The Rev. Becky McDaniel. This sermon is based on Luke 17:5-10.
If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
Jesus says IF you had faith. IF. In today’s collect we pray to God: you are always more ready to hear than we to pray. For many of us, prayer does not come easily. Faith does not come easily. Our day-to-day methods of living do not lend themselves easily to a life of faith. We live in a fiercely rational and scientific world. There is very little enchantment left in our world, which makes it harder and harder for people to have any kind of faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed. And yet we, as people of faith (even of little faith), plant seeds simply by engaging with our neighbors. When we get out and share our experiences of faith and the spiritual life, we are met with wonderful surprises that do offer a fresh glimpse of enchantment in our world.
As most of you know, I moved to Staunton in June and began working as your curate on July 1st. One night in July I decided to venture out by myself and attempt to meet some of my new Staunton neighbors. While walking down Beverley Street I saw a sign for live music at the Yelping Dog and stepped in and up to the bar to order a grilled cheese. I sat next to a man who was also dining alone, and he asked me about my profession. When I told him that I was an Episcopal clergy person, he immediately reacted with surprise: “You work for the institutional church? I gave up on that a long time ago. I am an atheist.” Wonderful, I thought, as I love arguing theology and hearing why doubters doubt. I believe that doubt can be a gift from God, as it can save us from self-righteousness and corruption in the church, especially in times when the church has gained more power than it needs. But that is a sermon for another day. On this particular night, I focused on asking questions. Question after question about this man’s life experiences and the source of his doubt. I did not try to convince him of anything. Mostly, I just listened. And something truly remarkable happened. As he was telling his life story, his journey from England to Canada to the United States, he paused and said, “I have had a spiritual experience. I witnessed the reality of sacrifice once when I observed a salmon spawn in British Columbia. The mothers willingly give their lives for the spawn. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” He described the spawn in detail, the great efforts of the mothers, how their bodies break and crumble as they leap to their deaths, and by the end of his story, he was weeping. Something had moved in him that acknowledged a higher power, something had shifted that seemed to sense that what this whole religion thing is all about is self-sacrifice. Not power and authority, not proper ritual or correct creedal statements, but self-giving love. I had simply asked questions and listened to him, and the faith, that tiny mustard seed faith, had revealed itself.
Today we honored St Francis of Assisi with the blessing of the animals in the church yard. We didn’t have any salmon to bless, but I think that this story is a wonderful example of what we can learn spiritually from the animals in our lives, as well as from the natural world of trees and flowers and all living things. I recently listened to a podcast about the interconnected underground lives of tree roots and fungi, how these entities depend upon each other for survival and even give their life-sustaining nourishment up for others in order to maintain the life of the forest. Everywhere we look, we can become witnesses to sacrifice, to the giving over of broken bodies for the sake of another. All of life can be a reflection of the cross of Christ. Our very evolution as spiritual beings depends upon this sacrifice. In the Eucharistic act, we bring our broken selves and the work of our hands in the form of bread and wine to the altar to be transformed into newness of life through the presence of Christ, whose broken body was transformed so that we, too, might be transformed into a higher consciousness. This is the process of our lives of faith: giving ourselves, however broken, and sometimes breaking as we leap, like the salmon, to one another in order that together we might be transformed into God’s divine likeness. We are called to transform through our daily sacrifices. IF we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we might recognize the sacrificial nature of our world and offer ourselves, our bodies, as a living sacrifice, by which we are guided to the world’s great transformation.
On this day, as we bless the animals and seek within ourselves and others the mustard seeds of faith, may we recognize the stories of sacrifice all around us, and join in that offering of self, of love, and of faith. Therein lies our hope for a transformed world.