Sermon 9-4-2016

Location: Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren

Text: Mark 9:14-28

Today’s story Is one that I have held close over the past year of chaplain work.

It is a story that echoes in many different situations. It is a story that is easily relate-able to experience; a story of a man with a sick child, a son.

Now, this man’s son has been sick for many years. Something unexplained takes hold of his body gives him convulsions. Often this condition strikes near a fire or close to a lake as if to destroy him.

This man wants for his son what any parent of a sick child wants; a cure, healing; and will go to any lengths to get it; and will pursue any means at his disposal. At the news of a healer and teacher who has a gathering of disciples, he sets upon a journey with his son with hope for healing.

When he catches up to these disciples and the crowd that they have drawn, he finds the teacher is absent up on a mountain with three of his closest companions. The man approaches the disciples and tells them what is going on about his son’s problems, but they are unable to help. Some in the crowd begin to argue; the people are restless.

After some time the teacher arrives. The man approaches and brings his son. He says to this Jesus “if you are able to do anything have pity on us and help us.”

Jesus turns this man’s request around “If you are able!–All things can be done for the one who believes.”

This cuts straight to the man’s heart. He says, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Jesus speaks words that one would expect from any highly religious person in any time. “All things can be done for the one who believes.”

This is probably not the first time this man has heard such an utterance. It was probably spoken by those in the crowd that very day. It is an unkind rebuke by the self-righteous adherents of a prosperity theology that sees healing and blessing as rewards for the deserving; and, conversely, sickness and curse as punishment for the unrighteous.

Jesus, in this moment, seems a bit like a smarty pants.

“I believe, help my unbelief!” The man cries out of desperation and even anger at such a common reproach from a religious person; perhaps pleading for a miracle; praying for a sign to help him believe.

Jesus does respond. He heals the boy as a crowd comes running in their direction.

Later on the disciples are curious. They had wanted to help this man and his sick child. They tried, but they could not help. So they ask Jesus “Why couldn’t we heal the boy?”

Jesus replies “This can only be done through prayer.”

I imagine that the disciples are a bit flustered by this, and so are we as readers and hearers of the story. The passage ends abruptly with another religious platitude, “You just need to pray a little more, a little harder; you just have to believe.”

Sayings like these make me cringe. Well intentioned as they may be, the implicit superiority and tacit accusation of faithlessness are often more harmful than good. Especially so In the worst of human tragedy, the death of a child, when there is no solace in “everything happens for a reason.”

From the wisdom of human Psychology, platitudes often have more to do with our own felt needs than with those of a person directly grieving a loss. This is a common exhortation from preachers who know something about human services, “Don’t say these things because they do not help. Eliminate them from your vocabulary.”

This also makes me more than a little uncomfortable, as if it might be better to abandon someone in distress, then to risk saying the wrong thing.

Truth be told, there really is no “right” thing to say in the midst of an acute crisis; no magic words to bring a child back from the dead.

Often the expectation of the hospital chaplain in my experience is to somehow make these situations OK for all involved. In many ways It really is an impossible job And I completely understand the honest sentiment of others, “I could never do What you do.”

Sometimes I want to say “well I can’t really either,” but there is something about impossible tasks that draws me in.

A large part of Clinical Pastoral Education, the training process that I have been immersed in over the past year, is reflecting upon these impossible situations as learning experiences.

One of the most profound experiences for me came during an overnight shift. There was a motor vehicle accident; father and son in a pickup truck, father on the driver’s side, son in the passenger seat. They were pulled over to the side of the highway, rear ended by an SUV. A log in the bed of the pickup went through the back window, striking the son in the head.

Son was flown in by helicopter, father arrived shortly after via ambulance. Son in critical condition, father a little beat up, but would not need to be admitted To the hospital.

This was one of those unfortunate grey areas between life and death for the son. EMTs and paramedics followed their training (ABC- Airway, Breathing, Circulation; transport to the hospital).

Trauma specialist evaluated. Basic tests and scans were done; no evidence of brain activity. His opinion, brain death. His responsibility, to break the news to the father.

There really is no good way to do this; giving news that reality itself is shattered. And there really is no way to pick up the pieces.

A bottle of raw emotion; anger and sadness; was uncorked as this father was told, “There is nothing more we can do.” An eruption of volcanic proportions, weeping and wailing. This man spoke with a thick Irish/Gaelic accent. I recognized that he might have a slightly different cultural relationship with his emotions than I, of stoic German descent.

And he expressed his faith that God performs miracles. And he prayed to God that his son would live. Beneath this I heard the echo of the plea of the father in Mark chapter 9. “I believe, help my unbelief.” I also heard echoes of the old religious platitude “All things can be done for the one who believes.”

It took some courage to affirm his difficult emotions and his plea for a miracle, “I want what you want I want your son to live.” All the while thinking to myself “I believe, help my unbelief.”

Part of what draws me to healing stories in the Gospels is that they often take the form of parables of the human condition. They often reveal deep existential struggles. Incidentally, I find myself drawn toward chaplain ministry for similar reasons. Human illness often reveals deeper struggles of existence. And perhaps the deepest struggle is between belief and unbelief in the face of mortality, the possibility of not being.

I have learned over the past year how to be more present with those in impossible situations; to listen to emotions and concerns; and try to help. I have also tried to find serenity in situations beyond the help I can try to offer. And the grace to keep trying, even if I make some mistakes. I am still learning.

And I do find some encouragement in our story today. Jesus, being who he is, cares for others through a kind of presence that transcends words. On the surface Jesus does not appear to model very effective pastoral care. The content of his speech is nothing but platitudes; and even explicit condescension, “You faithless generation!” But somehow he manages to minister to everyone in the situation. And a persistent man’s son is healed, to the amazement of all.

“I believe, help my unbelief” Is a simple affirmation and prayer, one that I find essential in my own faith journey. There is much that I do not understand and will not understand. And very little that I can know with much certainty; at least not on my own. I need some help.

I often come back to this simple prayer “I believe, help my unbelief” and I think it is at the core of the Brethren approach of communal discernment. I am deeply thankful for the support of Beacon Heights during this past year of learning and ministry. You have been invaluable to me in this part of my journey.

This is a place of seeking God’s help and steadfast love together; of affirming the basic value of each and every person as children of the Creator. This is important as life often paints a different picture.

In times of illness, crisis, and grief; times when God’s blessings seem far away, and when healing does not come in a time or way that seems right; somehow we meet Jesus in these times and in these places. Jesus, who challenges us toward a deeper faith, but also loves us as we are, and hears our deepest needs.

Credo

I come from a tradition that is skeptical of creeds. “No creed but the New Testament” is a popular saying among my people (Church of the Brethren). This is further nuanced in more theologically educated circles by adding something like “as read and understood in community.” Some take a “plain sense” approach, that the text itself speaks certain truths that are not open to multiple interpretations. Others are more open to look for deeper meanings and further enlightenment by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some are more comfortable with dissent within the community and others would like to see more discipline. Tensions similar to these are ubiquitous across many different communities within American denominationalism.

At best, creeds are ecumenical, seeking to unite communities in common belief. At worst, they are exclusionary, used as litmus tests to define who is in and who is out. As liturgical affirmations, they can be repeated from rote memory without putting much thought into their deeper meanings. Along similar lines, they can emphasize stating belief over living belief, words over action. Another reason for creedal skepticism is that creeds tend to accommodate “worldly philosophy,” in a sense demystifying faith into rational formulas. Some even see them as denying the continued revelation of God. There is also the more complicated stream of thought coming from the Radical Reformation of getting back to the roots of the Christian faith, before the influence of Constantine and the eventual marriage of church and state. For all of these theological and sociological reasons, and a few others that don’t immediately come to mind, the sectarian forbears of my tradition strongly disliked creeds (the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession being the closest thing to a creedal formula).

There is a sense that these arguments exist with or without creeds. There are ways to seek unity and exclude without holding to a specific creedal affirmation (the ban [excommunication]). Brethren often have adopted patterns reinforced by “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Different camps both affirm and deny the place of “worldly philosophy,” the role of mysticism, openness to continued revelation, and particular understandings of the authority of scripture. The battle lines are often drawn in ways that defy analysis. Some may just enjoy their own brand of sectarianism.

I carry quite a bit of ecclesiological angst into my theological writing. This is partly because Brethren tend to do theology in a deliberative way, aiming toward a kind of fluid communal consensus with accommodations for individual conscience, while somehow valuing discipline. One way to describe this is that we value relationship and community more than agreement on specific theological points (one definition of creed), even when relating and communing are more than a little bit painful.

This has been quite a long preface to the main concept of this post and what I have been aiming for in my own theological reflection, a good starting place that gets deep into the essence of what theology is. It seems to me that theology starts with Credo, some statement of belief, which is why an individual committing to write his own theology is more than a bit un-Brethren (or even an individual committing to represent the tradition in theological writing). The best that I might say is that I am an individual seeking to write theology, who happens to have a Brethren background.

In the context of the Nicene Creed, Credo (Latin translation of the Greek Πιστεύομεν [pisteuomen], we believe) has some pretty deep meaning that we seem to miss in English translation (especially with the common liturgical I believe). Interesting to note a similar Greek word πίστις (pistis), faith. Also interesting to note the root as part of epistemology (the study of knowledge). The concepts of faith, belief, and knowledge all have a pretty close relationship with one another and may not be as distinct as we often think. Other ideas like trust, submission, surrender, Gelassenheit (a good Anabaptist term for spiritual yieldedness), all seem to fall under the blanket of Credo as an essentially communal affirmation.