Isaiah 50:49; Psalm 116:18; James 2:15,810,148; Mark 9:14&0150;29
Mark, as usual, has taken a vivid story and carefully positioned it in his Gospel. Three times, Jesus announces the he must undergo betrayal, crucifixion, and death, but that he will be raised up on the third day. All three times, the disciples don’t get it, and more importantly, fail to grasp that to be his disciple is to be like him, so Jesus tries to enlighten them by teaching and example. Each of these three sections concludes with an encounter with a man outside their group. Of these three encounters, the second is a call to discipleship that fails, but the first and third are physical healings—and they are the only healing miracles in the last half of Mark’s Gospel. The story we heard today is the healing miracle that concludes the first section in which Jesus teaches the cost of discipleship, far in the north, far above Galilee. Mark points out that the disciples tried to heal the boy and could not: they are not yet ready to be on their own. From here on, Jesus journeys towards Jerusalem steadily and inexorably, where the fury that will greet him will end in his crucifixion, showing his followers what the cost of discipleship truly is.
Now, look more closely. The whole scene is one of ineffectiveness. A distressing stench of anxiety, with its chaotic inertia and hysterical stagnation, rises from this garbled story. There are too many characters, too many voices, too many wills at war, here: scribes arguing with the disciples, a crowd that runs up to Jesus, not once, but twice, a desperate and frustrated father, his epileptic son. Then Jesus and three of his followers arrive on the scene. The thrashing of the child on the ground—insensible activity without sentient action—seems the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual rage and despair that, not he, but those around him feel.
This is every moment in our various lives when too much is going on, too many promises have been made, too many expectations brought to bear, when we simply want one thing—anything at this point—to go right, and all we know to do is to push harder…and then the key snaps off in the lock. Look at this scene closely. This is your world, this breakdown, whether you consider your rec room or our current occupation of Iraq, or deeper within you, the unerasable vision of an airplane bursting into billows of fire as it enters the tower it had approached steadily and inexorably, and deepest in your heart, the terror of knowing that there is no antidote for the euphoria of a self-righteous death-wish and no cure for the world we have made.
Now, the point here, in Mark’s story, is that no one can act. No one can discern and do the one thing necessary. They can no more cure their world than we can ours. Mark shows us a crowd, restless with inarticulate spiritual hunger and curiosity. Go to a mall: you will find them. Mark shows us the disciples and the scribes tearing at each other pointlessly in controversy, having failed to heal the boy. Read any religious periodical and you will find this fury over irrelevancies that so arouses the contempt of unbelievers, who dimly know their own need for health. Mark shows us a boy inert in his suffering. Walk down the street; it makes no difference where, because they are sprawling, or staggering, or striding, some even smiling, senseless, but inexorable and steady in their approach to you, on every city block, where it is a survival skill to look and not to see, to move and not to feel. None of these can act to change their life. In fact, in the case of the boy, all sense of agency is lost: he cannot act at all. He is in the grip of a malevolent power that “seizes him” and “dashes him down,” whose presence in him is solely destructive.
But Mark also shows us a father in spiritual anguish, and he shows us Jesus, and he describes two spiritual steps that I commend to you today and that seem to me a single step. Jesus and the father break the logjam, but we are given only the most intuitive glimpse into how this happens. I confess to you that I find their dialogue practically incomprehensible, yet it is clear that somehow they met for the healing to take place.
The father’s voice is not an attractive one: he accuses the disciples of failure, he hesitates in his affirmation of Jesus’ power, and his final cry articulates his confusion more clearly than anything else —“I believe, help my unbelief!” Yet the appeal of that cry is its naked honesty. Some versions of the story even add that he said this “with tears.”
So, the first spiritual step is to find this father in yourself. Each of us carries within us, I believe, a huge abyss of grief over what is ruined in us and in the world around us. We turn our eyes away and vaguely echo what the father says: “I put this in the hands of our leaders, I trusted the experts, and they did nothing.” We stumble and mumble our way through prayers, preferring to be half-conscious rather than to know what we ask for, pretending not to be aware that we do not believe any of this; and in our hearts, we mutter, in stubborn misery, “if You can do anything, if You are able, if You have the power…” to the Maker of heaven and earth.
Jesus’ compassion is ruthless. He stands still, as the boy writhes on the ground and the father wrings his hands—this intolerable stillness of God! He merely echoes the man: “if you are able…;” and then he adds the one thing needed: “all things can be done for the one who believes.” He is right. We must reacquaint ourselves with our heart’s desire, with what we believe in, however lost in the echoing cavern of our abyss it seems to be. Nothing is more terrifying and heartbreaking in Scripture than the man’s response. “I believe—help my unbelief!” He lays bare his self-protective vacillation: he has been willing to go either way to escape pain. He pleads that Jesus understand that he has clung to the edge because he is terrified of the depths. Every disappointment, every failure, every betrayal, has built that unbelief. This carefully buried unbelief is the foundation on which he has built a safe life—until this demon began to grind and to shred his child. To know his unbelief might be to sink again into shame. But facing Jesus’ stillness, he throws himself open and hurls himself for the sake of another person out over the vast emptiness in which his trust was buried long ago.
That man’s shame, my dear brothers and sisters, which we must learn to share, is nothing other than our confession before God that we are not adequate on our own, that we are not sufficient in ourselves, that we need God’s help. That shame is the exposed face of our finitude, of our flaws and limitations, of our constant slipping down the slope of death. But the God who made us understands our creatureliness better than we do. Our knowing our dependency, which we think of as a humiliation, God knows is the first turn towards the humility which enables us to receive God’s action.
The deepest poison in religion is the notion that we are supposed to get things right so that God will be happy, that our righteousness makes God’s blessing, that our primary task is to present our selves scrubbed and good and competent before God. But the truth is we are good for our own purposes, for each other, for the sake of the social order, and God makes his sun to shine on the just and the unjust, however offensive we find that. Our goodness is, at its best, a grateful imitation of what we have come to know in God, to remove all impediments to our readiness for God’s indwelling. But first we must learn that this abyss we fear is the ocean of God, into which we must plunge, even shrieking that we do not know how to swim in these waters, only to find that they buoy us up and caress us and nurture us.
Before going to my second point, let me return to the boy. Like many of those who receive healing in Mark, the boy is presented in the most abject, even disturbing, terms. Everything Mark has done in the presentation of this healing, however, he does to balance it carefully against the healing that comes after Jesus’ third announcement of the Passion. That final healing in the Gospel is triumphant. The blind man, Bartimaeus, yells for Jesus to have mercy on him over the protests of the crowd, throws off his cloak and springs up when Jesus calls him, states unequivocally his desire for full restoration of his sight, hears from Jesus, “your faith has made you well,” and then—finally the ideal disciple!—“ he follows Jesus on the way.” The healing of this epileptic boy, though, is an anguished confused business, and the anguish intensifies when we focus on the boy. Though we witness his father’s ragged faith, of the boy’s, we know nothing at all. He never says a word, either before or after the healing. He never acts by his own power: his father brings him to Jesus, the possessing spirit hurls him to the ground in convulsions, and Jesus takes him by the hand and lifts him up. Even after the demon has left him, the crowd thinks he is dead.
The picture of this ravaged child, you see, is the mirror that shows us where we start: we find ourselves in the most abject brokenness. We have no evidence that our longing for healing is shared by anyone, or even that they have any power to work with us. This is our age: those things that leave us heartsick, as we watch them descend into destruction, merely provoke morbid curiosity among the passersby and ineffectual squabbling among the reputed experts, who demand our allegiance and tribute and do nothing to relieve us. This is our age. Even today, circumstances and forces so entrenched they seem malevolent powers, against which we have no recourse, which we resist in vain, dash what we care about most to the ground and ravage it, as they grind down the poor and blast the earth.
Yet Mark has built the hope he offers into the very words he uses to tell the story. Once again, the translators seem to have failed to see what is there and this time have betrayed you into despair by their careless neglect. Mark’s Greek is utterly clear: Jesus, having grasped the boy’s hand—as he grasped the hand of Jairus’ dead daughter—“lifted him up,” and the boy “arose.” Mark uses, in the first case, the same verb the women hear from the young man at Jesus’ empty tomb: the boy was, as Jesus is, and we hope we will be, “lifted up”—Jesus egeiren the boy. And Mark then says the boy arose, using the same verb Jesus uses three times to announce his Resurrection—the boy aneste.
It is always this way with God. Out of the most ruined and most abject, God raises new life. God’s inexhaustible grace and gratuitous action was true in Creation and in Resurrection, and remains what we must affirm as God’s consistent action among us. Out of nothing, God makes life. The life that sustains you is the ongoing gift of God. Even if, in your unbelief, you cannot affirm any active intervening Deity, even so, the life you live is no achievement of your own. Your ego, all your sense of agency and identity, all the posturing prancing protectiveness of your illusory self, is the bubble formed in the eddy of the stream of your life. That which acts in you is the nutritive matrix of your person, not the other way around: it creates and feeds and generates you, not the other way around. You can mold your body and train your mind, but you cannot make yourself live; nor can you give life to that which you care most about.
We cannot get around our own abjection before God. We are at once the confused father and the convulsed boy. But we cannot avoid the generosity of God either, who at this moment, and at every moment, is the breath within our breath, who takes our hand and lifts us up and we arise.
So the disciples were right to be troubled and to ask Jesus afterwards, with the obtuse arrogance that characterizes them in this Gospel, “Why couldn’t we drive the demon out?” The question actually is “why can’t we prepare the way for new life?” Jesus responds clearly, if curtly, “this kind can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.”
This is, of course, the second spiritual step. After our willingness to let go and fall through our unbelief, we must learn to pray and fast. It is the same step, as I said, because both are about understanding our need for God. The faithful, that is, must come to know the desperate hunger of those who stagger and fall, buffeted by demons, but who in that know above all else that they need help. But for the faithful, that leanness is to be chosen, rather than endured, undertaken actively, rather than undergone passively. What lifts fasting from starvation is the awareness with which we face God, lifting our hands, and saying “as you know and as you will, help.” To fast is to place ourselves intentionally into the knowledge of our dependency. We will, of course, at that moment find that our deeply buried unbelief rises up in rage and fear. We will face quickly our deep seated distrust of God. In that, we can hope to learn to hurl ourselves down in tears beside the father of this boy and say, “I believe, but help my unbelief!” But that itself is a confession that quickly brings God’s solicitous love, sustaining us.
When the Dalai Lama visited this Cathedral last Thursday, he said one thing with which I want to conclude. “Practice your religion.” You don’t need to be religious, he teased; you could be free. There is no obligation to be religious. But if you think you are religious, then we are not talking about an ornament you put on and remove, depending on how you wish to appear. That does you no good. Better to give it up entirely than to delude yourself that way, indifferent to God and others, and ignorant of yourself. But if you take your religion seriously, then practice it. As Gandhi said, “become the change you want to see in the world.” If we truly grasp our dependence on God and God’s gift to us—that is, if we learn to pray and fast—then we begin to take our faith seriously. “Practice your religion!”
Knowing in our body, through our habits, our need for God, we can drive out many demons. The openness we then cultivate can be filled by the boundless grace of God. There are many kinds of fasting. Sacrificial gifts to those agencies that you know work for the healing of the world, so that others might stay warm and be well fed, might be more important to you than curtailing your own food. A simpler life undertaken in solidarity with those whose life has been simplified for them, sharing what is yours so they might be raised up and steadied on their feet, might be your fast. But the point is to stretch beyond comfort, in a conscious and acknowledged dependence on God, and to plead with God to act as God desires to act for the repairing of what has been thrown down. Then we prepare ourselves for the day when we also will sink to the ground, and all those around us will say we are dead. But on that day, the One who has known us from before our birth will take our hand and lift us up, and we will arise from the abyss of the unbelief which shames us, but which never did surprise or shock God, to praise this same God, the One who is Eternal Source, and Only-begotten Word, and Life-giving Spirit, for all eternity.