A Father’s Day sermon based on Mark 4.14-24
It may be no surprise to you that today is Father’s Day, which we set aside to honor Fathers. It is a day when we see an abundance of merchandise, such as t-shirts and ties dedicated to dads worldwide. Typically, we speak of the positive attributes of fathers and hear stories of how wonderful and formative father figures have been in our lives. What may have surprised you is that the scripture we heard today, on the surface seems like a father’s day story only in the way it depicts a father’s encounter with Jesus, and certainly does not fit the traditional mold of talking about how wonderful accomplishments of the father.
A father brings his son, who suffers from a neurological disorder, to the disciples. In other words, the father brings his son to a community of faith. The disciples, however, are unable to alter the boy’s condition. They are unable to cure or reverse his disorder.
Many parents today, when their child is diagnosed with a neurological disorder or disability, will undergo a similar journey. There might be countless visits to doctors, specialists, physical therapists, occupational therapy, speech therapists, and the list goes on. And while these professional might help in different ways, all too often the result is the same; the condition, while more manageable, still exists and the difficulties of life are still present. Indeed, there are some conditions which the modern day disciples of Jesus are still unable to cure.
So the father then turns to his faith and asks Jesus to intercede. Although we heard the story from Mark’s gospel this morning, it is one that appears in all three synoptic accounts of Jesus. In Matthew’s account the fathers asks Jesus to “have mercy on my son,” while in Luke’s text we hear the request as “look at my son; my only child.” Mark says I brought you my son. And Mark is the only one in which the father exclaims “I believe, help me with my unbelief!”
The father asks Jesus to have compassion on ‘us’ and help ‘us’. “The plural ‘us’ includes at least the father and his son, and perhaps the whole family and their friends. And while we can debate the meaning of the word ‘us’, what I think is more important here is that it illustrates that the neurological disorder from which the boy has been afflicted for years, affects more than just the child, it affects the whole family and social circle.
Jesus asks the father how long this situation has been occurring, to which the father replies “from childhood.” At first glance, it may appear that Jesus is gathering more information, which is a valid way to read the text. But I think there is a bit more to it than simply information gathering. See, Jesus is taking the time to engage the father in conversation. Jesus invites the father to say more about his situation.
The father could have simply answered with information: since childhood. Yet he provides Jesus with an extended answer, as he describes further what life with this disorder is like on a daily basis. He says “it has often cast him into the fire and water, to destroy him.” Imagine how sad, anxious and overwhelming it must feel like for the father, that this disorder constantly places his child at risk of being destroyed! It is no wonder then, that one commentator notes that “Jesus experiences a loving father who is at his wit’s end.”
The text continues, offering: “immediately the father of the child cried out ‘I believe, help me with my unbelief.” There is a footnote to the text, however, which offers that other ancient texts read with tears. So as the father of the child describes the lifelong situation to Jesus, he does so with tears.
Perhaps, through his tears, the father is expressing the reality of how difficult it is to journey through life with faith, when you have a child with an incurable disorder that seeks at every turn to ‘destroy’ them. Maybe we can hear the father saying, in tears, “I have faith, but some days are so overwhelming that it is hard to hold on to my faith. I do believe that you can make a difference, Jesus. Please help me to remember and believe that in the most trying of times and the darkest of days.” So according to one commentator (Donahue; Sacra Pagina: Mark) Jesus intercedes in the situation, not only to bring healing to the boy, but also to bring peace of heart to the father.
I think this insight is significant, if we consider the father’s tears up against the message many greeting cards fathers will receive today—on Father’s day. Greeting card messages such as “world’s greatest Dad,” “#1 Dad,” or “Super Dad,” able to fix anything, able to endure all things with a steady disposition, always able to stay strong in the face of adversity, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Yet, compare those greeting card messages to a survey completed by Florida State University, which indicated that fathers of children with disabilities experienced greater stress in daily parenting hassles, family life events and changes and health stress. Another recent study noted that “Fathers want someone to talk to from outside the family about their worries and concerns, but are not very good at seeking for this type of help or support.”
In contrast to those cultural and greeting card images, the father in our scripture today approaches Jesus with vulnerability—in tears. What can this mean? Maybe, in the presence of Christ, fathers are freed to be themselves instead of meeting the cultural expectations of being strong at all costs. And the father’s cry captures the mixed character of faith within the experience of most people. Life situations will, at times, overwhelm us and the best we can do is hand it over the one in whose hands our eternal restoration is assured. The significance of this text is that despite the pain, grief, tears, struggle, and isolation fathers (and mothers) face in raising a child with a neurological disorder or disability, they can find new horizons, new hope and healing through faith.
And that’s where I think we come in to the story. As the church, the body of Christ, we are called to exemplify the ministry of Jesus in the world today. As Kathleen Bolduc writes in her book A Place Called Acceptance, the first step is for a community of faith to meet a family where they are and hear their story. Jesus brings a non-anxious presence that heals and empowers not only the boy, but his father as well. The church can do this too. As we strive to become a more open, welcoming and inclusive faith community, we can come alongside not just persons with neurological disorder and disabilities, but also their parents, family and friends.
Yes, we can start by asking how long they have been enduring their situation, but then we can go deeper by inviting them to share their stories and struggles with us. We can affirm that it is not only their child who is affected, but them, their families and friends too. We can enter into their situation and journey with them toward healing. Instead of reinforcing cultural expectations, we can give them sanctuary—a safe place and space to be vulnerable, even to the point of sharing their tears with us. We can be there for them not only in their faith, but especially available in those difficult times of unbelief. God in Christ can work God’s healing will in and through us.
Jesus gave the father of the boy with a neurological disorder a gift that day. He gave the gift of his compassion in inviting the father to share his story instead of telling him to be strong. In the midst of a father’s tears, healing was found. That same gift may be the greatest one the church can give Dads for Father’s day, Moms for Mother’s day and families every day. Amen.