Proper 22c, Oct. 6, 2013

October 7, 2013

The Landscape of Faith
Luke 17:5-10

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!'”

I attended a banquet last week that was put on by the UALR Business Department that honored two successful graduates of their MBA program. One of the honorees was one of our church members. He was actually one of the 5 members of the first class that graduated from that program. I won’t say who he is. It’s not that he would be embarrassed to hear me call attention to him. He might be embarrassed if he was here, but the truth is he rarely shows up for worship, so I feel free to talk about him. He is someone I’ve known for several years. I consider him to be a friend, and I think of him as one of our good members because I do see an envelope coming to us in the mail from he and his wife on a regular basis. He may be writing to complain about the quality of the preaching, but no one has said anything to me, so I don’t think that’s what he’s doing.

I hope you know how grateful I am to those of you who make the effort to show up on Sunday mornings. Those of you who actually show up for church are like the Marines who actually storm the beach. But I’m grateful for our silent supporters and everyone else who works in some way to support this church. We need all the support we can get in whatever form it comes.

My friend gave a really nice speech at this banquet. His talk was the highlight of the event, but another nice thing for me was to be seated at a table beside a really interesting man. His name was George Simon, and he holds a Doctor of Psychology. Dr. Simon has written a few books, and his latest book is entitled, The Judas Syndrome. I found that to be a compelling title, and I asked him to describe in a nutshell what it’s about.

What he said was that like Judas, people often betray what they actually say they believe – that people proclaim to have faith, but then behave in ways don’t actually reflect their faith. Then I asked him how he would define faith, and he responded by giving me an example. He said, suppose my neighbor is a financial planner, and suppose I come to believe that she is the best financial planner in the world. If this person, who I believe has the best understanding of financial matters and who has my best financial interest in mind, if that person told me to sell all of my financial assetts and to buy one particular stock, the issue of faith would come in to play. If I truly had faith in her judgement I would do as she advised.

I thought that was a pretty good portrayal of faith, and I think it brings in to focus what we are saying when we proclaim to have faith in Jesus. When we United Methodists are baptized, we announce that we put our whole trust in the grace of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, but I think the jury is still out for most of us in terms of how fully we put our faith in what he taught. Do we fully invest ourselves in the way of living that he revealed?

Honestly – it’s not an easy question to answer. If as Dr. Simon described, having faith is largely equivalent to putting our whole trust in something and acting on that trust. Do we fully trust that we will find true life by giving away our lives – as Jesus instructed us to do. When he said to follow him he was headed in to trouble. He was not on his way to a party when he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Following Jesus is riskier than any financial transaction. He asks us to put our actual skin on the line.

But we aren’t the first generation to wrestle with this issue of having faith. Clearly the very first generation of disciples was trying to figure out what it meant to have faith in Jesus. And maybe I watched too many episodes of Gilligan’s Island when I was a child, but when I read this morning’s text it’s not hard for me to hear this interaction between Jesus and his disciples as being a little bit like an exchange between Gilligan and the Skipper. I’m hearing Gilligan asking the Skipper to increase his faith, and I’m hearing an exhasperated Skipper responding by saying what Gilligan could do if he had any faith at all. It’s a stretch, but I’m hearing some exhasperation in the voice of Jesus. The disciples were asking for more faith and Jesus responded by saying that if their faith was increased it might then become the size of the smallest seed in the world.

Jesus wasn’t anything like the Skipper, nor was he trying to be funny in this situation, but I do think the disciples could be as dense as Gilligan when it came to matters of faith. I think there was an edge to his response by implying that their faith was smaller than the smallest seed known to exist, but in this same response Jesus lifts up a compelling image. While he didn’t encourage them to overestimate the extent of their faith, he revealed to them the tremendous possibility that could come from the smallest act of faith. He was holding out for them the vast opportunity for transformation that genuine faith could provide. He spoke of how giant trees would obey their commands if they had a speck of faith.

Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they were involved in something more powerful than anything they had ever encountered before. But he didn’t want them to get caught up in some sort of power trip. Immediately after telling them how the smallest amount of faith could enable them to speak with unimaginable authority – he went on to tell them how subservient they were to remain.

What a contrast! In one breath Jesus told his disciples that their faith would provide them with the authority to speak in ways that would change the face of the earth. And in the next breath, he tells them that they are to see themselves as servants who are only doing what is expected of them when they work endlessly for nothing.

This endeavor of living with faith is tricky business. It is an undertaking that puts us in touch with the root source of true power. The smallest amount of faith is incredibly empowering – world changing. But we are never to assume we have any authority whatsoever.

I think the distortion of Jesus’ first generation disciples was to equate faith with power. I think Jesus understood that behind this request for an increase in their faith was the subtle and probably unconscious desire to have their personal authority increased, and the desire for personal power is what generally causes people to be blind to the power of God. The more we trust in our own power the less we look to the power of God’s Holy Spirit to do the transforming work that needs to be done.

There is a tricky balance to obtain here, for I believe that God wants us to be on board in the struggle for global peace and sustainability. I believe that there is significant work for us to do to bring about a more just world. There are opportunities for each one of us to make this world a more civil and hospitable place. We can all contribute in significant ways to improve the landscape of this world.

But we don’t need to think to highly of ourselves and our capacity to get things done. God isn’t held hostage by our unwillingness to fix anything. God doesn’t depend on the level of our faith to bring about redemption in the world, and it’s not hard for us to lose sight of this. It’s easy for us to think God does depend on the power we are able to assemble on earth. It’s hard not to think God is out to overcome God’s adversaries like every other dictator or king or president or CEO or member of congress who only understand conventional forms of power. But God’s kingdom doesn’t operate in a conventional manner.

God is able to transform life in a powerful way without money or weapons or propaganda. In fact, these conventional means of power get in the way of God’s transforming power.

When we have more than we need it’s hard to have faith, but as this passage indicates, a little faith in the source of true life is the most powerful thing any of us can have.

We are presented with a tremendous challenge. In order to navigate the landscape of faith we are to live as if our lives depend on nothing but the grace of God and yet to work like God is counting on us to repair the earth. It’s an unusual challenge – to believe that we have access to the source of true power and to assume we have no authority at all.

In my opinion the life of faith in Jesus Christ isn’t very easy to define, but it’s the best offer we ever get. To live with faith in Jesus Christ is to be in touch with the source of eternal richness, and to have a lifetime of work ahead of you.

Thanks be to God for this remarkable investment opportunity!


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