Mark 9:14-24: Sermon for Don Underwood’s Funeral

Help My Unbelief (610x351)Don had a problem.  Well, for those of you who knew Don, you might say that he had more than one.  I’m not sure.  But today, I’m only going to bring out one problem that Don had, for I didn’t know him, and I don’t want to pretend that I did.  But I do know Carolyn.  And so, in a sense, I know Don based on what Carolyn has shared with me.

So then, what was Don’s problem?  He had the opposite problem the father in our Gospel reading had.  So, we go back and begin with the father in our Gospel reading.  Then we’ll get back to Don.

A desperate father brought his son to be healed of a demon that caused him to have seizures and foam at the mouth.  Now, Jesus’ disciples tried to heal the boy, but they failed.  Maybe, the disciples were too weak, or the demon was too strong.  It matters not, for the disciples failed and couldn’t heal the boy.

So, in anticipation but also frustration, the crown turns to Jesus.  But Jesus finds this irritating.  He calls the crowd a “faithless generation.”  And then He goes on to say, “How long will I be with you?  How long must I put up with you?”  It looks as if the whole turn of events has put Jesus in a foul mood, where He’s snapping at people and ordering them around.

What has Jesus in a foul mood is the unbelief He sees around Him.  Simply because the disciples couldn’t heal a boy, the crowd now turns on Jesus.  Even the father of the boy isn’t sure that Jesus is up to the task.  “If you can do anything, help us!  Show us compassion!”  Did you hear the man?  He told Jesus, “If you can.”  And there we find the doubt and unbelief.

And if we’re honest, all Christians have such doubts lurking somewhere within them.  For, at best, we are made up of many competing thoughts and even beliefs that live, hide, and linger within us.  The boy’s father revealed his doubts when he told Jesus, “If you can.”

That wavering unbelief doesn’t escape Jesus’ notice.  “What do you mean, ‘If you can?’  Everything is possible for one who believes.”  Everything is possible, for, with God, nothing is impossible.  With God, a virgin gives birth.  With God, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the demons are cast out, and the dead are raised.  With God, even the stone-hearted man can believe.  How much proof must you have?  How high will you raise the bar?  Yet, the crowd remained unconvinced when one demon proved to be “resistant.”

It’s then that we come to the heart of this story.  You see, what took place that day long ago isn’t so much about a stubborn demon.  No, it’s about what happens to your faith when your religion doesn’t work.  You can substitute whatever you like for the stubborn demon and come to the same place: the incurable cancer, the sudden accident, the failed economy, your unanswered prayers, your father died.  You brought your problems to God, and God didn’t (or couldn’t) fix them.  You prayed for healing, and he only got worse.  You prayed for a better job, but you lost the one you had.  You know how it is.  We’ve all been there.  Some of you are there right now.

You then are tempted to trade in your God for another model.  The temptation is to swap your religion for something that, in your assessment, “works.”  After all, that’s the American way, where the litmus test for truth is if it works.  We’re practical people.  We admire whatever happens to get the job done.

And wasn’t Don a practical man?  He said more than once in his brash, blunt way, “I don’t need Jesus; I don’t need God.”  And yet, even Don, was made up of competing emotions, ideas, and beliefs.  In matters of religion, he was vocal: “I don’t need God; I don’t need Church.”  And so I never saw him, even once, darken the doorway of the congregation where I serve.

But back to Jesus and the father of the demon-possessed boy.  Jesus told him, “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  Does this mean that if you believe hard enough, you’ll get your wish?  Does such a strong and powerful yearning make up the essence or substance of faith?  Is faith believing hard enough, so you can force God to act?  Is that trust?  Does a child only trust the parent when the parent gives him what he wants instead of what he needs?

Yet, to his credit, the father of boy finally gets it right.  He cries out: “I believe!  Help my unbelief.”  That’s the true cry of every Christian.  That’s being a saint and being a sinner.  That’s every Christian.  Lord, I believe!  Help me in my unbelief.

Yet, Don never claimed to be a Christian.  In fact, he claimed the opposite.  Don was the opposite of the father’s boy.  He cried out, “I don’t believe!  Help me in my belief.”  For Don didn’t believe–and he minced no words about that.  And yet, and yet, his actions betrayed his unbelief.

Don loved Gospel hymns.  Carolyn told me that one of his favorites was, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”  Carolyn even said that she could see Don’s eyes glisten with emotion as the words of that hymn stirred within him.  So, Don didn’t believe–and yet his actions betrayed his words, pointing to a wisp of faith that may have stirred within his heart.

The man, who said that he didn’t need God, would seek out Sunday morning church services on television.  How messed up is that?  I can’t even bear to watch those programs–and I’m a pastor.  So, there was Don, with atheistic words adorning his lips, but other actions betraying them.

For the Christian, mixed with his faith is always, always, a tinge of doubt.  For faith deals with unseen realities, unseen realities our no-nonsense and practical selves despise.  What Christians do in the secret corners of their hearts, Don did bluntly and openly through his words.  Yet, what Christians confess with their lips, Don sought out, in some way, in secret.

Yes, Don had a problem.  His prayer was, “Lord, I don’t believe; help me in my belief.”  Like all of us, even factoring in his fondness for cars, Don was still a contradictory mishmash of competing thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, just as you and I are.

The Christian life is all about trust, trusting that what Jesus has done is good enough.  For the demons that haunt us have all been defeated by Christ on the cross, not by our power.  It’s a true reality because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In our faith, we recognize the lurking unbelief in our hearts when we cry out to God, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  That’s what an honest Christian will do.

As for Don, I don’t know whether if, in the end, he trusted that what Jesus has done is good enough.  His words tell us that he didn’t–but his actions leave us unsure.  And so only God knows Don’s eternal fate.

Knowing that, we leave Don in God’s merciful hands, the same God who said that a mustard seed of faith can move mountains (Matthew 17:20).  That means, in the end, even the smallest amount of faith is enough.  And so, may God lavish His mercy on us all, even Don!  Amen.