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By Faith

10th Sunday after Pentecost / Forefeast of Cross Procession; St. Eudocimus of Cappadocia / 1 Cor. 4.9-16; Matthew 17.14-23

F/S/HS Brothers and sisters, two Sundays ago and then again last Sunday I spoke about the virtues of repentance, humility, and contrition.  Today I want to speak about the virtue of faith.  Our Gospel stories over these last several weeks have extoled the role of faith in a person’s life; and they have lamented the absence of faith in the lives of other persons.

Four Sundays ago it was because of the faith of the paralytic’s friends that his sins were forgiven.  When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you’ (Mt. 9.2).  Dear ones, I can barely ponder that possibility, so sublime and miraculous: Because of your faith, my sins are forgiven.  Because of my faith, your sins are forgiven.  Thank God for the faith of those who intercede on our behalf!

Three Sundays ago, two blind men were healed by Jesus because of their faith in Him: Then Jesus touched their eyes, saying,According to your faith, let it be to you.’  And their eyes were opened (Mt. 9.29-30).

But last Sunday and this morning are different.  Last Sunday Peter was stricken by fear as he sank below the waves; not holy fear at the righteousness and power of God, but instead animal fear, limbic fear that paralyzes.  O you of little faith, Jesus chastised Peter.  Why did you doubt? (Mt. 14.31).

And now this morning’s Gospel, where a man brings his epileptic son to Jesus, crying out on behalf of his son, telling Jesus that His Disciples could not heal the boy.  After Jesus heals him, the Disciples come to Jesus privately and ask, Why could we not cast the demon out?  So Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your unbelief; for assuredly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. (Mt. 17.20).

Our Scriptures are full of stories that lament the absence of faith in person’s lives.  And it is full of stories where faith abounds.  So central was faith in God to the Apostle Paul that he constructs an entire chapter dedicated to the subject, Hebrews, ch. 11.  V. 1: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen

Paul goes on to site numerous Old Testament figures, who, though the Messiah had not yet come, nonetheless hoped in God, had faith in God: By faith AbelBy faith EnochBy faith NoahBy faith Abraham … By faith SarahIsaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, and a host of women who, because of their faith, received their dead raised to life again … on and on Paul goes about these Old Testament figures who embodied the virtue of faith.  But without faith, Paul says in v. 6 of that same chapter, it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (v. 6).

How many times, however, did those who had faith seem to lapse into occasions or seasons of an absence of faith.  How many times do we experience the same!  Peter, O you of little faith.  Why did you doubt that I would save you from sinking beneath those waves.  Or with the Disciples in this morning’s Gospel: If only you had faith as a mustard seed, Jesus laments, you could have cast out that demon.  Or with Thomas, even after the myrrh-bearing women and other Disciples had told him that Jesus was raised from the dead, still would not have faith … until he could actually touch the Risen Jesus with his own hands.  Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have faith (John 20.29).

O dear ones, that we might have faith.  Faith in the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; faith in His mysterious ways with us, even where we do not feel His presence or understand His ways with us.

This faith of which we speak, sisters and brothers, expresses itself in many different ways.  Sometimes it is related to hope in God: that when the here-and-now appears bleak, as it did to Abraham and Sarah and Zacharias and Elizabeth regarding bearing a child, that God in the mystery of His providence will provide.  Sometimes it is related to belief in God’s promises, that though we cannot see the fruit of these promises right now, we nonetheless believe they will be fulfilled.  Sometimes faith is framed as a gift from God and not much of our own doing: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is a gift from God, not of works, lest anyone should boast, Paul writes to the Church of Ephesus (Ephesians 2.8-9).

While other times faith seems very much tied to the doing of holy acts, such as prayer and fasting.  So it was in this morning’s Gospel, where Jesus directly ties the Disciples lack of faith to the absence of their prayer and fasting.  This kind, Jesus concludes—meaning this kind of demon—does not go out [of the boy] except by prayer and fasting.  In other words, your faith is weak; you could not cast out that demon because you have not prayed and fasted.

I want to conclude this morning with a story about the faith of one particular person, born out of their prayer and fasting.  Equally, it is a story about those who lost faith in God, and the mystery of someone else’s faith in helping restore their faith.  The story is shared by an anonymous priest from a small parish in rural Colorado, about a series of events that unfolded in the life of his parish a little over a year and half ago. 

This parish priest was discouraged if not rather despondent, about seven young persons who made the choice not only to leave their church but also to entirely reject their Orthodox faith: Five teenage or young adult boys, followed by two young adult women.  Three of these young person left following the suicide of a close friend of theirs.  How could God allow this tragedy?

Then the culture wars and what this priest called the toll of woke-ism captured two other of these young persons.  They too left.  The other two suffered from being followers, unable to marshal the courage and faith to stand independent of their friends.  Only one lone teenager existed among the teens and young adults in his church, this priest said—a fourteen year old girl.  Six months passed, months wherein this lone fourteen year old girl attended every Saturday night and Sunday morning, and an evening vespers once per week.

Then came the same Sunday as this morning—the tenth Sunday following Pentecost, and the same Gospel we read this morning here in our church.  Two more months passed.   

Then one Sunday morning two of the seven young persons who had left the church suddenly returned back to church, seeking to renew their faith.  Two weeks later a third returned.  Then the two young women returned, another two weeks later.  Followed by the remaining two teenage boys, about three weeks later.  All seven came to Confession.

The priest decided to take each of these seven young persons out individually for lunch, as he wanted to better understand what brought them back to church and back to their Faith.  Not one of the seven could entirely account for why they returned.  Compellingly, five of the seven used a similar phrase.  Father, it felt like someone was praying for us.

Then one night, several days later, this priest had a dream.  In the dream he could see his fourteen year old faithful parishioner praying before an altar that was located out in the woods, beneath an immense oak tree.  Three icons were attached to the tree, in front of the altar: an icon of St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, one of St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris, and St. Herman of Alaska.  In his dream the priest stood at a safe distance from the girl, though close enough that he could see the faces of each of these three saints.  Their lips were moving, as if they were talking to this young girl.  She was nodding in return.  Then he awoke from his dream.

That next day the priest called the girl and asked if he could take her out for lunch.  She was delighted to go.  Ten minutes into their lunch he asked: Have you been praying for anyone recently?   She humbly lowered her head.  Yes, FatherWho? the priest asked.  Well, do you remember your homily several weeks back, about Jesus telling His Disciples that those who have faith pray and fast, and that such prayer and fasting was key to casting out that demon. I took your words to heart.  So I’ve been praying and fasting for the young people who left our church, that God would heal them and bring them back.

The priest continued, amazed at this young girl’s faith: Where do you do your prayers?  She answered: Sometimes I do them at our family altar.  But often I like to walk in the woods by our house.  There’s one particular tree that I like to sit under and pray.

The priest inquired further.  Are you close to any particular saints?  Did you ask for the intercessions of certain saints on behalf of those you were praying for?  Well, yes, two saints especially: St. Xenia and St. Maria, the girl answered.  Because they especially practiced your homily.  Their faith was a faith that prayed and fasted. 

What a story dear ones!  And so tomorrow, with the beginning of the Dormition Fast, we pray and we fast.  And we lift up the names of Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike in our prayers.  May God find our faith a worthy offering unto answering our intercessions.  F/S/HS