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Monday, October 4, 2010

Sermon from October 3, 2010

Rev. Arthur Halbardier
Habakkuk 1: 1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
2 Timothy 1:1-14
St. Luke 17:5-10

It is possible that the folks who pick our Sunday readings overestimate us. For sure, they overestimate me! The gospel reading I just read begins with a plea from Jesus’ disciples, “Increase our faith!”

What prompted that? Why do they need a booster for their faith? I suppose all of you remember exactly what happened in the verses just before this, but for the life of me, I could not.
I was forced, of all things, to open my Bible. To find what we missed in the verses preceding.
Just to review: We’ve been following Jesus and the 12 for weeks now, taking the long road to Jerusalem. It hasn’t been a happy trip.

Jesus announced he is going to Jerusalem. The 12 don’t understand why. But they do know, “He’s going to get killed down there!”, and, even more pertinent, “So are we!”
Jesus tries to teach them that there is a reason for this, about the new kingdom his suffering will create. The 12 don’t get that either.

But they do start throwing elbows in an ongoing spat about which of them more deserves to sit at the right and left side of Jesus in the new regime.

Jesus tells them parables. Like the ones we’ve heard in recent weeks. A man has two sons. A rich man and poor Lazarus. They don’t get it.

Finally Jesus resorts to direct instructions. That’s what was in the verses just before today’s reading: Jesus said to them, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, but if there is repentance, you must forgive. Even if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, `I repent,’ you must forgive.”

No wonder they throw up their hands helplessly, “Increase our faith!” Who can do that? Perhaps forgive a repeat sinner seven times in a lifetime. But, seven times a day? Day after day?
I find that I am a lot more like these disciples than I wish; perhaps you do also. These 12 have done significant things in order to follow Jesus. They have after all left homes and jobs and families. But now Jesus is asking them to do impossible things. They know that they will fail. He’s asking way too much.

How is it possible to regard people who are perpetually evil as brothers and sisters, rather than villains? The 12 want to be transformed, but they don’t really believe that they can be.
The phrase at the beginning of the gospel, “If you had faith like a mustard seed…” is often misinterpreted as a put-down of the 12. Of their meager faith.

Actually, what Jesus is saying is quite the opposite.

I’m no scholar of Greek, but others who are say the sense of this “if” clause in Greek is that the thing it declares is actually already true. In other words, Jesus is saying, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed – which you DO!”, you have faith capable of uprooting a tree – and not just any old tree, but a mulberry which lives to be as much as 600 years old, with an unbelievable root system that can actually break rocks in its search for water.

Even the smallest faith – and you have it – can uproot a mulberry tree, fly it through the air and replant it on top of salt water. I have no idea why one would want to - that’s not the point. Jesus says, gently. “You have plenty of faith to accomplish everything I ask of you - already.”
It was a hard thing for these first 12 disciples of Jesus to let go of the things they had been taught, ways that were acceptable in their culture, and to follow the radical ways of Jesus.
It’s a hard thing to be a 2010 disciple also in our world, and not be dragged down into becoming “of the world.” And there are many things that threaten to do just that.
For example, here we are a month before the elections, and “we the people” have never been more divided. What has become of civil conversation, of looking for common ground? The political campaigns have no interest in such niceties. Strategists have learned that you hang these incredible labels around the neck of the opponent because that has become the way you win. They push us, the electorate, to not just disagree, but to hate the other side so they can trust us to vote for their guy. To be indelibly “red”, or “blue” – and no shades in between.
A commentator on NPR was interviewing a woman at the recent Glen Beck rally in Washington, an ardent supporter of Beck’s politics - and I mean ardent. He asked, “So how do you get along with friends who don’t share your views?” To which she answered, “Easy. I don’t have any friends who don’t share my views.”

It’s an evil thing, this labeling of people: liberal/radical/Muslim/gay - you know the list. We have become “we the divided,” rather than “we the people,” more and more at odds with one another.
Another issue of our culture many have identified is a kind of growing narcissism; we are becoming a culture of individuals with little sense of responsibility to a larger community. Think of the prevalence of the word “my” in our usage: my friends, my space, my things, my needs. Only those whom I have “friended” can write on my wall. There may be a security when we limit ourselves to associating only with those with whom we feel comfortable, but what is the future of that vital connection with and responsibility for others who may come at things a little differently?

Just two trends that work at odds with being a disciple.

Because caring for and seeing the value of all people is exactly what Jesus asks of his disciples. Even when they have gone way too far. If a person repents to you seven times a day, then seven times we are called upon to “re-see” them as, yes, a child of God. This scoundrel who may have done you wrong time and again is not a villain, but a fellow child of God as capable of sin as we ourselves.

It’s one darn risky prayer we pray: Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. But, that’s the expectation. Jesus tells us it is also the possibility, even for a mustard seed-size faith.

Forgiveness isn’t about whitewashing over the past. It’s about seeing those around us in a new light. As equal members of the flock. But, it’s no wonder this caused the 12 to cry out for an extra helping of faith. They knew Jesus expectations were beyond their capacity. But they were wrong in thinking that what they needed was “more” - more power, a better road map, some additional answers.

My own life, and perhaps yours also, is full of examples of the fallacious belief that if I can somehow get everything in order first, if I just get my ducks in a row, then I’ll be able to take care of whatever I need to do. If I drop a few pounds, then I’ll get back to exercising again. As soon as the economy improves I will be more generous in supporting God’s work … As soon as the kids grow up, when work slacks off a little, when I retire, I’ll get more involved in ministry to others…

Always there’s something…someday…. Can you imagine Jesus responding, gently, “Excuses. Excuses.”? Because that day will never be. Our ducks to not stay lined up properly. We will never have all the answers. We will never make it on our own.

Joseph Sittler, my dear mentor, often described faith as standing with our Lord Jesus with both feet firmly planted in mid-air!

Simon Peter’s greatest moment of faith was that day when he risked getting out of the boat to walk toward his Lord Jesus, with nothing under his feet but water.

In college, I had a young religion professor, Steve Schmidt, who would tell this story several times a semester to help us understand faith. His two year-old son would wait each night on the upper bunk bed in his room, wait for his dad to come tuck him in. As soon as Steve would cross the threshold, his little boy would leap from the bunk toward his father, yelling, “Catch me, daddy!” Steve loved that story. “That is faith!” he would tell us. Faith is not knowing where we’re going to land. It’s not doing our best – thank God, not about doing our best. Not about having all our ducks in a row. Faith is nothing more than a leap into uncharted territory, trusting the mercy and promises of God, even though nothing else appears to be sure. Nothing more than that leap…but nothing less than that leap either.

And that sort of faith can move mountains or mulberry trees, because it is faith in Jesus, not faith in ourselves, or our well-ordered ducks, our goodness or our understanding.

Day to day, you and I on the one hand face the numbing realities of life in our world: stories of bias and prejudice, malice, greed, hunger, violence against children and the elderly – “glass ceilings, “closed doors,” injustices of all kinds. And, on the other hand, our ears are filled with Jesus’ call to stand against such evil and to bring some word of hope and redemption to those beaten down by our world.

What can one individual, or one small congregation that cares do in the face of such odds?
The gospel of today is so for us: The gospel that even faith the size of a mustard seed has rock-crunching, tree-lifting, life-changing, world-moving potential. Because God is at work through it.

Even our smallest effort has power – in God’s hands. That’s also the faith of our prayer: God’s will will be done. As Luther adds, we pray in this petition that it be done among us also.
Remember in “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,” when the band of white men come at night and surround the jail where Tom the young black man wrongly accused of a crime, is held? The men are a mob. They do not see Tom, a man; they only see an enemy, a symbol – because of his color, that label thing. They are blinded by rage.

Scout is the young daughter of the attorney who has defended Tom; as a result, the attorney and his family have also become hated and shunned by the community. Scout is watching the ugly mob get more and more out of control. Her father tells her to run away and go home. But Scout doesn’t run. She approaches one of the men in the mob, Mr. Cunningham, and speaks a simple word that becomes the mustard seed, if you will.

Scout looks up at Mr. Cunningham, and says, “Hey, Mr. Cunningham, don’t you remember me? I go to school with Walter. He’s your boy, ain’t he? We brought him home for dinner one time. Tell your boy `hey` for me, will you?” There was a long pause. Then the big man separated himself from the mob, squatted down and took Scout by both her shoulders. “I’ll tell him you said `hey,’ little lady.” The mob dispersed.

Scout had whispered the words of grace. She revealed that mustard seed of faith that opened the man’s eyes and heart and soul. Instead of a black and white, or red and blue, it became a world of grace. God whispers such words of grace every day into our world. God would do so through you and me.

At the end of today’s gospel, Jesus asks the 12, which of you who has a slave, a slave who has worked all day in the field, will invite that slave to sit down for dinner with you?

A slave slaves, that’s what they do, and the slave expects no more; the slave knows the alternative is he can be traded in like one of Cantor Cherwien’s used cars, and replaced with a new one. Who would invite a person of so little worth to sit down at dinner? The answer of course is there is only one who does just that, invites even you and me to his banquet, not for the sake of what we have done which is nothing of any worth, but simply out of love for us. And, for the sake of the mustard seed of faith that he would feed there. Which is why he says again, today, “Come. Come, and be with me.” Amen

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