Year C, Proper 22
October 6, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“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.’”
No matter what you understand faith to mean, most of us will assent to the fact that faith is something that is sorely, constantly tested. And this week my faith has been tested. My faith in this country is being tested, mightily. What is going on? The shut down, threats against the debt ceiling, shootings and self-immolations in the capital. Something is really going wrong. It seems that our two party system is developing into more of a parliamentary system of a coalition government in congress, which our system of checks and balances seems unable to account for. And in the turmoil of one party re-forming its identity, we are experiencing some kind of soft, administrative coup of sorts. But in the end, all that is really happening is that suffering is increasing and anxiety is growing as faith in not just the vitality of this country, but now in the stability and viability of the United States is being questioned in very real ways here and around the world. All of our faith is being tested, and as in all other truly important things, like our kids turning out well, like our marriages surviving, like us being happy and safe, like sowing in the spring in faith that the harvest will in fact come, that the sun will come out tomorrow as planned, as in all of these and the myriad other things that are truly important in our lives, it is the simple act of keeping faith that in the end it is going to be OK, that is the only thing that will get us through.
Speaking of faith, the texts for today are complicated. In Lamentations we hear the groaning of God’s conquered people. The psalmist kicks nastily, violently against the goads of exile and alienation. In 2nd Timothy we are invited to join in humiliation and suffering for the gospel, and in St. Luke’s Gospel our faith is compared to a tiny mustard seed of great power, and for any good we do we should not expect thanks, but the knowledge that we have simply satisfied our very basic obligations. With lectionary selections like this we gotta have faith, no?
In the Gospel in particular, there is more than one way to read what Jesus is saying. The apostles ask, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, saying that with even a faith the size of a mustard seed, a tree could be uprooted and planted in the sea. (St. Matthew’s version is a bit less modest, there faith can move mountains). Maybe Jesus is saying, “If you only had a grain of faith, if you only had a teeny-tiny smidgen of faith the mountains of the moon could be moved.” If only… And followed by the reminder not to expect thanks for doing what is expected, and preceded by the other three somewhat gloomy readings about suffering through suffering and oppression, that might be what we are supposed to take from this. If only you had a grain of faith it would all be ok. If only…
But another read is, “it only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to uproot a tree, to command a tree to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea.” It only takes a teeny-tiny smidgen, a mote, a grain of faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains. And for anyone trying to remember the size of a mustard seed, Mike Van’s drawing on the cover of the bulletin is a very accurate representation.
But that is a completely different read. The apostles ask, “Increase our faith!” Maybe Jesus is saying, “it doesn’t take a lot of faith, in fact it only takes a little faith, this amount, the size of a mustard seed.” And what can a grain of faith that small do? It can command a tree to move, it can move mountains, which are simply poetic devices to say that even a tiny amount of faith can change your heart, can change your mind, can change our world. Very clearly Jesus is telling the apostles and us that faith is powerful. Life-changingly, world-changingly, miraculously powerful. And that is a relief, because right now what our world needs is some miraculously powerful faith.
You see, one of the primary vocational requirements of Christian ministry is to be an eternal, an eschatological optimist. And have no doubt, we are all in ministry here, together. This means that we, Christians in ministry have to believe, have to have faith that in the end it is all going to be OK. This is not to say that everyone is going to be fine, that everyone is even going to survive, because we won’t all make it to the promised land on this side of the grave, even Moses didn’t get there with us, neither did Jesus, quite the opposite in His case, actually, but that in the end, metaphysically, ontologically, really, really, really it is going to be OK. That is the fundamental message and witness of Jesus Christ. That knowledge, that faith IS, at least in part, our salvation. That is part and parcel of each of our ordination’s into the priesthood of all believers in our baptisms. The basic charge to all of the baptized is to have faith that in the end, it is all going to be OK. “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” That statement is a gospel truth.
There are dangers with this idea, with the faith that it is going to be OK. The fear is called a moral hazard, and it is Marx’s fear, that we will rest on our comfortable laurels (or in our dismal hovels) until that end. If we know that it will work out in the end we might choose to suffer silently, to bear our own crosses quietly and uncomplainingly, or continue on with our mindlessness and sinfulness and will not strive to make real the kingdom of God, to throw off oppression, relieve earthly suffering, show mercy, forgive, repent and believe. We might blow things off until the sweet hereafter. But no, that is not the covenant God made with Israel in the Law, nor the covenant that God made with the world in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The gift of faith that all is going to be OK in the end comes with some pretty significant responsibilities. Sometimes these are grave and burdensome responsibilities like picking nits from a child’s hair; sometimes they are light and joyful, like caring for a new puppy. And we must always hold in tension the possible actuality that faith that it will all be OK in the end might mean just that: it is all going to be OK in the end, in death, in the sweet by-and-by. It does not work out OK for everyone in this realm and there is very little explanation in Christ why that is so, why evil persists in such legions, why suffering is so pervasive. There is no good answer for that. Faith is a tightrope walk across a deep chasm and to be faithful, we need to keep our balance AND constantly be looking down at the suffering around us.
As I regularly say, Jesus did not promise us a rose garden. Unlike the message of the prosperity gospel, that riches are a sign of God’s favor and the inevitable corollary that suffering is a sign of God’s displeasure, true faith is maintaining what you know to be right and good and joyful thing, what you know to be God’s will though you know all the facts, to quote Wendell Berry. Though you can’t see your way through the tear gas or the line at DSS or when filling out your ballot, you know what God wants of you. Though your family and friends can’t imagine why you spend time in that homeless camp or with those poor kids at the relief nursery, or why you let those people sleep at your church. Sometimes I don’t know why I or we do some of this stuff, suffer the heartaches and losses that come in opening our hearts and homes to others, but I have faith that in the end, it is all going to be OK. What other choice do we have?
And it doesn’t take a lot of faith. Just a little. Just about this much… In large ways, and small. Windy and I are talking about our pledge. Our first year, it was pretty slim, $100 a month. We weren’t full time, we still had a house in Massachusetts, had been laid off for six months. Things settled in, and last year we doubled it to $200 per month. This year, things are looking better, more secure. We are increasing our pledge to $250 per month, 5% of our income. It is not a huge leap of faith, we can certainly do it, there will be some shifting around of some priorities and maybe a couple of more pigs this year, we don’t know, but we have faith that we will be able to afford it. And oddly, it feels kind of good. Having faith that our investment here of not only our time and energy but also our meager pledge that it will help this community do Christ’s work in the world. We don’t have a lot of money, but we are confident in what the church is doing with it. We have faith in this place and the work of Jesus Christ that radiates from here in each of you living your lives in this community.
I have faith that Opportunity Village is helping. The Occupy Medical is helping. That our participation in the CROP Walk and Community Supported Shelters, the community of Welcoming Congregations will help. I have faith that gathering together here, in prayer, together, will help. These things will help bring us closer to God and in God in Christ we can grow closer to our neighbors and our neighborhood which again, and consistently can renew our faith in humanity and the creation and each other which increases our faith in God and Christ and the green grass grows all around, all around, and the green grass grows all a round and the mulberry tree picks itself up and plants itself in the sea. And the mountains are laid low. And empires are brought down. And unjust laws are changed. And peace is created. And governments reopened, and all by faith. But most importantly, faith has sustained uncountable numbers of the faithful in our daily, incremental baby steps to the Kingdom of God. And it only takes this much to work. AMEN