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!