A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday After the Pentecost, Luke 17:5-10
The value of a person, of a relationship, of our relationship to God, has been the primary focus of the past few weeks in the Gospel lessons we have heard as we journey through the Gospel of Luke. Today’s lesson sees the apostles coming before Christ, having heard these parables, and asking for Christ to increase their faith so that they may live up to the teachings of Christ, so that they can defend the radical departure in the valuation of people from the current system. “Increase our faith!” They cry to Jesus, not for a self-serving reason, but because what Jesus is challenging them to uphold, what Jesus challenges us to uphold, is hard. It goes against what is currently accepted. It changes the understanding of not only what it means to practice one’s faith, but even what it means to have faith, as Jesus is about to expose.
“Faith the size of a mustard seed” is one of those phrases from the Bible that has lost its meaning over time. Just as easily found on a tasteful home decoration in the aisles of Hobby Lobby, this phrase has become synonymous with our struggle to understand the power that our faith entails. Except, that’s not exactly the point that Jesus is trying to drive home today. While this phrase may uplift, make us feel comfortable in its beautiful calligraphy hanging in the entryway, this is not a measurable that Christ is using to illustrate the power of faith, at least not in terms of how little faith is required to accomplish amazing things.
Faith is not measurable in quantity. The apostles desire to have their faith increased is a misunderstanding of what it means to have faith, and that is the point that Christ is trying to get across today in comparing an amount of faith to a mustard seed. Faith is something you either have or you don’t. And, if you do have faith, then even ordering a tree to uproot itself and go plant itself in the sea would not be outside the realm of possibility (even if it would be a somewhat absurd thing to do to a tree).
If this then is the reality of having faith, then how do we live into this understanding, how do we exercise faith that can accomplish extraordinary things?
Paul, in writing to Timothy today, opens to us an understanding of how we are to open ourselves to the power of the faith we hold within ourselves:
“Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.”
The grace of God is the gift we receive in our faith. That grace of God literally conquered death and sin through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it is in our faith that we gain access to this grace and power. It is in practicing the grace of God with the rest of creation, with each other, that we not only express our faith, but we harness the power that faith even the size of a mustard seed inherently possesses.
And, we will be challenged in our practice of faith. We will be challenged by those who do not understand that the way of love that Jesus calls us into is bigger and wider than even we can comprehend, and it is through our efforts to try and even come close to meeting that challenging call, that we are not only practicing our faith but are in turn able to accomplish amazing things.
The challenge of responding with faith, of responding with grace, of responding to the call to walk in the way of love, has been at the forefront of our community this past week as plans for this winter’s emergency cold weather shelter emerged, and in turn, a push to remove access to God’s love, to limit God’s grace only to those who are capable of “helping themselves” (a weird colloquialism that has forever confused me in its foundational fallacy), a push that has responded with thinly veiled calls of “won’t somebody think of the children?!”
I would be happy to discuss the details of how the Kelso Longview Ministerial Association (KLMA), in partnership with Love Overwhelming, Love In the Name of Christ, and First Christian Church, not to mention our own Winter’s Night @ Baird House program, have worked diligently to create a plan for sheltering this winter that takes into account all of the various nuances of what it means to step into the gap and help the least of these in our community, but I want to focus on the reaction of many in our community to a shelter existing in the first place.
It is hard to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
Being publicly challenged by a City Council Member on our own church facebook page (and their furthering that call to attack to their supporters on their personal facebook page), is an unexpected byproduct of following the call of Christ in the 21st century. And, at that time, my name wasn’t even attached to this project as a leader. I’m a member of the KLMA, and I have been working on parts of this sheltering plan, but I was not, and really am not, the public face of this effort, so imagine what our shelter lead, other pastors in town, the small congregation of First Christian Church, is dealing with as they take on the true public mantle in order to share the work that Christ has called all of us to in this community.
This is suffering for the gospel. The stress, the temptation to give up because the work is hard, the temptation to give up because the forces working against us are loud and in power, all crash down upon us as we step into the gap. But, in our faith we rise against this challenge. We call out to the forces of evil “Do your worst!” Because we have the power of faith in our savior Jesus Christ, and we know that through Christ all things are possible, that all lives are valuable, that all of this noise is worth the suffering if we are sharing the grace of God with this creation.
When we look for inspiration as we take on this mantle of Christ’s call, to suffer for the gospel, to speak truth to power and challenge the accepted way of things, we turn to our faith as our source of power, and we look to those in our faith who shine a light on the path of following in the footsteps of Christ. One of the most famous figures in the history of our faith is also perhaps one of the strictest followers of the path, a saint we make special note of today, St. Francis.
Through his life and ministry, Francis continually turned expectations on their head and challenged what was understood as the acceptable way to practice faith. Giving all of himself into the following of Christ and connecting so fully with the whole of creation, Francis challenged what it meant to live into one’s faith, and inspires us to this day when we face the challenges that continually rise before us.
Francis humbled himself to live amongst the least of these so that his ministry and understanding of the world would not be colored by the trappings of the society and culture of his time. Francis so fully gave into his faith, his understanding of what it meant to suffer for the gospel, that he is the first recorded instance of the stigmata appearing.
The stigmata, the miraculous appearance of the wounds of Christ on the hands and feet, bleeding continually without end but also without harm. This stunning piece of his journey in faith illustrates that Francis was more than just a friend of creation, he was fully committed to his faith in Christ and all that it meant to how Francis would move through the world, in interaction with the whole of creation.
It is in this spirit of Francis that the Peace Prayer was written (most certainly not by Francis himself, but definitely in his image), reflecting the depth of faith that Francis held, while also acknowledging the struggle that we have in rising to that way of life, that way of love:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
The apostles cry out to Christ today saying “Increase our faith!”
We cry out to Christ today saying “Illumine our faith!”
For we have the faith we need, we simply need to see it, accept it, live into it, through suffering, through challenge, in the face of evil forces, knowing that the grace of God is there not just for us, but for everyone in creation, if we simply accept it.