15th Sunday of the Year, 12 July 2020
“I can’t believe it’s not butter.” There used to be some great TV ads about it - I should say I’m not on a commission for mentioning it, I’m sure there are other excellent products available for your buttery needs. “I can’t believe it’s not butter,” was a title that puzzled me. It seemed to beg two questions: (a) what is the difference between what you’e eating and butter and (b) if you like butter so much why don’t you just eat it? The answer to the latter I think is the presence of cholesterol and this was one of the first of those health fads that crop up now and again. You mustn’t eat too much of it. And I’m sure that’s true. It clogs up your arteries I believe.
“I can’t believe it’s not butter.” I want to think this morning about faith, belief. To believe is what we do when we have faith. Faith needs visible and invisible aspects; we need to make sure we have both types. We’ve heard the Parable of the Sower as our Gospel this morning - isn’t it great to be back at Mass listening to the word of God together?! - anyway, we heard that classic parable of the Sower. Some seed fell here and other seed fell there. It seems rather arbitrary, wistful and carefree. This unnamed guy scattering seed all over the place. It can lead us to think it’s not clear why some have faith and others don’t.
We warned against that approach to faith, however, in our first reading from Isaiah 55 where God says: “the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do.” There’s something purposeful about God apportioning faith: it is not coincidental that you and I are Christians. God has called us by name and has laid His hand upon us. We are chosen, not simply accepted or received. God has intentionally given faith to those who are baptised and we in turn need to till it and ensure we don’t place rocks in our lives which will choke the seed. It is sinful for us not to look after this gift of faith, part of being ungrateful to God for all He has given to us. When we see those who have no faith we can be doubly pleased that we are stirring up this gift within us (II Timothy 1:6-7).
There will be a struggle within our faith. This ought not to surprise us, remember Jacob quite physically grapples with a man in Genesis 32. In the midst of this encounter and this struggle, Jacob is renamed and called Israel - which means struggle or striving. He discovers that this wrestling - as it is often referred to - is with none other than God Himself. It’s important surely that the people of God are given their significant name, Israel, which means struggle or strive. In Baptism we’re given an identity caught up with Christ but that’s not the end of the story, we’re to carry on grappling with issues and how the Gospel of Christ and His Cross looks in our life. Don’t think your priests are without this grappling, this questioning of why the church teaches this or that, why this is or is not allowed. It’s not wrong for us to question and to ask someone why it is the case. It is wrong for us to wilfully disregard what the Church teaches and believe we can reinvent it ourselves.
So, God has a reason for giving us faith. There’ll be times of struggling with that faith. As faith flourishes we will be aware of the little deaths that happen in our lives. I don’t mean here the deaths of our loved ones. The deaths in our faith, I mean the sufferings we have to endure to be faithful. The times when it is hard to get to Mass. The times when it is hard to recognise we have sinned and to confess it. The times when it is hard to say to someone our faith is more important than what they think of us. Jesus warns us of these little daily deaths when He says, “Truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Our own death will lead to eternal life, we pray by the grace of the Lord’s Cross and Resurrection. So also will those little hardships we experience each day, which are so much less than what our Lord suffered for us, be to us a means of growth and renewal. Our seed-like faith requires us to die daily to self and sin.
Surely it is for this reason that so we often hear Jesus healing the sick and saying to them: “Your faith has saved you.” It is through practising their faith when they were sick or paralysed or troubled that they kept close to Christ. We see this so often when people are near to death: those who have led faithful, worship-filled lives will have lost so many human capacities of conversation, or movement, independence, but they’re still reciting the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary. I can think of a particular member of this congregation who towards the end of her life did not make much sense in her conversation but once you started the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary or the Magnificat from St Luke’s Gospel, said at Evening Prayer each day, once you started those, boom she was off. Her faith saved her.
The disciples grumbled once that they couldn’t heal a boy whom Jesus healed: “Why could we not cast it out?” (Matthew 17:14) This was a devil whose days were numbered. And Jesus promises to do what we ask in faith. We mustn’t turn these matters into competitions: so-and-so has more faith than the other and therefore will be able to move bigger mountains. It’s the power of God that does these things. It’s that power which we have to believe in; not our ability to be conduits for it. Could God move a mountain - of course, He can. Therefore Jesus concludes this debacle of the disciples not healing the boy by saying: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move.” Now, it’s not a very useful thing to do, moving mountains. A reminder perhaps that God’s power is shown rather through the beauty of the natural world; the joy of humanity we are to marvel in each day. Moving mountains will take the form so often of removing a wicked habit, an evil word, a resentment, an inability to forgive, an unwillingness to worship: removing that mountain will be a sign of faith in the God who saves.
So much then about what nourishes our faith is visible: the sufferings we endure; the evils we are to banish from our life; the struggles about what faith looks like in our life and why the Church teaches this or that; the sense that for particular purposes God has called us: to support this or that person in a lively practise of their faith or however it might be. But there will also be invisible elements to our faith, things which only God sees, that which we see with the eyes of faith, things we will only see in Heaven. Hebrews 11 is a fantastic reflection on the gift of faith at work in people through the centuries. “Faith is the conviction of things not seen,” we’re taught. One of the examples given is of why the sacrifice given by Abel in Genesis 4 was greater than that given by Cain. The only difference in value between what Cain offers and what Abel offers is faith. The heart with which we speak to God as we offer our lives to Him.
And so it is also that our faith will be nourished with invisible grace. It’s amazing to come to Mass and we’re to treasure how it feels today so that when we come and it’s less exciting we’ll have the memory of today. For, sometimes we’ll leave Mass and we’ll wonder why do we bother?! “What’s the point? … I didn’t get anything from it.” Then we are to remind ourselves that our faith is nourished by things visible and invisible. We’re receiving invisible grace here, seeds are being planted here in our souls of which we have no sense of at the moment. Faith is beyond sense. There’s the wonderful translation of the hymn we sometimes sing at Mass or at Benediction:
Therefore, we before Him bending,
This great Sacrament revere …
Faith our outward sense befriending,
Makes the inward vision clear.
Faith makes the inward vision clear as we behold that which is visible to us. We mustn’t get stuck exclusively on what is visible though: remember Peter walking towards Christ on the water. To the naked eye all there was was water, on which humans cannot walk, and a human about to and then succeeding and then failing to do so (Matthew 14:28-33). Christ could also see His power that could have meant Peter stayed afloat on the water. If Peter had the faith to stay focused on that, things would have been very different.
We lived these last few months with the horrible consequences of a virus we cannot see without microscopes. That makes it more frightening. But we see very clearly its effects. Our lives are to have visible signs of our faith, which is a reality about things so often as yet unseen. Amen.