Sunday, October 2, 2016

Increase Our Faith: a sermon Year C Proper 22 02 Oct 2016

“Increase Our Faith”
Year C Proper 22, 2 October 2016
St. David’s Episcopal, Aylett, Virginia

Luke 17:5-10
17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"
17:6 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.
17:7 "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'?
17:8 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'?
17:9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?
17:10 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!'"

There are certain passages that seem to make little sense, and we have been wrestling with some doozies over the last few weeks. This week is another one of those.

It starts with what sounds like one of those dangerous prayers, like “Lord, grant me patience!” or “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When I first started studying this, I thought it was one of those dangerous prayers, prayers we think we mean until we see what the implications are. But as I read this text, and looked at the context and how it all wove together, I saw it very differently.

We have the apostles, the ones faithful enough to be chosen after they had already shown the faith to follow, and they come to Jesus and say, “Lord, increase our faith.” They want more. More is better. I saw the commercials that came on last year, with the man sitting with the kindergarten kids when they looked at More. And they all agreed, More is Better. That’s what we all think. But then we have the phrase, “Too much of a good thing.” I don’t think you can ever have too much faith, really. I agree that it is good to have lots of faith, but I do not think Jesus is saying here that the disciples do not have enough faith. Nor do I think Jesus is saying that we need to have faith like a mustard seed. Look at what the mustard seed does with its faith. Why on earth would someone order a tree to go into the sea.

We wrestle with this passage because we hear it in holy tones, our ears are attuned for enlightenment, not hilarity. I hear Jesus being funny, sarcastic even. He was an excellent storyteller and communicator. And here, in what seems so confusing (when spoken in holy tones) changes its meaning with a nod and a wink. Context, and tone, mean everything.

As our world moves more and more into short, snipped communications on our phones, we have even had to invent shortcuts to convey meaning, meaning beyond our words. Emoticons are a new necessary. And I feel Jesus is giving a winky smile to them and us.

We see the apostles coming in with a pious request, because we want the same thing, “Lord, increase our faith.” But remember when James and John asked to sit at his right and left, and Jesus rebuked them. Those places are God’s business; they were looking for power and position, which is not what God’s Kingdom is about.

What if the apostles came in the same way. What if in their minds and hearts they were thinking, The Master will love us more if we seem to want to be more pious, that’s what he seems to like and reward. “Oh, Lord, so wise and wonderful, increase our faith!” And I think Jesus saw right through them.

They are worrying about silly things, so Jesus responds with silly. THEY OBVIOUSLY HAD FAITH OR THEY WOULD NOT BE APOSTLES! Jesus says, “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.”

Maybe the problem is not that they do not have faith, or they do not have ENOUGH faith. Maybe the problem is what will we do with it.

A story is told, a true one, of one of my favorite authors, Tony Campolo. He was asked to speak at a Missions Conference. Just before he spoke, the moderator got word that one of the Missionaries was in great need, and needed $5,000 I think it was. Unannounced, she asked Dr. Campolo to please pray for the need to be met. He said, “No.” She was taken aback, and assumed he was joking. She asked again. He said, “No, but what I will do is this.” He reached into his pocket, took out his wallet, and emptied the contents of all his cash. He went and set it on the edge of the stage. The moderator laughed and thanked him for making his point. He said, “No” again. It was not a metaphor, he pointed at her and told her to do the same. He then told the ushers to go and gather all the cash from the attendees. They did. After this spontaneous collection they counted it up, and there was over $15,000, triple the need. It was then time for him to speak. The moderator was glad she was off the hook. Dr. Campolo went to the lectern and said, “Don’t ask God for a nickel, when he has given you a dollar.” He sat down, and did not say anything else. I heard later that they did not honor his contract for his speaking fee because he did not speak, but I think that his message screamed, and the conference showed that they still did not get it. [For those reading the blog, I know that I used this story last week at another church, but it fit so well again, I could not think of one better. All I can ask is forgiveness if you had to read this one again.]

We, like the apostles, ask for a nickel more of faith when we already have a dollar in our spiritual purse unused, unshared, untested. We may say we have faith, but what do we do with what we have? Do we worry about our rank and position? Do we play games to jockey and improve our place?

I think this is what Jesus is getting at because of where this leads next. He talks about slaves, coming in from the fields. Do they get to sit down and relax and tell their Master what they want for dinner?

Put this in context. They just asked to have their faith increased. If they had been sincere Jesus would have spoken about faith, I believe, or rather, I have faith in that. He is talking about position and obedience because Jesus is all about increasing their faith. So he says some harsh, SARCASTIC things.
Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” Jesus saw what they were doing. I used to teach preschoolers, and middle schoolers, they are not much different. They both are desperate for approval. When I would assign an essay, they would come after having written a sentence and ask for feedback. When the apostles came and ask Jesus to Increase their faith what they were really saying is, “Jesus, give us your approval and attention, and say ‘My, what a good boy you are!’” So he goes on and shows them, do I thank you for doing what you are supposed to do? Should I? If I do that then where will it end? I want you to do your best! I want you to GROW UP in your faith. I want you to USE the FAITH YOU ALREADY HAVE!

He doesn’t want us to use it to uproot trees, or build bigger monuments to our egos. He wants us to be deliberate and devoted servants to our Master and Lord, Jesus himself.

When I worked with students wanting to get better grades, and when I worked with parishioners wanting to grow in their faith, most of them knew what they should do, what they had to do to grow and improve. But we, JUST LIKE THE APOSTLES, go to our teacher for a shortcut. “Increase our faith.” “Increase my grades.” “Increase my sense of self.” What all these requests are saying is “GIVE ME A SHORTCUT SO I DON’T HAVE TO DO THE HARD WORK.”

If I want big muscles, I have to do two things. I have to put in what that muscle needs to grow, and I have it use it so that it meets resistance and my body responds by growing the muscle to meet the resistance.

Our faith is the same way. Our faith does not increase when our spiritual self is not fed with what it needs for growth. What feeds our soul? Scripture. Prayer. The Sacraments. But these, in and of themselves, while wonderful, will only make us comfortable and cozy. The equivalent of a cup of warm milk or a nap in a hammock.

The other side of the equation is also necessary. We need to meet resistance so that our muscles must respond and grow. How do we meet resistance? By meeting and ministering to the Least of These. Remember, When you have done it unto the Least of These you have done it unto me. These moments of meeting and ministering to the Least of These has not changed. For our faith to grow, we have to encounter and wrestle with the Godless systems of this world, the systems that we created and that keep down the naked, the hungry, the jailed, the outsider. These systems were established to create and maintain power. Think about it.

We have promised in our Baptismal Covenant certain things. And they are just what we are talking about today. Turn to page 304 in your prayer books. Seriously. Right now. Jump to after “I believe” stuff, and get to the promises we make. Please respond from pages 304 & 305.

Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the
I will, with God's help.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and , whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God's help.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God's help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
I will, with God's help.

Apostles’ teachings, Eucharist, Prayers.
Resisting Evil, and Repentance.
Proclaiming the Good News.
Serving Christ in All, Loving Neighbor as Self.
Striving for Justice, Peace and Dignity.

We may pray, “Lord, Increase our Faith!” We have been made in God’s image, and we have been given the gift of faith. The problem is that it sits in our prayer closets unopened, up on the shelf with all of our other spiritual gifts still in their wrapping paper. Maybe the prayer closet is unopened, too.

We pray for a shortcut, “Lord, increase our faith.” But, we know what to do. The question that remains, will we? Amen.

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Blessings, Rock