Lectionary 27 (19th Sunday after Pentecost), Year C
Psalm 37:1-9; Luke 17:5-10
Sunday, October 3, 2010
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
“Increase our faith!” the apostles begged Jesus.
Increase our faith.
How many times have we, in our lives, wanted stronger faith?
Faith to believe in God’s promises.
Faith in God to lead us into the right choices.
Faith in God to rescue us when we don’t make the right choices.
Faith in God to step off the pages of this Bible,
and to leap out from the poetic words and lyrical tunes of 18th century hymns,
faith in God to turn a ritual gesture of greeting –
the peace of the Lord be with you –
into a real, flesh and blood, bear hug of an embrace.
How many times have we wanted stronger faith, more faith … any faith at all?
I know I have.
There was a time in my mid-twenties when I just hit bottom –
emotionally, spiritually, professionally …
All kinds of painful realities were catching up to me –
from a broken engagement to the death of a dear college friend,
to the lingering and previously unacknowledged emotional toll
of dealing with my parents divorce,
20 years earlier, and the challenges of growing up between two homes
I dropped out of seminary, unsure of my call and my future …
I hit bottom.
I shouted out to God, “Increase my faith,”
and when I didn’t hear an answer, I just stopped.
I stopped going to church for a bit,
not sure what I believed, or if I believed anything at all.
The rituals felt empty to me, the words vacant.
And so I watched Sunday morning political talk shows,
(speaking of vacant words!)
read the New York Times,
and experienced life as most people do on Sunday mornings.
To be honest? It was pretty nice.
But after a little while I found my way back to church, though not yet to faith.
It was the routine that got me.
Born and raised in the rhythms of churchlife,
I couldn’t stay away for too long.
Staying at home on Sunday mornings, no matter how relaxing,
kinda felt like wearing big soft, fuzzy bunny slippers –
nice and warm, cozy as the dickens,
but awfully awkward for actually getting around.
Staying at home was nice, but also awkward.
So I took off the bunny slippers, replaced them with reasonable if not exciting loafers,
and returned to church.
And it was there that I began to encounter faith again, albeit slowly and, well, awkwardly.
As I sat in the pews of St Michael’s Lutheran Church in Philadelphia,
I was surrounded by the prayers of grandmothers and children alike,
people who spoke the liturgy with conviction,
like they actually believed it,
making up for my woefully unsure limp recitation of the words.
Sometimes I just sat there, silent, as folks prayed around me,
praying the words I couldn’t dare to say,
giving expression to a faith that I so desperately wanted to have.
“Increase our faith,” the apostles demand.
It’s too bad that today’s Gospel reading begins at verse 5 of chapter 17,
and not verse 1 or even verse 3.
Because the apostles’ cry, “Increase our faith,” is their plea,
a desperate plea to Jesus, in response to what he just said earlier.
In those prior verses,
Jesus commands the apostles to forgive anyone who sins against them
who then also asks for forgiveness.
Even, Jesus says, if this person does so seven times in one day.
Forgive them. Seven times. In a day.
No buts. No ifs. No strings attached. Just forgive.
That’s a tall order!
And just before that, Jesus told the disciples
that it would be better if they threw themselves into the sea
with a millstone around their neck
than to cause someone to stumble in faith.
The life of faith is no extracurricular activity,
but rather is as important as life itself –
so don’t screw it up for your neighbor, Jesus says.
That reminds me of a great quote from Jim Rayburn,
who in the 1970s founded the evangelical Christian youth ministry Young Life.
He said, “It’s a sin to bore the kids with the Gospel.”
It’s a sin to bore kids with the Gospel.
If we understand boredom as a stumbling block,
then we can clearly hear Jesus’ words echoing in his words –
it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck
and you were thrown into the sea
than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble,
or to be bored by the Gospel.
And I fear that I’m boring some of you, now.
Let me go get my millstone.
After hearing all this, about millstones and stumbling blocks, forgiveness and sins,
it is no surprise that the apostles cried out,
“Increase our faith!”
for who can possibly live up to such expectations?
Who can forgive so much,
and live blamelessly so as to not cause a child of faith to stumble?
“Increase our faith!” they cried.
“Increase my faith,” I called out from my young adult confusion.
But faith isn’t a commodity,
it is not a balance in a checking account that we would like to see increase.
Faith is not one of those little sponge toys that, when you add water,
it grows to six times the size of the original.
Faith is not a treasure to accumulate,
the more you have the richer you are.
The littlest ounce of faith, a mustard seed’s worth of faith,
can uproot trees and move mountains.
For faith is like a spark that sets off a chain reaction,
a push that gets the ball rolling.
It is that first step on a very long path …
Faith is actually something quite small.
We don’t need more of it.
Like that extra hot chili sauce at the Mexican restaurant, a little bit goes a long way.
But still. I don’t see any of us pulling up mulberry trees with our faith.
And with all respect to Jesus, it’s not gardening that I’m seeking help with.
I want to uproot the tree of doubt and uncertainty,
I want to toss into the sea the mountains of cynicism and resignation.
I want a faith that will comfort me in times of grief and suffering,
and give me hope to more confidently put
my left foot in front of my right foot, every single day,
hope for a God-blessed future for me and for my family and for our world.
What does a tiny seed of faith have to do with all of that?
At the end of today’s reading, Jesus gives his hearers another analogy,
one about slavery, an analogy which,
considering our nation’s and our state’s history on these matters,
should make us feel quite uncomfortable.
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing
or tending sheep in the field,
‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?
Would you not rather say to him,
‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink;
later you may eat and drink’?
Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?
Hard on our ears, but sensical, perhaps, in those days.
We can imagine the apostles all nodding their heads in agreement,
many of them, likely, having had slaves of their own. Then, Jesus continues:
“So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say,
‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
Turning the table on them,
Jesus now places the apostles not in their familiar role of master giving orders,
but rather he places them in the quite unfamiliar and uncomfortable role
of obedient slave, able to do nothing but take direction from an other.
Be the slave, Jesus says. Follow the orders of your master. Do what you ought.
And what is that? What is it that we, and all who follow Jesus, ought to do?
Jesus tells us, in part, any way,
in those verses that were unfortunately left out from today’s reading.
love your neighbor so much that you will not cause them to stumble in faith;
forgive the one who sins against you time and time and time again,
and listen to the directions of our Lord, Jesus.
To be clear, this is not the path of perfection, but it is the pathway of faith –
submitting to the life Jesus would have us live,
so that we might be drawn closer to him and his will for the world he loves.
Today’s psalm, Psalm 37:5, suggests an open-ended wonder
for the one who commits their ways to the Lord:
Commit your way to the Lord; put your trust in the Lord,
and see what God will do.
And this is the good news, dear sisters and brothers in Christ:
If you, like me and Jesus’ hand-picked apostles, beg God to increase your faith,
then Jesus here gives us a way to live, he shows us the way of faith.
We ain’t going to find faith or grow in faith
by sitting at home with coffee and the newspaper,
nor are we going to necessarily be fed simply by sitting in a pew.
Rather, by doing the stuff of faith – forgiving others,
aiding our sisters and brothers in their life and in their walk of faith,
gathering for worship and reading our book of faith, the Bible,
we will find faith, we will grow in faith,
and we will be formed by faith.
God will do something with all of this.
You’ve got to try it to like it,
experience it to find meaning in it.
Join the groups at 9:30am who are faithfully gathering around Scripture.
Come to Morning Prayer on Wednesdays at 7:15am.
Join us for a new Prayer group meeting later this month ….
Find that group of Christians who gather for Bible study on your block or at your office.
Go to the Arlington Food Assistance Center once a month,
sign up for the CROP Walk,
commit to giving more of your income away,
to giving in a way that kinda hurts,
a way that forces you to change how you spend your money
Or set up a lemonade stand with your kids and give away the lemonade. For free.
Say a prayer each morning, and each evening end your day with the Lord’s Prayer.
For it is not through a sudden moment of faith that our life is changed,
in grandiose spectacles accompanied by the singing of angelic choirs.
No. Rather, it is through the life of faith, the doing of the stuff of faith,
obedient to our Master’s commands to love, forgive, and care for our neighbor,
that we are formed in faith, that we truly encounter the living God.
We will not always do as we ought,
we will miss consecutive Sundays and lapse in prayer for weeks;
we will give less and fail to reach out to our neighbors in need.
This is a given. It’s called human nature.
At our imperfect best we strive for what we ought, yet we eek out what we are able,
and we do this with each other, with family and friends,
with fellow Christians sitting alongside us in the pews,
with dearly departed saints whose faith and life are models for us this day …
striving to walk the path that our Lord sets before us,
and eager to see what the God will do.
I mentioned earlier that I had returned to church,
but that I hadn’t yet, by that point, returned to faith.
I never had that moment of realization when I said to myself, “Oh, I have faith now!”
a flick of the switch from doldrums to delight.
I can’t give you a time and a date of when I found my faith, or recovered my faith,
or whatever verb you want to use.
I just started doing the stuff of faith again,
finding meaning and hope and faith in Christ in the process.
As we all do, I continue to have my struggles in faith to this day,
sometimes while I’m standing right here in the pulpit,
wondering, “Do I really believe what I’m saying?”
But then I gather with the Confirmation Class to read the Bible,
or I pray with one of our Circle groups,
or I talk with an immigrant father begging for assistance,
trying in my best Spanish to direct him to our Clothes Closet
and to the County Department of Human Services,
or I come to this altar and receive the precious gift of our Lord’s presence
alongside young and old in this congregation,
and I realize that in the midst of doing these things, these acts of faith,
the gift of faith is given again to me,
the love of God revealed anew to me,
and a tiny seed of faith planted once again.
I’m still working on uprooting the mulberry tree, but in the meantime,
I’m committing my ways to the Lord, as best I feebly can,
and I am eager to see what God will do.
Let us walk the pathway of faith together, dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
let us commit our ways to the Lord, and see what God will do.
Amen, and thanks be to God.