Sermon: The Gift of Faith
Preached on 7th October 2007
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts, be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
There is a curious story in the Second Book of Kings, in the Elisha cycle. Some prophets complained to Elisha that their house was not big enough. May we go to the Jordan and cut down some trees and built a bigger house? ‘Yes', said Elisha, and off they all went to the Jordan. As one of them was felling a log, his axe-head flew off its shank and fell into the water. He cried out in distress to Elisha because that particular axe had been borrowed. Elisha asked him where it fell; on seeing the place, Elisha threw a stick into the river, and the axe-head floated. ‘Pick it up', said Elisha, and the man reached out his hand, and picked it up.
Now the rationalist explanation of this incident is that in what we assume was shallow water, Elisha in fact poked about in the water with a stick until he located the axe-head. Sounds fair enough, but that is not what the text says. It says that Elisha threw a stick into that particular place in the water, and made the iron float. It is portraying Elisha as the Spirit-filled prophet in succession to Elijah, and demonstrating therefore that he possessed miraculous powers; he made the axe-head float.
I suppose that this is the kind of miracle that we most struggle with. Whatever our world-view, we can understand the motivation of healing miracles - the restoration of wholeness and health; or feeding miracles, the provision of sustenance - where in both cases, sheer compassion is the over-riding motivation. We can also understand the role of miracles of revelation, such as Jesus calming a storm, or walking on water, which are clearly designed so to blow our minds and our imaginations, that they provoke a response: ‘Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him.' But a floating, borrowed iron axe-head? If we borrow a tool from a neighbour and wreck it or lose it, well, we go out and buy a new one!
But I wonder if somehow we are losing the point. The point is about Elisha, not the axe-head; Elisha, the Spirit-filled man, who inherited a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. The point is that in this circumstance, we live in a reality where the axe-head floats. That world has been thrown upside-down, inside-out; there is something else going on.
Now this is by way of introduction to today's Gospel reading. And that request from the Apostles, a request that doubtless we have made ourselves at many points in our lives: ‘Lord, increase our faith'. I have a lot of sympathy with the Apostles. I sometimes try in my imagination to think what it must have been like to accompany Jesus in his public ministry. How often they must have felt completely out of their depth. How often, they must have felt their own sheer humanity, vulnerability and weakness, in the light of the Jesus we encounter in the Gospel, so wonderfully wise, so mysteriously powerful, so inscrutably ‘other', always one or six steps ahead of us. And indeed, we read of incidents when the Apostles seemed impotent; they couldn't, for whatever reason, accomplish their commission to reveal the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, to replicate the works of their Master. It must have seemed to them, that Jesus was so full of faith, and that by comparison, they fell so far short. ‘Lord, increase our faith'.
But Jesus, characteristically, turns that request on its head. ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry bush, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea," and it would obey you.' Now we meet mustard seeds elsewhere in the Gospel, where we are reminded that they are the smallest of all seeds, so the saying is ‘If you have even tiny faith, mustard-seed sized you, can do extraordinary things.' And we might well reply, ‘I wish', because this assertion seems to contradict our experience.
But I wonder if Jesus had a smile on his face. After all, why would anyone wish to say to a poor little mulberry bush, ‘Be up-rooted and be planted in the sea'? It's not about compassion, or revelation; it seems silly, some kind of cheap trick, gratuitous. And of course, it's absurd, the very notion of being ‘planted in the sea'.
I wonder whether Jesus was in fact saying to his anxious, worried disciples, who were probably trying just a little too hard, ‘relax'. It's not about trying to summon up more and more faith; it's not as if a sudden injection by divine intervention, will mean that everything becomes easy, automatic, effortless. It's rather about remembering that in the coming of the Kingdom, and by the power of the Spirit, there is a new reality, countless new possibilities, a world turned up-side down and inside-out, where if we wish to be humorous, even tiny, little faith can transplant mulberry bushes, where iron axe-heads can float!
Of course, faith is a gift. As the Collect of the Day states, ‘Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us your gift of faith'. In the Baptism service we proclaim, ‘Faith is the gift of God to his people'. And in the New Testament Lesson, the faith of Timothy, his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois is commended; a faith taught and passed on down the generations. But for that reason, Timothy is exhorted to rekindle the gift of God given to him, in his case by what appears to be an act of ordination or commissioning, precisely because the spirit he has been given is not one of cowardice, but of power and love and self-discipline. Timothy needed to open himself once again, to those wonderful attributes that come through faith. Not a spirit to enable gratuitous displays of supernatural fireworks, as if the Christian faith were a celestial circus, but all that power and love and self-control can do in revealing a reality where God reigns and where his re-creating Spirit brings new life.
So, the request ‘Increase our faith' is an appropriate petition, but I think it means, ‘Lord, make me more open to the signs of your kingdom, to the presence of your Spirit, to the right use of the gifts you have given me, to the upside-down, inside-out values of the Kingdom of God. For Jesus says to us that even if your faith is tiny, tiny as a mustard seed, already, you are able to see extra-ordinary things, as if, to be silly for a moment, bushes fly up from the soil and land in the sea, as if iron axe-heads falling into water suddenly float. What more might we see, and accomplish, if God further opens our perceptions, and in this way increases our faith?
But, oh dear. I really do think I need to be re-converted to this insight, because there is a Christian snare. There is a lovely phase in a hymn that says:Lift my earth-bound longings;
Fix them, Lord, above.
We allow ourselves to become so earth-bound. We live and act and think in a way that forgets the upside-down, inside-out realities of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, and the immanent, renewing work of the Spirit. Instead, we allow ourselves to be shaped by the equivalent of Timothy's ‘spirit of cowardice', although for me it might be a spirit of earth-boundedness, a kind of Christian secularism, the mere art of the possible.
So, ‘Lord increase our faith' - open again and more widely our perceptions and imaginations to your pre-venient, re-creating, miraculous Presence; stir up the gift you have given to us, the spirit of power and love and self-control and give us the imagination to see and enable - not little humourous absurdities, but all that love can do - all that love can do - when ignited by the Spirit of God in this world in which we live.
For my brothers and sisters, I have to tell you: we live in a world where the axe-head floats.