Homily From Service Sunday, September 3, 2023 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“Lord, I believe; help me in my unbelief.” The great Southern, Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, once wrote to a freshman in college, that this prayer, (“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief,”) “is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels.” “It is,” O’Connor believed, “the foundation prayer of faith.” (O’Connor, Habit of Being, p. 476)
“Lord, I believe; help me in my unbelief.”
I agree that it is the most human, and natural…and foundational. I don’t think it’s the most agonizing…I think there’s another that is much harder to really pray truthfully. But “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” is the place we all start…and return to over and over.
The context for this prayer…is the Gospel of Mark…it occurs around the same time as this tete-a-tete that Peter and Jesus have in our Matthew reading today. So remember what’s been happening: Jesus and the disciples have been traveling around healing, teaching…the disciples have been part of feeding 5,000 people in the wilderness with just a couple loaves of bread and a few fish…they’ve seen Jesus calm a storm and walk on water…Peter has even just proclaimed him to be the Son of God…and then everything starts to change…
Jesus starts talking about being taken to Jerusalem and undergoing great suffering…then he takes a few of them up a mountain and is transfigured before them. And on their way back down, they see this crowd around the disciples, and there’s a lot of shouting and yelling, because a man has brought his son who has a spirit that convulses him, and makes him foam at the mouth…and unable to speak…and the disciples can’t do a thing about it (Mark 9:17). The father appeals to Jesus saying, “If you are able…have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus replies, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” To which the father replies with this most natural, human, and foundational prayer. “Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief.”
Yes, I believe but maybe not enough…maybe not in the right way…maybe…maybe there’s something missing…or something that gets in the way.
The power of prayer and the power of belief are often bound up together… “All things can be done for the one who believes”…”If you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you believe…it will be done for you” (Mark 11:23)…the power of prayer…the power of belief. They are wrapped up together…like a bush that burns but is not consumed…and because they exist together…that can be a trap.
Because what happens when I pray for something…but it doesn’t happen…? Did God do something wrong…(didn’t hear me…ignored me)…or did I do something wrong…didn’t say the right words…didn’t perform the right rituals DIDN’T HAVE ENOUGH FAITH…enough belief…”Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief.”
Prayer and belief are tied together, but we have to remember that prayer is not about trying to change God’s mind…and it may not even about effecting change in the world. Prayer is simply being in communion with God. It is entering into a union and being one with God in the same way that Jesus is one with God. (Leech, Kenneth. True Prayer, p. 31). Jesus does all these things because he and the Creator are one. We are also one with the Creator and Jesus, but there’s always something that gets in the way…and makes our unbelief seem more real to us than our faith.
Our unbelief, says one scholar, is “the despair [we feel…when we feel] that nothing can really change.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 255). “What’s the point?” Or OTOH, that nothing should ever change. “Don’t go!” What so often gets between us and God is our own well-worn, time-tested, absolute conviction that we know how the world works…that a bush on fire will always be burned up…that five loaves and two fish will never feed that many people…that the Messiah…the chosen one…God’s own son will never be handed over to suffer and die. We live in the world, so we know how it works…or we certainly have opinions about how we think the world SHOULD work…and we also think that we know how God works…or we think we know how God SHOULD work…and always to our benefit.
If prayer and belief are bound together, then on the other side of that coin is our disbelief bound up in our need to have our way….our disbelief bound up with own will.
Which is why I think the most agonizing prayer is not “help my unbelief” but “not my will, but yours be done.” That’s harder to pray. That can be agonizing to pray and really believe it…because it means not only setting aside our disbelief, but surrendering our stake in the outcome.
“Not my will, but yours be done,” is agonizing to pray when for example: a friend is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer; or a relative is sinking deeper into dementia; when a loved one is taken to the hospital; when your kids are facing choices you never had to face, and are making decisions you never had to make. It is even agonizing to pray this when a colleague tells you that they are on a short list for being called to be Priest in Charge at another parish. In those moments it’s very easy…and natural…and human…to sound like Peter today, ”God forbid…that must never happen to you.” Which, if we’re honest, is really another way of saying…”Please, don’t let this to happen…to me.”
It is in those moments when we realize how much religion costs. To quote O’Connor again, “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross,” (Habit of Being, p. 354).
Or…as Jesus points out, it is setting our minds on human things…rather than on divine things….focusing our will on what we want to happen…for us…and not on what God needs to happen for the sake of the world.
So in this, and in every time of transition…let us strive to pray for God’s will to be done…always and in all things. And if that’s too much, too difficult…too agonizing, and often it is…(remember Jesus only prayed this in the Garden of Gethsemane) then return to that foundational prayer, “Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief…in my despair…in my confusion…in my lostness…and then wait…just wait…for God’s will to become clear…and for God’s will to be done. Amen.