Pentecost 20, preached at St Swithin’s in the Swamp, October 6, 2013.
I speak with you this morning in the presence of God. AMEN.
All summer and into the fall we have been reading in the gospel of Luke; and if we were going to put a title on what we’ve been reading, it might well be, “Things we wish Jesus hadn’t said.” More formally, we might call them “The Hard Sayings…” – not necessarily hard in the sense tht we don’t understand what he means – sometimes hard in the sense that we are afraid we DO understand what he means, and we’re not sure we like it. At the very least, Jesus upsets the disciples’ expectations, and our expectations as well. //a signal to pay attention//
This morning’s reading from the gospel is one of these passages. Look with me for a few minutes at what happens. The disciples ask to be given more faith. What a natural, innocent, harmless, blameless request – the kind of thing one might well say in hard or challenging circumstances//lamentations//.
But how does Jesus respond – does he say, “Why, sure, I thought you’d never ask” and comply with this Perfectly Reasonable Request? Not a bit of it. He is quite rude about their request, in fact. He tells them they don’t have any faith at all (you can almost hear the “Huh”) and then he says something quite wild about a mulberry tree, and wraps up with a gratuitous scolding about something else entirely.
What on earth is going on here? Something seems to have been wrong with the request! 1. What did they really want? 2. And why didn’t Jesus give it to them?
1. He’s just told them about the obligation to forgive – and it’s a hard one. So before they start in forgiving, they say, “if you give us enough faith, we’ll do it” – or, more likely, “if you don’t give us more faith, we’re not even going to try.” “Increase our faith” turns out to mean, “give us more strength, more power ~~ make this task easier ~~ and then we’ll do it.” “FAITH” is a kind of magic, a kind of superpower, that will keep the life of a disciple from costing us anything, including failure.
2. And Jesus doesn’t give it to them; in fact he mocks their desire to do what they – and we – must do by supernatural means. God does not do for us what we can do for ourselves. That mulberry tree is there to demonstrate this. If we want that mulberry tree flung into the sea, we can manage it without divine intervention, without extraordinary spiritual power… //lady evangelist story about new Christians wanting spiritual power – wouldn’t exercise what they already had//
3. The word “exercise” takes us deeper into Jesus’ program here. The disciples do need more faith (and often, so do we); and faith is a gift from God; but it is a gift like the other gifts we are given, such as a talent for music, or a capacity for athletic accomplishment. None of these gifts comes as a wrapped-up, ribbon-tied accomplishment – every such gift is a gift of “potential” – not the finished expertise, or virtue, but something like “a kit” – some assembly is required; some exercise is required; some practice is required )Carnegie Hall story). Such gifts never mere luxuries or mere ornaments, always given in response to need – courage, patience, only present where they are needed (in great fear, in great frustration)… They don’t “make things easy” – they make us willing to confront what is hard.
4. When we want to have the spiritual gift, such as faith, in its perfect form before we undertake the tasks that are set before us, we get the process backwards. We have been given enough faith to start to be obedient in some small things – and by our obedience we find a) the limits of our faith[fulness] and b) the faithfulness of God toward us c)the increase in faith that we have desired – not in our own spiritual “easiness,” but in our capacity to be a blessing to other people, to our community, and to our world…