Our passage from Luke this week chops a pericope in half. Were we reading the entire teaching unit together, we would have started with Jesus instructing His disciples not cause another to sin. The famous passage includes the millstone teaching--it would be better to have a millstone around our neck and to be cast into the sea than to cause another to sin. The passage also includes the requirement that we forgive our brothers and sisters every time they repent of their sins. They are certainly two challenging teachings. And it is in light of those teachings that the Apostles ask the Lord to increase their faith.
Think of that for just a second: The Apostles, the Twelve, ask Jesus to increase their faith. After seven plus years here among you, it is a perceived need that is often repeated among us. I cannot tell you the number of times that our pastoral conversations have started with self-blame. If I only had enough faith, Father, I would not complain so much. If I only had enough faith, Father, I would not be so scared. If I only had enough faith, Father, then I would know I really am one of His disciples. Like the Apostles, we seem to view faith on some kind of sliding scale. Maybe we think Jesus is grading our faith like a teacher grades a student? Sorry, John, but you only got a 63 on faith; that’s an “F,” and you won’t be joining me this eternal season. Sorry, Mary, you only scored 42. Congratulations, Linda, you squeaked in with a 74. Way to go, Fred! I am really proud of you. You got a 95! Enter into the kingdom prepared for you. Some of us are laughing, but we understand it is a rueful laugh. Tell me you have not worried whether your faith is sufficient. Fortunately, you are very good company.
One of the teachings of this passage is that He will work with whatever faith we have! We only need the littlest bit of faith to accomplish what He purposes. When people come in worried about their quantity of faith, as if it could be measured, I always ask them to think back on that time when their faith became real to them. Maybe it was around confirmation. Maybe it was around the time you were baptized. Maybe there was a crisis of faith in your life, and you realized, through the consolation of the Holy Spirit that God was real. Think back from that moment to this point in your life’s journey. If someone had said, “Oh, by the way, once you pledge your heart and mind and soul and strength to Him, here will be the valleys in your life. You will lose jobs. You will have to battle cancer. Relationships will sour or even turn. You will witness this evil or that evil. You will be forced to recognize your own impotence in the face of such incredible needs and hurts around you. And, let’s not forget, you are still going to die.” Who here would embrace that decision? Be honest with yourself. If God gave you the vision to see all the hardships and evils that you would face between that day and now, who here would have been excited to become a disciple? And, unless the thought sends someone to the hospital right now, most of us probably have even more valleys through which we must pass. It is for that reason, I remind people, that God does not let us see the valleys until we are upon them. Most of us would chicken out of living our lives, if we saw them ahead of time.
Jesus understands this, far better than we. Again, remember, He is addressing the Apostles. You and I know that they would be bishops in our day and age. Men like our bishops are asking Him to increase their faith. And Jesus’ answer is that they and we only need faith the size of a mustard seed. With the teeniest amount of faith, He can work with us and through us. A small amount of faith can accomplish incredible, miraculous things to His honor and His glory! A small amount of faith can accomplish incredible tasks, tasks which might seem to the world wasted effort or impossible to overcome.
As I look around the sanctuary this morning, I see incredible kernels of faith in our life together. How long did Larry fight the system planting a church in the Scott County Jail? How long have many of you labored to feed the hungry at the Community Meal with a sit-down, well-cooked dinner. Bev tackles hospice care in the face of death. Vern faces his past in the cancer drives he does for those without family in our area. By your giving and tithing, you make it possible for people in the surrounding community to be able to look for God in their lives. When they come in asking whether He loves them, the doors are open and people are here to remind them of the emphatic “yes!” We have all been stretched a bit in trying to open our doors a bit wider for those in the community who are suffering from addictions. George and Annette had an idea for a fundraiser for the church. Who would want trivia questions on the Bible? Heck, who would show up at a church for a fundraising game like that? Connie, with the help of Sue and Michelle and Robin and a few others, leads the Perv Patrol. Some of us work to end the evil of spouse abuse. Some of us work to stretch grocery budgets. Grant and others are in the midst of an effort to make sure all the needy in the QCA have underwear and socks. And many of us are in the middle of relationships with others outside the Church, the Body of Christ, trying to witness our love of God in situations that none of us could have expected when we first committed our lives, demonstrated that smallest seed of faith, in Christ.
The second teaching warns the Apostles (and disciples) against hubris. As a parish that is committed to ending slavery in our time, this passage might offend us a bit. What Jesus is teaching, though, is that we have already been freed from the real chains which bound us, the chains of sin and death. Jesus does this by asking the Apostles if they would let their slaves eat first at the meal. The thought would have been ludicrous to pretty much everyone in the ANE. Yes, the Jews were expected to treat their slaves humanely. In fact, faithful Jews were commanded to free their slaves every seventh year, unless the slave desired to remain so permanently. But Jesus is reminding us of the chasm which existed between master and slave and between God and us.
If we truly recognize what God has done for us, we realize there is nothing inherently worthy in us. God does not lack for anything if you or I or someone else chooses not to serve Him. It is not as if God is completed by our acceptance of Him. Rather, the situation is reversed; we are completed by God when we accept Him! Like taking the red pill in the Matrix, placing the smallest amount of faith in Christ begins to change us. We begin to be transformed into those who can see with His eyes, hear with His ears, and love with His heart. We can begin to minister effectively because we begin to sin the pain and sin in others better which separates them from their Father’s love. And, if our humility is proper, we understand that this is all possible through His grace. Nothing inherent in us earns us such a relationship with God. Only Christ’s atoning work and our faith in Him makes it possible.
That is why Jesus teaches us to be careful when attempting to bargain with Him. Bargaining suggests that we have something of value to offer, that we are equal footing with Him. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, He calls us to recognize the truth that we have been freed from the life we lived to sin. Such an understanding, a true humility, causes us to recognize that the amazing works we do are really Him working through us. We really are just servants. We really do not deserve any reward. We have, in Episcopal speak, only done the work He has given us to do.
Of course, the wonderful news of the Gospel is that such small faith, such humility, is actually rewarded by God. Although we cannot bargain with Him, and although our efforts are successful only because of Him, we are promised one last incredible blessing. Though Jesus reminds us to have the attitude of a slave, He is not done with just freeing us from death. No, indeed, He promises that one day we who claim Him as Lord will be raised to new life for all eternity, life as first born sons and first born daughters of our Father in heaven. Though we are not to expect rewards, He promises an incredible reward for all those who step out with the smallest kernel of faith and do the tasks He has given us to do faithfully, and with humility. Such is His grace and love towards us that He promises to elevate servants and slaves to the status of first born! We who were slaves to sin are promised an eternal inheritance and glory in the heavens, in a place prepared by His hands and will. From the smallest seed of faith in us, and from a true understanding of what He has done for us, you and I are given a gift beyond all expectation and all imagination. Now that is a Gospel worth believing and a Lord worth serving!