Sunday, October 6, 2013

Increase Our Faith!

Increase Our Faith!
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 6, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 17: 5-10
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The 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’? 8 Would 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’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So 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!’ ”[1]

I used to think that the Gospel of Luke was the sweet gospel, the nice gospel, the gospel of angels and shepherds, nice stories about Zaccheus and uplifting parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, but the parables of the last couple months have been hard. One after another has been challenging. If you think about where we've been the last couple months, in September alone, we've been asked to humble ourselves, inviting the cripple and the lame into our intimate places, giving up our perceived places of status for them, and that there is no way to follow Christ without taking up our own cross, the amazing sacrifice of our entire self that the cross requires, our notions of who's in and who's out have been challenged by Jesus' insistence on the importance of the one, each one, even those we would consider lost, we've been challenged to look at how we use people as tools for our own manipulations, we've been told that we don't listen, and won't listen, that our perspective is backwards, and eternity hangs in the balance of our lessons, we've been challenged to look at and actually see the people around us that we may otherwise ignore, forced to look beyond our own perceived need, in contrast to others and their real needs. The disciples have been on this ride, too, so you can see why at the beginning of today's lesson, they scream out, with a rare  New Testament exclamation point, "Increase our faith!" Jesus you've been challenging us, you're putting us way out there, you are throwing us way beyond our comfort zone. In the moment, we are afraid, and don't even want to imagine the future, the past is even unthinkable, especially now, knowing what we know, having seen what we have seen. Jesus give us more faith, we need it, we need it now! If I'm going to do what you ask, if I'm going to be what you are saying I am, I need to believe, I need to know, I need to be sure. Give me more faith!
In today's politically correct world of person first language, Christians and other religious people are commonly referred to as people of faith, but is there any person alive who doesn't have faith in something? Is that a distinction that really sets us apart? Isn't faith itself something that is one of the essential qualities of being human? If  you've driven a car on a two lane road, at upwards of 55 plus miles per hour, you have faith. You have faith that a little double yellow line painted on the asphalt is going to keep you from a head on collision with another person of faith barreling down the road in the opposite direction, equally as fast, mere inches apart. It's then not necessarily a matter of faith, but a matter of what we have faith in that seems to divide us. But we all have faith. . . we all have a little faith. . . we all have faith dare I say, at least the size of a mustard seed, or a least the size of a little yellow line. . .little yellow, different, isn't that just an old nuprin commercial?. . . yes a mustard seed, which as we have heard so many times, Jesus chooses not because he liked the plant or the condiment, but because of the small seed to large plant ratio. A mustard plant, though the seeds are incredibly tiny, grows to over 9 feet tall, according to some of the research I did.
But what are the things we believe in? And why above all does Jesus want to move that mulberry bush into the sea? Where does that come from? I thought the mulberry bush was a thing to go around, not a thing to uproot and plant into the sea, but with this mustard sized faith that we could have we could do such things, or move a mountain as Matthew's gospel suggests. But what good is either? Who would want to do such things? Instead, Jesus we want faith enough to carry our cross, love our enemies, welcome in those poor souls who hang out at the gates of our existence, to risk, our lives, our status, our stuff, knowing that God is real and that the world He created is truly good, when to our eyes it doesn't seem that way. We'd like to believe that the mulberry bush and the mountains are where they are supposed to be because God put them there. . . Jesus that is the kind of faith we want to increase. Keep the mountains and the bushes where they are and let us know instead that you are there. That's what we need, that is the faith we want increased because our world, the world we live in does not appear to us to be in sync with your promises.
I want to point out now that there may be more to the mustard seed analogy here than just smallness. Faith isn't the only thing in the gospels that is compared with this tiny little mustard seed. All three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, also include a parable about a mustard seed being compared to the kingdom of God. In all three there is a tiny little two verse parable that says, well I'll give the Luke one, since we've been studying Luke, much earlier way back in Luke 13 verses 18-19:

“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” [2]  

Is Jesus then saying that faith and the mustard seed, moving mountains and uprooting innocent mulberry bushes,  is connected to the mustard seed and the kingdom of God, and therefore very much the same thing. Is the kingdom of God simply a kingdom of faith, where people believe, and believe in God and God's kingdom, does the kingdom of God begin with faith in the kingdom of God? That is profound.
Jesus says that the mustard seed, in the kingdom of God simile, was planted in a garden, even though evidence shows that Jews did not plant the seeds in gardens, rather they grew wild. The biggest reason is that it grows fast like weeds and would completely take over any garden it was planted in. Pliny the Elder wrote in the year 78, that "mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once." It is quite an image isn't. As if the smallest amount of faith rightly directed would not be suppressible. It would just grow and grow and grow. In this light the second part of the text makes more sense.
When I first read it I wondered why Jesus would go from the disciples asking about faith to the bit about not deserving credit for what  is expected. Telling us that "we should think of ourselves as worthless slaves, having only done what we ought to have done!" Mulberry bushes, mustard seeds, and now this. . . What is Jesus getting at now? Think about it if faith is like a mustard seed, growing uncontrollable, it must not be that they have any faith in the kingdom of God, how can they increase what they don't have, they are slaves to their doubts. . . if they have even a little bit of faith, it would grow at leaps and bounds, unstoppable, like this grass stuff I have in the backyard, it grew everywhere. I started a garden for the first time this year, and planted some vegetables which the voles ate all up, and then some wildflowers, but I couldn't tell the weed germination from the flowers, and before I knew it this grass stuff had completely overrun everything. Is that what the mustard faith is supposed to be like? In this sense it is not something that needs to be increased, but would grow completely out of control if it were planted, or if the seed just came into the smallest contact with the soil. If the seed of faith were planted, it would be expected to grow. . .not something to brag about or get credit for, surely not?
But why doesn't it grow then? Why does Jesus keep saying to disciples ye of little faith? Why do we not believe? Why is our world more and more cynical, when even the smallest seed would overrun the gardens we've made for ourselves? Jesus says that the kingdom of God is a mustard seed planted in a garden, but no one would plant it in a garden because it would overrun the order.  It would make it a mess. It would change the nature of the garden completely. Just one little seed. No we can't. Let's get in the way instead. It's too dangerous. It's not the right time. It's too risky. Just a little faith. . .no not right now.
I wrote this poem a couple of years ago. I shared it with the Sunday School Class before. It's about a time in First Presbyterian in Hampton, where we participated in a program called "A Night's Welcome." Hampton is a downtown city church, and with other churches in the area, in the winter each church would host a week for the homeless to have a place to stay, right there in the church. It was cool, but certain things about it were hard. Like where to draw lines. This poem came out of that, and me thinking about Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall" It's called, "Doors, Fences, Locks, and a Bridge."
Good fences make good neighbors
And locked doors make them great
But on the inside what does that make?
Safe inside away from the world
We protect our things from them
What do we have that they should take?
Who is my neighbor I must ask?
What is my charge to them, my task?
Who am I to love? Who is us? Who is them?
The walls I build do good neighbors build
Is that enough love from me, bettering them?
I protect them from stealing from me
Did I not save them from their sin?
Of course I did but that is not love
For I never knew the face of them I saved.
I never once cared for the needs of them
Only saved them in my way not theirs.
What is their way? What is their need?
It is surely captivated by sin and greed
If they were us, they’d be saved like us
Christ at work within their lives instead
Of wallowing through life half dead
Stealing from me who tried to help
Those two weeks we served doors unlocked.
We graciously open our doors to them
Is that the thanks we get for our act?
What is the problem? How is it made right?
Where do I look for Your answers my God?
The book of your Word the Words of Your Son
Love Your neighbor as yourself, can it be?
But my neighbor is none like myself at all.
My neighbor steals, my neighbor lies
My neighbor must be locked outside.
How can I love my neighbor like I do me?
“I did”, it said in so simple words through deeds.
“I did” though my world was heaven
“I did” though Your world was not
Open to what my actions say and do
That there is no You or I, no us and them
I the bridge where a fence once stood
Unlocked the doors to you and them.
Us is all that is left when fences come down.

Is the kingdom of God a place of fences? locked doors? or bridges? Is it possible that believing that is the beginning of the kingdom of God. "Young Goodman Brown" is one of my favorite stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in it the devil a character, says, that "Depending upon one another's hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race." Which do we believe? Do we believe that our neighbors are untrustworthy and horrible. . . or potential brothers and sisters to love, who like us are made good in the image of God.
Now I know that poem screams to be crazy and unlock the doors of the church, to put fear aside and risk all, and I don't think we are ready to do that. Actually I know that we are not ready to do that. I'm not ready to do that either.  I'm not saying we should do that, but I am saying we need to figure out what we can believe in, what small mustard seed risk we can take, something that we place entirely in the hands of God, believing that faith is tied to the kingdom of God, which Jesus is screaming here, rather than "God helps those who help themselves, which is not found anywhere in scripture," that this one complete seed of faith, resting entirely in the hands of God will grow uncontrollably into the fullness of the kingdom of God. Jesus is exclaiming that it need not be big to grow, but it seems that it must be planted, or at least directly touch the soil, not at all held back, but not the big entire plant at once, just the seed, but with each faith, honest faith, real faith the kingdom of God takes root and grows like wild fire. We ask ourselves, "What do we believe?" We say to Jesus, increase our faith!
In the garden of Eden the serpent said to Eve, did God tell you that  you could eat of any fruit of the garden? And Eve responded, "We can eat of any fruit, except the tree in the center, the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, God said shall we eat it, we shall surely die." The serpent says, "Ye shall not surely die."  The seed of doubt was planted. . . is God a liar? What would that mean for a world that God spoke into existence? Let there be light, and it was, and he said that it was Good. Has the knowledge we have gained, blinded us to the truth? With that question pounding our brain, ripping our hearts, we ask for Jesus to increase our faith. He says, one little mustard seed will answer that question. . . do we dare risk it touching soil?

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 17:5-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 13:18-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.