Pentecost 20, Proper 22, Year C - October 2, 2016

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 22, Year C

October 2, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.

"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? 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!'" (Luke 17:5-10)

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Today’s gospel begins with a desperate plea.  “Increase our Faith!” the apostles say to Jesus.

Who among us hasn’t, at some point, or at many points in our lives, made this very same request?  Who doesn’t want more faith?

So we might even have pity, or even a sense of our own inadequacy when we hear Jesus say to his followers, “if you had even this much faith,” pinching his thumb and forefinger together, “you’d be able to do move a mulberry tree, do anything you wished....”

When you first hear these words, it seems like Jesus is scolding his disciples doesn’t it? In utter exasperation!  How much more healing, how many more miracles, how much more teaching, do they need? 

And yet, if you look back to the verses that come just before today’s passage, you’ll find that Jesus has just laid some pretty heavy requirements before the disciples.  He’s warned them about stumbling, and about causing others to stumble.  Then he tells them they will have to forgive anyone who’s wronged them, not just 7 times, but 7 x 70, in other words, infinitely. 

This is pretty demanding stuff, especially if you think about all the other things Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of Luke: sell all your belongings, he says, let go of all your attachments to family, to friends.  And while you’re at it, don’t you dare be anxious, or worried! 

The disciples knew they could never pull all this off, so it is no wonder they want more faith – who in the world could live up to all these expectations?

Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can feel a lot like those disciples – overwhelmed by the demands placed on us to be “good” Christians, not sure we are up to the task.  I know there have been plenty of times when I’ve asked myself, “What in the world have I signed up for?  It’s no wonder we often feel lacking in our faith.

But, what if Jesus isn’t scolding the disciples, or us, at all?  What if, rather than shaking his head over their lack of faith, he’s speaking with a voice of encouragement and love?  We are going to be talking in today’s formation hour - about how much the tone of voice that we imagine, or other preconceptions, influences our interpretation of what we hear in Scripture. 

So, listen again, and imagine Jesus responding to the disciples with a bit of a smile, saying “Even this much faith (thumb and forefinger again) the size of a mustard seed - is enough!  In other words, “you already have enough faith to do whatever is required of you!

The Mustard seed would have been very familiar to Jesus’ disciples. If you ever travel to Israel, you’ll see bright yellow mustard bushes growing along the roadside – it’s considered an unruly weed much like our kudzu, and yet it starts out with the tiniest of seeds.  When Jesus uses this example, he’s illustrating something important about faith.  That is, we only need the tiniest bit to make a difference, and join ourselves to God’s purposes. Faith, Jesus is saying, is not known by its quantity, it is not about enough faith or the right faith, but about having any faith at all, or at least giving it a try.

And just to clarify here...faith, as I’ve said before, is much more a verb than a noun, not a set of beliefs or certainties, but a stepping out in trust, with a deep conviction that a course of action is right and worth doing, despite uncertainty.1

Which leads me to another, more hidden aspect of a mustard plant that Jesus’ followers would also have known.  Once a mustard seed takes root, it becomes a pungent shrub with amazing takeover properties.  Likewise, if you give your tiny faith a chance to take root, it has a tendency to take on a life of its own.  Which means it can change you, make you live in ways, do new things, see things differently than you’d ever imagined.  Just a little leap of faith, that is, can surprise you some pretty astounding ways.

As a child, I remember how my great aunt use to wear around her neck a mustard seed suspended in a glass teardrop – these were popular in the 60’s, some of you might recall  my talking about this a few years ago.  Here is a more modern example – you can see how the tiny seed is encased in the glass. 

I used to ask my aunt all sorts of questions about hers…how the seed got there, why she wore it…and she told me it was her reminder that even the smallest thing she did could serve God. She believed that it was her job, her duty, to help God

Whether that was volunteering in the hospital to give a bed bath, or cooking the family dinner, or giving her few dollars at church each week, in her mind they were all connected and she was God’s partner. For her, faith meant doing the small things she could do, and trusting God to make them big.

Which is what I think Jesus is getting at when, after giving the disciples the example of the mustard seed, he goes on with that strange bit about the relationship between slaves and masters. Faith, as Jesus describes it here, is just doing your job, just doing your duty, not because of any sense of reward but simply because it just needs doing. And while we may not be too comfortable with the Master/Slave image that Jesus uses to illustrate this point, within the context of a society in which people worked in slavery for a period of years in order to be freed, it kind of makes sense.  Faith, in other words, is doing what needs to be done right in front of you to get where you need to go, to be free. And this, Jesus says, the disciples can already do.

Or, put a bit differently, it really doesn’t take all that much faith to be, well, faithful.

For most of us, going to church and perhaps generally being a good person is pretty much all we have the energy to do to be a goodChristian.  And so, it doesn’t always occur to us that showing up for work every day and doing our best, listening when someone needs to talk, getting the children off to school, or even voting in this year’s elections (as difficult as that may to be!); or that any of the other ordinary stuff we do every day has anything to do with our faith. It just doesn’t occur to us that these tiny, ordinary things matter all that much – to God or anyone else – or could ever result in anything extraordinary.

But think about this tiny mustard seed (show necklace)…. there’s an image of one on the front of your bulletins, too.  And as you do, try to take stock of all the small, but pretty good things you did this past week in your roles as employees or employers, students, parents, volunteers…as members of this community – think of all the small acts that went into our Brunswick stew sale this weekend - chopping vegetables, stirring the pot, selling cartons or making cookies. It all adds up pretty quickly, if you think about it, into a mulberry tree of exceptional proportions.

And then, try to imagine what last week would have been like if all those things hadn’t gotten done. Subtract them from the planet, and my bet is that the world would be a grimmer place today.

Finally, imagine what the world would look like next week if - granted a sense that even your ordinary acts are being used by God to care of God’s world – you have renewed energy to keep it up, trusting that like the mustard seed, it will grow, exponentially. 

And so Jesus tells his disciples - both then and now - we’ve got all that we need to be faithful – Just recognize your God-given opportunities and show up to do what needs to be done:  your work, caring for those who need you, reaching out to someone who is lonely, being a friend, doing your share. 

And while it might seem mundane, this kind of faith can also be a great adventure - putting one foot in front of the other and walking toward a future we don’t yet see, but trust that God is creating.  Heading out the door each day looking for opportunities to be “God’s partner.” Imagining that the various challenges put in front of us - whether solving a problem at work or forgiving someone who wronged us - are actually opportunities that invite us to grow and to embody God’s presence and goodness in a world that so desperately needs to see it.[2]

That is the ordinary, extraordinary faith that we’re invited to practice day in and day out. It’s not heroic, but it is essential.  As my great Aunt would say, just do the small things you can do, and trust God to make them big.

Amen

 

 

[1] For further discussion of this concept, see Brian McClaren’s recent book, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York:  Convergent Press, 2016).

[2] David Lose http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2773

 

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