Prayer and Fasting
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 13, 2017
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (17:14-23)
We do not know what the faithless apostles did or said as they tried to help the boy and his father. We do know that what they tried to do did not work. The Lord’s response intimates that it was something other than prayer and fasting, something other than faith. What could that have been?
The voice of God is still and small. The voice of world is chaotic and noisy. The Lord’s teaching that “This kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting” points to the need for us to develop an interior life of contemplation, for prayer and fasting, that is in my mind, silence and self-denial, quiet us down and make us more receptive to God and more loving to one another.
Contemplative prayer shines a light on the source of the chaos within, our own egoic self-interest, and reveals that underneath it there is another presence: “the kingdom of heaven.” It is the kingdom within that heals and moves mountains. Faith, the living water Jesus promised, flows from deep within.
Were the apostles motivated by fear? Seizures can be frightening. And fear that is not understood and comforted can lead to violence and hate and rarely to faith.
Or perhaps the apostles were motivated by desire, the desire for being praised for their good works. Did they, like Moses when he struck the rock and took credit for the water that flowed from it, have the motive of taking credit for healing the boy? We know what happened to Moses. He was forbidden to enter the Promised Land. Egos cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven. Was self-interest their motivation in some way?
For example, surely it was fear and desire that led to the violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville? What terrible things come from fear and desire! There can be no serious claim that neo-Nazis represent the teachings of Jesus in any way. Racism is evil, pure and simple. In fact, the real intent of fascism is to replace all religion and God with itself. We must always stand against such evil wherever it appears and in whatever form. Resist it with what: with light, with truth, with love, with courage and never with hatred which only produces more hatred. The way of faith is always the way of the Cross.
The eternal truth, so ignored by so many these days, is that faith does not lead to power but to humility. The Lord said it this way, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In our humility, our weakness, our powerlessness, our emptiness, the power of God moves mountains.
As if to put a fine point on this, Jesus tells them that he would show them the way himself by becoming weak and helpless in the hands of his enemies. “The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him…” This one who could call down legions of angels to defend him, would choose not to do so. His faithfulness would be revealed in the fact that he would choose the path of faith and he would die. The way of faith is always the way of the Cross.
If we believe faith is about protecting ourselves, then we have not yet learned the lesson of the Cross. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) Bishop ANTHONY was talking to some clergy about burn-out and he said something profound. “We are not called to burn out, but to burn up.” In other words, Jesus calls us to give and expect nothing in return. To give and to give and to give until there is nothing left to give.
We must be ready and willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of others, which is therefore also “for the sake of God,” for the least of the brethren are Jesus in disguise, we must be prepared to do everything, even give our lives, to bear witness to the truth.
When we draw closer and closer to God through prayer and fasting (silence and self-denial), we see more and more clearly his purpose and presence in our lives. We see that death is no more, giving is living, weakness is strength, and love is everything. Prayer and fasting, silence and self-denial, prepare us for whatever form our martyrdom will take.