Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
There is a phrase which has recently been popping up in various contexts: A Failure of Nerve. This refers to an inability to have the resoluteness and commitment to deal with a crisis which will not heal itself. We could itemize a sad litany which overshadow our lives: climate change, threats of nuclear weapons, poverty, etc. Our unwillingness to engage in dialogue, on social and personal levels, come from a failure of nerve and hope. The facts indicating the crisis are more than plain enough. But the very facts have the effect of overwhelming and paralyzing any response. Gathering more information substitutes for action and gives momentary comfort. Meeting the crisis is a matter of nerve, of the courage and spontaneity to act even if there is no guarantee of success. It is a matter of confidence, of an accrued inner sense of having learned to make needed changes and reliance on the capacity to engage with what is still unknown.
In today’s Gospel, the disciples are experiencing a growing awareness of the tragedy awaiting their Lord in Jerusalem. Thunder is getting louder as they go. The whole journey of Jesus into Jerusalem is driven by his resolute determination to confront the crisis of suffering and death which threaten to subvert his mission. He moves ahead, with no guarantee of success. The apostles ask, Increase our faith. It is not clear what they mean by this. Is it clear to us what we mean by making the same prayer? Perhaps we are asking for a deeper vision, clarity of knowledge, strength of will.
It would be nice to have a superior understanding which would give clear meaning and direction to events of life, a drone flying over the landscape which distances us from anxiety and confusion. The apostles call it “our faith.” This has the shades of an independent capacity or virtue which can be augmented to overcome obstacles and threats. They do not ask to be changed.
Jesus does not answer on the level from which the request comes. He seems to ignore it and almost to belittle the questioners: If you had the faith the size of a mustard seed. In fact, he does humiliate them, bring them down to earth, shift the ground of the dialogue. He uproots them from their assumptions, from their self-reliance, from the fear and timidity which shackle them and keep them from moving into unknown territory. Sometimes we only become aware of how deep and entangled our roots are when a challenge dares us to move beyond our past history. Roots are hidden underground. Jesus responds to the apostles’ request by moving them to a whole new level of faith. It is his own faith which uproots them (and us) and plants them in the sea of God’s freedom and mercy. There are no longer the milestones and markers to assure us that we are on the right path. As comforting as these may be, they can dissuade us from plunging into the mystery of God with all its darkness, doubt, and confusion. There can be a failure of nerve even here. Faith is movement with no guarantees of success and only promises of bearing your share of hardship for the Gospel. Faith is acting in courage and in confidence that has its source in the presence of God’s Spirit. Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.
Faith is confidence in this dependable relationship, born of the Spirit alive and moving in the heart of our lives. It is a confidence which is not shaken by the darkness and confusion which at times come upon us. Our share of suffering for the Gospel roots us in the sea of God’s presence and grace. Our limits and even failures simply move us to rely on this power, love, and self-control which come from God. Rather than squeezing the length and breadth and depth of God into our time frames and categories, we are invited to enter into this new world. It is all out of proportion to what we can realize or do on our own. On our own, we are unprofitable. We will constantly be afflicted with a failure of nerve. As servants and beneficiaries of his grace and love, we will do what we need to do, what we are obliged to do, with all our hearts.