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ANIMALS SHOW US HOW TO INCREASE OUR FAITH
SAINT FRANCIS DAY CELEBRATION
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 06, 2019 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs, CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Habakkuk 1:2-3;2:2-4 | Psalm 95:1-2;6-9
2 Timothy 1:6-8;13-14 | Luke 17-5-10
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
We live in an absolutely crazy world. People are fighting wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Others are engaging in street violence, like that happening in Hong Kong. Here in the United States, we witness vandalism to places of worship, mass shootings, urban social unrest, corruption in government, severe inequality of wealth and income, abuse of power, invidious discrimination based on immutable characteristics, and one person assaulting another driven by hatred of their ethnicity and/or religion. All of that not only tries our patience but tries our faith in both God and our fellow humans. Based on fear of harm, the response of many is to ignore the voice of God and become hard-hearted in a quest for mere survival. We cry to God for help, but God does not do what we expect. God does truly test our faith quite often.
What we are seeing today is nothing new in human history. The prophet Habakkuk lived in the Seventh Century Before Christ. He’s what scholars call a “pre-exilic prophet.” Then, as now, times were not good. Here’s the scenario: the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen, and the Babylonian army was on the march towards Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom called Judah. The brutal Babylonians were about to ransack and destroy Jerusalem and deport its people to Babylon for a long exile.
In our first reading today, the prophet sees violence all around him and asks why God does not take action. It’s the same thing we feel when we hear of street violence and mass shootings that leads us to ask, “Where is God when we need God?” The prophet openly questions God’s wisdom to not get involved. God tells the prophet that things will get better and to persevere. If you read the rest of the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk, (very short, only three chapters), you will see how the prophet contrasts the pride and arrogance of the Babylonians with the humility of the Israelites. The prophet tells the Israelites that if they act justly, they will have the faith to survive what the Babylonians are about to visit upon them, that is, the loss of their land.
As I have preached many times, faith is NOT, I repeat NOT, whether or not you assent to the existence of supernatural things, that which is beyond concrete, tangible human experience perceived with one or more of our five senses.
Faith is NOT the power of positive thinking or positive reinforcement. It is not found within the will of the human mind.
Faith is NOT pulling oneself up by their own bootstraps.
Faith is NOT an acceptance of the mere existence of God. Rather, faith assumes God’s existence and asks for our trust in God.
In the Old Testament, Abraham was considered a great example of faith because he trusted the divine promises which he personally saw only partially fulfilled. Because of Abraham’s trust of the unseen, God identified Himself as “the God of Abraham” and Abraham became known as “God’s friend forever.” Hundreds of years later, the Israelites demonstrated their faith in God when they trusted Moses as God’s emissary in leading them through the Red Sea while leaving the Egyptians behind them to drown. It took Moses quite a while to convince them to leave Egypt and trust God acting through Moses to give them a life better than they experienced as slaves to the Egyptians. Simply put, an increase in faith was necessary to motivate the Israelites to leave on their Exodus journey.
Fast forward to today for an example from our world. We put our faith in people every day. Have you ever had surgery? You have exhibited confidence in the surgeon by allowing her to work on your body. You trusted the doctor to improve your physical condition. Similarly, when a person gets on a train, they exercise faith in the engineer, trusting that the engineer was trained to do her job. You are trusting that this person can get you to your destination! Think of the trust that you invest in other people daily. When you think of it that way, why do we have such a hard time trusting God? Probably because God is far away from you, not part of your everyday world.
What God is asking of you is to place your trust and complete reliance on God, just as you do the doctor or the train engineer, only the stakes are much bigger.
Faith asks us to assume that, despite all the bad things going on around us, God will, in the end, make all things right.
When we pray for an increase in faith, as the disciples of Jesus did in today’s Gospel, we pray for increased trust and reliance on God. Jesus gives the example of the mulberry tree. Jesus tells us that if we have sufficient faith, we can do anything. For Jesus, a little faith goes a long way in getting big things done. Jesus tells us that faint the size of a mustard seed will be sufficient to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea. A mustard seed is extremely small, no more than about one millimeter in size. A mulberry tree, however, is quite large. It grows three to four meters high in the first six years of its life, and, when fully grown, tops out at about twenty-five meters. What Jesus is telling us is that he amount of our faith is less important than its potency and quality.
We all know people who are simple and humble but with an incredibly strong faith that moves mountains. For example, Rosa Parks, a Black housemaid, moved mountains in impelling the success of the civil rights movement when, when, after a hard day of cleaning, refused to move to the back of the bus when requested to do so by a White person in accordance with prevailing custom.Simple, humble people, like the incarnate Jesus, accomplish more than bombastic, power-hungry type-A personalities.
The disciples in today’s Gospel ask Jesus, “Increase our faith.” What prompted them to ask that? In the portion of the seventeenth chapter of the Lukan Gospel that immediately precedes today’s Gospel reading, Jesus spoke about sin. Jesus said sin was inevitable and that the result of sin was not good. But Jesus also said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” And then Jesus tells them if someone wrongs you seven times in one day, and says, “I’m sorry” each time, you should forgive that person.
We have all had the experience of someone who continually displeases us and apologizes, but keeps on doing it.At home, Deacon Sharon continually tells me to clean up after myself. Each time, I apologize for not doing it, but I am still a messy person. Each time, however, she forgives me. And I ask her repeatedly to store her clothes in closets rather than all over the bedroom, but I forgive her for not doing it. The fact we continually forgive each other has enabled us to be together over twenty-six years.For Christians, forgiveness is quite practical: it keeps relationships together.
What forgiveness requires is humility. Apologies, saying I’m sorry, requires humility, requires the setting aside of one’s pride to say, “I made a mistake.” But forgiveness also requires humility on the part of the forgiver, to set aside an urge to retaliate and justify oneself and to instead accept the human imperfections of those who wrong us.
Humility is the most powerful and efficacious route to increase our faith. Jesus explains that to us in the two sayings that follow the prayer of the disciples for an increase in faith. First, Jesus talks about a hardworking servant who has just plowed a field and has come to the master’s home. The master has two choices. The master’s choice was to be humble or selfish.The master can consider the humanity of the servant, that the servant is tired after a hard day’s work ploughing a field, and invite the servant to sit down and eat, or the master can require the servant to do further work to serve dinner to the master and that the servant should put his own needs on hold until the master’s hunger had been satiated. Jesus recognizes that most masters in this situation would choose the second alternative.What Jesus wants, however, is for the master to be humble by showing gratitude to the servant.
In the part of the seventeenth chapter that follows today’s Gospel, we have the story of the ten lepers where only one of them showed Jesus gratitude for having been cleansed. Humility and gratitude are related. To show gratitude requires humility, and conversely, humility flows from gratitude. Each feeds the other.
Jesus also recognizes the value of humility in the second story about servants in today’s Gospel. Those servants who do the bare minimum to keep their jobs are called “unprofitable.” Such self-satisfied servants are not willing to humble themselves to say, “I can do better.” If we truly want to increase our faith in God, we have to honestly take stock of who and what we are to see if we can do better than we are doing. That requires humility, the jettisoning of a puffed-up ego that starts with the assumption of “I am better than anyone else and I don’t need to prove myself.”
Humility gives us the openness to God is necessary to increase our faith in God. Faith is by its very nature a subjection of the mind and will to God as the sovereign truth, a subjection to God’s divine authority as the illuminator and teacher of the soul. The person who is too involved with her or his own ego has no room for God. Such a person lives with the delusion of self-sufficiency in knowledge and skill, which leads to the further delusion of “I don’t need God. I know everything. I can do it all myself.” Such a person lives without perceiving a need for God and no need to trust in God or be loyal to God. That kind of person relegates God to the dustbin of total irrelevance. God calls us to pray for people like that and to be examples in their presence to show them what trusting God looks like.
The ultimate result of, “I know everything and can do it all myself” is atheism. The atheist attitude is, “I am totally self-sufficient. Whether or not God exists is irrelevant to me. I can do it all.” That is exactly where the world as a whole is headed, particularly in the technologically advanced countries. Much of Western Europe is agnostic or atheist. Those areas of the United States where the tech industry dominates the economy, like metropolitan Seattle, Washington and Silicon Valley, California, are among the lowest as to the role played in people’s lives by religion and spirituality of any kind. The very low church attendance in those areas is a symptom of a much larger problem. The pride of self-sufficiency in those areas has usurped any need one may have to turn oneself over to God.
But as smart as those unchurched techies think they are, there is another way to live. It may not lead to material riches, but it can lead to God.To increase our faith in God requires that we replace our pride and sense of entitlement with humility and the gratitude that comes from it. St. Francis of Assisi gives us an example of how to increase our faith through humility. Nothing stopped him from pursuing God’s glory. After squandering his youth away in having excessive fun, he converted to Christianity, renounced his inheritance, and offered himself totally to God. His embrace of Christ-like poverty was a radical notion at the time, when the Christian church was tremendously rich, much like the people heading it both then and now. That concerned Francis and many others, who felt that the long-held apostolic ideals had eroded. No longer relying on personal wealth for survival, Francis put his total trust, that is, his total faith, in God, and God was always there for him throughout the trials and adventures of his life. The faith of Francis increased because he let go of worldly things and surrendered to God.
Not only do saints intercede for us, but they also set examples for us. Francis showed us how he increased his faith through prayer. Later in this service, at the preparation of the gifts, we will sing the Canticle of the Sun, wherein Francis praised God in creation. If there is anything that makes us stand in awe of God, it is creation itself.
We increase our faith in God when we pray the Prayers of the People following the Creed and the special prayers at the end of Mass. The fact of our prayer demonstrates our faith in God, that we are trusting God to bring us a beneficial outcome.
We often hear preachers tell us that the way to increase our faith in God is to get to know God by reading the Bible. Saint Francis, however, illustrates to us that the fundamentalist protestant sola-scriptura doctrine is totally impotent. Just like when we fall in love with someone, whenever Saint Francis would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he would burst into song, drawing all other creatures into praising God.
Saint Francis invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. To quote the Book of Wisdom, “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker.”
Francis is often associated with nature, and in particular, animals, such as the ones we will bless today. Those animals who are part of our families offer us a unique way to increase our faith in God. They demonstrate unconditional love for us. As the First Epistle of John tells us, God is love, and love is from God. In more than one place in the Psalms, God is described as “is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.”That definition of God is what I see in God’s manifestation among us, not only in Jesus but in all the rest of creation.
Our view of God, however, is not universally shared. Our conservative sisters and brothers often preach a stern, judgmental God who will send souls of dead people to heaven or hell depending on how they conducted their lives. Animals, however, have no idea what a judgmental God is. Animals do not think of their afterlife as the go about being themselves. Wild animals simply go about the business of being what they are, being born, surviving, reproducing, and dying, without value judgments about themselves or other creatures. They don’t think of themselves or other animals as good or bad. While it is true that animals are not human, they nonetheless receive God’s grace, receiving and responding to God’s love, each in their own way. God cares for their needs without them asking.
Animals are the ultimate demonstration of what faith in God looks like. They don’t pray to God to ask God to do something for them. Whatever God thinks animals should have, they get it. So it should be with us. To increase our faith, we must trust in God to do whatever God thinks is right for us.
We communicate to God our wants and needs in human language, but ultimately, God will do whatever God thinks is right for us. Our faith in God requires we trust God to do that.To show that level of trust in God requires our total humility in our relationship to God. It requires total faith in God. We accept God by experiencing God. The more we accept God, the greater our faith in God becomes.Faith is the first light, the heralding light, the foundation placed in us of what in its final perfection will achieve the ultimate goal of our existence when we become one with God. AMEN.