A sermon for times of unbelief

We are living in times of fading faith. I won’t bore you with numbers, but recent research and polling data shows a marked decrease in people who identify with church or church participation. Yet, most Americans still say they believe in God. Which of course raises the question what God they believe in. Even many who claim to be Christian worship a God of their own making.

Today’s Gospel reading shows us two kinds of God believers: the father of the boy and the disciples who could not heal the boy. The father of the boy reaches out to Jesus Christ with those impassioned words that can appear reckless and confused. “I believe; help my unbelief!” πιστεύω· βοήθει μου τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ – perhaps better translated, “I believe; help me in my unbelief!” This is not a man saying, “I hear you Jesus. Okay, I’ll do my best, I’ll try to have better faith.” No, he is not putting the focus on himself and how he should try harder. No. “Help my unbelief” is not an announcement of what he will do; it is a prayer! It is a prayer from a place of emptiness. There is nothing left in him except this cry of seeming contradiction. But there is nothing contradictory about it. Only a person who believes can cry out to God, “help my unbelief.” The father of the boy shows us what it is to believe in God.

The disciples on the other hand were too full of themselves. Why could they not do it? Jesus answered them: This kind can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. Prayer and fasting – prayer and emptiness. Fasting is not mainly about an empty stomach. More importantly, fasting is about that state best described by Jesus when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The father, in his cry of need, was poor in spirit. The disciples were too full of their own spirit and their own strength.

The father’s prayer and emptiness allowed Jesus to heal his boy. It’s well documented in the Gospels that there were times that even Jesus could not heal some people. No one knows the art of self-emptying more than Jesus himself. He emptied himself, the Epistle to the Philippians tells us. And perhaps he is best able to enter into communion with people who also are capable of self-emptying and who come to Jesus from a place of emptiness. Like the father today. Like the four men two Sundays ago who made a hole in a roof to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus.

So there are two kinds of God believers in today’s Gospel reading: The father, who comes completely vulnerable and empty of fixed ideas about God. And there are the disciples who are surprised that things don’t go the way they thought should go with the God they believed in. 

We can create idols that fit our images of God. Or we can come to God empty and allow God to show us who God really is. Did you notice at the end of our Gospel reading today? Jesus tried to explain to them that he would be captured and killed by men and he would then rise from the dead. Mark tells us they did not understand what Jesus was saying to them, and they were afraid to ask. The boy’s father would not have been afraid to ask. He would have said, “I’m not sure I understand. Help my lack of understanding!”

John and Maria Mitchell had much to celebrate on the twenty-fifth anniversary of their wedding day. Proud of their three children, all now in their twenties, and their joint achievements—she as a nurse and he as a sheep farmer—this was a special day for cherished memories. All had agreed to a quiet family luncheon gathering with close relatives from both sides of the family. 

But the “children” also had plans for the afternoon, a surprise trip to the beach, nearly one hundred miles away. “Fine by me,” said John, “except for one hitch: the veterinary surgeon is scheduled to come early tomorrow morning to inoculate my sheep; so I guess I had better gather them in from the lower paddock (almost a mile away) to the paddock here beside the house. Let’s finish lunch and I will gather in the sheep and then we can head for the beach.” 

Lunch complete, the women set about tidying up, other family members packed the picnic box for the beach, while John changed into working clothes and headed out to fetch the sheep. He whistled for his sheepdog, who surprisingly did not respond. He jumped on to his farm tractor and headed for the lower paddock. As he drove out of the farmyard, there, to his shock, were all his sheep in the home paddock. His sheepdog was lying across the gateway to ensure they did not go out! 

“What in the name of God is going on?” John muttered to himself. Calling Philip, his oldest son, they both stared in disbelief as it dawned on them that it was the sheepdog had fetched the sheep without any human assistance and had brought them to the paddock where John needed them for the vet the following morning. With tears in his eyes, John approached his beloved and faithful dog and gave him one of the warmest hugs man and beast could ever exchange. And as he stared lovingly into the dog’s eyes, subliminal echoes of fidelity and gratitude reverberated: “This is the least I would do for you on your wedding anniversary; enjoy the day!” [O’Murchu, Diarmuid. Religious Life in the 21st Century: The Prospect of Refounding (pp. 19-20). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.]

I love this story, and that’s the main reason I shared it today. But it also tells me what we need in this age of diminishing faith. We need people who are open to surprising and amazing grace. People who instead of being pompous Bible thumpers can honestly say, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Christianity has become a closed system of beliefs that are not open to discussion or grace. The Mitchell’s sheepdog and the father in today’s Gospel show us moments of grace. We Christians need to tell more stories like these instead of prattling on and on about our conceptions of God and Christ. 

Jesus himself loved telling stories. It was his favorite way of building the kingdom of God. And the kingdom of God is not built by theories and slogans and bumper stickers, but by stories, human stories – human stories of compassion, of grace and surprise, of calling on God to help our unbelief. This is an age of unbelief. Let’s make that unbelief, or our own share in that unbelief, an opening for God to enter into our lives and the lives of those around us.

(The above was preached as a sermon on Sunday, 11 April 2021. Audio file below:)

One Reply to “A sermon for times of unbelief”

  1. I found this really interesting, Kostas. It’s interesting to me especially because in the UK we have the situation where the majority of people now do NOT identify as Christian – very different from the US, I think, where the situation seems that more people say they identify as Christian but their lifestyles and attitudes beg questions? I am not standing in judgment, just observing something and wondering if that is the case. But I agree with you that “emptiness” is a hallmark of sacrifice, humility, simplicity – all wonderful qualities that we see in Jesus and in others. And perhaps we need to seek greater emptiness in order to “grow”? Best wishes, Michael

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