faith and high expectations

Homily for October 2, 2016

Sometimes Jesus makes no sense. The apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. That seems reasonable enough. It’s not like they are asking for things, or power, or even knowledge or wisdom. Jesus has taught them about this mysterious thing called faith, and naturally the want as much of it as they can get.

His response, though, is perplexing. At first he seems to rebuke them for what they said. The mustard seed is hardly a gentle metaphor when used as a kind of insult, which it is here. If you had even the smallest bit of faith, enough to fit between these two fingers, then you could uproot a mulberry tree with your words and ask it to replant itself in the sea. A beautiful image, except that he’s using it to show the disciples what they don’t seem to have, what they are missing.

And then it gets worse. Jesus gets downright harsh, describing a slave or a worker who comes into the house and asks to be seated with the master’s family for dinner, who is rebuked sharply for speaking out of place. These “worthless slaves” are not even deserving of the thanks of the master since they have only done what they were supposed to do anyway. If you’re a little bit confused, then I have good news for you: you’re reading it right. This is an honestly confusing passage.

Confusing though it may be, this passage is meant to do far more than simply take us a little deeper in what we already know. Often Jesus’s words are meant to completely disrupt and unsettle how we see our lives.

Now, we can become distracted by the master/slave language, but we need not focus too much on that: there were different understandings of servant and master relationships at the time, and besides that Jesus often spoke hyperbolically. Remember that this was an illustration to make a point, not a story of a master and a slave that actually existed.

The disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, and he answered in a way that questioned the very foundations of what they understood faith to be. They wanted more of this mysterious thing, yet he responded to their question about volume and levels of faith with the language of discipleship and servanthood. This was, like much of what Jesus taught, a great switching of tracks, a change of platform, a move to an entirely different operating system.

If you sense that we’re doing a lot of these platform switches these days, you are correct. Much of how we are living our life as the church is changing not by degrees but by total paradigm shifts, whether we seek them out or not. This is a good thing if the shifts are moving us to places of richer discipleship and greater trust in Jesus.

Since today is the last official day of our fall stewardship campaign, I’ll use that as an example. I hope you’ve noticed that we’ve shifted the message of these campaigns, starting last year and continuing from here on out, from a need to fund the church to the more important and long-lasting need for you to deepen your faith in God, and your fidelity to one another, through the act of generous giving. And since we got this inspiration from a book called Ask, Thank, Tell, I’ll go ahead and refute the gospel’s idea that a master doesn’t need to thank his servant. Forget you heard that! Everyone deserves to be thanked, and we all can stand to do a little more thanking.

But do you see that this is not a change in tactics or strategy, but going instead to an entirely different operating system? One that takes seriously the danger of money, but also its power to be transformed through the act of giving it away? That this will change your life, as it has certainly changed mine? That giving is the gateway to a more faith-filled, graceful life?

The platform-switch is the one that takes us from maintenance to discipleship. The platform switch that we must, must, must undertake is the commitment to teach and expect from one another wholehearted discipleship. Not out of duty, or obligation, or nostalgia for years past but out of hope and love and a desire to be a part of the new thing that God is doing in our world.

So what were the disciples thinking when they asked Jesus to increase their faith? Were they hoping for a little bit of pixie dust, some magic powder that Jesus could toss over them to give them this faith that they wanted? That’s one fallacy that we sometimes fall into, and seems to speak of the kind of faith that comes without trust or even commitment to the relationship with God. That doesn’t seem like faith to me at all, just a hope for some good luck. That’s not an environment in which faith can survive, much less grow. I have found that faith really grows in an economy of high mutual expectations: when God expects a lot of us, when we rely greatly on God, and when we as disciples expect a great deal of one another. The Heidelberg Catechism describes faith as “wholehearted trust which the Holy Spirit creates in me through the gospel.”[i] There’s no magic here. But there are waves and waves of fidelity.

I also wonder if the apostles thought that by sheer force of will they could increase their own faith, and if they were asking Jesus for tips on how to do that. I’ve certainly seen that in my lifetime, and many of you have shared stories of harsh preachers who leaned down from the pulpit and said that if you didn’t have faith it’s because you just weren’t trying hard enough. Aren’t we all just a bit vulnerable to that one? Even though we know that’s a dead end.

There’s more to this faith thing, though, and you might be surprised to hear what led to the apostles’ to ask for more of it. Curiously, when the gospel of Matthew mentions the mustard seed, it has to do with healing. Jesus’ disciples are unable to heal a demon-possessed man, so Jesus rebukes them, saying that if they had the faith of the mustard seed, they could move a mountain. Matthew and Luke must have had a longstanding feud about whether it was harder to move a mountain or a mulberry tree. But the point of the mustard seed there was that if you had that amount of faith, you could be an agent of incredible healing.

But in Luke, the thing that requires faith, that provokes the apostles to confront their feelings of inadequacy, is forgiveness. Just before today’s passage, Jesus says, Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. If the same person sins against you 7 times a day, (if they repent), you must forgive.

So when the disciples respond with “increase our faith” I think that translates roughly to the more colloquial “Lord have mercy!” “You want us to do what?”

Oliver Larry Yarbrough writes, “just as a slave’s duty is to do as ordered, so a disciple’s’ duty is to forgive, an act that in Luke’s understanding requires faith.”[ii] The disciples think they want more of it, but Jesus says instead, look to what you already have. Look to something that already makes you who you are as my follower.

You see, a community of discipleship, by that I don’t mean a bunch of freelance sheep but rather followers of Jesus, exists within a greater covenant of grace. In a community of discipleship, repentance is something we all do regularly, it is honored, and the sin is forgiven. I don’t mean that hurt is glossed over; I mean that repentance is genuine. This is why an authentic Christian community makes no sense in the eyes of the world. A Christian community, in which faith is nursed and nurtured, is equal parts repentance and forgiveness. Both, you see, require trust, humility and the awareness that we need Jesus to be in the midst of us.

When the disciples asked Jesus for an infusion of faith, he responded with the language of discipleship. Faith doesn’t come through divine download but through the skin and bones of everyday life, in which we struggle, hurt one another, repent, forgive, celebrate, then start all over again. The disciples were already capable of doing all those things, and so are we.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, NC, October 2, 2015, C Proper 22

[i] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4

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About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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