Mark 9:20-27; Matthew 6:22-23
The Rev. Tom Herbek
October 23, 2016
When we hear this story from Mark’s gospel, it is a good reminder that when Jesus spoke about belief, he was talking about something very different from what we generally mean by belief today. For many churches today, belief is a set of rules handed down that people have to agree to follow. When the Congregationalists left England and the state church there, the Church of England, now called the Anglican Church (or in this country, the Episcopal Church), they wanted everyone to know they were different when they got to Massachusetts. And so, they defined themselves by lots of things that weren’t Episcopalian:
Episcopalians had communion every time they had worship; Congregationalists had it once a quarter, or, at the beginning, only once a year. Episcopalians celebrated Christmas; Congregationalists barely mentioned it. Episcopalians had stained glass windows and neo-gothic or gothic architecture; Congregationalists had no stained glass and a much different architecture for worship space. Episcopalians had a very high pulpit reached by a high set of stairs; Congregationalists had a table which the minister stood behind. Episcopalians had church pipe organs; Congregationalists had very little music.
Beliefs were a set of rules you adhered to, a set of things you thought were absolutely true. In Jesus’ day, belief was much more about a vision of what life was all about, of following along a path without knowing where that path might lead. To believe in Jesus meant to follow along and to stand up for the left out and the left behind in society, to welcome people without regard for the rules of society or who society said was important.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks about how the job of the eye is to let in light, to allow some light to penetrate even into the deepest darkness of our souls. In Mark’s gospel, we hear the story of a man and his son with epilepsy. How fortunate for his son that this father was willing to let the light in, even when he was not sure what it meant, not sure he could fully believe it. This father was willing to recognize he needed some help, willing to admit that he couldn’t bring healing to his son by himself.
In a wonderful chapter in her book entitled, “I’m a Pastor and I Don’t Care What You Believe,” Lillian Daniel shares her thoughts on this episode in Mark’s gospel:
There is a Bible story, where Jesus heals an epileptic boy. You have this father who is standing on the outside of this community looking in. There are these people who are all excited about Jesus, and hopeful that he can heal them, listening to his message and trying to live according to his teachings.
Then you have this other group over there, Pharisees, who are quizzing Jesus about what he believes. They’re having this theological and religious argument, while this poor suffering dad is looking in from the outside, saying, “I really want to bring my kid into this, because we need some help; but I don’t know what I believe.”
As parents, you are only as happy as your least happy child. That’s what this father was going through. He has this son, a wonderful little boy who likes to do all the things little kids like to do. He likes to run, and he likes to go off and have adventures, and he likes to go swimming.
But he’s got this physical ailment that today we would call seizure disorder, or epilepsy, and the father has to raise his little boy to be both courageous and cautious, balancing encouragement with lifesaving warnings about everything that could go wrong.
“What if you have a seizure and you’re playing near the water? What if you fell into the water and you drowned? If you’re playing near the fire, what if you have a seizure and you burn yourself? If you’re playing and running around near the edge of a cliff, what if you have a seizure and fall to your death?” I imagine the father’s constant fear and worry, but not just for his son’s physical well-being. He was probably also worried about his son’s place in the community. At that time, many people thought that a seizure meant you were possessed by a demon.
So, if your child had seizures, he or she would probably be excluded by the community in virtually every way. People would be suspicious and fearful. They wouldn’t let their children play with your little boy. How do you talk to your child about that? He had run out of words.
So, this father had heard about Jesus and hoped that Jesus might have the power to do something about this, to heal the boy, to heal their lives, to heal the unspeakable hurt of a parent who cannot stem his child’s pain. And in the story, the dad is at the edge of this circle, trying to figure out if he can step in.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you cannot see the whole staircase.” Jesus asks whether this man, in this terrible quandary of how to help his son, will take that first step. Will he enter the path? Even if he doesn’t know where it will lead him or his son? Is there something about this person, Jesus, that enables this father to take this risk?
The poor dad, we already know that he is shy. Now, he’s got to step forward again, in the spotlight of Jesus’ total attention. Everyone who wanted Jesus’ attention that day is looking at this dad, and expecting something.
And Jesus tells him that anything is possible, if you believe.
You can just imagine the dad saying, “You’re kidding me? It’s all about that? But what if I don’t believe? Will there be a quiz?”
But the dad doesn’t show any of that at first. He has one priority. He has this chance to have his son healed.
”Anything is possible if you believe,” he is told when he gets to the front of the line.
Well, what would you say?
“Okay, fine, I’m just going to say it,” he thinks, and then says out loud, “I believe.”
Maybe he does believe, perhaps a little.
But then he has this internal dialogue where he must think, “Well, I don’t know if I believe all of that. Will it hurt the healing, that I am not sure? And by the way, believe what? Can someone review the questions with me? What have I just done? Have I just lied at the moment of my son’s greatest need?” The poor dad is honest and raw. He can’t help himself.
So, in this amazing story, all of a sudden he just tells the truth and adds to his statement, qualifies it to make sure it’s true and captures the complexity of all he feels and who he is: “I believe, but help my unbelief.”
He has said something that might be accurate, but probably isn’t- at least not entirely- about what he is able to understand, or not understand, at the time. All he knows is that he will do anything, no matter what, to get some help for his son.
Standing in the presence of Jesus, he cannot tell a lie, even if it is needed, even if he wants to believe even if he believes just a little, or plans to believe after this, if only, if only God will heal his son.
But as his “Yes, I believe” statement hangs out there with more certainty than he actually has, he has to say more. He has to be real. When they really talk to him, Jesus has been known to have that effect on people.
The father has to bring who he is; he has to bring his integrity; he has to admit that he also has unbelief. So he says it. “I believe, but help my unbelief”
And in response, what does Jesus say? He does not say, “Well then, sorry about your son, you’ve blown it; I won’t be working with you.”
No, Jesus seems fine with the man’s word, unfazed by the news that the father is a mix of belief and unbelief. What’s so powerful about this story is that the dad admits his unbelief, and Jesus does not care.
Jesus does not care. He ministers to the father and to the son anyway.
Jesus beckons him to come on in, and everybody sees it happen. Jesus talks and asks questions about belief, but clearly, it is not a deal breaker.
That’s how I imagine it happened. That father, terrified of joining community, steps in anyway. And when he does, he feels something healing pulling him in and he goes for it.
You can be in community or not be in community. But your membership should be freely chosen, not forced or at the whim of your changing intellectual assents about doctrine, science, or theology.
Lillian Daniel then says:
I’m a pastor and I don’t care what you believe. I don’t think God does either.
- Tired of Apologizing for A Church I Don’t Belong To
And I don’t care what you believe either, but I am really glad you are here, every one of you who has chosen to be a part of this church family.
It’s not about belief; it’s about taking that first step, and not being so alone, being in a community, a church family. God does not call us to have all the answers, all set in our mind and heart.
If we are doing what we can to bring more healing into our world, that is what God calls us to.
If we are open to the uniqueness and differences in people, and able to celebrate those differences, without trying to make everyone the same, that is what God calls us to.
If we don’t have all the answers, and some days aren’t even sure what the questions are, but are willing to grow and learn and have thoughtful dialogue with others on the journey of life, that is what God calls us to.
If we, at least in our best moments, are willing to try to be generously compassionate, that is what God calls us to.
And so, I would say for all of us: “Lord, we believe; help our unbelief.”