grace, mercy, and love, he is willing to give the man that opportunity. He is giving him the freedom to use his voice in a previously unfamiliar way.

Our Lord has given us lips to speak, and ears to hear the Good News he has in store for the entire world. Perhaps there are times that our ears are closed, and our tongues are twisted and tied to speak plainly of that love. Certainly there are times when we too need to pray to God that he might place his fingers in our ears, and touch our tongues in order that we might use them rightly to His honor and glory.

The crowds that Jesus asked to be quiet went forth after witnessing the miraculous power of Jesus and said, “Everything he does is marvelous…He even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak.” Everything that Jesus does is marvelous. What makes those words so marvelous is the historic context that shines through them. In the 35th chapter of Isaiah the prophet declares

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. 6 Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. 7 And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grassb with reeds and rushes. 8 And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. 9 No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there: 10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Here is the one that has come in the flesh who is doing the very things that the prophet Isaiah spoke of hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. The very God who created all things, the One who could not be touched, could not be gazed upon, could not be handled took on flesh, in order that His flesh might touch our flesh, and we might behold that Divinity ourselves. We come to do just that very thing again shortly as we come to receive Christ’s flesh and blood in the Blessed Sacrament. We are vouchsafed to do something that is beyond our comprehension, and yet, our Lord bids us to come and partake of his life giving Body.

Jesus opened the ears of the deaf man in order that he might hear for himself the words which bring eternal life. Jesus touched and healed the tongue of the mute man in order that he might boldly proclaim the marvelous deeds that our Lord did for him. Jesus opens our ears and loosens our tongue to do the exact same thing. Let us go forth from this place and do likewise!