The following sermon was preached at 5:30pm on Friday August 7, 2015, at St. George’s Chapel of St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island. This was a service of Choral Evensong as part of the Royal School of Church Music summer course in Newport, for which I serve as chaplain with Fr. Dane Boston. Music for the evening included Responses by Craig Philips, Canticles from the Evening Service in E by Herbert Murrill, Bairstow’s setting of the medieval text “Blessed City, Heavenly Salem,” and Bainton’s setting of Revelation 21:1-4, “And I saw a new heaven.”
Collect: O God, whom saints and Angels delight to worship in heaven: be ever present with us your servants who seek through music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to us even now glimpses of your beauty, and make us worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Readings: Acts 19:21-41; Mark 9:14-29
“Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.
Sometimes, heaven can sound a little disappointing. If you’re like me, you might be worried that all those angels might not turn out to be the most fun company, and that all those clouds might be just a little bit too plain. Even singing praise to God, while a lot of fun, can also be exhausting — and maybe, if that’s all we’ll be doing, maybe it might be just the tiniest bit boring.
Our theme for this year’s course is heaven, and you all have been singing beautiful psalms and hymns and spiritual songs about heaven. You’ve heard Canon Boston preach a sermon about the ways we can see heaven even now, at work among us. But all that notwithstanding, sometimes it really is hard to see just what all the fuss is about to begin with.
The father in this evening’s Gospel is a good example of what I’m talking about. His son is in need of healing. It’s not a complicated need, and Jesus has performed lots of similar healings. The father has every reason to believe that when he brings his Son to Jesus, he will be healed. But Jesus is away when he arrives, so he asks the disciples for their help instead. They have performed similar healings too. This one shouldn’t be difficult. But for some unknown reason, they can’t heal this man’s son.
Their failure causes an argument in the crowd, and this is when Jesus arrives on the scene. The father is sadly losing patience: his son is still sick, his hopes are disappointed, and on top of it all, he finds himself at the center of a very public scene. This is not what he wanted.
Most of us know what it’s like to have our hopes disappointed. It’s always a hard thing to experience. But it’s especially hard when our hopes are high, and when the thing we hope for is good and right. The father in our Gospel passage only wants his son to be made well. Maybe you have some examples of your own, of good hopes disappointed. This is why, when we’re talking about heaven, that it’s important to speak frankly about our desires, and about why the images of heaven we see in cartoons and greeting cards leave so much to be desired. (Hard as it may seem to believe, I’ve never met a single person who loves harp music so much they want to sit listening to Angels play it all day, every day, for all eternity!)
The things you and I desire are usually much more, well, down to earth than the popular portrayals of heaven. We want to live in peace with family and loved ones. We want to be free from the limitations of bodily life, we want to be able to do what’s right. These are all things we try to accomplish even while we’re still here on earth. And it always feels pretty crummy when we can’t manage to do it.
The father in our reading wants to take care of his son. He brings him to Jesus, and Jesus’ disciples can’t help. Jesus himself seems only to scold him: “All things are possible for the one who believes.” The father’s response is the hinge, the key to the whole episode. He says, “I do believe! Help my unbelief.”
It’s important because by saying this, the father surrenders the outcome to Jesus. No longer is he asking for a service to be performed for his son. Now he makes a prayer, that he himself be brought to greater faith, greater trust, greater peace. It’s a remarkable surrender, and no longer insists on any outcome but the one Jesus is willing to give. Jesus responds by healing his son. The crowd marvels, and father and son go on their way together, restored.
When you and I face disappointments and failed hopes, the Christian faith asks us to surrender them to Jesus. This is close to the heart of what prayer is all about to begin with: surrendering things, people, projects, goals, hopes, to Jesus; offering them to him, allowing him to do with them according to his own purpose. Only in this way do we get ourselves sufficiently out of the way to allow God to do his work in us.
The Christian faith doesn’t ask us to surrender only disappointments to Jesus either, but every part of our selves: every desire, every hope, every good wish and noble goal. This allows Jesus to work in us and in the world. And it gets us near to him by the act of surrender.
What does all this have to do with heaven, with clouds, and with Angels playing harps? If heaven is going to be more for us than merely a disappointing litany of unsatisfying images, we have to surrender it to Jesus too. Offer all our ideas, all our fondest hopes, all our nagging fears about the kingdom of heaven, to Jesus, to whom that kingdom belongs.
“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” Once we make that surrender, our Lord will make haste to help us. He will welcome us into his kingdom, and help us to see how its contours spread over the whole earth and encompass the heights of heaven. When we surrender what we want out of heaven, our Lord is free to give us what it really is and means: not a reward for good behavior, but eternal life in his nearer presence for ever, with Angels, archangels, apostles, prophets, martyrs, and all the faithful departed; where the mysteries of grace continually unfold, and we are brought to the fullness of the stature of Christ himself, our master and our friend.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.