In the Name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This homily is going to be a little different than my usual. This is going to be participatory. I’ll do my part and you’ll have to do yours. Don’t worry – I’m not going to call on anyone. But, for your part, I want you to pretend that you have a difficult decision to make or a difficult challenge to face. Go ahead; conjure one up.
If a vivid imagination isn’t your strong suit, I’ll give you some juicy material. You may want to consider something like a health issue, or a financial situation or even a tragedy in the family. That should do the trick!
And, after you’ve come up with a difficult decision or a challenge, I want you to hold onto it while I share with you what I believe is going on in the seventeenth chapter of the gospel according to St Luke. We’ll revisit your assignment later on.
The passage before us, of course, begins when the apostles rushed up to Jesus, all hot and bothered because of some things He’d said would be required of them, and they demanded: “Increase our faith!”
And their petition, at first glance, seems totally reasonable (even though I suppose Emily Post might notice they didn’t say “please”). But, what seems somewhat unreasonable, at least on the surface, is our Saviour’s response: all this bizarre chatter about mustard seeds, slavery, and so on.
But before we get into that, I’d first like to make an observation, which will further frame what it is that I really want to share.
And the observation is this: Most of us are inclined – or culturally conditioned, if you will – to spend too much time and energy thinking about faith in terms of quantity (“Lord, increase our faith,” is what they demanded!).
And this is precisely what is going on in the passage before us. When the demands of being a follower of Jesus Christ got tough — tougher than they could have imagined — the apostles reckon the solution is simply to ask for more of the magic, if you will, more of the potion that first excited them.
And, on the surface, this seems very pious and even humble, for there is nothing whatsoever wrong with asking for the grace that enables a faithful life. In fact, we should ask for the grace that enables a faithful life. And we do so every time we’re together at mass. As the post communion prayer in the original Prayer Book puts it: “Lord, assist us with thy grace that we may continue in that holy fellowship and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.”
But what is going on in this passage is something else altogether. The apostles aren’t humbly asking for the grace that enables a faithful life. They believe, albeit mistakenly, that faith is a matter of quantity, so they are demanding: “more, more, more; now, now, now!” It’s that grab and go mentality that we all have from time to time.
And our Saviour’s response, I’d like to suggest, is actually a mild rebuke. And it’s a rebuke, I believe, because most readers of this passage (most of us) want Jesus to simply comply, wave a wand, click His heals, and say, “Your wish is my command. Now live happily ever after.”
But what happens is something entirely different: basically, he denies their request, never hands them a thing, and then He wraps it up and puts a bow on it all by telling them to get to work. This cannot be what they’d initially hoped to hear.
Before we go back to your assignment, let me add another observation to the mix.
When we face tough decisions and hard challenges in life, we not only have the challenge itself to deal with — the external issue — but we also have the internal — let’s say spiritual — struggle as well.
And that internal, spiritual struggle is rooted in that question we often ask ourselves – the same questions the Apostles were asking internally. Do I really have a quantity of faith — enough spiritual oomph, if you will — to deal with difficult decisions and challenges?
And, I’d like to suggest to you right here and right now that the answer to that question is a resounding, loud and clanging: “no!” You hear me correctly.
No, even on our best days, we lack enough faith, if we’re measuring it by quantity, to face much of anything – let alone a big decision or challenge.
And this is actually good news. And this is actually freeing news. And getting in touch with this is good and emancipating news, because, meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow, and dealing with life in general, isn’t about a supposed quantity of faith at all.
Being a Christian, a man or woman of faith, is about the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, who is alive, and whose grace is sufficient.
Another way to say it is this: no, we don’t have enough, because He is enough!
To think about faith in metaphors of quantity, therefore, is to miss the freedom and peace of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And that’s why Jesus is poking fun at the apostle’s quantitative approach and slipping in a little rebuke. Think about it: A mustard seed, as you’ve heard before, is about the smallest thing out there. By pointing to something so insignificant, He’s saying quantity isn’t the point at all.
Thus, what we often call “our faith,” is rooted not in some amount. What we call “our faith,” rightly speaking, lies in recognizing the power and generosity of God’s grace.
And, in the end, after a nuclear holocaust, spiritually or literally, what’s left is not our own inner strength, in other words, the quantity of faith we think we’ve stockpiled.
The only things that endure are our souls and the grace and power of our Risen Saviour, who loves us so much He became one of us, died for us, and was raised all in order to recall us to the Father’s bosom.
And that’s what Jesus is trying to tell the apostles. And that’s what He’s trying to tell me and to tell you.
The task before us, then, isn’t to grab, grab, grab, but to fall down, down, down on our knees in gratitude, day after day, and week after week, to thank God for the object of our faith, Jesus Christ the Righteous, who has overcome this world and prepared for us a dwelling place eternal.
So, let’s go back to the beginning. It’s time to turn in your homework. I asked you to pretend you were facing a challenge or tough decision.
I know you don’t have to pretend. Neither do I. We are all facing challenges.
But know this. The question is not how do you – how do I – amass a quantity of faith sufficient to hand it? The question is will you — will I — trust in the sufficiency, power, promises, and faithfulness of Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, who loves us, and will never leave nor forsake us?
And trusting in that reality, and that alone, does indeed uproot things and move mountains – even the hardened hills in our hearts – and opens us up to love and serve the Lord.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Charleston D. Wilson
The Church of the Redeemer
20th Sunday after Pentecost
2 October 2016