Only Through Prayer

Mark 9:14-29

Only Through Prayer

October 1, 2017            Maple Grove UMC

 

          Last Sunday I asked, If you could pray only one prayer, what would it be?  Most of your responses fell into a few categories:

  1. (Not Surprisingly) World Peace

B. Here was another trend:

          5. The Lord’s Prayer

          6. The Lord’s Prayer.  You get the idea.

C. There were several about the recent natural disasters:

          7. I pray for God to be with the people of Puerto Rico.

D. Many were prayers for self and family:

          8. Please, God, keep my daughters safe and healthy.  (Oh wait, that’s my card!)

          9. I would pray that Jesus be more in my marriage.

          10. For my mom to get a job.

          11. For the Lord to repair the relationship between my father and brother. 

E. And then there was a card that had both of the above:

          12. For peace and for painless feet!

F. Just as Maple Grove has many food-related ministries, there were food-related prayers:

          13. That everyone in this world has enough to eat each day.

G. And finally there were many I might call prayers for transformation, for God to change who we are:

          14. That we as people of the world would be more willing to listen to each other without always wanting to judge. 

          15. Lord, please help our world leaders to be more understanding toward each other.  Amen?

 

          Today’s gospel story ends with Jesus saying, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”  Only through prayer—that’s where we’ll focus today.  But there are a couple of other sermons in this story before you get to that verse.  When the father tells Jesus how awful things sre for his son and how his disciples couldn’t do anything about it, Jesus says, “Bring him to me.”  When you’ve tried everything else, Jesus says, bring it to me.  So is your faith dried up and you’re filled with doubt?  “Bring it to me,” he says.  “Are you grieving?” Jesus asks—“Bring it to me.”  “Is your family in trouble and you don’t know what to do?  Bring it to me,” Jesus says.  Bring it to Jesus—that’s one sermon from this gospel story.

          Here’s another:  When the father takes his son to Jesus, he says, “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us.”  Jesus says, “If I can—all things can be done for the one who believes.”  And the father lays it out there:  “I do believe;” he says, “help my unbelief.”  Faith, you see, isn’t something you either have or don’t have.  The boy’s father wasn’t sure that Jesus could help them; but he was at least hopeful, or he wouldn’t have been there.  I suspect that’s true for some of us:  we may not completely believe; but we at least want to believe, or we wouldn’t be here.  Faith can falter, to be sure.  What faith cannot do is despair; faith can’t give up.  That’s another sermon from this gospel story.

 

          But today’s sermon is about the end of this story— about the powerlessness of the disciples.  After Jesus cures the boy, they ask Jesus, “Why couldn’t we do it?” I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that:  Why can’t we do it?  We read these miraculous stories in the Bible . . . and we wonder.  We hear testimonies of people who overcome amazing obstacles . . . and we wonder.  Church conferences tell of congregations that double in size.  And we wonder, why can’t we do that?  Why do we feel so powerless?  

         

          Well, Jesus gives the answer:  “This kind,” he says, “can come out only through prayer.”  Only through prayer, is his answer.    Now, does that mean if we just pray hard enough, we’ll get anything we want?  Is God like a vending machine and if you put enough faith in the slot, you get whichever button you push?  Well, no.  That’s not what the gospel means by ‘prayer.’ 

          Notice that Jesus didn’t even pray for the boy right there on the spot.  He didn’t have to.  He was already prayed up.  Jesus didn’t mean that if in the moment when the boy was brought to them the disciples had just remembered to mumble a prayer that everything would have been great.  Prayer, for Jesus, isn’t something that happens in a moment; it is how you let God change you over the long haul.  “Prayer in Mark,” writes Lamar Williamson, “is not pious manipulation of God to get what we want, but communing with God in the wilderness . . . and wrestling alone in the night to submit one’s own will to that of God.”1

         

          Some things can be done, Jesus taught, only through prayer. The next time in Mark that Jesus talks about prayer is in chapter 11, where prayer is connected to “the power of belief.”  To pray, in Mark, is to learn to believe that the way things are is not the way they always have to be, that things that seem impossible can be transformed when brought to Jesus.2

          Years ago, New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, wrote a famous article about prayer.  He says that we don’t pray because we believe certain things about prayer; we pray because the struggle to be human requires it.3  Prayer, Wink says, is spiritual defiance of what is in the name of what God has promised.  And “miracle,” he teaches, is just a word we use for the things the powers-that-be have deluded us into thinking God can’t do.  Prayer feeds one’s belief and starves one’s unbelief.  Some thing can be done only through prayer.

 

          I sat on a bench outside the church with a man who’d come for AA.  He told me it was the tenth anniversary of his sobriety.  I congratulated him and asked how he’d done it.  “Well,” he said, “I prayed.  I didn’t ask God to make me sober; I knew I had to do that.  I asked God to help me believe it was possible to be sober.  And he did.”  Some thing can be done only through prayer.

          Maple Grove’s Finance Committee is asking us to support a 2018 budget that will be up at least 6%, so we can hire a part-time youth leader.  Which means that since some people can’t increase their giving and some people will inevitably die and move away, some of us will have to increase our giving more than 6% for that to happen.  Someone asked me if we should make a back-up plan for youth ministry in case we don’t get enough money.  I thought about that.  But I decided it seems better to pray for belief rather than plan for unbelief.  Some things can be done only through prayer.  This is one of them.

          In a moment the choir is going to sing an anthem called For Everyone Born. 

          For everyone born, a place at the table.

          For everyone born, clean water and bread,

          A shelter, a space, a safe place for growing.

         

          For just and unjust, a place at the table,

          Abuser, abused, with need to forgive,

          In anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy.

 

          It sounds like a pipedream, doesn’t it, in these bitter and divided times—a mindset of mercy, the just and unjust together, abuser and abused together with need to forgive.  A place at the table for black and white, for young and old, for those who kneel and those who stand, for ones we agree with and ones we don’t.  It seems impossible, doesn’t it?  So let’s take it to Jesus.  Some things can be done only through prayer.

 

          So let’s pray.  At 9:29 every day, morning and evening.  God wants to do BIG things.  And I want to let God do them.  Mark 9:29 to feed our faith and starve our unbelief.  Set your prayer alarms now for 9:29.  Some things can be done only through prayer.

 

1 Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), 166.

2 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 255.

3 Walter Wink, “Prayer: History Belongs to the Intercessors, Co-creating with God through Prayer,” Sojourners (October 1990), 10-14.

 

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