(a sermon for October 2, 2016, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday, based on Luke 17: (1-4) 5-10 and 2 Timothy 1:1-14)
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” And I have to say that I certainly understand the request!
After all, Jesus asks an awful lot of his disciples; and of us as well: even in those four verses leading up to our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus is laying down some rather hard truths about not becoming any kind of stumbling block to “little ones” in trouble (in other words, don’t you be the source of their trouble), as well as some pretty high standards as to how we respond to those who cause us some trouble (spoiler alert: we’re to forgive them… again, and again, and… again!). It’s nothing new, really; it’s all in keeping with Jesus’ constant admonitions that we’re to love one another in the way that we have been loved – wholly, unconditionally and sacrificially – even and especially if that other happens to be the very one who’s injured us or has caused us to stumble! Basically, it’s all just part and parcel of the gospel, and a central part of the Christian ethic…
…but it’s hard! And here are these disciples listening to what Jesus is say and feeling completely inadequate to the challenges set before them, unable to imagine themselves living up to any of Jesus’ lofty expectations of them! There may well have been a couple of them who at this point were beginning to wonder to themselves what it was they’d signed on for, because Jesus was now surely asking the impossible! So Jesus, they finally say to him… if this is all what you expect of us, if this is what we need to truly be your disciples, then please, please, “increase our faith!”
And quite honestly… we get that, don’t we? I mean, after yet another week in which the world around us seems to continue sinking into the abyss of random violence, divisive hatred and degradation – not to mention finger pointing and name calling coming from every direction – it’s kind of hard for us sitting in these pews to renew ourselves to loving as we have been loved and forgiving seven times, or for that matter, “seventy times seven!” For you and I to live an authentic Christian life in this world, in these times, is hard; more to the point, it’s overwhelming: overwhelming to think that we can ever do everything that Jesus teaches and that we can truly live how we ought to live. And it’s not that we don’t understand Jesus’ words, or what’s required of us. At the heart of it all, we know what Jesus says is right, we know it’s true; it’s just that, like those disciples before us, we find ourselves feeling like we need more faith for it to happen! So if we’re going to get through, let alone make a difference in this life, then, O Lord, please, please “increase our faith!”
And it seems like a reasonable request, one coming from a sincere, heart-felt and very well-intentioned place… but isn’t it interesting how Jesus responds? You might have expected him to both welcome and grant the request of the disciples; but he doesn’t. In fact, in a verse that we’ve sometimes had the tendency to misread, Jesus kind of… rebukes them for it! “If you even had a speck of faith,” Jesus says, even “the size of a mustard seed,” you’d have every bit of faith sufficient to uproot a mulberry tree and haul it into the sea! And from that perspective, it does come off as rather harsh; it actually kind of seems like Jesus is saying to these disciples that they don’t have any faith to begin with, so why would they ever ask for more! And in fact, if that’s what Jesus is getting at, then it would be next to impossible ever to live up to the challenges of true discipleship.
But maybe we’re missing Jesus’ point. Perhaps it’s not that the disciples are faithless; maybe it’s that where faith is concerned, the disciples are wrong-headed. And just maybe you and I have run the risk of making the same mistake!
Actually, The Message’s version of this story cuts right to the heart of the matter: when the disciples come to Jesus and ask, “Give us more faith,” the Master replies, “You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith.” In other words, faith is not something you can think of in quantity; faith is not “some kind of scarce resource that needs to be saved, spent, [or] added to.” [David Lose] If it were, we’d all be tempted to stockpile faith like we keep extra cans of soup in the cupboard, or put away money for a rainy day; we’d measure the use of faith by its importance in a given situation, and we’d save it up for the “big” things of life and living. No, ultimately faith does not amount to how much you have of it that it does what you do with it! To put it another way, in the words of the Rev. Jim Somerville, what Jesus seems to be saying to the disciples is, “You don’t need more faith, you only need the tiniest little speck… it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place; or, more specifically, in the right person.”
I think that’s what Jesus is getting at here, and that’s why right after he says this to the disciples, he goes on to talk about the relationship that servants have with the landowners; that servants don’t work so they can eat at the same table with the landowners, and that they don’t do what they do to garner the huge thanks and praise of the landowner. Servants do their jobs because the job needs doing, and this, says Jesus, is more what faith is like; simply the willingness to do what needs to be done. Faith is not some big, quantitative thing; moreover, to quote the Rev. David Lose, from Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, “faith isn’t always heroic. Indeed, it usually isn’t, but instead is simply and humbly doing what needs to be done, big or small, great or mundane, just because it needs doing.”
And friends, that’s an important message for you and for me who are seeking to be “faith-full” in this world and in these times. For what our Lord Jesus reminds us here is that even though there seems to be so much around us that just appears to be spiraling out of our control, we need to have faith… if only just a little bit (!)… understanding, however, that faith may not always be found “in the mighty acts of heaven but in the ordinary and everyday acts of doing what needs to be done, responding to the needs around us, and caring for the people who come our way.” You see, it’s in doing the smallest, even the most unnoticed of things every day and doing them in the name of our faith in Jesus Christ that even the mightiest of mulberry trees get uprooted and hurled into the sea.
And here’s the beauty part, friends: being faithful doesn’t always mean being religious! Oh yes, sometimes it does (!); but there are indeed many ways of being faithful that go beyond Sunday mornings and church services! Like showing up for work and doing a good job. Like taking the time to listen when someone wants to talk, and being a friend to someone in need. Like being present – and the example – for the children in your lives. Like cooking supper; or delivering a plate of cookies; or writing a thank you note to someone who’s done something like that for you. Like praying for a neighbor who’s going through a “rough patch.” Like volunteering to help, wherever and whenever. Like staying strong so others can find their strength in you; and for that matter, like letting your own vulnerability show forth so that they might know that there is strength in weakness as well!
The list goes on and on, but the one thing all these small, everyday, seemingly ordinary parts of life have in common is that they have the potential of being powerful acts of faith. Maybe they aren’t extravagant, or costly, or earth-shattering… perhaps it constitutes only a “little bit” of faith in a crazy world; but in truth, these are the bits of faith present the true evidence of our trust in God and our belief in things like prayer, and love, and forgiveness and grace; and as such, in ways way beyond we can begin to account, these are the things that will change the world for the sake of Jesus Christ.
I think it’s a good thing, especially on this World Communion Sunday, for you and I to take stock of what we’ve been given in faith, this “good treasure entrusted to [us],” as Paul describes it in our Epistle reading this morning. I’ve always been particularly fond of this passage, especially in how it recognizes that faith is very much something that is passed on to us in the faithfulness of those have gone on before: “I am reminded of your sincere faith,” Paul writes, “a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” But understand there’s more going on here than simply the sharing of memories; Paul is also calling us to “rekindle [that] gift of God” that is within us, adding that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
In other words, because there have been so many whose faithful acts instilled that gift of God within us, we are behooved to do the same for others. And that begins, Paul says, with each one of us stirring the coals of our faith to see what sparks are there and discover what might catch fire simply by virtue of who and whose we are, and what we do by God’s grace and empowerment! Each one of us has the faith we need; but what we have before us is the challenge to live out of that faith with a spirit of power, love and self-discipline; to hold to a standard of “sound teaching,” adhering to love and hope in the myriad of little things we do from day to day, in how we choose to live with each other and how we seek to move forward into the future. Even in the smallest of amounts, this is what makes us true disciples; this is what Jesus has always intended for us to be.
As Don Hoffman has written, “Faithfulness is the key to faith. Every catcher needs a pitcher. Every landing requires a takeoff. Every receiver needs a transmitter. Every harvest depends on a planting… you can only have faith by being faithful.”
Beloved, we are called to have faith, if only just a little bit; but then, that’s all we need, because the Lord will give us everything else for the job that needs to be done: the hope, the courage, the sense of vision. And he’ll even give us the feast of his presence to strengthen us; right now, in bread broken and wine poured. This morning, we will have our Lord’s guidance that we might indeed be faithful in our lives, and in our world.
It’s a wonderful gift; so let us, with joy and gratitude, receive it at the table of blessing.
And let our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry