Proper 22; Pent+20– Year C October 2, 2016, 2016
Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brookline, MA
Habakkuk 1: 1 - 4; 2: 1 - 4; 2 Timothy 1: 1 - 14; Luke 17: 5 - 10
Luke 17: 5-6: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.”
This week, while preparing for this sermon, I was reminded of a time when I was chaplain at a day school in Washington DC. A student, Andrew, a young man with a memorable personality, commented to me after chapel one morning, “You know, Mr. Robinson, you really only have three or four chapel talks.” “Oh,” I said, “what would those be?” He replied, quite accurately, I should add, “ there’s the ‘we need to love one another, as God has loved us, even if we don’t always like each other’; and, there’s the “we are taking care of the earth; it’s not ours, it’s God’s, and we are taking care of it’; and, there’s the “faith is believing that life is good, even when we can’t see the good.”
Andrew’s concise summary was a little humbling, but I was also impressed. “Thanks, Andrew,” I remember sayings, “anything else?” “No, I just noticed a certain repetition.” he said.
I wonder what Andrew’s up to today. Really, I wonder.
But I thought of Andrew because today’s gospel has me thinking about faith.
Just yesterday, I received an email message from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a daily message from the monastery, and this one was about faith. It read: Faith is not believing that certain claims or statements about God are true. Genuine faith presumes a relationship with God. It implies a radical trust in God, faithfulness in one’s relationship with God, and a way of seeing the world as life-giving and nourishing rather than as hostile and threatening.
Seeing the world as life-giving and nourishing rather than as hostile and threatening.
In today’s gospel, the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith, and it has made me ponder: How does faith increase? How does this trusting relationship grow? How does this way of seeing the world as life-giving and nourishing rather that hostile and threatening become more pervasive in one’s thoughts and impactful in daily life?
Reflecting on his life and work, Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to a way of seeing the world when he said – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
And there is an arc to each of our own faith experience with God, and it is as long as the days of our life, and as varied. Faith sees God in that arc, and sees the arc bending toward life-giving nourishment.
When we encounter the Apostles today they are being sent forth to minister – to be an apostle is to be one who is “sent forth.” And Jesus has been quite clear: it will be tough. And the apostles are feeling unsteady, feeling unsure. “Increase our faith,” they ask.
And Jesus said to them, if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could do amazing things. In other bible translations, the original Greek text is translated as “if you had faith like a mustard seed” or “had faith as a mustard seed”. This places the emphasis on the potential of the seed to BECOME - a mustard seed, of course, is not a tree, but it contains everything necessary to BECOME a tree. Participating with nature, nourished by water and sun and soil, it will BECOME a tree, and becoming a tree is what the seed is intended to be. It will go through many seasons and conditions as it grows.
Isn’t this how a seed grows, the arc of its life, as it were, trusting that it will be provided what it needs, in season and out, whatever the conditions, it continues to become what it was intended to be.
It seems so simple, so logical, become what you are.
But the apostles aren’t seeds, they are human, each of them bringing a diverse and varied life experience to this encounter with Jesus. They believe in Jesus, or they wouldn’t be there (these are the same ones who cast aside their nets to follow Jesus; who walked away from established lives to follow Jesus), but the trust that may characterize their relationship with Jesus, and the view of life they posses is not a steady upward increase in strength and maturity; rather, it is jagged and uneven - trusting and not trusting, seeing life as nourishing and seeing life as hostile.
When we encounter the apostles today, this is a moment in the story of their life of faith, a data point in a much larger, longer story.
My faith story is not a steady upward graph, but jagged, highs and lows. If I were to put it on a graph, with an X and Y axis, it would not be a steady rising line to the upper right corner, showing a strong multi-year growth report, pleasing to investors. No my line is jagged and uneven.
Better than a graph to depict my faith story, I think it may be better for me to think of my faith story as a journey across a mountain range with many peaks and valleys, varied weather and terrain, traveling alone, and traveling with others, traveling with God, and traveling alone.
But it also occurred to me this week that I have not spent a lot of time considering my faith story, and if I want to or need to increase in faith – as the apostles ask as they are sent forth to minister – that this growth probably begins by considering this story – seeing the larger picture.
All of us have a faith story – and these stories are as varied as our individual lives. For some, we may see many moments across many years; for others, we may see few or none, perhaps it begins today
For some of us, our faith story develops and changes from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, as we develop as persons.
Or our story evolves through the highs and lows of events of our life – successes and failures, health and illness, pleasure and suffering.
Or through people we encounter in life, those whom we travel with – who lifted us up, held us close, inspired and encouraged, or who betrayed or abandoned us.
Peaks and valleys. Highs and lows. The world is life-giving and nourishing; the world is hostile and threatening. I trust God and have an abiding sense of God’s presence; I have no sense of God’s presence.
The bible is a faith story – of people discerning a relationship with God, and it is a most uneven, meandering, human story, as uneven and meandering as our own.
Our faith increases – that is, seeing the world as life-giving and nourishing rather than as hostile and threatening – as we explore these stories – the faith stories of the bible and our faith stories.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
How can I increase in faith, discern the movement and development of my faith, if I am not aware of my own story of faith?
Here at St. Paul’s, we offer a prayer of invitation to communion which is adapted from the worship liturgy of the Iona Abbey. At Iona it reads:
The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready. It is the table of company with Jesus, and all who love him. It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world, with whom Jesus identified himself. It is the table of communion with the earth, in which Christ became incarnate. So come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a while you who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed; Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.
The invitation invites us to bring our full story, MY full story, YOUR full story, and that we will be met at the table not with hostility and threatening judgment – but with a life-giving, nourishing welcome.
Henri Nouwen, a theologian and writer many of you may know, wrote about this in one of his many wonderful books, Reaching Out, The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. Nouwen’s second movement is from hostility to hospitality, in which hospitality is the creation of a safe, non-threatening, non-hostile place, where the traveling stranger can find peace, and in such a place, offer her or his gift.
God’s invitation to the communion table is to a hospitable space – where we traveling strangers can bring our faith gift, our true stories, our true selves. And sent forth, as apostles, we are called to create hospitable space in our communities large and small – and in ourselves, because our own interior can be one of the most hostile and judgmental spaces. Creating spaces where we, and others, can offer the gift of our faith stories.
I’m glad I remembered Andrew this week, and the short, humbling conversation from so many years ago. It reminded me that in my faith story, this notion that faith is a way of seeing the world was shared as a basic belief, like a mustard seed. I’m excited to explore the story of how that seed has grown in me, and is growing; to see seasons of growth, and notice the effects of good and harsh growing conditions, but mostly to notice, to observe, to learn.
There is an arc to each of our own faith experience with God, and it is as long as the days of our life, and as varied. Faith sees God in that arc, and sees the arc bending toward life-giving nourishment. But to increase in faith, I must see this not as an abstract concept, but notice the contours of my own faith story.
“Increase our faith,” the apostles asked.