Sunday, October 02, 2016

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Make our faith stronger!”
6 Jesus replied:
If you had faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree to pull itself up, roots and all, and to plant itself in the ocean. And it would!
7 If your servant comes in from plowing or from taking care of the sheep, would you say, “Welcome! Come on in and have something to eat”? 8 No, you wouldn’t say that. You would say, “Fix me something to eat. Get ready to serve me, so I can have my meal. Then later on you can eat and drink.” 9 Servants don’t deserve special thanks for doing what they are supposed to do. 10 And that’s how it should be with you. When you’ve done all you should, then say, “We are merely servants, and we have simply done our duty.”

CNN and MSNBC in the car.
POTUS on my smartphone. online.
The Washington Post, who may save us all.
New York Times poll tracker. where you can be your own pundit!
Even the Toronto Star, the paper my grandfather cautioned me never to read, has been counting Trump’s lies each day.

So much ink spilled, so many pixels giving their all, and for what? Don’t we do this every four years? And isn’t this happening in another country? Should we even care? Well, aside from all the heated rhetoric about fingers in buttons, the outcome will have some bearing on us. Recall what Trudeau the Elder said:

Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.

Thus endeth the reading. Profound wisdom aside, the election also has a religious dimension, since the country that cries loudest and longest about the separation of church and state seems to do the poorest job separating church and state. And understanding this, we also understand that all election roads lead to Liberty University.

Yes, that Liberty University, 80,000 far-right Christian students ready to welcome any political candidate who promises to stack the Supreme Court with conservative justices. To that end, Mr. Trump appeared, and in the spirit of the place decided to quote St. Paul: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty.” Get it, liberty, like Liberty University.

Except he misspoke. The candidate, who is not a church-goer, told the crowd he was quoting “Two Corinthians.” Well, the media exploded. Late night comics mocked him saying “two corinthians walked into a bar...” And many on the religious right sounded a note of caution, wondering aloud if calling the book ‘Two Corinthians” was a sign that perhaps the candidate is not a real Christian.

Fair question. But wouldn’t it make more sense to consider his greed, vulgarity, sexism, racism, aggression, and a complete disregard for the truth in assessing his faith? If there are any Americans listening (or reading), I would suggest you assess the candidate’s behaviour rather than whether he knows two Corinthians, or three Corinthians, or a whole van load of Corinthians. In other words, faith is something you see, not something you hear a candidate describe on the campaign trail.

Faith is something you see. Day-by-day, the disciples of Jesus saw remarkable displays of faith, people healed, the dead raised, lives transformed, and yet it left them uneasy. And it’s in the context of that unease we get the reading Edna shared:

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Make our faith stronger!”
6 Jesus replied: If you had faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree to pull itself up, roots and all, and to plant itself in the ocean. And it would!

Ah, the mustard seed. That little seed seems to come up time and again in the gospels, and generally in two ways. The first way is a parable about something small becoming large, or something small doing something large beyond our first expectations. So the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—smallest seed becomes a shrub large enough for birds to enjoy. Or yeast in a measure of flour, or treasure hidden in field.

The second way begins in disappointment, when the disciples fail in some way or feel inadequate. So Luke 17 opens with Jesus’ command to forgive someone who is truly sorry, even if they mistreat you seven times in a single day. Another mustard seed passage follows the disciples failure to cast out demons, and another follows Jesus’ unlikely decision to punish the fig tree. Failing at forgiveness, failing at casting out demons, failing to fathom the fig tree’s fate, the disciples ask for more faith.

“If you had faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree to pull itself up, roots and all, and to plant itself in the ocean. And it would!”

And this, of course, opens another question: this time the question of what is moving where. Because Matthew, who is also busy reporting on faith like a mustard seed, isn’t moving trees in the ocean, he’s moving mountains:

“Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move.”

Suddenly we’re moving mountains, which of course, takes us back to St. Paul:

“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Now you’re back at some summer wedding in your mind’s eye, but come back. We have a problem to solve, and I can’t do it all by myself.

Taken together—the miracles of Jesus, the potential of the mustard seed, the promise that faith can move mountains—the most predictable part of the whole narrative are the words “make our faith stronger!” You can’t walk beside the son of the Most High, see the lame walk and the blind see, and not want to possess such faith.

So we have to pause then, and ask the question “who is doing what to whom?” What is truly happening when people are healed and fig trees wither and mountains move? God is at work in the world. In other words, if faith is something you see, then faith is the ability to witness what God is already doing around us.

Faith is the ability to witness what God is already doing around us. And this faith seems to ebb and flow. Back in the 80’s, when good schools like Queen’s were teaching theology to young impressionable people like me, we seemed to lose sight of this overall lesson, opting instead to become church-based sociologists rather than people of faith. Let me explain.

Back in the boom years, the years when we so busy managing hundreds of children in the church school and weekends of weddings, we didn’t have a lot of time left over for the community. People had needs, but we tended to meet the need with benevolent funds rather than outreach, easier to say ‘take the cash and go’ then complicate things by asking how else we could help.

Then when the boom ended, we had the time to look at our communities once more. We quickly realized that we were disconnected from the communities that surround our churches, and we turned to the academy for tools to help. Looking through the eyes of the sociologist, we saw societal problems begging for society-wide solutions and were often immobilized by the need.

Then someone suggested another tack: why not look instead through the eyes of faith—the ability to witness what God is already doing around us. People in the community were already busy doing Matthew 25 work—feeding the hungry and clothing the naked—surely this was God at work.

So we revised our approach from deciding what we thought should happen (God’s church has a mission) to what God is already doing (God’s mission has a church). We used the eyes of faith to see that God is already busy moving mountains and turning the smallest things into something big.

In a few moments, we will turn something small into something big. We will gather at the table and transform simple bread and grape juice into a story of redemption and future hope. We will come as individuals and leave as a whole, remade through Christ’s own presence.

May God bless us with the eyes of faith, the ability to witness what God is already doing in us and others by the Spirit, Amen.


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