Fr. Mead, the recently retired Rector of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York City, served as Rector of the Church of the Advent from 1985 to 1996.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

My heartfelt thanks go to Fr. Warren for the honor of being in this pulpit in this great church where Nancy and I cherish so many memories.  It’s good not only to see old friends but also so many new, and also young, faces; including your vestry members.  It is a joy to be with you.

Retirement has given me opportunities to be a participant and a bystander in church life at the same time.  A year ago I spoke and preached as part of a new venture in a parish’s annual pledge campaign.  The new venture was a move away from the notion of each member’s fair share of a parish budget and into a personal pledge that is an expression of a member’s relationship to the Lord.  In other words, one’s pledge, as a proportion of one’s means (high or low, rich or poor), expresses one’s gratitude and faith.  I pledge to the Lord through the church.  This is the proportional giving that includes tithing.

At a meeting of parish leaders during the week before the campaign’s last Sunday (when I was to preach), a worried church staff member stood up and voiced the fear that must have been on many minds.  “What if this doesn’t work?”  People looked at one another or at their laps.  They loved their church.  A lot was at stake.  Then an elderly African American man slowly rose.  He had moved to this predominantly white church because his own predominantly black church had closed some years before.  He spoke quietly and reassuringly.  “Walk in faith,” he said.  “Walk in faith.”  And so peace and composure descended, and on they went to Sunday.

Our Scripture is full of this counsel today.  The prophet Habakkuk saw his community in a terrible mess, far from genuine devotion, social justice and personal virtue.  But the Lord said, “Write down the vision; it does not lie; wait for it, it will come.  The proud do not have a right spirit.  The righteous live by their faith.”

Less dramatically, the Apostle Paul shores up his “child in the faith” Timothy.  Faith lived in both their ancestors, in Timothy’s grandmother and mother; and now in him.  Rekindle the gift that is in you, writes Paul.

And in the Gospel, the apostles ask the Lord, “Increase our faith.”  To which request Jesus answers that even faith as a grain of mustard seed can root up a big tree and plant it in the sea; as in other places he says faith can do the same thing to a mountain.

Faith is a gift with a paradox.  The paradox is in the asking.  When the apostles asked the Lord to increase their faith, they were exercising the faith they already had received.  The very asking is itself an act of faith.  That is why Jesus says, Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door shall be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds….  The capacity or willingness to ask, the very desire, for faith, is the first installment of the gift and its growth and development.

There are indeed degrees and kinds of faith.  The miraculous, mountain-moving faith our Lord had in perfect abundance.  Saint Paul lists certain kinds of faith among the gifts of the Spirit.  On the other hand, St. James in his epistle says that faith without works (without expression in deeds of love) is dead.

Some years ago before I retired I had my one and only experience of a great big, professionally guided capital campaign.  It was an inspiring, exhausting, sometimes maddening and even numbing experience of several years.  The big “asks” were given personally to the Rector, and these were done in the Rector’s study, often over afternoon tea.  What was inspiring was to witness our most faithful members stretch themselves to what I knew were the limits of generosity.  But what was numbing was to watch people, who could have funded much of the entire campaign, give nominal token gifts in order to be on the donors’ list.  The difference was faith.  Without it, I knew the church and I had no spiritual traction.  The professionals did not often see this dimension.  But it was certainly eye opening for me and the other leaders of the campaign.

The living faith spoken of in Holy Scripture, especially in the New Testament, has several dimensions.  “Faith” is the noun corresponding to the verb “believe.”  It begins with faith, belief, in the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God.  Trust implies the involvement of our whole selves in relation to the living God.  Right away, it is clear that faith means more than mere notional assent – the thing that James warns against.

There is also “the faith” in the sense of a whole body of truth contained in what the Gospel proclaims.  Though it is certainly a matter of the “heart,” faith is not merely or even primarily emotional but also a matter of the intellect, of the mind’s embrace, and thus of the will.  There is no conflict between faith as a body of beliefs and the living personal reality of trust in God.  Certain things are believed, for us on the basis of the Gospel of Jesus, about God’s power and eternity, his goodness and providence, his love and mercy; and about his relation to humankind as Creator, Savior, and Judge.  These all come together in the Prayer Book Baptism service, when, after being asked to confess the faith in the terms of the Apostles’ Creed, we are baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross as Christ’s own forever.  And every Sunday we confess this faith as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church in the words of the Nicene Creed.

So most surely faith, belief in the truth of the Gospel and trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, is a gift – a gift of the Holy Spirit.  Many of us, including yours truly, feel our faith is small and weak, as the apostles often felt, and said so in Jesus’ very presence.

But if there is a difference, and there is, among degrees and kinds of faith; if there is a difference between having strong and great faith and having small and weak faith; this quantitative difference is nothing compared to another spiritual difference.  This other difference is the contrast between, on the one hand, a little faith or even a desire for faith, and on the other hand, no faith, no desire, no interest at all.  This contrast is an infinite one.  I do not know how a person navigates the great matters of life and death on the disinterested side of this contrast.

“What if it doesn’t work?” asked the young staffer.  “Walk in faith,” said the old man.  So they did, on to Sunday, when the congregation were asked to bring their pledges to the altar at the end of the liturgy.  At the reception afterward, the warden struggled to hold back tears as he announced they had far surpassed their expectations and the vestry would proceed to a budget that would put spring in their step. Faith moves many sorts of mountains.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

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