“The Mystery of Faith”
Sunday, February 3, 2008
Matthew 17: 1-9; 14-23
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. We are familiar with the story of when Jesus goes with Peter, James and John to the mountaintop. But today I want us to look at that story from another place, from the bottom of the mountain, from the perspective of the 9 disciples who weren't invited to the transfiguration.
We can imagine what it was like for these nine. They had given up everything to follow Jesus and had been sent out with the challenge of four small tasks: cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. And now that it was the most important moment of the ministry, they were not invited. While Jesus and Peter, James, and John were up at the top of the mountain, the nine were with the crowd at the bottom of the mountain, in the trenches of ministry. So this is the situation of the nine: they missed out on the transfiguration and now they’re unable to cast out the demon. This is where I would like us to begin our reflection today.
Dean mentioned last Sunday that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew was part of the 2nd generation of Christianity. These are the disciples who didn't get to know Jesus personally, who were trying to carry out the ministry in often difficult and demoralizing circumstances, and having to make sense of other people's stories of who Jesus was and is. This is our context as well. Part of our experience of discipleship is encountering the situations we are unable to heal, the demons we are unable to cast out.
The story talks about a boy with epilepsy that the disciples were unable to cure. The boy's father comes to Jesus with assistance. Clearly the context in Jesus’ time was different. Today we would not view someone with an illness such as epilepsy as possessed by a demon. But we read in the text that the boy suffered terribly, falling into the fire and into the water. We can imagine what that must have been like for this boy and his family in Jesus’ time, to have sudden and unpredictable seizures. They must have been so disappointed when the disciples were unable to help.
There are times when we can experience situations in our lives over which we have no control as demonic. We may experience physical illness and chronic pain, struggles with substance abuse and mental illness; demons of racism/homophobia; of violence and poverty.
I often feel overwhelmed by the issues of injustice and suffering in our world that only seem to get worse. Anybody who walks in this city encounters people sleeping outside or on our doorsteps. There are people who come to our church, or who we encounter at day labor sites that have problems that we have no answers for. There are the areas in my own life where I seem unable to change or move forward. I identify with these disciples at the bottom of the mountain, and how it must have felt not being able to cast out the demon as well as with the insistence of the father who wanted healing for his son. Even Jesus was frustrated with the perverse times he was living in which I'm sure we can all relate to when we hear the news or read the paper. Why can't these demons be healed?
When the disciples asked Jesus why they hadn't been able to cast out the demon, he said to them it was because of their little faith. I think this is answer can often be misinterpreted to say that if you only had faith, you could be cured, and therefore if you're not cured, its your fault because of your little faith. I don’t think that was what Jesus meant.
As I was reflecting on this sermon, I really got stuck with this question of what to do with the demons in our life that we cannot heal. I had to start talking to people here at Foundry in order to help me with this question. I spoke to people who had experiences with chronic pain, substance abuse, cancer, divorce, mental illness, as well as the struggle against injustice. I asked them to talk about how they responded to situations where there seemed to be no cure, and what that meant for their faith. Much of this sermon comes from their wisdom and insight.
One thing that was clear was that not everyone experiences the same situation as a demon. We may also experience the same situation differently throughout our journey. However, this does not take away from the fact that many of us do find ourselves experiencing something in our lives as a demon that we cannot heal.
Several people spoke to me about how they came to recognize that they could not control the situation, which created space for asking God to come in. In some cases that meant recognizing that they could not beat an illness or addiction by themselves, in other places acknowledging our weakness. In fact it can be our failure to cast out the demon that opens up the place of asking God to come in, that it is not we who do the healing but God. This is what happened in the story when the disciples were not able to cast out the demon; Jesus had to step in. This is very much part of the first three steps of the 12 step program in AA. For me, it is often those days when I feel I have the least to offer, when I have to use those 3-word “help me God” prayers, that I experience the greatest grace of God working through me. Sometimes it even seems too simple, what just allowing God to act in our lives will do, and how much we block God. Other times it can be tremendously challenging to really give up that control.
Another theme was acceptance. There is a difference between cure and healing. Recognizing that an illness may not be cured, we can still find healing in the acceptance. One person called it making friends with the demon; another said it was recognizing that demons will always be with us. It’s very much the Serenity prayer used by AA – grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Yet, acceptance is not an excuse. There
are still ways to lessen some of the pain and suffering in our lives and in
the lives of others. As one person I
spoke to said, chronic pain is going to be there and therefore we have to
find out ways to live in the midst of the pain. We can make choices that will lessen the
pain. This is true of the illness in
our community as well. Even if we
can't eliminate homelessness today, we can still help people get an ID, we
can provide transitional housing for four women. We can write to people in
prison like our prison ministry. We
can cook breakfast for people at a soup kitchen. We can work with Habitat on March 16 or go on
the ASP trip. And there is much to do
to alleviate homelessness in our community.
We can work towards the goal of eliminating homelessness by organizing
our city to create and preserve affordable housing and supportive
One person told me that the true demon is when we lose our belief in self or God, which is the true pain in the midst of illness and when the hopelessness and depression set in. In the midst of her struggles with chronic pain and depression, she had to focus on the smallest things, the smallest risk that she could succeed in order to regain hope. She had to praise the glory of the smallest thing, the air, and the flower. This is what faith as a mustard seed is
In the book Blood Done Sign my name, Timothy Tyson writes that “The freedom struggle persists even if has not prevailed.” Faith as a mustard seed is that persistence to continue with the smallest steps to respond to the suffering of the world and that of our own lives. It is the commitment of the disciples to continue the work of healing and casting out demons and discipleship, even after encountering demons they could not cast out, and even after some of them missed out on the transfiguration. It is the struggle to stay sober day after day, to find a way to live with pain and chronic illness, to continue to seek justice in an unjust world. We persist in our commitment to our own process of recovery and healing, and that of the world.
And that is why we need the transfiguration. As one of the nine who didn't get invited to the transfiguration, we still need to hear about this vision, so that our own faith and vision can be strengthened while we're in the trenches at the bottom of the mountain. And the reality is we all have our own mountaintop experiences to share. And it’s important that we share them. Joan Von Drehle, one of the walk-in volunteers, says that every Friday she experiences that moment of understanding where God passes by and she feels we are making a real difference in some small way in people's lives. I know my friend Pauline's faith and relationship with God seems so strong and vibrant in the midst of great difficulty that when she talks about it, my faith is strengthened. In every area of ministry at Foundry, there are powerful and beautiful moments of God's presence that sustain us through the times when it feels like we are not prevailing.
Too often we want to stay with these moments and these experiences, just as Peter, James and John wanted to build tents at the top of the mountain. But we are called to live out the vision of the mountaintop at the bottom of the mountain, just as the 12 disciples did. And that is the mystery of faith as a mustard seed. We know these disciples who the writer of Matthew makes clear have many defects and failures and weaknesses. We know about the small and struggling early Christian communities And yet their imperfect ministry which included many demons they were unable to heal, has persisted over 2,000 years to give birth to our own community at Foundry.
This week we leave the season of Epiphany and enter into Lent. Like the disciples we have been told of Jesus' death and resurrection. During the journey into Lent, we may encounter demons we cannot heal, and like the disciples we may have our moments of dismay and hopelessness. For this reason we need to carry the vision of the transfiguration with us, looking forward to resurrection, as we walk this path that may be difficult at times. As we enter into Lent let us practice faith as a mustard seed. Our day to day persistent actions of love and hope and beauty and joy in this world are what grow into healing and transformation in our own lives and in this world. This is the mystery of faith.