Gospel of Mark 6:1-6 and 9:14-29
Ninth Sunday of Kingdomtide, November 1, 2015
Sermon 2 of 5 in a Sermon Series Entitled, ‘Compassion as Living Theology’
In his recent book, The Christmas Heist, St. John’s member Landis Wade tells the story of Henry Edmonds, a friendly-looking old man who believes in Santa Claus. You will be encouraged by Mr. Edmonds, for he reminds us that believing is loving and being loved.
In a classic episode of The Andy Griffith Show, Opie tells Father Andy about his new friend: “Pa, Mr. McBeevee has twelve extra hands that hang off of his belt and he wears a silver hat and he walks in the top of the trees.” The perennial literalist, Deputy Barney Fife, is sitting at the kitchen table enjoying a cup of Aunt Bee’s coffee overhearing the exchange. Barney is sure Opie has created Mr. McBeevee in his imagination. Later, Opie shows up at the sheriff’s office with a bright new quarter. Andy inquires, “Where did you get a whole quarter?” Opie answers, “From Mr. McBeevee.” Andy clarifies, “Is this the same man with the extra hands and silver hat, the one who walks in the trees?” “Yeah, Pa,” says Opie. Andy sends Opie home to reflect on his claims about Mr. McBeevee. Barney, Mayberry’s expert advisor on parenting, suggests that corporeal punishment is in order to teach Opie that he must stop lying. Later, back at the house, in Opie’s room, a conversation ensues between Andy and Opie about lying and the punishment for doing so. Then, Andy asks Opie, “Now, Opie, where did you get that quarter?” Opie sincerely replies, “Mr. McBeevee gave it to me, Pa. Honest. Don’t you believe me?” And the loving Father says, “Yes, son, I believe YOU.” As Andy goes downstairs, Barney wants to know if Opie got a whipping. When Andy says, “no,” Barney has a Fife fit; “Andy, how can you believe that a man has twelve extra hands hanging off of his belt and walks in the top of trees?” Andy looks at Barney and says, “I can’t. But I believe in Opie.” By the end of the episode, Andy’s belief in Opie is confirmed when Andy meets Mr. McBeevee, the electrical lineman.
We are living in a world where people are searching for someone in whom they can believe. There is tremendous unbelief, disbelief, shattered belief, shallow belief, unhealthy belief, untethered belief, unfocused belief and misplaced belief. Yet, friends, you are a believing people. I don’t just mean you are a thinking and thoughtful people – which you are, of course; I mean you are a believing people. And, believing is much more than thinking. Be encouraged; your belief is making a difference in the lives of other people! When you say, “I believe,” you are not saying, “I think so.” When you say, “I believe,” you are revealing the most significant relationship of your life.
Originally, the word ‘believe’ meant to ‘set your heart – or your full self – upon a relationship with another person.’ To “believe” meant, to “be-love;” “believed” meant “beloved.” To believe is not to set your mind on an idea. To believe is to set your heart – your full self – on another. To believe is to weave your life into the life of another so they shape your feelings, desires, thoughts and actions. When you believe, you value your relationship with another being. This is what Andy meant when he said, “I believe in Opie.”
This morning, we read two passages from the Gospel of Mark which speak to belief – and unbelief. In Mark 6:1-6, Vanessa guided us in reading the passage of Jesus at his hometown synagogue. You would think Jesus would be beloved – be believed by the people. Even with their unbelief and their scorn, we read where Jesus laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. The passage tells us that even Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. He was amazed that he was so un-beloved in his hometown. This passage is a reminder that we can become so familiar with one another, as we live life with one another that we fail to see God’s gifts in one another. Sometimes, we miss the blessings of God by looking out yonder for gifts that are nearby. This week, invest some time identifying how God has gifted the people close to you. What gifts of God do you need to receive as you embrace these persons God has given to you? As you believe in them, you are believing in God and welcoming God’s power in your midst.
In Mark 9:14-29, we read this wonderful story, which Mark places following the Transfiguration. Immediately after Peter, James and John have been shown that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus takes his glowing face and the inner circle into the valley to find the other disciples. There, he locates the disciples in a conflict with the scribes and a large crowd. Isn’t that the pattern of life; mountain peaks of revelation followed by valleys of consternation? Jesus inquires as to their argument and hears the voice of a loving father from amidst the crowd.
He has brought his son to Jesus’ followers for healing. His son has lived with seizures for most of his life and the family is constantly anxious for his safety. Jesus’ disciples have not been able to heal the young man. Of course, the disciple’s opportunity for ministry had taken a backseat to the discord between them and the scribes. Ministry always gets lost when followers of Jesus major on the minors and minor on the majors. Of course, Mark’s Gospel presents Jesus as one who could become exasperated by his disciples and by other people. Here, Jesus announces that he is ready to leave planet Earth by asking, “How much longer must I put up with you people?” You’ve got to love an honest Messiah. Jesus says, “Bring him to me.” And the father implores, “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Then, Jesus looked at the father and said, “If YOU are able!”
Here, in the theology of Mark, Jesus is teaching the father – and us – that belief matters. The father responds with tremendous honesty: “I believe; help my unbelief.” Imagine the faith this father carried when he approached Jesus’ disciples. This father believed that God could heal his son; but he was also spiritually fatigued and needed Jesus to bolster his confidence. God was the beloved of this father. Yet, his capacity to be faithful in loving God was weakened.
You understand this father. God is your beloved. You believe God hears your prayers. Yet, you also live with prayers that seem to be unanswered.
After the young man was healed, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why could we not cast out this demon?” Jesus replied, “This only happens with prayer.” Jesus is not clear whether he meant the prayers of the disciples or the prayers of the father or both. One thing is clear; believing in prayer is important.
A few weeks ago, one of our members brought to me an article she had cut out of the Wall Street Journal entitled, ‘The Power of Prayer – and Chemotherapy.’ It was written by Dr. Kirk Zachary, a Jewish father who is also a physician in New York City. His son, Noah, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 8. Noah survived and is now 28. This father has something in common with the father who approached Jesus on behalf of his son. Dr. Zachary writes, “As sunlight damages the cells in skin, souls are done in by the travails of everyday life.” This physician speaks to the important role prayer has in his expression of faith and encourages people to pray. He underscores his belief: “Prayer is among your best hopes for becoming a better human being. Prayer can be the self-repair for the world of damaged souls.”
It is my prayer that your prayers include two statements to God: “I believe;” and “Help my unbelief.” By saying unto God, “I believe,” you are saying to God that God is your beloved; you are confessing that you have set your heart on the heart of God. And, by saying unto God, “Help my unbelief,” you are asking God to help you mature in your relationship with God. Both prayers are important. We are inheritors and stewards of the gift called belief.
On this All Saints Day, I offer to you the words of Elizabeth Munstdorp. She was a Dutch Anabaptist who was martyred because she dared to believe in God by setting her heart in God’s heart without the sanction of the state-authorized church. Her husband was also martyred six months after their wedding. In 1573, the authorities burned Elizabeth at the stake after she gave birth to her daughter. Here is a section of the letter she wrote to her infant daughter from her prison cell in Antwerp: … And now, Janneken,… who is yet very little and young, I leave you this letter,… Read it, when you have understanding, and keep it as long as you live in remembrance of me and of your father, if peradventure you might be edified by it. And I herewith bid you adieu, my dear Janneken Munstdorp, and kiss you heartily, my dear lamb, with a perpetual kiss of peace. Follow me and your father, and be not ashamed to confess us before the world, for we were not ashamed to confess our faith before the world…
Friends, you live in a world in search of belief. There is tremendous unbelief, disbelief, shattered belief and shallow belief. Please know, your belief matters! Your belief reveals where you have set your heart. Be encouraged! As you invest your life in your relationship with God, you are partnering with God transforming the world. As you obediently follow the risen Jesus, other people experience God’s compassion as your living theology. Amen and AMEN!