This sermon was delivered on the Tenth Sunday of Matthew (Matthew17:14-23), August 16, 2020, at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church in Flushing, New York.
Audio (not recorded live)
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
HAVE YOU EVER had high expectations of someone or something and and then been let down? Especially in a time of great need or desperation? This is why the father in today’s Gospel reading was so frustrated and disappointed. He came to Christ’s disciples as if they were Christ himself, for they bore his name. But when it was evident that they had no sway over the demon possessing his son, both he and they realized that bearing the name and manifesting the name were two different things.
When the disciples had a chance to ask Jesus why they failed, he said “because of your little faith” and that the demon they encountered “never comes out except by prayer and fasting”. He then used this opportunity to tell them that he himself would be killed and rise from the dead, something they could not yet fathom.
Yet it would be these very events that would lead them to wholeness—that is, holiness—in Christ’s image: the Cross, which is the pinnacle of self-denial and self-emptying to which prayer and fasting aspire; and the Resurrection, which is the bedrock of our faith.
Now we, who are indeed disciples of Christ, yet who take for granted the Cross and the Resurrection—in other words: we have the advantage of hindsight, of the Gospels, but the disciples at that time had not yet witnessed these things—do we attain to this wholeness, this holiness, in Christ? Do we resemble him? Do we live a self-emptying life rooted in faith in the Resurrection?
If our self-indulgent, selfie-crazed, hyper-politicized, conspiracy-theorizing, family-feuding, name-calling, opinion-vaunting, self-justifying lives are any indication, then I am not so sure we can answer those questions in the affirmative. It might even be the case that, now more than ever, we deserve the words of Christ from today’s reading: “O faithless and perverse generation!”
As the father related to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, the demon would try to cast his boy either into fire or water to burn or to drown him. And what about us as a people? As a nation? As a Church? Haven’t recent events shown us that we are like a people possessed, plagued by seizures and out of its mind?
Are we not cast into the water of indifference or the fire of partisanship, instead of walking the straight path of prudent Christian vigilance? Are we not cast into the water of stinginess or the fire of decadence, rather than being stewards and benefactors of our Church and those in need? Are we not cast into the water of fear or the fire of bravado, rather than maintaining holy sobriety? Are we not cast into the water of rationalism or the fire of magical thinking, rather than standing in reverence before the mystery of faith?
Jesus tells us that these kinds of things can only be avoided by prayer and fasting. How many of us pray, sincerely, for our civic leaders? How many of us pray for our priests and our hierarchs? How many of us pray for the person or people with whom we have friction or conflict? How many of us pray for our family—indeed, how many of us pray with our family? How many of us seek confession and forgiveness of our own sins? How many of us sincerely pray “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”?
Likewise, how many of us faithfully observe the fasting prescribed by the Church? How many of us limit our consumption in order to please the Lord and to provide for our neighbor, and to quell our passions?
You see, as much as we might look for and desire a change in external circumstances and events and other people, prayer and fasting have as their first aim the transformation of our interior world. They bring balance and stability to us so that we are not so easily pushed or pulled into “fire” or “water”. This is perhaps the greater miracle, the greater healing; this is why Jesus tells us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents.
Moreover, it is only when we live a life of complete dedication to Christ that we begin to resemble him. And it is only when we begin to resemble Christ that the demons will shudder in fear, for then when they see us, they will see the face of the one who drives them away.
Brothers and sisters, the world is looking for healing. Yet Jesus no longer walks the earth as he did when he healed that poor man’s son. Instead, he has made us to be his body, his hands, his face—do we do our part to maintain that likeness and high calling? When the demons encounter us, do they see Christ and flee, or do they see helpless disciples and laugh and go on about their business?
Believe in the resurrection. Pick up your cross. Get over yourself. Repent. Pray. Fast. Learn your faith well. Manifest Christ. Terrify demons. Bring healing to our epileptic world.