Saturday, 1 October 2016

Sunday Sermon: Luke 17 5-10 - Jesus, faith and the mustard seed

Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 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. “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’? 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’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 1So 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!’”

Do you ever think about the nature of your faith? Do you ever analyse  
whether, in your view, it is strong or weak? Do you draw any conclusions from your answer?

The reading from Luke begins with the apostles crying, "Increase our faith!" but we don't know why. The lectionary has given us this brief extract of an exchange between Jesus and his followers but unless we can remember what went before we’re pretty much in the dark. Why did they feel they needed more faith? Now possibly you can remember what happened in the preceding verses, but I couldn't. What’s the context here – because we do need the context or we’re likely to go off on entirely the wrong tack?

I read these words and wondered if the disciples were perpetually anxious or pious but that doesn’t sound much like the disciples as Luke generally presents them. Or perhaps they just felt like you could always use more faith so they just asked for it every once in a while. (Well, we could all do with that attitude, couldn’t we?) Or, possibly they felt they were duty bound to ask for more faith. (Again, who doesn’t?)

After I read back in the passage, I discovered the real reason was simpler than these - but the implications much harder. Jesus had just asked the disciples to do something they knew they couldn’t do. He told them, "If a person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive." If we ponder the daily practicalities of that for a moment we should all be horrified: that is indeed a hard road to travel.

In one of the other Gospel versions of this story, Peter asked Jesus, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?"  Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy times seven.” or to put it another way, an infinite number of times.  Challenging or what?

So, there’s our context: no wonder the disciples were begging for an increase in faith and felt inadequate. Perhaps they could forgive seven times in a lifetime, but seven times a day? Surely even Mother Teresa couldn't do that? I’m not at all sure that I could anyway.

The disciples are more like us than we are often willing to acknowledge. They were willing to do what was reasonable and even exceptional to follow Jesus. They had left their homes and their jobs and their families to travel with their Master, but now Jesus was beginning to ask seemingly impossible things of them and they didn't know how to do them. As a matter of fact, they knew they couldn't do them. They weren’t sure that they could take Jesus at his word: was he speaking literally or figuratively?

Do we recognize that in ourselves? Are we not like the disciples? Do we not have the same doubts and the same crisis of confidence?

When they came to this realisation, it’s as if they wanted Jesus to give them some blueprint - some clear manual - that offered simple steps for being a disciple. You may not remember an American initiative called the Four Spiritual Laws that were doing the rounds in Evangelical circles some years ago, but they wanted something like that. Not that there was anything wrong with the Four Spiritual Laws as such but they weren’t, of course, the simple answer Christians then hoped they would be – they were a sort of 1970s pre-figuring of The Alpha Course: lots of discussion but, as it turned out, no easy answers.

In short, the Disciples wanted to be transformed, but they didn't really believe they could be. Does that ring any bells? Like them, have we become so accustomed to seeing our world as it is that we can’t imagine the world as God wants it to be? They couldn’t imagine seeing the people who have wronged them as their brothers and sisters instead of villains. Are we a bit like that too? We largely spend time with PLUs – people like us: people who share our values and our worldview and we are often stumped by other ways of thinking or by other people’s experiences. Christians are often uncomfortable with people of other faiths, straights with Gays, blacks with whites, able-bodied with the disabled and so on because actually we don’t get out that much and cross boundaries, so our worldview is restricted and therefore, so is our ability to relate to others who are also part of what Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu refers to as “the rainbow people of God”.

Here we are a few days after the reelection of the Labour leader and all the angst and division caused by that – which is far from resolved. Here we are just a few months from the BREXIT referendum and all the angst and division that went with that – also far from resolved. How have those events given our faith a knock? We hear stories of family relationships and friendships that have suffered as a consequence of those divisions as people feel bruised, let down and betrayed.

Most of us have known for a long time if we are red or blue or orange – maybe even green or purple (you know, when they show the map on election night and colour the constituencies according to which party won there). So deep are the divisions that much of the time we don’t feel we can engage beyond a superficial level with those who think differently to us, much less hear the piece of the truth the other person has to say. American politics seems even more polarised.

My mother was an ardent Tory and I mean ardent. She was only slightly to the left of Attila the Hun. I once asked her, "How do you get along with your friends who vote Labour or Lib Dem?" and, after a pause, she said, "I don't think I have any friends who vote Labour or Lib Dem." Why would she? In her eyes they were simply wrong.

In political terms, we tend to think that the world is red or blue or orange, and we struggle to imagine that there is an identity deeper than that because it isn’t our experience. Our world so readily gives us labels and we much too readily accept them. Just ask someone one of those red-line questions: immigration, the E.U., gay marriage, abortion, and immediately when they answer you think that you know who that other person is and make judgements about them based on that snapshot – generally negative judgements based on stereotypes. Watch a stranger on a bus read a newspaper and, if you can see the name of the paper, you probably believe you know their voting profile and their stance on any number of political and social issues. Our response to them may well be shaped by the preconceptions we have about them and part of that revolves around a sense that they have got it wrong, and in their own way have contributed to the mess we believe we are in, so we generally don’t engage with them – and that’s not in any way to assume that we are right in our views. Once we have that identity fixed, it's hard to believe anything else.

Yet Jesus says if a person repents seven times in one day, seven times we are to see them afresh as a child of God. Jesus calls us to look again at the person who we perceive is wrong or who as a consequence of their outlook has wronged us and see them as God sees them: not as the other but as a child of God capable of receiving forgiveness – our forgiveness - which means seeing them differently. Forgiveness is not about whitewashing the past; it's about seeing the present in a new light. And it’s not just about seeing others in a new way but recognizing, as part of that, our own inconsistencies and weaknesses: it’s about reconciliation and looking toward a future of change and openness to new perspectives, of redemption - and surely we need a deeper faith to manage that because it’s not likely to come through our own endeavours.

Forgiveness insists that people are not red, blue, orange, green or purple - or male and female; black, white, brown or yellow; straight or gay; working class or middle class or any number of other false categories we use to pigeonhole people. Instead we all belong to the same flock with Jesus as the shepherd.

No wonder the disciples cried, "Increase our faith." Jesus is calling for them to see their reality in a new way, as he’s calling us today to see our reality in a new way.

Since they don't know how to do this, Jesus gave them an answer, but it's not the one they expected. He told them, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you." The disciples wanted a diagram for getting from point A to point B in the journey of their discipleship, but they didn't get one. Faith isn't a game plan for solving our problems, nor is faith understanding why things are the way they are. At the end of the day, faith is rarely about answers.

Faith is what we believe about the love of God through Jesus Christ and how that impacts on our relationships with others. Faith is about being grasped by Jesus so that we know in our hearts that our lives and his life and the life of the world are mixed together. Once that happens, we see ourselves and our neighbours and our world in a completely fresh way. Once that happens, we know that the only thing that matters is that love, and that the only reality is God’s grace. Once that happens, we can forgive because we are new creations; and, therefore, we see everyone else as a new creation.

The hard truth is that we cannot earn this grace nor can we achieve it. It's a gift. All we have to do is open up a little and God does the rest. All we need faith the size of a mustard seed; that is, we need a small crack in our preconceptions and God will transform us.

When we think about whether we can change the world, we always despair. But let us remember it's not about us, it's about God working through us. We can do little, but is there anything God can’t do? Our task is to pray for faith and to trust in the Holy Spirit to effect change in us and through us.

And the truth is, it doesn't take much: a word, a touch, a gesture can give us a fresh perspective. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed for God to transform us.

Have any of you ever read "To Kill a Mockingbird"? When I was teaching, I was once on detention duty and some of the kids were doing catch-up reading for their English Literature GCSE. Supervising detention is very boring – one step away from spiritual death - so I picked up a copy and as I browsed I came to the point where the white men came at night and surrounded the jail where Tom, the black man who had been wrongly accused of a crime, was being held. The men were a mob. They didn’t see Tom; they only saw an enemy because of how they had categorised him and they were blinded by rage. Scout, a little girl, (It can only be an American story) watched them. Her father told her to run away and go home. But Scout didn't run, and she didn't fight. Instead she found the right response that became the mustard seed.

Scout looked at one of the men in the mob and said, "Hey Mister Cunningham, don't you remember me? I go to school with Walter. He's your boy, ain't he? We brought him home for dinner one time. Tell your boy 'hey' for me, will you?"

There was a long pause. Then the big man separated himself from the mob, squatted down and took Scout by both her shoulders. "I'll tell him you said 'hey,' little lady." The mood began to change. Mr. Cunningham left, and one by one the mob dispersed. The girl had whispered words of grace. She offered the mustard seed of faith that opened the man's eyes, his heart and his soul.

Instead of a world of divided loyalties, ours has the potential to be a world of grace. God whispers those words every day in every place. In faith we should be ready to be open enough to ask for -  and to receive that grace and then who knows what change we can effect in this world and in the lives of others?





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