Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22], October 1/2, 2016
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA – The Rev. Roy Almquist
A little over a week ago I received an e-mail from a good friend and former parishioner. In his brief communication, he made a clear and reasonable request:
I would love to meet with you sometime next week, perhaps for breakfast or lunch, to talk about spirituality, mine to be specific. As I get older, I am struggling with my relationship with God. … At this point, who knows how much time any of us have on this Earth. If you would meet and help me at least figure out what questions to ask of myself and God, I would deeply appreciate it.
Now this is a request that a priest or pastor is thrilled to receive. Those of us who have embraced ordained ministry as a career have done so in the hope that we can be a source of support and encouragement to the people we serve. I quickly established a time to meet with my friend and we had a spirited hour of conversation about …
what it means to be a Christian,
how we can achieve a sense of connection with things eternal, and,
how we ought to live our lives … whether we have months or decades to live.
As I read our Gospel lesson for today, I thought about my conversation over coffee with my friend at a nearby Panera Bread. In today’s Gospel we see our Lord’s disciples approach him with a rather similar issue to the one my friend raised: Lord! Increase our faith!
Perhaps the disciples’ mistake was not that they asked for more faith, but that their evaluation of their own faith was deficient. Walter Brueggemann, the great scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures once said about Christian people: (The sad truth is that) we all have a hunger for certitude. The problem is that the Gospel is not about certitude; it is about fidelity … being faithful to Jesus Christ.
The disciples’ request was not unreasonable in light of the challenging things Jesus had been teaching them. You will remember that our Lord had boldly declared that his followers were …
to love their enemies and bless those who had caused them harm;
to forgive … even when the object of their forgiveness did not deserve such compassion;
to give generously without any expectation of a pay back, and
to be ready to take up a cross, assuming a difficult duty that could not reasonably be expected from you.
Sadly, we often feel like we are living in a world of constantly diminishing hope. In the past few weeks we have been emotionally body slammed by shootings in shopping malls and schools, stabbings of innocent adults and children, the victimizing of the helpless and marginal.
A major bank has been found guilty of stealing from their depositors’ accounts in order to make the bank appear more successful. We feel like so much of what we hold dear is under threat. Obviously, there is no one cause for what seems like a slow degeneration of faith and decency.
We live in a world where people are scared and scarred, but instead of their fear and confusion drawing them to the church and communities of faith, many are using their troubled state as an excuse to strike out in anger and bitterness toward perceived enemies … big government that does not seem to address their needs … large, heartless corporations that falsify claims about their products or arbitrarily raise the cost of needed items like pharmaceuticals, with indifference toward the plight of the sick.
When all else fails, there is the perennial object of free-floating wrath and prejudice toward those who are different from us … who speak strange languages, dress in ways that do not conform, and worship in a manner that is alien and frightening;
Families want the best for their children, and they structure their lives and calendars to include anything that seems to have value … but in the process they often leave little, if any, time for the formation of faith and values, to say nothing of quality time together as family.
On the surface Jesus’ response to the disciples seems dismissive and insulting. He implies they are faithless, and then he makes that statement about servants and masters, implying that a servant would not expect his master to prepare and serve a meal to him. In these verses Jesus seems to say that we can never put God in our debt, and we can never earn the right to God’s approval. When we have done our best, we have only done our duty.
What I think Jesus wants us to know is that there is no more or less in faith. Faith is not, in other words, some kind of threatened commodity that we must find and horde. Faith is not intellectual assent or the mastery of some spiritual rules. Faith is not gallantry or courage.
Faith is found not in the mighty acts of those we might call “saints,” but in the ordinary and everyday deeds of compassion we can and do perform … folks seeing a need and responding to it … caring for the people who streak across the radar screen of our life.
Faith is doing what needs to be done, simply because someone must do it. Last Sunday on Sixty Minutes King Abdullah II of Jordan was profiled. Toward the end of the segment Scott Pelley asked the King: Why did you allow nearly a million and a half Syrians to come into your country?
I found King Abdullah’s response compelling: Well we really didn’t have much choice. The King said, I mean they were flooding across the border, being shot by the Syrian regime. And you know Jordan has always been a place that opens it arms to refugees from many countries.
Faith is doing what needs to be done, simply because someone must do it. King Abdullah is a Muslim, but his statement hopefully could be made by a Christian. Life dictates to us what we must do … and when we do it with compassion and determination … our faith increases!
So, faith is not a brilliant concept … it is not forcing yourself to believe ten impossible things before breakfast! Faith is a muscle … a strong arm to lift the fallen, a helping hand for the faltering, a shoulder placed to the wheel to make something good happen. Faith is a person who joyfully goes the “extra mile” to bring a blessing into the life of someone in need.
At the end of the day the question is not how much faith we have but, rather, how are we are living out the faith God has already given us? How is our faith, our relationship with Jesus, changing our lives and the lives of others? If it is not, more of the same will surely make no difference.
The mustard seed of faith has been planted within us in our Baptism and that seed of faith is Jesus Christ, embedded in our heart. Jesus has withheld nothing from us. We already have enough.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Christ, our Lord. AMEN.