This sermon is based on the readings for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22 in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Sometimes when I stand up on Sunday morning to read the Gospel I have to work pretty hard to understand or to know how to inflect the words on the page; whether words are spoken in an adjuring way, a pleading way, a comforting way, a convicting way. That’s why I am so happy that there is this one little piece of punctuation in today’s passage, that exclamation point that allows me to read these words, INCREASE OUR FAITH! INCREASE OUR FAITH! The apostles come to Jesus and they say those words, the exclaim them. They are anxious and they are scared.
How do I know that they are scared? Well because I read ahead, just a little bit. Actually I read back. This is one of those instances where I think that our lectionary doesn’t do us any favors. They have us starting at the fifth verse of chapter seventeen rather than the first verse which gives us the context for the apostle’s plea when they get to Jesus. Listen to what he says to them:
‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.
No wonder the apostles are so desperate for help. No wonder they are so concerned! They need to live together in community in a specific way, modeling behavior, so that their behavior does not decrease or harm the faith of any of these little ones… They are called to do something that is almost as impossible as having a mulberry tree uprooted and planted in the sea. They need to be able to forgive. Not just once. Over, and over, and over, and over again. Jesus is calling them to a way of life together in community that seems so foreign to them that when Jesus goes to reassure them he uses this extreme and extraordinary metaphor about a mulberry tree.
Reassure them? That is exactly what he is doing here. We have gone back into the text to establish the context for this exchange with the apostles. Now we need to do a little more work and examine the Greek.
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” In the Greek there are two ways of understanding this sentence. One hears this as a reference to something that is not fact, that has not occurred, that is not true. “If I were you… I am not you. But if I were, then this is what I would do…” The other way to hear this sentence is as a statement of fact, something that has already happened, something that is in fact true. “If you are followers of our Lord Jesus then you are…” Jesus is saying, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, and you do, you could do the impossible. You could uproot this tree and you could plant it in the sea and it would thrive!” Jesus is saying, “You have that faith, and it is only the size of a mustard seed, but it is enough! You can forgive! Not just once, but over, and over, and over again. That is all that it takes. You have enough faith to live in my light and love and to help to bring the Kingdom to realization here and now.”
I imagine that the disciples were pretty desperate when they said to him, “Increase our faith!” It’s like saying “give us strength, help us through this moment!” They are not just because Jesus has told them that they have to do the impossible and forgive over and over again. They are also living in this strange and contradictory world. Listen to what Habakkuk says to us this morning:
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous–
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
He must have made the mistake of watching the news while he was preparing dinner. How does he do it; in a terrible world, a world that seemed intent on depriving Habakkuk of his faith, of making him believe that he was wrong?
The Psalmist is right there with him. Lord how long will you let the evil doer prosper? How long will you allow those who exploit others to their own advantage to benefit from their abuse? Justice is out of whack here! How long will you let this go on?
The desperation, the panic that the apostles felt when Jesus called them to forgive wasn’t unique to them. The people of Israel had been feeling that stress and difficulty for a long, long time.
Jesus was calling them to live as a lamp on a lamp stand, a beacon on a hill, a light to the world that would call them to a new life and a new way of being. That’s why in today’s passage from Luke Jesus is cautioning the Apostles, telling them how important their witness is. He is cautioning them to live lives that are consonant with God’s vision and dream, God’s Kingdom here and now so that they would be drawing others into that light and into that way of being. He is telling them that there are lots and lots of things in this world that will point in another direction and pull people in other ways. “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come…” But you, you need to be different and to show something new to the world so that things will begin to change.
“Increase our faith!” The stress that we feel when we hear the command to forgive isn’t any different than the stress that Habakkuk and the Psalmist felt. It isn’t any different than the stress that the apostles felt when Jesus told them that they had to forgive the same person seven times in a single day. In fact Luke uses the word “apostles” to tell us that Jesus is speaking, not just to the disciples who were following him, but to all of us who would follow. It is we who stand before him this day and say, “Help us! Give us Strength. We believe, help our unbelief! Increase our faith!”
So where does it come from, that mustard seed of faith? It is planted deep within us. Is our God’s gift, it is God’s grace. It is ours! That little mustard seed of faith needs to be nurtured. It needs to be sustained and grown.
Paul in his letter to Timothy here talks about his rejoicing at the faith of the group gathered there together, a faith that was given to them and handed down to them by Lois and by Eunice… I had a couple of Aunts named Eunice. I always wondered where that name came from… Faith that was rekindled and nurtured in community as that early church gathered to give each other strength, to hold one another up, to bear testimony and witness to the things in this world that manifest God’s goodness and light so that even in times of loss, pressure, pain, duress there was always that light shining. That’s all it takes, that little mustard seed.
So when we begin to think that we don’t have enough, that we are not enough, that nothing that we can do could ever change the way the world is we need to remember that Jesus stand among us this morning and says “Yes you do,” and “Yes you are,” and “Yes you can. All it takes is that little mustard seed and the nurturing and tending that happens when we come together as the Body of Christ, as a beacon on a hill, as a lamp on a lamp stand, top shine that light into the lives of people who long for what we experience when we experience here together: the light and love of Christ in the body gathered. Amen.