Prosper the Work of our Hands: Dealing with Doubt – Mark 9:14-29, Psalm 90

The other week someone came to the door of the church and asked if anyone in the church did exorcisms. I have no experience doing exorcisms. I did not major in exorcism at bible college, and that wasn’t one of the skillsets I put on my CV when I applied to work here. That’s what I had to tell him.

In the Mennonite tradition, and for the most part in our western cultural tradition, we don’t believe that people are possessed by demons. That’s one of the reasons why I find today’s scripture passage hard to deal with. The story describes someone who sounds like they might have epilepsy, and they talk about casting a demon out and him getting better. What do we do with this?

This story is hard for me, not just because of the exorcism issue, but because of the way I have seen this story used. Years ago I used to attend a church that believed in faith healing, and they really did believe that if you had enough faith, you would always be physically healed. I heard the verse, “all things are possible for those who believe” quoted frequently. I saw the pain and anguish that this verse caused sick people, who left church not only still sick, but also feeling judged that they were people of little faith. The misuse of this verse is one of the reasons I left that church.

The other day Hank Janzen was talking about his recent trip to Washington, and how he saw Thomas Jefferson’s Bible. Thomas Jefferson went through his bible with a razor blade and cut out all the parts he didn’t like. He took out all the miracle stories, anything supernatural that he couldn’t understand.

If we are honest with ourselves, I think most of us have some sympathy for Thomas Jefferson’s approach, because there are stories in the bible that we don’t like either. We don’t use razor blades, which seems sort of violent for pacifist Mennonites, instead we just turn the page and decide not to read the stories we don’t like.

How easy it would be for me to turn the page on this gospel story that was read today. But I think even the hard stories have something to teach us. Even though this story is hard, I still come to it. We still choose it, or maybe it chooses us. We wrestle with this scripture passage, like Jacob wrestling with the angel through the night. We won’t let go until we receive a blessing; is there good news here?

I wrestled with this story, and there were a lot of sermons trying to get out. We could explore the way healing happens, or the inability of the disciples to heal the boy. We could talk about the scribes, or the nature of faith, or the role of compassion. But today, for this sermon, I am focusing on Jesus.

We are journeying with Jesus throughout this season of  Lent. Using the gospel of Mark, we have seen Jesus on the road to Caesarea Philippi, and heard Peter call him the Messiah. Jesus declared that he is going to be arrested and suffer and die. Jesus and Peter and James and John went up the mountain, where they experience the transfiguration. There Jesus was given encouragement from Elijah and Moses to face what he has to face in Jerusalem. Jesus’ clothes are shining with an unearthly light, and he hears a voice from heaven. And that’s where we pick up today’s story.

Right after this high point, both literally and figuratively in Jesus’ life, he comes down the mountain straight into this unholy mess that we read about in today’s gospel story. He descends into an argument. The scribes are arguing with the disciples; there is a man whose son has a demon, and the disciples have not been able to heal him. Jesus descends into the reality that his disciples are stumped, they seem to be ignoring the hurting person and instead are involved in arguing with the scribes. What was it like for Jesus to come straight off the mountain and into this messy scene?

Maybe you can recall a time in your life, where you had some time away from the daily grind. An escape to peace and serenity, a place for renewal, and you come home entirely refreshed. You open the door feeling great and WHAM, life hits you in the face.

Maybe you are parents, and you had a weekend away, and you were so relaxed and then you open the door to your house and your children are screaming at each other. You can hear your blood pressure rising as you ask, “What are you arguing about?” That’s what this story is like for Jesus.

It’s not unlike the story of Moses, having an incredible experience meeting God on Mount Sinai. He comes down the mountain with the ten commandments, thinking, people are going to be so happy to have these words from God. And then WHAM! he sees the golden calf and the people bowing down to it. Moses loses his cool, and WHAM! go the ten commandments.

Now earlier in the gospel, Jesus gave authority to cast out demons to the disciples, and sent them out two by two. They travelled around and cast out many demons and cured the sick. And this casting out of demons has been a bone of contention between Jesus and the scribes…they told Jesus they thought he was casting out demons because he was in league with the prince of demons.  Now when Jesus comes down from the mountain, he finds the disciples arguing about casting out demons with the scribes.

I am particularly struck by the words of Jesus, where he sounds irritated and upset. He seems to lose his cool. He says, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” I looked this up in different translations. The Common English Version, which is one of the newest translations of the bible says, “You faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” How long, how long…these are certainly words that have been echoing in Jesus’ mind ever since Caesarea Philippi. He knows that he does not have very much longer to live his life on earth. He has had only a few short years with the disciples, and now there is even less time. Jesus is nearing his final weeks with them. And still the disciples don’t get it.

Earlier in the gospel, Jesus is pleasantly surprised by the faith of the people he meets, people like Jairus, or even the Syro-Phoenician woman. But here, right after his mountaintop experience, he descends into faithlessness. The lack of faith of the disciples, or of the father, or of both. A faithless generation. WHAM!

I wonder if Jesus is tempted here to feel he is running out of time. He knows that soon he will die…he is facing his own mortality. This week we celebrated Ash Wednesday and for millions of Christians around the world, they were anointed with ashes and heard the words, “Of dust you are made, and to dust you shall return.” Those words from Genesis are echoed in Psalm 90; “You turn us back to dust.” Jesus would have been familiar with this psalm. It confronts us with our frailty, our short span of life. “The days of our lives are seventy years.” Seventy years seems like a short span of time when you reach the age of seventy. But Jesus was contemplating the end of his life after just over thirty years. How much shorter must it seem for Jesus? Jesus knows that soon he will die, he gets less than half of seventy years to do all the work he needs to do. And with his earthly mortality staring him in the face, Jesus can clearly see that the disciples don’t seem to have what they need to keep going without him. After all his hard work…what has come of it? They seem as clued out as they did at the beginning. “How long will I be with you?”

It’s like having a very important job, and it’s time for you to retire. For three months you’ve been training the person who is replacing you, and on the last day before you retire they keep making big mistakes, and you wonder, “How long will I be with you?” You look at your watch and you know…not long! It can leave you feeling stressed out and upset.

Jesus says, “How long will I be with you?” And into this moment of frustration, when Jesus may be struggling with doubts about whether he has had enough time to do what he needs to do with these disciples, we hear the boy’s father say, “I believe, help my unbelief.”

I wonder whether those words strike a chord in Jesus’ own heart. Did those words speak to Jesus? Jesus must head to the cross, to his own death, knowing that he has not done everything that the disciples need. He has to leave them and trust, and believe, that the Holy Spirit will give them what they need once he is gone.

We don’t usually see this passage of scripture as an example of Jesus’ own doubts. It’s more convenient for us to think that Jesus only suffered fear or doubt in the garden of Gethsemene. But is that what you do? Are you saving up all your doubt for an evening, April 18, 2016? I doubt it.

Doubt is something we carry. Jesus was a human being, he did not have all the answers, he could not see the future entirely clearly. He knew some things, but other things were a mystery to him. Jesus must do what God asks, and trust that God will work out the details. Plant the seeds, and the Holy Spirit will make sure they grow. It’s hard to trust. We live with doubt. “I believe, help my unbelief.” Especially when we feel we are running out of time.

I was rewatching one of my favourite movies this week, it’s one of the best movies about Christian faith that I have ever seen. It’s a movie about people who struggled with this exact feeling of running out of time. The movie is called “Of Gods and Men”, it’s a French film that tells the true story of a group of nine monks in a Trappist monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria.

This monastery was founded in Algeria in 1938 as a community whose purpose was to live with the Muslim people in peace, to engage in a life of prayer and study. They devoted themselves to prayer, and work, running a farm to support themselves, and offering medical help to local people. They developed deep respect for and friendships with the Muslim community around them.

But in the 1990’s Algeria was torn apart by a vicious civil war. Extremists who were Muslim were taking over, and killing foreigners. Murders were happening very close by the monastery, which at that time housed 9 monks. The Algerian government came with soldiers, and offered to protect the monks. The monks were faced with a terrible dilemma. Should they allow armed soldiers to protect them with guns? Should they leave Algeria and return to France? What was the purpose of over 60 years of peaceful co-existence and friendship with their Muslim neighbours?

The movie is so poignant as it shows each of the nine monks wrestling with the question of what to do. I liked the movie because it’s a different type of action film. It includes worship as action. The monks do their work on the farm, and you see them praying. They hear of the murders of the Croatian workers in their community, and they go to worship. They get up in the dark, you see them praying in their chapel. Scripture permeates their lives. The rebels barge in demanding medical supplies, after they leave the monks return to their chapel and pray.

And through it all they are faced with their own mortality. They are dust and to dust they shall return. But what if their death comes soon…what if they only have a few days or weeks left? Have they done enough, was their witness worth anything if it is ended so abruptly? Wouldn’t it be better to compromise and go away for a few years and come back when everything is peaceful? That way they could do more work.

The prior, or head of the monastery, whose name is Christian de Chergé will not compel anyone to stay. Christian has doubts, he struggles, he wrestles, he wonders what he should do. Like any human being facing our own deaths, he has the panicky feeling that he is running out of time. He prays, they pray together, they work, they pray. And they come up with an answer. It is unanimous. They  have come to Algeria in peace, they have lived in peace, and if necessary, they will die in peace. They decide that what is most important for them is to be true to their mission, to live in peace. Whether that witness is long or short, it is not for them to decide. They just must do the work that God has given them. They put their time into God’s hands.

Armed men do come to the monastery, seven of the monks, including Christian de Chergé the head of the monastery, are kidnapped and taken away. One of the last scenes in the film is of the captors and the captives walking up a foggy mountain. Slowly they are obscured by fog, you just see walkers, you can’t tell who is who. They disappear onto the mountaintop. The movie tells you that the monks were murdered.

Christian de Chergé left a farewell letter that was to be opened in the event of his death. In it, he says good-bye to his friends and family. He says that he hopes that his death at the hands of Muslims would not spread negative ideas about Islam, which throughout his life he has experienced as peaceful. And he hopes that at the end, he will have the spiritual clarity to love the man who is killing him.

He writes a good-bye to that person, his murderer, in that farewell letter, “And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing: Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD BLESS” for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. AMEN! INCHALLAH!”

And so Christian de Chergé and his fellow monks died, living for peace, dying for peace. Their lives were short, and yet God prospered the work of their hands. Their stand for peace is remembered, and continues to inspire many other people to live and work for peace today.

The monk Christian and Jesus both were concerned about the work of their hands. Christian wanted to maintain a faithful Christian witness in Algeria. Jesus wanted his disciples to understand the good news, the gospel, so that they could continue to share it once he left them. Perhaps they were worried, anxious, stressed, as they thought about their own deaths and how incomplete their work was. But both Jesus and Christian needed to pray the prayer of Psalm 90, “Lord, prosper the work of our hands”. They placed the work of their hands in God’s hands. And God prospered their work.

What about us? We want to see the work of our own hands prosper. And sometimes we find ourselves feeling exasperated, stressed out, at the end of our rope, especially when we feel we are running out of time.

Maybe it’s a cause you have worked on, some project for justice…you have put so much into it, and you think, have I made a difference? After all this time, did it matter? Or maybe it’s an organization. You have worked so hard, and yet it’s not prospering the way you would like to see it prospering. Or maybe it’s a relationship, a partner or a child or a friend, that you’ve poured yourself into…but it is going nowhere. Or maybe the work of your hands is your own soul; you had such high hopes at the beginning when you were first baptized, that you would do something great and beautiful for God, but sometimes you walk WHAM into faithlessness, and you feel you have progressed hardly at all. Maybe you have even regressed. We can feel frustrated and upset, we can feel like we are running out of time.

We want to make sure that the work of our own hands prospers. We want to be in control. That’s basic human nature. That was part of Jesus’ makeup too. He too had to cope with these sorts of feelings. The voice of the psalmist came to him, it comes to us today, “O God, prosper the work of my hands.”

This week, in this season of Lent, this line from Psalm 90 is our prayer. “God, prosper the work of our hands.” We hold the work of our hands lightly. We are challenged to pause in prayer, in worship, in the busy moment at the office, at the kitchen sink, on a walk or with our heads on our pillows. We pray, “God, we are only dust. We trust that you will prosper the work of our hands. We believe, help our unbelief.” Amen.

A sermon preached
on March 8, 2014
at Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church
Edmonton, Alberta
by Carol Penner

About Carol Penner

I am a Mennonite pastor currently teaching theology at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. I’ve served congregations in Ontario and most recently, Alberta.

I love to write and to lead worship! If you are finding my writing helpful, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to use or adapt the material here, it is all written by me. If printing material, please credit “Copyright Carol Penner www.leadinginworship.com” (and say whether you modified it). If publishing, please contact me for permission. Contact me at carol@leadinginworship.com

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