A sermon for July 8, 2018, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Ezekiel 2:1-5, Psalm 123, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, and Mark 6:1-13.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
A friend sent me a funny cartoon the other day. It’s from a comic strip called “Rhymes with Orange” and the cartoon showed two bears having a summer picnic. Both were sipping from cups and there was a teapot between them on the blanket. One bear says to the other, “What delicious tea!” and the other bear explains, “It’s hibiscus and honey infused with garbage and compost scraps.”
Bears are known for their sense of smell, but summer can activate our senses as well. The sights, the smells, the tastes, the feelings, the sounds. As advanced as humankind seems to be and seems to be becoming, we really are usually people of our senses, aren’t we? When we’re cooking, we go by smell and sight to determine if something is cooked. When we plant in the ground, we look for shoots or sprouts to know whether something is, in fact growing. When someone promises to undertake a certain task or project, we wait and we listen and we watch to see what will happen. We look for evidence.
But when it comes to our relationship with God, so often, we’re called to live by another sense, or by something beyond sense—we’re called to live by faith. Like a parent teaching a child to walk, it can feel like God is urging us, teaching us, pulling us up so that (as St. Paul puts it) we can learn to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel is called upon again and again to walk by faith, to believe that God is leading him and is showing the way. In today’s reading, Ezekiel is warned that there are going to be lots of people who will not get it. They won’t understand. They will try to see, but their eyes will fail them. They will try to hear, but their ears will be of no use. But, God says, “if you’re true to yourself, and true to the person I’ve called you to be, then they will know one thing: a prophet has been among them.” So don’t be afraid, don’t be dismayed, just keep praying and moving and being faithful.
Jesus has the same problem in many places as he preaches and teaches and heals. In today’s Gospel he runs into local opposition. The very people who know him best cannot reconcile the Son of Mary with the Son of God. It’s doesn’t compute. It’s doesn’t flow. It can’t be charted out and explained and rationalized and proven. To perceive Jesus as the Christ, to receive Jesus as the Son of God, come to redeem us and live in us and be with us through death and into everlasting life— this takes faith.
In the Fourth Century, women and men left the cities and went into the desert to look for God. These desert mothers and fathers and those who have taken matters of the Spirit seriously ever since have prayed for a balance in the senses so that faith might be developed more strongly. There is a tradition in some places of maintaining “custody of the eyes” so that one’s gaze might be directed more upon God. There is the tradition of fasting, so that one’s hunger would be less for carbohydrates and more for Christ. There is the tradition of silence so that the inner voice of God’s Holy Spirit might be heard. Christian ascetics take seriously this spiritual training of the senses—the training, itself being a kind of faith—so that a deeper faith and reliance upon God might be developed and sustained.
There are lots of ways of developing our sense of faith, but it all begins with asking God for help. Asking—no matter how you picture God, no matter whether you really believe in God, no matter whether you’re struggling to find a God who is different from the caricature-god you might have been told about, growing up— whoever or whatever “God” is for you, begin the way of faith by asking. In the Christian tradition, we look to Jesus to show us the way, so Christ becomes the way we focus our request for help, for direction, for strength, for clarity, for love.
The old question of which comes first: the chicken or the egg has an analogous one arising from today’s scriptures. Which really comes first? Faith or evidence of faith? Faith or mighty works? “Jesus could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.” It’s as though somehow their unbelief, their lack of believing, their disbelief, and their skepticism prevented them from seeing or receiving any miracle that Jesus might do among them.
Whether it’s through long walks, visits to quiet places, a retreat or even silence in the midst of a crowd, may we take time this summer to practice training our senses, and to include in that an openness to developing a deeper sense of faith. May the Holy Spirit develop within us the kind of faith that leads us through loving trust; that allows God to work wonders, make miracles and do mighty works.