13 August 2012
Sermon on the Sunday after Transfiguration, 2012
Two things surprise me about today’s Gospel lesson. While the Lord Jesus was on the mountain with Peter, James and John, a man had brought his demon-possessed son to the other disciples and asked them to cast out the demon. Try as they might, they couldn’t do it. So when the Lord returned, the man came to him directly and asked him to do it. At once the demon left the boy. The disciples, all embarrassed, took Jesus aside privately and asked, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?”
And that brings us to the first surprise. Jesus answers, “Because you have no faith.” Ouch! He doesn’t say, “Because you have small faith,” or “because you have weak faith.” No; he tells these men who had been living with him for two years or more, “You have no faith.” Zero. Zip. Nada. Talk about bringing someone down to the ground!
Think of all the problems we face. Sometimes, as in our Gospel lesson, others bring us those problems. (As Tevye says, in Fiddler on the Roof, “Life obliges us with hardships…”) We wonder, “How can I help this person who’s come to me for aid?”
And sometimes we bring those problems on ourselves. We worry, we think, we try different strategies, all to no avail.
Meanwhile, we assume that we have faith, and that we just need to figure out that missing something—whatever it might be. But all to no avail. Our problems don’t so much get solved, as get exchanged for other ones.
What if all these other problems just distract us from the one problem that all of life’s about? What if we keep on attacking the symptoms, but never address the root cause?
What if, instead, we took the Lord’s diagnosis to heart? “Why, Lord, am I so ineffective? Why can’t I get things done for you?” “Because you have no faith.”
When I first became Orthodox, Deacon David Khorey told me about a priest he knew growing up. The priest used to say to people, on a regular basis, “Pray for my conversion.”
“Pray for my conversion.” Isn’t that what’s it’s all about, after all? The struggle of our lifetime isn’t with this or that problem others bring to us…or the problems we see in ourself. The struggle of our lifetime is simply this: that before we die, we come to faith in our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Didn’t he say, after all, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Didn’t his apostle say, “I do not consider that I have made it my own”—and by “it” he means “the righteousness from God that depends on faith”?
Why, after all, do we struggle with prayer, and reading the Scripture, and coming to Matins and Vespers? Why do we seek our own pleasure, and get into power struggles? Why do we grow so often dissatisfied? At root, it’s a faith-problem.
In the book, The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim goes to a renowned monk for confession. The pilgrim lists every sin he can remember from his youth up. When the monk sees his list, he tells the pilgrim, “You have all these things, but you’ve forgotten the main sins.” “What do you mean?” the pilgrim asks, and the monk gives him his own list. Four items are listed, and one of them is “I have no religious belief.”
But just that fact brings us to the second surprise of the text. And to me it’s even more amazing than the first. Jesus doesn’t forsake these men. St. Matthew continues, “As they were traveling together through Galilee…”
He knew that one would betray him. He knew that another would deny him. He knew that all of them alike would forsake him. But he didn’t forsake them. He stayed with them. He gave them all he was, and all he had. As John says in his gospel, “…Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the uttermost.”
You see, unbelief doesn’t get the last word with Christ. Neither does sin. Neither does death. His love for us is the ground on which we build our faith. His holy death covers our sin—indeed, by death he trampled death, and rose again for us. Take a look at the icon of the Anastasis. The Lord Jesus stands triumphant over death and hades; all the locks of hades’ gates lie scattered and broken beneath him. And then, in his strong hands he pulls Adam and Eve from hades. Look carefully, and you will see that he is holding them by the wrist, not by the hand. There is synergy, of course—they have their hands extended. But the work of pulling them out is his work.
So let us stop swatting at symptoms, and look to the root. Let us accept the Lord’s judgment and see that our problem is with faith. Let us learn to say with Deacon David’s friend, “Pray for my conversion.” For he who died for you and rose for you, promises, “I will never fail you, I will never forsake you. I am with you always, even to the end of the age. In the world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”