James 2, Mark 9:14-29
Randy said something so well in his sermon last week that I think it is worth repeating. He said to you that you are always welcome at St. James s no matter who you are and what is going on in your life; no matter where you are on your spiritual journey; no matter your reasons for being here; and no matter your irregular attendance. You are welcome here. I want to continue with that theme this morning.
Take the Gospel story we read about the man with a demon-possessed son. Was he a man of great confidence in the divine? No. Was he a respected pillar of faith like Nicodemus? No. Frankly, he didn’t really know if Jesus could or would do anything for his son. He was merely a desperate father, anxious for anything that would help.
“If you are able to do anything for us,” he begged, “have pity on us and do it.” Jesus seized on that ambivalence, that uncertainty, to demonstrate how little faith it really takes to get the attention of God.
We don’t know much about this man. The Gospel writer wasn’t interested in his history. But we know he lived in a time as inhospitable to faith as our own. He, too, lived among competing ideologies and shifting values. His entire world was divided and subdivided into countless cults, philosophies, and mystery religions. He must have thought that it is impossible to believe anything with much certainty.
“Help my unbelief,” he said.
What a truth-telling plea. Here was an ordinary man who confessed to a partial faith, a faith that wanted to be more. He was trying, and that was the best he could do. But it was enough. Jesus spoke to the spirit possessing the man’s son, and the spirit relented. The little bit of faith the man had, his desperate hope, reached out and somehow made contact with the wonderful graciousness of God, and his child s life was restored to wholeness.
Jesus did not expect people to be convicted about their faith, to live intimately with God. He was leading them to the truth rather than expecting they had already arrived. He didn’t say, “If you have faith the size of that mountain, you can say to this mustard seed, ‘Be cast into the sea,’ and it will be done.” He said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed of a tiny little seed so small you can barely see it with the naked eye then, you can say to that mountain, ‘Be cast into the sea,’ and it will be done.” Jesus knew how hard it is to have faith. The message here is that he accepts our finite limitations, and the fact that our roots are sown on rocky ground and in thorns, not in rich, fertile soil. And it is our mission at St. James s to be as accepting, as patient. We have all been where you are.
“I believe,” he said; “help my unbelief.”
What I am saying what Randy preached about last Sunday is that we don’t have to be regular churchgoers or Bible students or experts at prayer and spirituality. We can be very ordinary people, who seldom think about God and prayer. But in the moment when our lives are brushed by holiness, or we feel desperate in our need, we can ask for help and become connected to the omniscient Being at the center of all that is.
This is grace defined and it is always a gift. It isn’t something we achieve by our own merit or moral discipline, and we ought never to boast about it or think of ourselves as set apart if our prayers are answered. It is God who really makes the connection; God who bends down to us in our need, filling our hungry hearts and illuminating the dark places of our lives. And it is God who often responds to the simple cry of the person who isn’t much of a believer, to the outstretched hands of any needy supplicant. That is the good news of Mark, but I must ask you: what is our response to these gifts?
It is our responsibility to acknowledge grace and to be thankful for it. The ultimate insult to our Lord is one s ungratefulness. It is such shameful sin. As I see it we are called to abide by the mandates outlined in the Letter of James as thanksgiving for our relationship with God. Let me name a few from the Epistle: James said that we should not show partiality for the rich by snubbing and judging the poor all people deserve our respect and care. We must love our neighbors as we do ourselves. And he wrote that faith by itself, without works, is dead. If a brother or sister is down and out we must help them. These mandates do not require heroic action ordinary people, people like you and me can abide by these.
I want to read a portion of a letter I received this summer. It is from a woman I met with in April who had courageously left her husband after 25 years of a physically and verbally abusive marriage. She had no education, but had gone back to school and was finishing up classes at MCV to become a certified nursing assistant. Chris Moore and I met with her as part of our ACTS ministry. She was in a bind. Because she lacked one class credit, as well as her CPR certification she could not get a nursing job. She was currently working at a BBQ restaurant. After assessing her situation we stabilized her by putting money towards her rent and her Dominion Power bill. Her children had been giving her money for food, but they were strapped as well. We asked her if she had any money for food and she said with embarrassment that she had $15 to last her until her next pay check, which she would receive in two weeks. It was heartbreaking. After she left we looked at each other and shook our heads in sorrow. Chris was so upset by her situation that he told his wife Dena about it that afternoon and they promptly purchased her a Kroger gift card for food. When I called this woman the next day to tell her that a parishioner had given her this generous gift she burst into tears.
Here is part of the thank-you note I received from her in June: She begins by reporting to me that she is gainfully employed at Memorial Regional Medical Center in Hanover. It really touched me the way you were so happy to help me last winter. I was just at my wits end and very close to giving up on the idea of being able to make it on my own. My ex-husband used to tell me all the time, You could never take care of yourself. You re not able to make it on your own. And he really believed that. He thought I had to take his abuse no matter how cruel was he, that I had no choice. In my weakest moments, his words still come back to me to discourage me. I thank God that there are people who will help me when I need it. If I d known that sooner, I d probably have left sooner and that would have been better for me and my daughters. But I finally did leave and I am making it, partly thanks to you. I can never tell you much I appreciate your help. I made me realize that God does care about me after all. I truly felt God s love reaching out to me through you.
Perhaps you have been in a rough ditch where your life has run off the road, and you feel all alone and don’t even know how to ask for help. The beautiful word of the gospel to you is that God is only a yearning a prayer, a phone call away from you, ready to reach out and make the connection you need. The connection may not completely restore you. But it can bring you some healing, peace and assurance. And God is here, ready to bless you the same way the way he blessed the father whose son was ill, the way he blessed a poor woman desperately trying to make a life for herself.
The radical thing about the Gospel and Jesus promise is that you don’t even have to believe it. You only have to want to believe it, and the God who loves you more than you will ever understand will complete the connection and give you serenity and joy. I know it’s hard to believe. But that’s the point of our Gospel.