In today’s Gospel (Matthew 17:14-23) we hear our Lord say something quite amazing. God Himself, the creator of all, tells us that if we have just a tiny bit of faith, the size of a mustard seed, nothing is impossible for us. When we hear our Lord say these words, we might be tempted to question the validity of the claim that He made. We tell ourselves that there are moments in our lives where we do have faith; when we don’t have any doubt in our mind about our destiny with Christ and about God’s real presence in the world that is working through everything. So why is it that in those moments of clarity, we are not able to act like a Jedi and move a mountain? Why is it that when our spouse, parents, children, or friends are lying sick in a hospital bed with a disease, we don’t have the power to instantly heal whatever is ailing them? Despite us having all of the trust that we can in God’s love and His providential care for us?
In order to understand the answers to these questions, we have to first understand what this “faith” is that Christ was talking about. There is a common thought that faith is the same as belief. In a few minutes, everyone here will hopefully be singing the Creed together. We will begin with the words “I believe,” and then go through a Divinely inspired list of what we know and believe about God and His Church. All of us here today should (God willing) be able to say yes in our heart of hearts: “I believe all of this to be true and 100% accurate.” But the Creed by itself, albeit an important symbol of faith, is not the “faith” that our Lord spoke about this morning.
When someone comes for the first time to a Divine Liturgy or Great Vespers, if I am able to catch them early enough, I always give the same piece of advice to them:
“On your first visits to the Church, forget about the “why”, and just concentrate on “being present.” Don’t think about why people are venerating icons, or let it bother you when you hear the choir sing “Most Holy Theotokos Save us”, or wonder when the guitar and fog machines are going to come out. The answers to those questions are indeed important, but they are not the “one thing that is needed” in order to understand faith. Faith isn’t about concepts, or words, or anything that we can or cannot do. It isn’t about acing the Metanoia class, or understanding everything with perfect clarity. Faith is about learning to sit and be in the presence of God, Who is beyond belief.”
Learning to cultivate faith is the reason that we are all here. It is the reason why the Church (and yes, sometimes even our priests) encourages and pushes us to do those two things that our Lord said are necessary to Grow in faith—prayer and fasting. It is the reason you get texts and phone calls from me if you disappear for a few weeks, because it is here, and not “out there”, where we learn how to start living.
Coming to services all of the time, entering fasting periods when they are not convenient, and spending time daily in personal prayer, are sometimes bitter pills for us to swallow. There is a beautiful saying by St. Anthony the Great:
“It is absurd to be grateful to doctors, who give us bitter and unpleasant medicines to cure our bodies, and yet be ungrateful to God for what appears to us to be harsh and difficult…for knowledge of God and faith in Him, is the salvation and perfection of the soul.”
St. Anthony is asking us why we are willing to take bitter medicines from the doctors to make our bodies well, and yet fail so miserably in the sometimes difficult prescriptions that we receive from God Himself, in order to cure our souls. Fasting is hard. Coming to Church on Saturday night and Sunday morning can sometimes feel inconvenient. “It’s one more thing I have to add to my to do list.” Daily prayer and taking time out of our busy lives every day, are hard pills to swallow. Despite all of this, we take our God given medication with the assurance from Christ Himself that it will lead us to a perfect life of Faith and a perfect existence with God.
So today, and every day, I urge you all to be regular and vigilant in your prayer life. Not only here at the Church for Divine Services, but also at home. If you have never been assigned a prayer rule, or have never fasted in your Orthodox Christian Life, talk to me sometime this week and I will do what my own spiritual father does for me—give you a small rule to start with.
Having a regular prayer life is truly transformative, and for those who stick with it, I can promise you that it will, without a shadow of a doubt, change your life. It will change the way that you look at the world. It will transform you into more loving person, and it will bring a clarity to your life that one cannot describe in words. Our Lord reminds us in the Gospel today that this transformative life is right here in front of us—completely within our grasp! So after being strengthen by the Divine Presence of the Eucharist today, let us go forth and cultivate that mustard seed of faith. So we can not only learn how to move mountains, but how to literally change the entire world.