Sunday, October 3, 2010

"Increase Our Faith"

This morning I returned to St. John's Episcopal Church, Lakeport, CA, to celebrate the Eucharist, the first time since I retired in mid-2007. I volunteered to fill in for my friend, Fr. Leo Joseph, OSF, who was diagnosed with cancer several months ago, and who began chemotherapy this past week. This will explain the rather personal nature of the homily I gave and which I'm sharing with you below.
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It’s wonderful to be at the altar here again today with all of you, celebrating the Eucharist and honoring St. Francis. Having said that, I also rather wish I didn’t have to be here, only because Fr. Leo Joseph’s illness and the chemotherapy on Thursday prevents him from being here today with you. He sounded good when I spoke with him yesterday evening. In fact, the effects of the treatment have been surprisingly mild so far, and Fr. Leo feels he might be able to return on Monday. So let us give thanks to God for that, and continue to pray that his next treatment, on October 21, goes as well.

Today’s Scriptures, as so often happens, amazingly offer just what you and I need to hear and think about at this time. The question which seems literally to jump out at us today is: what do the words “believe”, “trust”, “have faith” really mean to you and me? They’re words quite familiar in “church language”, but what meaning do they have, really, in your and my actual lives?

We do “believing” every day. If it’s foggy when we rise, we believe, or at least hope, that eventually the sun will burn off the fog and make it sunny. When we get ready to cross a street, after the light has turned red for oncoming traffic, and we see the “Walk” sign, we trust the we’ll be able to get across okay: why? Because we trust in the fairness and in the good judgment of the drivers. When God, through the word of Scripture, tells you and me that we’re to love God and one another, we have faith that what God tells us is true. why? Because God gave us as proof the model of Jesus, who did that in his life. The writer of 2 Timothy (1:1-14) today expresses it this way: “...grace was given to us in Christ Jesus…[and] has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…

Our sisters and brothers in the Church many centuries ago used a different phrase for the word “believe”: viz., “to set one’s heart upon”. The way you and I believe/trust/have faith is by setting our hearts on Jesus the Christ whom we know will do what he says, because he’s reliable; we can count on him. Another New Testament writer, the author of Hebrews desribes it this way: to set one’s heart on Jesus means being sure of what you hope for, and being sure even when you can’t see because Jesus, God’s Word, says it’s so and has shown us that it is so. Our conviction is that Jesus will never mislead us.

The first reading from Habbakuk (1:1-4; 2:1-4) several times shows how unshakeable the prophet was in setting his heart on the God of Israel, knowing that, after crying out for help, sooner or later God would listen. He’s determined that, for his part, he’s to stand at his watchpost, as on a rampart, and keep attuned to what God will convey to him and to how God will guide him. Then he’ll make God’s vision as clear as he can to the other people of God, putting it, so to speak, on a sign big enough that even a runner racing by could see it and read it. And God’s vision, as the Collect intimates, is far more ambitious than anything we could ever think up: “ are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve…” Habbakuk stands on his statement: “...there is still a vision for the appointed will surely come…

The second reading from 2 Timothy refers to Timothy’s “sincere faith”, acknowledging the important influence of his grandmother and mother embodying that setting of the heart upon God. The writer, probably not Paul, refers to the gift of a “holy calling” to be a follower of Jesus, and emphasizes that that gift is given to us by God in the power and person of Christ Jesus, and that to set our hearts on Jesus will surely lead us to “life and immortality...”. The writer further attests that his own preaching, apostleship, and teaching is done in the power of his setting his heart on Christ: “...I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him…

Finally, the apostles in Luke’s Gospel passage (17:5-10) voice what you and I must surely be crying out in our own hearts today, faced as we are with Fr. Leo’s illness: “Increase our faith!” Jesus suggests that we don’t have to shoulder the whole burden ourselves, as we sometimes foolishly and mistakenly try to do. He says that it doesn’t take much: just faith about the size of a small mustard seed, and he will take care of all the rest. Our responsibility is simply to do what we’ve been asked to do, as God leads us: no more, no less. And we find a clue for precisely what that is in Psalm 37 (37:1-10): notice that it says not once, but three times: “Do not fret.” “Trust in the Lord, and do good…”, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”, “Commit your way to the Lord, trust him, and he will act.”, “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him…”, “Refrain from anger…

There’s a legend, passed down by the Cherokee, about an Indian youth’s initiation to become a grown-up:

A father takes his young son into the forest. He blindfolds him and leaves him alone, sitting on a stump for the whole night. The boy is not allowed to remove the blindfold until he feels the rays of the morning sun shine through it. He may not cry out for help to anyone. If he survives the night, he’ll be considered a grown-up. And he must then keep this experience secret from the other boys, because each of them, too, must come into manhood on his own.

Naturally, the boy is terrified. All sorts of things are running through his mind. He can hear all kinds of noises, perhaps of wild animals, or maybe even of humans who could do him harm. The wind blows through the grass all around him., but he sits with determination, never removing the blindfold to peek. It’s the only way he can become a man!

Finally, after a long night he gradually feels the glorious warmth of the sun emerge and begin beating down on his face. He removes the blindfold...and he discovers his father sitting there on a stump across from him. His father had been at watch the entire night, protecting his son from any possible harm.

We are never alone, just as at this particular time you and I and our dear Fr. Leo are not alone. Even when we can’t see it or feel it, God is present, watching, protecting. We need only set our hearts upon God, trust the One Who loves us, have faith in the God who gives us “those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior…

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