Morning Worship: Prayer heals when arguments kill

“The thing about arguing is that you don’t just do it, you see it, everyone sees it,” said the Rev. Anna Carter Florence at the 9:15 a.m. Friday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “The body language is recognizable; we can see it, and it sets off alarms. It is what sends referees onto the field when two athletes look at each other a little too aggressively and makes kids roll their eyes when they walk into the kitchen and Mom and Dad are talking in very loud whispers. Arguing is so visible and public, and you are either a participant or a spectator.”

Her sermon title was “Why Couldn’t We Cast It Out?” and her text was Mark 9:14-29.

Jesus, Peter, James and John come upon the disciples arguing with some scribes, and Jesus asks what they are arguing about. They are keeping him from other things, she said, from healing, from preaching, from feeding, 5,000 people, “from celebrating the realm of God.”

Arguments take a long time to sort out. Both sides have to explain their positions, then they are judged; it takes hours, days or years that could have been used to heal or bless rather than vanquish.

The text does not tell readers what the disciples and scribes were arguing about, but Florence said she guessed it was because they could not cast a spirit out of a boy. The father asked the disciples to cast it out. They tried and could not, and they “got into an argument with the other religious professionals over the verb ‘cast out.’ ”

“How can we cast out a spirit that will throw this nation into fire and water that will destroy us?” she said. “The disciples thought, ‘Jesus sent us out two by two to do this, why can’t we?’ It is hard to admit that a verb is not yours. The disciples and scribes argued while the boy suffered.”

Jesus changed the subject back to the boy. He asked the people standing around how long he was going to have to put up with them, a faithless generation.

“Jesus was going to have to be with them for as long as he could stand it,” she said with sarcasm.

The boy’s father and Jesus talked about how long the boy had suffered; the father told him the boy had suffered since he was a child, could not speak, and the spirit often threw him into fire and water.

The father said, “If you are able, heal him; have pity on us.”

Jesus sharply replied: “If I am able. All things can be done for someone who believes.”

The father said, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

This is the pivot to the scene, Florence said. Jesus cast out the spirit and told it never to enter the boy again. The boy lied on the ground, looking like a corpse, and the crowd believed he was dead, but Jesus took his hand and raised him up. He was alive.

When they are alone, the disciples asked Jesus why they could not cast out the spirit, and Jesus gave them “an invitation to reflect,” Florence said.

“This kind of spirit can only come out through prayer, not argument,” she said. “So who offers prayer? I think the father when he says, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’ That is a prayer, raw and unfinished, but a trailhead to everything.”

If her Confirmation class had written just those five words, Florence said, she would have asked them to elaborate.

“I wish I had worked on this passage years ago because, today, I would ask them to create a litany for worship,” she said. “The confirmands would say ‘I believe,’ and the congregation would say ‘Help our unbelief.’ Then they would switch parts. Everything we need to say about living and worship in community is there.”

Florence said to believe is an adventure verb, a roller coaster.

“We say, ‘I believe,’ but we don’t supply the predicate,” she said. “We don’t finish the sentence. The predicate is what we believe exactly, and this is what the church argues about. ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ is not a confession of faith, it is a prayer. Maybe we don’t need to say more because God knows before we ask, and the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

The spirit can only be cast out with prayer, Florence said, and people need to be honest with God and “reclaim our bodies from arguing” because the churches look dead.

“Help my unbelief because I have lots of that,” she said. “Send help, O God. The boy looked like a corpse but Jesus took his hand and lifted him up. Oh yes, he did. He did.”

The Rev. Bruce Archibald presided. Rebecca Cole-Turner, coordinator of hospitality at the UCC headquarters and a candidate for ordination in the United Church of Christ, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Motet Choir and the Chautauqua Strings. The Chautauqua Strings, with Jacobsen at the Massey Organ, premiered “Pandora” by Sasha Voinov, an 18-year-old freshman at Duke University and a former member of the Chautauqua Strings. The Motet Choir, accompanied by the Chautauqua Strings, sang “Sacred Heart” (Ubi Caritas III) by Ola Gjeilo. The Dr. William N. Jackson Religious Initiative Fund and the John William Tyrell Endowment for Religion provided support for this week’s services.