This sermon was a fun challenge to put together. I rewrote it Friday and Saturday, once I was able to reorganize it according to several pivots in the interpretation of the Luke passage. (And somehow I missed until the Scripture was being read that the lectionary starts at 17:5, not 17:1 as I had planned. Frankly, I can’t see why the lectionary skips those verses.)
Anyway, it was clear that many found the sermon hard to follow. I think the central message is there: it can be hard to believe in God intellectually, so let’s live the Christian life together and our faith will fall into place. But the twists and turns were regrettably hard to follow.
2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:1-10;
“Increase our faith!” Thus exclaim the apostles to Jesus. They are supposed to be the ideal Christians, aren’t they? They’ve been following Jesus a long way, listening to him challenge the crowds to take up a total commitment to following him, and correcting his pharisaical scoffers. And now the cream of the crop, the 12 apostles, finally make a terse request of Jesus: increase our faith.
Is that request on our lips as well? I can’t speak of you individually, because I think you are individually in a variety of places when it comes to the strength of your faith. Notice though that the apostles ask for more faith for themselves as a group: “increase our faith.” They didn’t each ask, “increase my faith, Lord.” So let’s think about ourselves as a whole church. And as such, I would encourage you (you plural) to join me in asking, even demanding of Jesus: “Increase our faith!”
It has taken me a while to admit to myself an uncomfortable fact about this this church; I think I have been in denial. But we are a pretty secular church. When I hear us talk about why we are here in this church, and why we do what we do, God often has little or nothing to do with it, at least in how we articulate who we are. We’ll say that we love the community, the traditions, the people, the commitment to serve people in need; all of which is good, but not God. I had to give Diane Percy, our chair of the deacons, some ribbing for saying at our deacons’ presentation last week: “You don’t have to be religious to be a deacon.” And I had just made the claim that the deacons are the spiritual vanguard of the church. Now I think Diane was speaking in the spirit of our mission statement: “No matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” We accept people where they are. (It doesn’t mean we have to make you a deacon, but the sentiment is good.)
I’m glad we say affirm that welcome. I’d rather have a church full of wanderers, skeptics, or honestly confused folks, then fundamentalists who are obsessed with claiming certainty and divine authority behind everything they say. I’d rather have a doubting Thomas than a Simon the Zealot.
Besides, we are not alone in our secular proclivities. Many mainline churches have pews full of people who are uncertain not only about the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and such, but even whether God is real. Churches in this quandary often seem a little embarrassed about worshipping God in a solemn and serious style. They like things jokey and unpretentious. They like light-hearted church signs such as “God’s Garden; lettuce be kind; turnip for church.”
Our secularism goes back to a quandary that touches everyone around us: what to do with religion in the modern world? There are no easy answers, and lots of tough questions. We need to have compassion on ourselves when we resort to just keeping up appearances, because the old faith no longer compells us anymore. We need to have compassion on the fundamentalists also, who are reacting in a dangerous and inauthentic way because they are probably frightened by the uncertainty all around them. In the modern world, religion comes naturally to almost nobody.
So we have compassion. And we welcome everyone, wherever you are on life’s journey. But we are still going somewhere, right? Life is still a journey, right? I hope that we’re not satisfied with this secularist quandary we are stuck in. It should not feel comfortable to be immersed in all the trappings of traditional faith—the vaunted-ceiling sanctuary, the vivid portrayal of God in Scriptures, the traditional language of the liturgy, the ancient rites of the sacraments—without being very clear what truth, if any, it all rests on. That disjuncture between what we do and what we believe, that inner contradiction, isn’t where we want to end our journey. Our children will easily pick up on whether we take all this stuff earnestly and seriously, or whether it is all just going through the motions. Paul in the first reading speaks of his vivid sense of his calling by God’s purpose and grace. He is not ashamed of the gospel, he says, even though it has brought him suffering and imprisonment. Aren’t we, at least by comparison, a little ashamed of such daring confidence—and we aren’t even suffering at all for the gospel.
So instead of making too much peace with our doubts, our skepticism, our intellectual hesitations, shouldn’t the apostles’ desire be ours too? “Increase our faith!” Have you prayed that with passion?
Note that the apostles direct this request to Jesus. They have enough faith to ask Jesus to give them more. They don’t just decide to wander off on their own individual quest for answers, for more faith. They know that the key to more faith lies somehow with this Jesus, who has spoken to them so harshly about the demands of discipleship, and so tenderly about God’s mercy to the lost sheep and missing coin. I believe we also need a Jesus-centered faith, and a Jesus-centered quest for more faith. I spent a good bit of time last year probing this faith with you, to open to you the depths of traditional believes in the divinity of Jesus, sharing in the existence of the Triune God. But maybe the question for us is more basic: is God real? I now think that just getting a handle on God is more pressing for us.
But look what prompts the apostles’ urgent request: “Increase our faith.” It is not an intellectual crisis of faith, but the demanding teachings of Jesus about how the disciples should live out their discipleship. Their crisis is not one of theory, but of practice. Now, the sayings of Jesus in this passage seem almost tossed together by Luke; other gospel writers arranged them differently. Jesus says, Woe to one who causes a fellow disciple to stumble. If would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around your neck. (Jesus was nothing if not vivid.) In other words, don’t you dare behave in a way that causes another disciple outrage, or causes a sibling in faith to doubt the legitimacy of the way of faith. Well, that’s pretty intimidating right there.
But then if someone creates a cause for others to stumble, Jesus says, “You must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.” ‘Forgive him! Jesus, you just said he should be hurled into the sea wearing a stone life preserver!’ Not only forgive, but forgive the same repenting offender seven times a day, if necessary.
The apostles hear this and say, oh come on! We have to be more careful, and more vigilant, but also pursue correction and reconciliation without ceasing! Increase our faith.
Now, is their crisis of faith, their being overwhelmed by the demands of the Christian life, also our crisis of faith? Are we also saying to ourselves: “We have to do that? Increase our faith!” Or are we so much more confident in our Christian behavior than the apostles? Has anyone here ever caused someone else to doubt whether the Christian way of life is real? Have you caused someone to wonder whether this church is full of phonies, of people who don’t practice what they preach? Or, if someone has made you stumble in this way, have you really forgiven that one? (I’ve heard you rehearsing old wounds from 20 years ago.) Have you not only forgiven the offender—have you “rebuked” your sibling in faith, and then forgiven when he or she repents? Now, we probably aren’t comfortable with the word “rebuke.” (Have you ever used that word, for real?) Let’s say instead, “confront with.” Have you confronted the person who made someone stumble with your understanding of the problem? It doesn’t count to just forgive in your heart, and keep it to yourself. It definitely doesn’t count to go badmouth what that person did to someone else. You have to confront the offender directly—for that person’s own good. And for the good of the kingdom of God, which is supposed to be in our midst. Increase our faith. Do we even see what we do and fail to do as a crisis of faith?
Now, note how Jesus responds to the apostles. If you read carefully, especially in the Greek, it is clear that Jesus is saying that the apostles don’t really have faith to begin with. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” Evidently, the apostles do not. If they did, they could do something impossible, like command a tree to be uprooted and be planted in the sea.
Now, we hear that, and we briefly fantasize about having that kind of faith. Wow, sounds like super powers! So, perhaps Jesus is using hyperbole, exaggeration. But I think he may be he teasing the apostles. They asked for more faith, recall, because he told them to not undermine each other, and to seek reconciliation when wronged. As if that requires some superhuman powers! They react to Jesus as if being a righteous community was so incredibly hard, that they need more faith to do it. That already shows their lack of faith; they are already blowing what Jesus is asking out of proportion. So he does the same. ‘You could tell this mulberry tree to be uprooted and crawl down to the sea, and be planted there where,’ one assumes, ‘it has no capacity to live and grow.’ To the disciples, that’s what it looks like Jesus is asking: uproot yourself from your ingrained ways, and try to live in a way that seems like death to you. That’s the level of demand they think he is making, when he asks them to avoid stumbling, to correct and forgive each other. If they had even a little faith, they wouldn’t see doing this as so amazing and impossible.
So is what I am asking you really that hard? I want you to really believe in God and to place God at the center of what we do as a church, and to place what we do as a church at the center of your life. You will respond, “Increase our faith!” Well, we are a church. Presumably churches are about God, in some way. And that should affect how we do things, as a church. We shouldn’t be indistinguishable from a secular business, or charity, or social club. What I am asking is not that outrageous.
But I get this: belief in God is hard in the modern world. How many of us can confidently say: “God is the most important reality in my life, indeed, in the world!” There are so many good reasons why it is hard to affirm that with confidence. Again, let us have compassion on one another. I know the difficulties. No one here has been as honest with the difficulties of religion today than I have. I taught a course a Georgetown called, “The Problem of God.” But after years of study, constant questioning, and changing my views, I have the intellectual answers I need, mostly; thank God. But sometimes I just don’t feel it. Sometimes the world feels like a godless romp, or a godless lump. I can lead you down the intellectual path towards a more intellectually satisfying religious faith. But it’s not quick, it’s not easy, and it’s not automatic.
But maybe, like the apostles, we are seeing more difficulty than is really there. Living the Christian life Jesus was commanding them to live shouldn’t have to be that difficult. Maybe instead of forging a Promethean intellectual path out of doubt, we just need to live a basic Christian life as a Christian community. And maybe just living that Christian life will allow us to see the reality of God in a way more direct and convincing than elaborate exercises in critical thinking. That life is of course the life of love, like what Jesus is talking about in our passage: showing great care for your brothers and sisters, and helping your fellows to stay true to their best values, however many times you must forgive them.
It’s not easy to argue against atheism for belief in God. But it’s much easier to see the absolute value of this Christian way of life when compared with one of the dominant secular ways of life. For much of our secular world (and sadly, that includes many Christians), everything begins with yourself. It’s not that everyone is really egocentric; but this is how we play the game. The fundamental reality in life is my own desires, wants, and needs. You start there and then negotiate a way to meet those desires in exchanges with others. In short, everything is a deal. This model dominates because it is employed in our business world. It is taken for granted in contracts, employment, and our consumer exchanges, the so-called “marketplace.” Self-interest always comes first; and we barter to find a way for our self-interests to be mutually satisfied. And this works pretty well in its rightful place, although there are problems. But the real problem is that this idea of negotiating your self-interest becomes applied to all areas of life, as often happens today.
But then it obviously doesn’t work. It doesn’t work with your lover. It doesn’t work within the family, as a way to relate to your parents or your children. It doesn’t work with your friends. While it can be helpful to take stock of your interests, self-interest cannot comprehend the nature of love; it can only distort what love is. We end up imagining that love is just a feeling, an emotion that I get whenever someone is giving me what I want. As if love means being a satisfied customer.
But real love is not something in me, not a feeling or an emotion. It is a reality bigger than me. Love shapes and changes your identity, changes that self- that we assume is always there behind our self-interest. When you love someone, your life, your “I” becomes bound up with the one loved. “The two shall be made one flesh.” That’s why it is scary sometimes. I could no longer be me without Jessica. I wouldn’t be me without Silas. We can lose our loves, of course; but then we aren’t just sad, like if my favorite show goes off the air. A loss of love means I would have to find myself again, journeying through a lostness that we call grief.
We are called to love one another like that. Not to put ourselves first, but to regard ourselves and each other as being encompassed within a greater reality (the body of Christ). Love for us is not the family-and-friend exception to the rule of self-interest; it is the rule, what Paul calls the law of love. What makes the church different and needed in our world is that it stands responsible before God for making love its way of life; no other organization out there does that. Woe be to us if we fail to preserve the light of this way of love in our world; go ahead and strap that millstone on me. But when you live out this way of love, you will feel just how absolutely important it is. And then you can begin to articulate what that has to do with God, Jesus, the Trinity, the sacraments. That might take a while. But in the meantime, we as a church will find ourselves flying through the air, coming down with a splash, and starting to grow and thrive within a brackish sea of self-interest–a tree of love.