This is a copy of the first sermon that I ever preached. The occasion for this sermon was my preaching class in March of 2011. It is interesting to look back and see how I’ve changed…and how I haven’t.
When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’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.’ He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’ And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, 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; but 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!’ 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.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he 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.’
The crowds are gathering. People are arguing. Voices are being raised. Disciples have failed. Scribes are criticizing. Jesus is frustrated. A demon is seizing a helpless child. A father is begging for his boy. There is convulsing, throwing to the ground, dashing to the ground, rolling about, foaming at the mouth, grinding of teeth. We are all watching. We are all witnesses to things that are falling apart. And amidst the chaos comes a desperate and raw confession. I believe, help my unbelief!
We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. We say it in church many a Sunday as a community. We say it to ourselves as we struggle with texts in class. We state it in our creeds, our thoughts, our very prayers. However, it is hard to believe whatever it is that we believe in when the waves come upon our shores, when we are cast into the water and into the fire, when earthquakes shatter our way of existence, when those we love, or perhaps even ourselves, are seized by the grip of forces we do not understand. We cannot believe that a God who created us from nothing but a desire to be in fellowship with us and love us is present in the midst of unforgiving chaos. Oh, we believe, alright. But then again….
Belief or unbelief. Which are we?
Perhaps we are in the crowd that is watching this situation, arguing with each other over the shortcomings of the disciples. Haven’t we been led to believe, after all, that they have the authority to cast out demons? They have been following this Jesus fellow around, haven’t they? Have they learned nothing? How can we be asked to believe in what we have not seen? Belief or unbelief.
Perhaps we are amongst the disciples. We believe in Jesus! Wehave committed ourselves to his teachings. After all, it was us who dropped our nets and followed him at his command. It was us that left our former ways of life to begin something new and exciting. We believe ourselves to be charged with a mission. Why then, could we not do what he has taught us? We can’t believe our failures. Belief or unbelief.
Perhaps we are the parent of the child, who has heard this talk about a healer and his disciples who can fix the brokenness that has been the reality of their parenthood for years and years. After all the loving care, after all the nights laying awake by a loved one’s side, after hearing, seeing, feeling the pain that has gripped them, we cannot believe that there is redemption, healing, salvation. We believe this at this time and don’t believe this at that time. Belief is a finicky friend, is it not?
Or perhaps we are the child, robbed of our voices, robbed of our right mind, robbed of any and all control over our situations, rigid with the futility of forces that dash us down to the ground.
The crowd can’t believe the disciples failed. The disciples themselves can’t believe they failed. Jesus can’t believe the unbelief. The father believes and, yet, his unbelief seizes him almost simultaneously. Belief or unbelief. Which are you? Which am I? It’s frustrating isn’t it?
As I’m sure all of us have felt at one point or another when encountering such a rich and meaty text, I had to step back. I was so hung up on the father’s seemingly paradoxical statement: “I believe; help my unbelief!” Well, make up your mind! Which is it? It must be one or the other! One of my favorite musical groups is the band Nickel Creek. In their song, “Doubting Thomas” is a lyric that has always struck me. “Can I be used to help others find truth, when I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie?” I see both belief and unbelief in those words. I think we see belief and unbelief in ourselves and, what’s more, the line between the two is seldom clear.
Now we don’t know exactly why the disciples failed. Perhaps they had just finished a rough CPM meeting. Perhaps they were frazzled from writing a sermon. Perhaps they thought they were the ones casting out demons. Perhaps they just weren’t feeling it! We don’t know. What we do know is that Jesus emphasizes prayer as the vehicle through which this demon was cast out. But where exactly is that prayer? It certainly does not look as though Jesus prayed in this specific passage. We also have no record of the disciples praying. So what’s going on?
Henri Nouwen writes in his book “With Open Hands” his thoughts on prayer. He says, “To pray means to stop expecting from God the same small-mindedness which you discover in yourself. To pray is to walk in the full light of God and to say simply, without holding back, “I am human and you are God.” I am human, and you are God! It is a simple little phrase but the reality is that simplicity is rarely simplistic. As I was working on this sermon, I found myself saying this prayer out loud everywhere. The parking lot, the car, the mailroom, the refectory, everywhere! I am human, and you are God. Over and over again. That simple little prayer brought forth more questions than it did answers. To me, it embodied the desperate cry of myself before God. It proclaimed my reality in the here and now. Naked before God, I cried out, I am human, and you are God. I am human, and you are God. Through this earthy and intimate mantra I found myself standing next to the father, crying out “I believe, help my unbelief.”
I found myself next to the father saying to Jesus, “How much longer must you be among us? How much longer must you put up with us? Jesus, how much longer must my son be among this? How much longer, Jesus, must he put up with this. Now is not the time for you to be frustrated. Now is not the time for you to be human. Now is the time for you to be God.” Now I don’t know why the disciples failed to cast out the demon. I don’t know why Jesus asked the father all the questions. I don’t know what was going through the boy’s head. I just don’t know. But what I do know and what I do is this…
The crowds are gathering. People are arguing. Voices are being raised. Disciples have failed. Scribes are criticizing. Jesus is frustrated. A demon is seizing a helpless child. A father is begging for his boy. There is convulsing, throwing to the ground, dashing to the ground, rolling about, foaming at the mouth, grinding of teeth. We are all watching. Amidst the chaos comes a cry. I believe; help my unbelief! Belief and unbelief; which aren’t you?
And then a hand.
A hand that lifts.
A hand that lifts a helpless boy to his feet; a boy who is able to stand.
A hand that takes from us the single-mindedness
that we have placed on ourselves and
hands to us possibilities and a mission.
A hand that lifts us and those we love not in the moment when we believe or not believe
but rather when we are most torn between the two.
When we are caught between hope and fear,
between our humanness and God’s “godness,”
between belief and unbelief.
A hand that lifts us as it says, “I am God, and you are human.”
That hand is not our own. But that hand allows our own hands to no longer be rigid.
Hands that are now free to love, to serve, to hold, to pray,
to testify to what it is that lifts us from the ground.