Tag Archives: Faith

Faith

A Sermon for 6 October 2019 – World Communion Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Luke 17:5-10. Listen for God’s word to us.

“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? 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!’”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

            If I asked you to rate your faith on a scale from 1 to 10, what number would you assign? 1 would be terrible. No faith at all. 10 would be amazing! Your zinging along all day with a depth of connection, an intensity of joy, a peace that palpably surrounds your entire being. One reason I so love the 16th Century Spanish mystic and nun Teresa of Ávila, who routinely was seen levitating by the sisters at daily prayer with her. Is that for all the rapture for God that Teresa experienced in her body and soul, she also admitted there were times each day when God, who she referred to as her Beloved, felt so incredibly elusive. She knew the spiritual life was about ecstatic connection with the Divine. AND (as she said) doing the work of washing the pots and pans in the kitchen. The highs and the lows and every day in between. Teresa counseled Christians to expect and welcome it all. So that if I asked you right now to assign a number to your faith, I hope it wouldn’t be 1 – though some moments it might be. And maybe it’s 10 – but I highly doubt it’s that way 24/7 for anyone, though hopefully it’s close at least sometimes for most.

The gospel of Luke records this funny little scene where the disciples of Jesus ask him to increase their faith. They want a number closer to 10 and further away from the no faith of number 1. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ saying about the mustard seed of faith comes right after his time on the mountain when he transfigured into the glowing rapture of God alongside what appeared to be Moses and Elijah. Then, when Jesus and his disciples Peter, James, and John come down from that experience; a man falls at Jesus’ feet begging his son be healed. The father explains that Jesus’ disciples were unable to help. So, Jesus reminds of the power of even a mustard seed of faith. But in the gospel of Luke, Jesus just had finished teaching his disciples about the seriousness of their role. The weight of their responsibility as his followers so that they dare not cause another to stumble. The magnitude of graciousness he expects so that any who turn from their wrongdoing are released through the gift of forgiveness. Jesus is going to go on to tell them a parable about slaves, servants as the Greek term more typically is translated, just doing what’s commanded. Getting on with the work their Master tells them to do. ‘Cuz that’s what servants do! As a result of all Jesus is teaching, the disciples gawk: “Lord, increase our faith!” They might as well have been saying, “You want us to live in this world how? To be mindful day in and day out of the effect we may have on those who surround so that none of them ever stumble because of us? Not expecting some great reward but getting on with it all anyway? Like, seriously Jesus, following you is like that???” He better increase their faith! And while he’s at it, be sure he gives an extra dose too to each one of us. Because in light of that vision for his disciples, most of us likely feel like we’re going to need a whole lot more faith!

Faith is a curious thing. In the Greek of the gospel, the word we translate as faith is πίστιν (pisten). Though many often think more of faith as a body of content we must know about God, pisten connotes trust. The Apostle Paul reminds beautifully in his first letter to the Corinthians that his own proclamation was not in lofty words. Not in some huge body of human knowledge. He writes that he wanted their faith to rest not on that of his own doing, but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:5). It’s the same direction Jesus points his disciples when they ask for increased faith. Alluding to the power of God which spoke creation into being, Jesus tells his friends: “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” (Luke 17:6). In other words, what we do for God as a result of our faith is not dependent on how much of it we have. It’s about who God is. One biblical commentator puts it like this: “The true miracle of Jesus’ saying is not about overcoming natural laws (by doing things like uprooting mulberry trees), but about the presence of true faith, a faith that takes hold of the God with whom ‘nothing [is] impossible,’ [Luke 1:37] (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, Margit Ernst-Habib, p. 142). One tiny shred of faith is enough for us to do the amazing! Not because of our tiny shred of faith. But because of God!

I received an email this week from a film publisher who took a moment to update his subscribers about what’s been going on in his ministry and life. This dedicated soul, who so creatively expands others’ hearts and minds with the content he makes available for spiritual formation, poured out the personal challenges of his past several months to let subscribers know the experiences that will impact the direction his future publications will take. He closed his update with two jarring little words. He wrote: Stay Weak. “Stay Weak,” I thought! Who wants to do that?! The culture all around us is about strength. Power. Might. No one wants to be a weakling. Those who are weak are pushed to the side. Trampled. Kept out. We pump iron to feel strong. We stockpile missiles to feel strong. We swagger over others in order to feel strong. Stay weak? In a doubletake, what the film publisher’s challenges must certainly be revealing flashed in my mind.

Jesus wants us to know we do not have to be strong to do God’s work. Remember the Apostle Paul’s great affliction? The thorn in his flesh never fully revealed to history, but that kept him from “being too elated?” (2 Cor. 12:7). He begged and pleaded and prayed for that weakness to be taken from him. Finally he heard: “My grace is sufficient for you, for (my) power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). At last, Paul came to know what Jesus had been teaching all along. We know too – though sometimes we forget. God chooses the weak to work in this world. That which is last according to culture’s standards is first with God. Little is enough. So that who God is, not who we are, will shine. So that how God is able, not how we are, will be magnified. A mustard-seed-of-faith is plenty for the work of God to be accomplished! Not because of us. But because of God! One biblical commentator writes: “When the disciples ask for greater faith, knowing that difficult times lie ahead of them, Jesus responds by asking for something small: a trusting faith the size of a mustard seed, so that the faithful follower of Jesus might not look at herself, judging her own faith, relying on its strength or being scared by its weakness, but look instead at the One she follows” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, Margit Ernst-Habib, p. 142). Consider instead: God.

The next time you wonder if the amount of faith you have is enough for anything much to happen, remember the lesson of the mustard seed. It’s not about us and how much faith we might have. It’s all about God.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Belief Beyond Expectation

A Sermon for 8 July 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 6:1-6a.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.  On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.  They said, “Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”  And they took offense at him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Who do you call when your air conditioning goes out on the hottest day of summer – as mine did this week?  An HVAC technician, right?!  Where do you turn for help with a pain in your chest that squeezes tighter and tighter and tighter?  If not the ER, then at least your doctor!  What if you have quandaries about the Divine?  You might expect a pastor would be your best bet or an older, wiser friend in the faith.  . . .  Whether we realize it or not, we live according to a lot of assumptions.  We suppose particular people are best suited to help us with certain things.  We wouldn’t want a lawyer doing our open-heart surgery.  Or a plumber pulling our teeth.  How about a carpenter opening us to the mysteries of God?  It doesn’t quite fit with our expectations of the expertise required.  But sometimes the most unlikely of candidates can turn out to be the exact ones needed.

Early in my ministry when we were having a baptism in worship, sweet little Caitlin was being brought.  And man did that kid have lungs!  From the moment her parents got her from the nursery to be baptized until the moment they took her back out, that child was NOT happy!  She screamed throughout her entire baptism.  During the sacrament, we did all the usuals – including asking members of the congregation “do you promise to nurture this child in the faith?”  In that church, all the children were gathered up front for baptisms so we asked them to make promises too.  We questioned the peering children:  “Do you promise to be good church friends, loving Caitlin, and teaching her about Jesus?”  . . .  Well you know how it is when questions like that get asked in worship rituals.  We say aloud the words printed in the bulletin whether or not we whole-heartedly commit to nurturing the children of God.

The baptism proceeded.  Still screaming, baby Caitlin was handed over.  The water trickled down her brow.  The prayer, the blessing, Amen.  Caitlin’s parents and all the church’s children were released from the font.  . . .  Each week in that congregation, children didn’t stay in the sanctuary for the rest of worship but went to their own children’s worship in a classroom.  When the baptism ended, a stampede of about twenty three through eight year-olds was underway.  I went along, trying to wrangle the running children.  Outside the sanctuary door, I nearly knocked into 8 year-old Christopher.  He stood motionless, his back to me.  Heading down the hall, I instructed, “Come on, buddy, let’s go.”  He didn’t move.  “Christopher, come on,” I insisted.  Still no response.  I finally returned to where he stood, face to face with him.  His eyes were closed – nothing.  I stood there in front of him for a moment, preparing myself to have to handle some sort of excuse about why he didn’t want to go to Children’s Worship that day.  At last his eyes popped opened.  I asked:  “Christopher, are you okay?  It’s time to go to Children’s Worship.”  By that time, he and I were the only ones left in the hallway.  He finally said:  “I know.  I was just saying a prayer for that little baby.  She was crying so much I thought she needed a prayer right now.”  . . .  And a little child shall lead them, Isaiah records.  . . .  No sooner did Christopher tell me what he was up to, than he took off to Children’s Worship.  Meanwhile, I was left standing astonished by his instantaneous commitment to baby Caitlin.  He definitely took his “I do” seriously!  In my haste to smoothly chorale all the kids back to their classroom, I nearly missed it.  I wasn’t expecting such profound wisdom from one so fresh in the faith.

That’s kinda how it was another day long, long ago when folks had gathered for worship in Nazareth.  It was Sabbath rest in the synagogue.  Perhaps they were hoping the rabbi would have a reviving lesson that day.  But they didn’t quite get what they were expecting.  Instead their neighbor, Jesus, got up.  We have to remember that they knew him well:  the little boy who grew up down the street.  Mary and Joseph’s kid – the eldest of their clan.  According to the gospel of Mark, they were five boys and who can remember the scads of sisters.  Certainly, visions of the boy Jesus playing with other neighborhood children ran through the worshipers’ minds.  Some remembered the time the child got lost on the trip back from Jerusalem.  And likely other memories from Jesus’ childhood, his teens, and his twenties before the day Jesus went off the deep end.  Everyone back in Jesus’ hometown knew that not long ago, he ran out on the family.  Left his carpentry work to meet up with that rabble-rousing John the Baptist.  Out yonder in the wilderness John was stirring up a heap of trouble.  Proclaiming folks needed to repent for sins to be forgiven.  Even though they all knew that wasn’t the way sins got cleansed!  The gathered synagogue-goers knew that the Jerusalem priests make their sacrifices.  Their take on the situation was that Jesus had gotten messed up with that John guy and the next thing you know, he too was out shouting all sorts of stuff.  Like the kingdom of God being near.  Jesus had become a disgrace to his family – not to mention an embarrassment to his hometown, because, you know, no one wants to get on the map as the generators of the latest lunatic!  Those in the synagogue that day believed that Jesus had denounced his family that time they tried to take him home – away from crowds that believed he had gone mad.  He said his mother and brothers were the ones gathered with him – the ones doing the will of God (Mark 3:34-35).  Now here he was back in town.  Joining in Sabbath worship.  Yet, it wasn’t just some announcement about the up-coming mission project that he stood to make that day.  Rather, this lowly, un-trained carpenter got up to unlock ancient mysteries about God.  Indeed, no one expected that!  After all, assumptions about who does and who doesn’t know what run pretty deep.  If some completely unqualified handyman gets up to start teaching something new about God – something never before named – something revolutionary, like say a kingdom in which all the tables are over-turned.  Power, prestige, and privilege completely reversed!  Well, we might not be too keen on listening either.  . . .  Homeboy Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations.  So they shoo him off center stage.

How often do we do it?  How often do we miss the marvelous lessons of God because our minds already are made up?  We can’t imagine anything good coming from that kind.  So, instead of listening, we walk away.  Mumbling, “what do they know anyway?”  We keep ourselves comfortably in our pre-conceived worlds.  Not having to stretch too far.  Not opening ourselves to something different.  Because it’s scary, and it’s challenging, and to be honest:  too often, we’re too tired to try.  . . .  But faith requires openness.  Did you catch the chilling words at the close of the reading we heard today?  What a shame it would be if those words from Jesus ever found themselves pointed in our direction.  Mark 6:6a reads:  “And he was amazed at their unbelief.”  In fact, the gospel records that due to their unbelief, Jesus “could do no deed of power there” (Mark 6:5).  Human beings have rebelled against the unexpected since the beginning of time.  All the while, at least according to what we learn from Scripture and from our own lives too if we’re paying attention; all the while, God has been using the unexpected to do the most marvelous of things.  From Father Abraham and barren Mother Sarah, to the scoundrel Jacob who becomes Israel, to that little exiled nation, to a child miraculously born to a betrothed young lady, to first followers who were totally unqualified in the eyes of the world.  Right down through history to you and me:  regular ole’ people who come together to worship the God whom Jesus embodies.  . . .  The double-edged, good news for us is that God does use the most unlikely of candidates.  The Apostle Paul once reminded that it’s the best way to see the unleashed power beyond us:  the strength of God, who always makes something out of what seems to be nothing.  Who turns death into new life.  And makes a way where there seems to be none.  For our part:  we’re asked to believe.  Which isn’t about accent to a certain set of facts.  We’re called to believe.  To trust.  To keep ourselves open to God.  For then, we just might have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the marvels of the God who works beyond all our ingrained expectations.  Changing the world of our lives one powerful deed at a time!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)