After surviving the most terrifying flight of my life, (which I’ll write about later because it will be cheaper than therapy), I had the honor of speaking at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky this past weekend.
The congregation at St. Matthew’s gathers in a beautiful sanctuary built around the communion table. The Sunday morning service provided my first opportunity to speak from the lectionary, which made me a bit nervous at first, but which I found surprisingly freeing and fun in the end. I liked having an “assignment” rather than just ruminating over whatever’s on my mind on the one hand or digging out something old and over-rehearsed on the other. It occurred to me that traditions that make communion the center of worship and that use the lectionary for sermon topics have found some pretty effective built-in ways to guard against the phenomenon of celebrity pastors. Maybe we evangelicals can take some cues from our brothers and sisters in this regard. (More on that later as well.)
So this is my sermon…or homily, or “sharing time” if you are troubled by my gender, or whatever…from Sunday morning. If you would like to listen to it instead, you can do that here.
Reading: Luke 17:5-10
Well, this is my first time speaking from the lectionary. I’m an evangelical, and when it comes to sermons, we evangelicals prefer to just “wing it” and them blame it on the Holy Spirit if it doesn’t go well, so this is a little different for me.
But I like it. As a writer, I recognize that creativity thrives within constraints and I like how the lectionary gives us the chance to wrestle with the same text together, as a community. Also, as a lifelong churchgoer who has seen her fair share of pastor-centric churches, I like that the lectionary lets Scripture set the agenda for the sermon…which, when you think about it, is a pretty evangelical way to look at it. So thank you for the opportunity. It’s a joy to be with you all today. I’m so grateful for the warm welcome.
Now my mainline friends warned me that when you preach from the lectionary, you never know what you’re going to get, that sometimes you just have to “make it work” as designer Tim Gunn would say. And sure enough, the story we find in the lectionary today is one of those stories that will sorta throw you for a loop because it’s one of those stories in which Jesus gets a little testy. And it’s not with the Pharisees, not with the rich or the powerful, but with his friends—the disciples.
The story begins with the disciples approaching Jesus with a seemingly reasonable request: “Lord! Increase our faith!” It’s an understandable request given the sort of things Jesus has been teaching:
Love your enemies.
Bless those who curse you.
Forgive even when it’s not deserved.
Give without expecting anything in return.
Be ready to take up your cross.
But Jesus responds to the disciple’s request with a touch of irritation— the Greek would suggest a bit of snark—and he tells them that if they had faith as small of a mustard seed, they could command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and replant in the sea…and it would obey.
He then proceeds to ask them whether a servant would be so cavalier as to demand a meal with his master, or special praise for doing his basic household duties.
Now, this may strike us as a little odd because we know Jesus wasn’t in the habit of speaking unkindly about slaves or people of low status. Just last week we heard the familiar story of the rich man and Lazarus, where a beggar is assigned higher honor than his rich neighbor. And we know also that Jesus often compared the kingdom to a banquet in which all are invited—slave and free, rich and poor alike—and he often talked about how the least among us would take the high place of honor at that Table to eat with the Master. Jesus was in the business of turning hierarchies and power structures on their head, so why does he resort to conventional social structures to make this point to the disciples?
We have to keep in mind that, throughout the gospels Jesus reserves his harshest criticisms for the proud and saves his most biting satire for the folks who need to be brought down a peg. From the beginning, Jesus’ ministry was about lifting up the humble and humbling the proud, of challenging those in authority and giving voice to the marginalized, so it’s safe to assume that there must have been an element of pride or entitlement at work in the disciple’s request to warrant this sort of response.
And I wonder if we don’t get a little clue as to what that was in Jesus’ strange—downright bizarre—image of a mulberry tree getting planted in the ocean. Imagine it: A mulberry tree suddenly uprooting itself, flying through the air, and then replanting itself in the sea. What on earth is that about? Why would anyone want to do that? What an odd expression of faith!
I wonder if Jesus was gently, playfully poking fun at the disciples’ ongoing preoccupation with flashy signs and wonders as a measure of true faith. They’d been asking for an upgrade in supernatural powers, at one point suggesting it sure would be nice to be able to call down fire from heaven every time someone turned them away from their home. (Jesus responded with similar agitation to that request.)
But the signs and wonders performed by Jesus and described in the gospels always had a point. They were always constructive. They…
They pointed to the mission of Jesus and the purpose of the Kingdom he inaugurated. And today these stories remind us of our own call to…
There’s nothing more ridiculously useless than replanting a mulberry tree in the ocean! And I wonder if Jesus wasn’t reminding his disciples that faith isn’t manifested in flashy magic tricks, or pointless, self congratulatory displays of power, or in destruction and uprooting, but in daily acts of faithfulness—those quotidian acts of obedience that grow the kingdom, one carefully tended little mustard seed at a time.
It’s helpful here to contrast this bizarre idea of uprooting a mulberry tree with the work of the servant who tends sheep, works the land, plants seeds, makes dinner. I wonder if Jesus isn’t telling the disciples that if they have enough faith to be faithful, then that is enough.
Faith, after all, is a gift. And we don’t have any business telling God we don’t have enough, when God always gives us enough to be faithful. God always gives us enough to do something useful, to “make it work.”
Maybe the mistake the disciples make isn’t so much in asking for more faith, but in thinking they don’t have enough, in thinking God’s gift to them was insufficient.
How easy it is to think we don’t have enough! These guys were in the very presence of Jesus and still they wanted more!
Walter Brueggemann has said: “We all have a hunger for certitude. The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude, it’s about fidelity.”
We’re not so unlike the disciples are we? How often we tell ourselves: “If I only had more faith, I could…”
Do something important
Do something impressive
I’d never struggle with doubt.
I wouldn’t be so scared.
I’d finally be appreciated.
I’d finally know I’m right.
It would finally all make sense.
I struggle with this too. I grew up in the Bible Belt in the midst of the apologetics movement and for the first half of my life, I was super-Christian. I was the first to answer questions in Sunday school. I’d memorized significant portions of Scripture before I turned 10. There was even an award at my private Christian elementary school called “The Best Christian Attitude Award,” and I won it four times in a row.
But, as so often happens to kids who grew up in church, when I reached young adulthood, I started to question a lot of what I was taught about faith and life and ever since then, doubt has been an ongoing presence in my life. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m pretty convinced this whole Christianity thing is a bunch of baloney.
And I can’t tell you how much emotional energy I’ve spent trying to recover that initial certainty, trying to get back to the faith of my childhood, trying win another Best Christian Attitude Award.
But what good is it really? How useful would that really be?
About as useful as uprooting a mulberry tree and planting it in the sea.
Once, I was struggling through a rough week of doubt and, like a good millennial, I took to Facebook to vent my frustration .My friend David left this message on my wall. He said: “Faith is always a risk, a gamble—and adventure, if you will. The line between faith and doubt is the point of action. You don’t need certainty to obey; just a willingness to risk being wrong.”
I was letting my desire for more keep me from working with what I had. I’d convinced myself I needed more faith when what I really needed was more obedience.
Last week we celebrated the feast day of Theresa of Lisieux whose famous “little way” has inspired generations of Christians to honor God by being faithful in the little things….by taking this faith thing one step at a time. Theresa talked often about the smallness of her own faith. But she never questioned God’s goodness or fairness in giving her what she had. She never demanded more because she knew she had been given enough to be faithful. She’d been given enough to obey.
“God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized,” she said, “so in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a saint.”
Theresa (who indeed became St. Theresa), Peter and Paul, Mary Magdalene, St. Francis, Dr. King, Tersa of Calcutta, Nelson Mandela, you and I—we all share the same Master. And that master has given us all the faith we need to be faithful.
So even if it’s just the size of a mustard seed, make it work.
© 2013 All rights reserved.
Copying and republishing this article on other Web sites without written permission is prohibited.