Saturday, March 24, 2012

Only Through Prayer

Mark 9:14-29
Lent 5
March 25, 2012
William G. Carter

     When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, 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 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.”

Well, there he goes again. Jesus is giving a little kick to his twelve disciples, reminding them once again of their spiritual ineptness. In this section of Mark, he is something like a drill sergeant, instructing them on the way to the cross, and barking out rebukes when they get it wrong.

Here, Jesus has to deal with the ineptness of his followers when it comes to an exorcism. Back in chapter six, he gave them power to cast out the forces of evil that cripple human lives. He sent them out with the authority to do what he has been doing, to confront the array of destructive powers at work in the world. Jesus delegates his power to the twelve disciples. He empowers them to take on his work and to extend it.

That was chapter six. By chapter nine, they have lost their juice.

There’s a little boy with a serious disorder. He cannot speak. He cannot hear. He has seizures at unpredictable times and he is a threat to himself. His family has to guard him when he is close to the fire pit or near open water. They never know when he will suddenly start shaking, or foaming at the mouth, or stiffening up and falling over. It had to be a frightening thing.

Those of you who have known a child with epilepsy or similar neurological trouble can only imagine what that family was going through. They never knew when the malady would strike. They never knew what it would do. There was no way to ever rest, no way to ever leave the boy alone. They had to keep an eye on him at all times, always vigilant, always on edge, if only to keep him from further harm. The seizures would begin, horrible as they were. They had to ride them out, taking their own bruises if necessary. It was the only way to keep their son alive, and for him as for them, it wasn’t much of a life.

It’s no wonder the father brings the boy to Jesus. No wonder at all. If there’s any help, it’s going to come from the strange Galilean who exhibits the power to make people well. And since Jesus wasn’t right there, since he was up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, the father takes the boy to the remaining nine disciples. “Here he is. Can you do anything to help?” They try to help, but it does not work. That’s how the story begins. Or at least I thought that’s how the story begins.

Fact is, there’s this curious little detail at the outset. As Jesus and three disciples approach, there’s an argument going on. Some religious leaders, the Bible scribes, are squabbling with the other nine disciples. They are having a noisy disagreement. Jesus says, “What are you arguing about?” Did you notice? Nobody answered him. They never tell him about the argument.

That is when the boy’s father speaks up about his son. “I’ll tell you what is going on. I brought my son to you. You weren’t here, so I asked your disciples to help him. They couldn’t do it.”

OK, the Lord gets annoyed by this. Still, that does not explain the squabble. There’s a sick kid in need of life-giving help, and here are some religious people bickering about something – God knows what. Religious people are experts at bickering – but meanwhile, there’s this kid in need, and the religious people are bickering.

That’s a curious little detail, isn’t it?

And then, there’s the little interchange before the healing. The father brings his kid to Jesus, and says, “If you can do something, can you help us?” Jesus says, “IF?! Did you say, IF?! All kinds of things can be done for those who believe.” All right, believe what? Believe that something can actually be done, that God can actually do something, that God in Christ wants something to happen. It’s that kind of belief – an active belief, a compelling belief, an open and intentional belief: I believe that God is right here and can do something for this child!

In the power of that father’s belief, Jesus heals the son by hurling out the oppressive powers. And then, the disciples pull him into a house and say, “How did you do that? How come we couldn’t do that?”

He looks at them and goes, “Well? . . . ” And then, just to be sassy, he says, “Those kind of demons only come out through prayer.”

You know you have an interesting story when it can spin in all kind of directions. For me, that seems to be the point. There is the squabble between Jesus’ followers and the religious leaders. We never learn what they are bickering about it, and it’s really a distraction that keeps childish adults from the needs of a kid.

I’ve been saddened, for instance, to hear all the childish dithering by adults when an innocent black teenager was recently shot and killed in Florida. It’s completely wrong and any thinking human being knows this. But to listen to the distracting noise of the so-called experts – “he was wearing a hoodie, he didn’t respond to a stranger” – oh, give me a break. It helps me understand the frustration of Jesus in this story.

Then there is the ineptness of the disciples. Remember the Three Stooges? Jesus had twelve of them, or at least Mark thinks so. They can’t do anything right. Maybe they couldn’t get the exorcism done because they were holding their hands the wrong way, or they ran out of incense and holy water, or they didn’t have the words just right, or because they were listening to the flak from the religious scribes.

If you are going to confront evil, it’s not primarily a matter of mechanics or procedures. It is primarily a matter of prayer. It is a spiritual matter. Constant prayer is staying close to God. It opens us to God’s purposes. It beckons us to God’s work in the world. It puts the mission of God before every personal agenda. We pray “Thy will be done” – and then we do God’s will. We pray “deliver us from evil” – and then we confront the evil. Prayer is our primal weapon. Prayer is the tactical force of God’s kingdom. Prayer calls on God to come and make good on the promise that Jesus is saving the world. It is the business of the Spirit.

And then in our story, there is the father’s concern, the father’s initiative, the father’s incomplete faith that prompts him to say, “I believe; help my unbelief.” That memorable Bible verse speaks for all of us.

Certainly our faith is unfinished. If you have a sick kid, you are bound to be shaken. If your world is shaped by a loved one in distress, you have days if you wonder if it is ever going to get better. If you are afraid of what’s going to happen tomorrow, you might never get dressed to start handling the fears of today. We have plenty of unbelief, don’t we! We worry, we fret, we lose sleep. We hear stories of help from heaven and wonder if any of that help is going to come for us. We hear ancient stories like the one today and wonder what they have to do with us. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

Should we pull Jesus aside and get his attention, he will most likely say what he said to the twelve: “These kind only get driven out through prayer.” Through prayer. How much are you praying? How much are you chasing after God? How much are you hungering and thirsting to know God and to discover God’s greater purposes? How much are you grounding yourself in the life-giving, evil-confronting work of Jesus as it reveals the mission of God to the world? This is indeed a spiritual matter. It is a matter of prayer.

A week after burying her husband David, writer Kathleen Norris took her sister for chemotherapy. It was a numbing time in Kathleen’s life, and much of it was lived in a fog of gloom. “I had no idea how I would inhabit that devastating word, widow,” she writes. “As for prayer, I was not surprised that (a) mocking spirit was alive within me, or that when I most needed the consolation that prayer can bring, I was unable to pray.”[1] Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.

She says, “When I missed David most acutely, the pain washing over me in thunderous breaking waves, I would remind myself that I I could not wish for him back, because that would mean his having to endure more suffering. All of that was over for him, the gasping for breath, the pain of that accursed cracked shoulder. I did not know what to hope for, but I knew that I needed to pray again.”

David had been a part-time Episcopalian. Within his Book of Common Prayer, Kathleen found a prayer for herself, in a section of prayers for those who are sick:

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

            The words of prayer were themselves a help. She prayed the prayers, she prayed the Psalms, especially the realistic ones and the sad ones. Kathleen came across the writing of Gregory of Nyssa, one of the ancient Fathers of the church. He was writing about the Lord’s Prayer, and said, “Remember that the life in which we ought to be interested is ‘daily’ life (as in praying for daily bread). We can, each of us, only call the present time our own… Our Lord tells us to pray for today, and he prevents us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow.” Give us this day our daily bread, deliver us from evil.

            It wasn’t an easy prayer, she said, particularly when she felt tempted to give up on both today and tomorrow. “Yet even if this is a necessary stage of grief,” she writes, “there is also a time to emerge and attempt to find a place in the new and alien landscape. The prayer of my heart, offered when I was too worn out to pray, offered silently and beneath any conscious level, was for the strength to hazard this transition… The grieving person undergoes a kind of death, and on many days my grief has…made me feel as if I were barely living.” That was her temptation, she says.

And in such moments, she recalled the guidance of spiritual friends who said that temptation can be a sign of spiritual progress. God does not bring us this far to abandon us. God refuses to concede anything to darkness and destruction. It is the work of God to make all things new, to make all people new. And God’s grace is relentless.   

“Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.” This is where prayer begins. This is where evil is confronted, both beyond us and within us. Supported by one another, we trust in God. In power of the Gospel, in the authority of Jesus Christ, we believe that the dawn shall come again.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (New York: Riverhead Books: 2008). These quotes are taken from pp. 248-251, 260.

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