Ordinary 27C, October 6, 2013

Making Mustard Seeds Out Of Mountains

Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
7“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
We have a house rule that really only applies to my son David who is a lottery aficionado.  I don’t know where he got his lottery fervor as neither my husband nor I are gamblers by any stretch of the imagination.  But I once made the mistake of letting David buy a $1.00 scratch off ticket and, wouldn’t you know it, the kid won $5.00.  After that big win, every trip to the Giant Eagle involved a lengthy lecture from Mom about the terrible odds against winning the lottery, and how he’d be much better off buying a pack of gum or a candy bar with that $1.00 because at least he’d have something to show for his investment instead of just a worthless piece of cardboard. 
But this is my son we’re talking about, a kid who isn’t easily dissuaded from anything, so I came up with this house rule to end the quibbling in the check out line: if the Power Ball jackpot reaches more than $250 million, I will buy one ticket. One. And every time the Power Ball has risen over $250 million over the past couple years, I buy one ticket, and then I ask David what he would do with the money.  After a while, I realized that the child really has no idea what he would do with all that money; he just knows he wants to be rich.
So today’s sermon could well be dedicated to my dear son David. In fact, this sermon is dedicated to all of us who imagine that all that we need in order to become super duper Christians is that one winning ticket.  We long for the jumbo jackpot of faith to fall into our laps.  If we only had more faith, everything that is terrible in our lives wouldn’t be so terrible.  If only we had more faith, we could move that proverbial mountain without breaking a sweat. Our super duper faith would be an irresistible beacon of light shining high on a hill, attracting hordes of people to fill our church pews and offering plates.  And if all of us had giant faith, we’d be able to set right a world that seems to be spinning out of control.  We could glide through our days with our faith as a Teflon shield to deflect those horrible hobgoblins of fear, dread and anxiety nipping at our heels, tripping us up at every turn.
Some of us decide that the way to increase our faith is to embark on a spiritual strengthening program. So we pray more.  We read more scripture.  We go to church every Sunday and show up for bible study or Sunday school as often as we are able.  We listen to Christian music and read Christian books.  We do all of that, thinking that our good efforts will deliver the faith fitness we seek, and we measure our progress in those endeavors by how good or how lousy our lives seem to be. If things go well, we figure we have the faith thing nailed.  If things fall apart, we think we’re just not doing enough or doing enough right, or maybe we’re doing our spiritual fitness training with the wrong people at the wrong church.
Well, scripture suggests that this approach may be a bit off the mark.  Spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, and study are all good things that are worth doing.  But you’re not going to get more faith by doing any more or any less of those things.  No matter how hard we try to increase our faith, we won’t get what we want. The pews in our churches will still be empty, the world will still spin out of control, fear, dread and anxiety will still grip us and, the last time I checked, there are not many mulberry trees bobbing around in the ocean.  There is no magic ticket, no secret faith formula.  We can’t will or work or talk ourselves into having more faith.
It seems to me that this realization is hitting the disciples hard as they follow Jesus.  As we move through the gospel of Luke, we can see that they have been really working at this discipleship thing. Their patience in trying to untangle the words and teachings of Jesus is beginning to wear thin.  And understandably so because the Jesus we see again and again in the gospel is demanding and frankly, a little difficult to deal with.
Jesus’ stories and teachings are so not what the disciples want or expect to hear, and I can understand why they might feel that Jesus is just messing with them.  Jesus keeps insisting on taking everything the disciples believe, and turning their understanding upside down.  The first will be last, the greatest will be the servant, and shameful people like lepers, tax collectors, beggars and youngest sons who blow through family fortunes will receive the highest honor.  People who never cracked open a Torah or set foot in a synagogue seem to be hogging all of Jesus’ attention and getting all the winning tickets.  The disciples feel like they have given up everything, yet Jesus tells them that following him means giving up even more — close family relationships, all their possessions, and even a comfortable place to lay their head at night.
Then, right before today’s reading, Jesus says, oh wait…here’s one more thing you need to do: forgive and forgive and forgive everyone who sins against you, even if the same person sins against you seven times a day.  And it seems like that notion of radical, repeated forgiveness is what finally blows the disciples’ minds.  The disciples essentially say to him:  “Whoa there, Jesus.  If you want us to do that forgiving thing, we definitely need something more from you.”
I love how the disciples say all the mostly stupid but totally human things we would say if Jesus were standing up here today.  We would give our list of issues to Jesus including everything that’s messed up in the world from our own family situations to our lousy health to the wars raging in the Middle East and budgets crashing in D.C.  We would cry out, “Jesus we want more faith,” as if faith is a power we can control or manipulate, or as if our lack of faith is the only explanation for why the world is so screwed up and we can’t do anything about it.
The disciples in the text today want more faith because it has become all too clear that this discipleship thing is really hard.  Following Jesus is extraordinarily difficult on good days and almost impossible on bad ones.  Living up to the expectations of Jesus is made even more complicated by the fact that Jesus keeps speaking in parables and never seems to answer their direct questions.  The disciples need something from Jesus that will keep them from losing it entirely.
We WANT more faith because we have decided that whatever faith we do have isn’t nearly enough to deal with the reality of our lives in this world.  Which is why I think we spend so much time hoping that our faith will at least be enough to get us into the next world, because it sure doesn’t seem like enough faith to fix this one.
But Jesus won’t let us off the hook.  Jesus says that faith no bigger than a mustard seed is enough to do everything we are called to do. That our itty bitty teensy weeney faith is more than enough to carry us beyond what we think achievable in the right here and the right now.
I’m not sure we really know exactly what we would do if our faith increased 250 million times over night, any more than my son would know what to do with $250 million dollars.  We just have this nagging feeling that we somehow don’t have enough of something to do the things that seem to need doing.  Faith seems as good an answer as anything to our feelings of Christian inadequacy.

Over the past several weeks, I have been serving on two different presbytery committees assisting two different churches.  One of the churches is very, very small with extremely fragile finances.  I mean seriously fragile finances.  It is possible that this church is just a few weeks or months away from closing their doors and dissolving their congregation.  At the same time, I am working with another church that has plenty of members, a huge endowment, and every material resource to do ministry for a long, long time.

You would think that these two churches in very different financial places would be facing different sets of problems.  But the leadership in both churches use almost the exact same language in describing their fear, dread, anxiety about the future.  And it has occurred to me that what both churches need is not more faith or more hope, or even more or less money.  

What they need is more Jesus. What we need is more Jesus.

We need the One who not only leads the disciples to a place where they will see his suffering and death on a cross BUT also the One who will lead them from death to resurrection.  We need the Jesus who will lead us not only to the edge of the cliff where things look awful, dark and scary, but will jump with us into the pit and stay with us while we try to figure a way out.  And it is that same Jesus who will lift us out of the ditch, dust us off and set us on the path to new life.  There are no spiritual short cuts.  Only Jesus.
To that end, perhaps the only other thing we need more of is that very Jewish concept –  chutzpah.  Chutzpah comes from the Hebrew word that means “audacity” — to look in the face of things that are difficult and things that are hard and say: “We can do this. We can do what we need to do not because we have super awesome faith, because we have Jesus.  We can do the hard work of living and loving and staring death in the face without allowing the hobgoblins of fear, dread and anxiety to send us into a panic.”   
In that sense, this quirky parable about the slave who just shows up, does the work and expects nothing in return makes a little more sense.  The parable reminds us who we are — servants of the servant – following Jesus who came to serve, not to be served.   Like Jesus, we are to do the tasks given to us not because we will receive the thanks of more members, more money, more security, but because our actions are our obedience to the One who cares for us in all things, the One to whom we belong in life and in death, the One in whom we move and live and have our being.
Maybe, just maybe, this faith stuff is a matter of having chutzpah — the outright audacity to get up every morning and tend to what is right in front of us.  Maybe it is trusting that we have been equipped to do every task God gives us, and that everything we do has a huge impact in the way the kingdom of God measures things.  Which is entirely opposite of the way in which we measure things in the world.  In the kingdom of God, small is beautiful and powerful and capable.
So maybe what we need is not more faith.  Maybe we just have to stop making mustard seeds out of the mountains of faith we’ve been given. 
We look at ourselves and see smallness and scarcity. Jesus looks at us and sees power beyond our imagination.
We think what we do is unimportant, mundane and maybe sometimes dull.  Jesus celebrates every small kindness we do and every genuine act of love as a giant step toward the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.
Deep down, we doubt that we are worthy of love or forgiveness.  Jesus loves us as we are and forgives us as we are.  In fact, Jesus is crazy about us in the way a parent is crazy about even the most rebellious child and would do just about anything to help us see ourselves as the miracle we are.
We grieve for a church that we think is dying.  Jesus rejoices over a church that he alone is transforming. 
We believe we live in a world in which there isn’t enough, and if we give away too much, there won’t be enough leftover for us. Jesus invites us to live into God’s vision of a world in which there is more than enough for everyone.  Even enough for second helpings. 
If you do not believe me, I invite you to come to this table today where we are assured that the grace of Jesus is sufficient, God’s promises are sure, and that our fear, dread and anxiety are nothing – NOTHING – compared to God’s generosity, abundance and love.  On World Communion Sunday, we gather around this table with Jesus’ disciples of this age, in every place around the globe, to share this simple meal.  We gather because what we really need – what we really hunger and thirst for – is to stand close to one another and closer to the One who has promised to walk with us through this age and in ages to come.  Here are stuffed silly with God’s love for us.  It is enough.
Beloved, it is time to relax and shake off those hobgoblins of fear, dread and anxiety. Come to the table.  Eat.  Drink.  All has been prepared.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

After the sermon, the Emsworth U.P. congregation sang its first new song from the new Presbyterian hymnal, “Glory to God.”  Here is a beautiful version of the song we sang: “Your Are Mine” by David Haas. 

I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My voice
I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near

I am hope for all who are hopeless
I am eyes for all who long to see
In the shadows of the night,
I will be your light
Come and rest in Me

Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine

I am strength for all the despairing
Healing for the ones who dwell in shame
All the blind will see, the lame will all run free
And all will know My name

Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine

I am the Word that leads all to freedom
I am the peace the world cannot give
I will call your name, embracing all your pain
Stand up, now, walk, and live

Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine