holy cross sermon for the twentieth sunday after pentecost, october 2, 2016

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 Today’s Gospel is rather stark and short. It begins with the Lord’s well-known teaching on faith “the size of a mustard seed.”

 “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, `Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”

 Perhaps the first thing to notice is that the Lord indicts even the Apostles’ lack of faith. The mustard seed is famously tiny. Jesus seems to be saying that if you have even a little bit of real faith, you can do the seemingly impossible – you can perform miracles – do the work of God. And yet we can’t perform miracles. The impossible remains impossible to us. We may therefore infer that we do not even have a modicum of faith. And this appears true, at least at times, even of the most faithful among us. Even of the Apostles themselves.

I recently read an essay by the famous Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, in which Hart talks about how an intensive, sustained, meditative reading of the New Testament changed his attitude toward what the life of faith means, what a life of faith ought to look like. The article was a pretty severe critique of contemporary Christian culture, which Hart sees as imbued now with the air of secularism – with the world’s blandishments and priorities. But the picture of authentic Christian life, the life of faith, stands in stark contrast to all of that. Hart says:

 “The Gospels, the epistles, Acts, Revelation—all of them are relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism: commands to become as perfect as God in his heaven and to live as insouciantly as lilies in their field; condemnations of a roving eye as equivalent to adultery and of evil thoughts toward another as equivalent to murder; injunctions to sell all one’s possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor, and demands that one hate one’s parents for the Kingdom’s sake and leave the dead to bury the dead. This extremism is not merely an occasional hyperbolic presence in the texts; it is their entire cultural and spiritual atmosphere.”

 Occasionally in my preaching I exhort all of you (and myself as well) to notice and to dwell upon the troubling passages in the Gospels, the difficult sayings of Jesus – not to try and mute or qualify them, but rather to allow yourself to be disturbed. Today’s Gospel might qualify as one such passage. Jesus said:

 “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, `Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

 But that seems impossible. Yet Jesus is in the business of making the impossible actual. Recall his indictment of the rich in Mark’s Gospel:

 “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.’”

 There, I believe, is the key. “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” We need to remember that faith is a gift from God. It belongs to God – it is his alone to give. God gives us faith, and so enables us to live lives of faith. God makes the impossible, actual. That anything exists at all testifies to this fact. Our job is to till the soil of our hearts so that the seeds that God scatters may take root within us and grow and blossom and bear fruit.

 We know this happens because we have the testimony of the saints. Beginning perhaps with Abraham, our confession is filled with exemplars of faithfulness. Trusting God, Abraham set out to receive a patrimony from God. He saw the birth of his son, Isaac, even though Genesis says: “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; [and] it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” Yet Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac, who became the father of Israel, the inheritor of God’s promises.

 By faith Mary too accepted God’s invitation by the ministry of his angel, and she conceived by the Holy Ghost and brought our salvation into the world by giving birth to Jesus. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

 And by faith too, Jesus, Abraham’s offspring, the son of Mary, endured the agony of the cross, trusting his Father. And he rose victorious from the grave. Jesus thus shows one facet of my previous assertion that faith belongs to God. Jesus is the Son of God, and is himself God, and yet he demonstrates his faith in God when he suffers and dies on the cross. Faith belongs to him. So faith is his to give.

 Note also that in each of these three figures – Abraham, Mary, and Jesus – faith makes the impossible to be possible. And in each case, the “impossible” thing that God accomplishes has to do with bringing new life to the world. And in the ultimate case, in the resurrection of Jesus, it is not just new life, but a radically new KIND of life.

 This is the impossible that God makes possible by faith. It goes well beyond telling a sycamine tree to be planted in the sea.

 It works because faith means acquiescing to God’s will, conforming your life to it, even though you don’t fully understand it, and even though you can’t see how the outcome could possibly be good or could make you happy. The way is a way of suffering within the world, because the world and the world’s authorities stand in opposition to the divine work. So Abraham had to be a pilgrim, and he had to fight. Mary had to become the Mother of Sorrows. Jesus had to endure the cross, despising the shame. But the end is glory, and glory in communion with all of the actors on the stage of God’s story of salvation – with Abraham, with Mary, with all the saints, and most crucially, with Jesus.

 Let me read to you the testimony of a young Greek Orthodox monk at Mount Athos, who was the disciple of a famous elder who died in 1994, Elder Paisios. This testimony is the kind of thing that we are apt to forget or to dismiss in America in 2016. But it is important for us to remember.

 In the middle of the night, the young monk, Fr. Maximos, and his master went into a small chapel near the hermitage where they lived, to keep vigil and to pray. As they were praying, Fr. Maximos says:

 “…suddenly and inexplicably everything was transformed around us. Things changed so suddenly and dramatically that I could not figure out what was happening.

 “….a very subtle wind rushed into the chapel even though the door as well as the window were both firmly shut. The lamp in front of the icon of the Holy Virgin began swinging back and forth by itself. There was a lamp in front of each of the five icons. Only the one hanging in front of the Holy Virgin went on moving back and forth, back and forth.

 “….I was neither afraid nor rejoiced. I simply witnessed those events like an outsider. I just turned with curiosity toward elder Paisios, trying to figure out what was happening. He signaled to me to remain quiet as he knelt down and touched the floor with his forehead, remaining in that posture for some time. I stood there perplexed, holding the candle in my hand while the strange phenomena went on around me. After about half an hour, and while the lamp in front of the icon of the Holy Virgin continued its back and forth motion, I resumed the reading of the service. When I reached the seventh prayer of the blessing of Saint Symeon the lamp gradually stopped swinging. The luminosity that had inexplicably filled the room up to that point vanished and everything went back to normal.” (From The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides)

 This testimony, this little vignette, is a glimpse as it were through the window, a glimpse at two simple Christians living their life of faith, praying, fasting, repenting, worshipping God. The fact that it seems extraordinary to us should spur us to till the soil of our hearts with greater zeal – by means of prayer, frequent recourse to the sacraments, and especially confession. The truth is, this sort of thing is normal. The life we live in America in 2016 is upside-down.

 “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, `Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”

 In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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