Sermon delivered August 16, 2009.
In today’s gospel reading from the 10th Sunday of Matthew 17:14-23, which interestingly occurs right after the event of the Transfiguration, Jesus speaks of a mountain in much different terms. After Jesus casts out the demon of the epileptic boy (v.18), the disciples ask Jesus why they could not cast it out (v.19). Jesus replies, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (v.20). So here, Jesus implies that a mountain can be an obstacle of sorts. Anyone who has done some hiking will testify that mountains can be barriers from getting from one point to another.
Some of the patristic commentators on this passage picked-up this point. Origen says that “mountains are the hostile powers that have their being in a flood of great wickedness that have settled in some souls of various people.” Hilarion intimates that the mountains are the “burden of sins and the heavy mass of their unbelief.” So, while we often think of a mountain as an external barrier or obstacle, we should also understand that often it can be internal to us such as a personality trait, a habit of character or a passion (“a inclination towards sinful thoughts, words and behaviors"). St. Augustine furthers the point when he comments on this passage, “If one can pray so that one may cast out another demon, how much more should one pray that one’s own demons be cast out.”
If we have done some serious reflection on the spiritual life, our experience will tell us that it’s virtually impossible to change other people and it’s even very difficult to change ourselves. However, any change in the world around us must always begin with a change in ourselves first. The patristic quotation from St. John Cassian in today’s bulletin builds on this point, “If you want to correct your brother when he is doing wrong you must keep yourself calm; otherwise you yourself may catch the sickness you are seeking to cure and you may find that the words of the Gospel now apply to you ’Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye, and not notice the rafter in your own eye?” The speck reference is a quotation of Jesus’ words from Matt.7:1-5. Here’s the whole passage:
Judge not, that you not be judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why to you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look , a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
At the end of today’s passage Jesus says that the demon of the epileptic boy can only come out by prayer and fasting. Jesus points out that the disciples and the father of the boy were lacking in faith and fasting when He says, “Because of your unbelief” (v.20) and earlier when He says, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” (v.17). So, the essential tools of personal change are prayer and fasting.
Here’s how they work. Prayer is “the sincere and fervent seeking of the one, true God in order to discover His will, in order to do His will.” Prayer is not simply dialogue with God but it is the opening up of our heart and mind to the transforming power and presence of God. In other words, only God can change us and only if we let Him.
True fasting goes hand-in-hand with prayer. It is the denial of physical hunger in order to help bring under discipline our other appetites to prevent them from becoming out-of-control passions. God cannot change us if our life is being dominated by passions. An example is the addict who must quit cold-turkey from their “drug” of choice in order to stop the destructive cycle of abuse. However, this is just the first step. The second step is to begin to understand his personal appetites and internal dynamics that drive the addiction. The second step cannot begin until the first step is completed.
Once our own life is in order, then we can help others change. Yet, it is not through controlling words and actions that change occurs. It is, as Jesus says to His disciples, through prayer and fasting that change in others is effected. Origen, commenting on today’s passage says, “We pray for the sufferer and by our own fasting, we may thrust out the unclean spirit from him.” St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Save yourself first and 1,000 others will be saved by it.” Let us hear Jesus speak again but this time from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 11:
Have faith in God. For assuredly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them. And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
Moving internal mountains may be one of the hardest things we ever do but it only takes is a little faith and trust in God in order to let Him do it. Amen!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.