The Sense of Faith

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

As we all know, one of the strangest effects of COVID-19 has been the way the virus often affects the senses of smell and taste. One study has suggested that almost 80 per cent those with COVID lose their sense of smell or taste.

Because of COVID, or perhaps just because of this time of year, our senses can feel a bit heightened, can’t they? There have been days this spring, when it was almost overwhelming to walk through the park because some of the trees were so fragrant—almost to be stinky. We’ve been hearing firecrackers, and will hear the thunder-like sounds of the fireworks tonight. We see green, with all the rain, and we see people—a welcome sight after a year of distance and quarantine.

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.

There are lots of ways of developing our sense of faith.

First, there’s the lessening of other senses, in order to promote a particular sense.
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.

Second, we can train the senses. Aromatherapists and oenologists know this, but also, many others. Those who lost their sense of smell because of COVID are encouraged to do a kind of “smell training.” Pick a smell you used to really recognize: the smell of coffee, of lilac, a particular fragrance. And practice breathing it in, over time, and many have found this helps bring back their sense of smell quicker. Doctors suggest one try this for a few minutes, twice a day.

And in some ways, “smell training” is a little like “faith training.” Jesus encourages us to ask, to reach out, to pray—whether we believe or not, whether we have the words or not. And the Church traditionally invites us to pray twice a day—Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

And third, there’s simply asking for God’s presence. If you’re trying to develop your sense of faith, praying is one good way to do it—the Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis, or even just the simply prayer, “Help! God, if you’re there, answer.”

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.

But we can all deepen our sense of faith. Whether it’s through long walks, visits to quiet places, a retreat or even silence in the midst of a crowd, may we take some 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.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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