Proper 22C: How Much Faith is Enough?

mustard-seed-piety-choi
“A Mustard Seed”, by Piety Choi (PietysArt.com)

FIRST LESSON:  Lamentations 1: 1-6

Read the passage from Lamentations

Lamentations is a book of poetry around the subject of unspeakable suffering.  In Hebrew, the name of the book means something like “funeral dirges”.  The writings come from a place of deep and profound hurt and, for that reason, the book is often considered on the margins of the liturgies of both Judaism and Christianity.  The book is actually a short collection of five poems in response to a national tragedy.  There is debate over which historical setting to which it is responding, but more than likely it was written in the aftermath of the Babylonian invasions of Jerusalem. (about 587 or 586 bce)  There was a real sense of just how God could have let this happen.  The primary speaker is an unknown narrator and the audience, too, is unidentified.  There is an overwhelming tone of sorrow and shame and a sense of nostalgia, a remembrance of what “was” (and perhaps what “could have been”).

Keep in mind that this is a people who have long seen themselves as “chosen” by God, as delivered by God from slavery in Egypt and led to a promised land, a people whose holy place was high upon a solid rock.  Israel had faith in God to protect them.  But now the temple mount has fallen (the first of several times, we know now).  The people of God had been given the promised land and they had filled it with their lives, their families, and their homes.  They had established the city of Jerusalem as the capital and built God a great Temple there.  But the city and the temple has now been desecrated by the Babylonians.  Life as they know it is gone.

The writings are riddled with the question “Where was God when all this was going on?”  The reading begins with a depiction of Jerusalem as one in misery, utterly alone, and with a precarious future.  When you get to the later verses, the grief almost becomes palpable—even the gates are desolate, perhaps hanging precariously from their hinges with no protection and no welcome.  And yet, there is a sense of owning of one’s guilt, of one’s part in what has happened.

National tragedies tend to render communities speechless.  The collective grief can be overwhelming.  We, too, have experienced that.  Lamentations names what is wrong, what is out of order in God’s world, what keeps human beings from thriving in all their creative potential.  Acts of lament expose these conditions.  They give us permission to cry, to grieve, perhaps to wail (the way African cultures do), to truly lament.

And even in the midst of darkness, the grieving community looks to God.  There is a realization that while circumstances may change, God is always present and is always steadfast.  Even in the darkest darkness, God is present.  The Book of Lamentations challenges us to reexamine what “blessed” means, what faith means.  It challenges our vision of that for which we hope—something beyond the way things were before.

Jesus wept, and in his weeping, he joined himself forever to those who mourn.

He stands now throughout all time, this Jesus weeping, with his arms about the weeping ones; “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”.  He stands with the mourners, for his name is God-with-us.  Jesus wept.

 “Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.”  Someday.  Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.

 In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life, there is a deafening alleluia rising from the souls of those who weep, and of those who weep with those who weep.  If you watch, you will see that hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.  (From Psalms of Lament, by Ann Weems, xvi-xvii)

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What benefit do you see for laments, for the naming of what is wrong?
  • Why is this so difficult for our society today?
  • What message of hope does this hold for you?

  

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Timothy 1: 1-14

Read the New Testament passage

As we have said, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are known as the “pastoral epistles”.  Their main purpose was to establish a pattern of ministry and church structure, along with a pattern of “truth”, faith, and sound teaching.  Many try to take these together, but this can be misleading because 2 Timothy has a little bit different scope, focusing primarily on personal character of believers, rather than the patterns of the church.  Most scholars assume that these letters were not written by Paul but, rather, by a student or disciple of Paul’s.

In this week’s passage, the writer refers to the faith in which one has grown, the faith of his ancestors and then proclaims it to be a faith that is continued through the apostolic order, of which the liturgies and order is a part.  The writer doesn’t mean this to be looked upon as a “hand-me-down” faith, but one that is already there.  In essence, this writing is not refuting the forms of worship of the day or of one’s history, but simply infusing them with the Christian spirit—“in Christ Jesus”.  The writer talks of “rekindling” the gift of God that is in each of us, a spark that has been there all along.

The second part of the reading begins with the admonishment “do not be ashamed.”  This is odd-sounding to us, but first-century Mediterranean culture was very much an “honor-shame” society.  The social ethos encouraged the pursuit of works of honor.  So the writer is using it to depict that not acting in accordance with God’s calling and with one’s faith would bring shame.  We are told to join in suffering for the Gospel.

This is sort of a creedal-type statement which is a confession of God (not of Christ).  It lays out the Gospel as an account not so much of what Christ has done as of what God has done through Christ.  Faith is also depicted as a “deposit”, something that one initially had that now needs to be increased. It’s hard, though, to not read this as if faith is more formalized.  Instead of believing “in”, it almost admonishes us to believe “that”.

Depicted here is a faith that cannot be separated from one’s faith tradition.  But it means making sure that the connections are upheld and maintained and then passed on to the next generation.  It speaks of faith as a connectedness, an ongoing relationship with those before us, those after us, and all of those with whom we share community in this moment.

The Apostle Paul understands that there is no inherent conflict between the personal and communal aspects of faith. No human being is born an orphan. We are all born into a family. The Bantus of South Africa say, Umuntu, ngamuntu, ngabantu — a person is a person because of other persons. We are born into relationship, we grow and live in relationship and we die in relationship. Our modern Western notion of personal independence and psychic autonomy distorts the truth about us. Transposed into African, the sophisticated Cartesian formulation Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” would read Cognatus ergo sum, “I am related, therefore I am.” To the question “Who are you?” the African would answer, “I am my mother’s and father’s child, of the lineage of so-and-so, of the house of X and Y, of the tribe of Z.” By which time the impatient European or American has moved on to other matters. Yet the Bible is replete with such genealogical material, and even Jesus is situated in its repetitive detail.

Although faith challenges individuals, heroic individualism does not exhaust faith’s fullness and power. At its heart is the gift of memory, the ability to recall and reappropriate. Faith does not just arouse and satisfy the craving for individual gratification or fill our hunger for self-esteem, important as those things are. Faith connects us with others, grants us a name and an identity by which we can respond to God’s call, and assures us that others know that name. Thus is established the social roots of person-hood. When those roots are touched then the branches of my being stir in response. A baptismal is thus the symbol of our integrity, the cup of sacrament filled with the whole body. When Africans name a child at a dedication ceremony they think of it as giving life, the abundant life of relatedness.

And so the apostle affirms Timothy’s faith by a threefold naming — the names of his grandmother and mother and his own name. Wherever the faith has spread it has promoted and been promoted by this sense of names. As long as our names exist the church has hope of continuing community. (Lamin Sanneh, “Naming and the Act of Faith”, in The Christian Century, October 4, 1989, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=889, accessed 29 Sept 2010)

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What do you think of this depiction of faith?
  • What does the notion of “sound teaching” mean to you?
  • What does this idea of the “handing down of faith” mean for you?

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 17:5-10

Read the Gospel passage

The Gospel passage for this week begins with a discussion of faith that plays right into what we read in the Epistle passage.  This section (including the four verses that come before) pull together four units of sayings:  a warning against causing others to stumble, a challenge to be forgiving, a call to exercise faith, and a reminder of the duties of discipleship.  Then the passage itself starts out with a reference to increasing one’s faith.

It is important to look at what comes before this.  Last week’s Scripture reflected the story of the rich man and Lazarus; and then in the first few verses of the seventeenth chapter of Luke, there are these teachings related to our concerns for the little ones in this world, for the ways we injure and sin against each other, and the call to forgive.  Forgive…There are so many needs in the world.  There is so much conflict.  How can we make it through?  We begin to understand and identify with the disciples’ request:  “Increase our faith.”  Help us get through this; give us strength; make it better; we know that you can make it better.  Because, going back even farther, if we can’t forgive, then we become “occasions for stumbling” for someone else.  Lord, help us!  Help us do what is right!

After all, that’s what we should do.  But then the next part of the passage comes into play.  If one is only doing what he or she SHOULD do (as in the servant), then why would the result include a reward?  If one is meeting expectation, then one is really just average.  For the writer of Luke, forgiving is what we should do.  We are not owed anything for doing that.  It is who we are.  It is the expectation.  It reaps no reward.  It is faith that gets us where we need to be.  God’s favor is an act of grace—unearned, unmerited, and, usually, undeserved.  The place at the table is a gift; it is not earned.

The biggest problem here is that the disciples have made faith a commodity, something that can be measured.  We do it too.  And that doesn’t really work when it comes to faith.  Think about it.  Faith is faith.  If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, a tiny speck of a thing, you have faith.  And if you have faith enough to move mountains, to overcome anything, you have faith.  It’s all the same thing.

Maybe the question is not how much we have but what it is.  In our world today, we seem to be bombarded with a theology of certitude, sort of a “my faith’s bigger than your faith” mentality, as if living the right way and dressing the right way and thinking the right way and voting the right way makes us somehow more faithful than someone else.  We live as if being sure of what we know and what we believe means that we have more faith, means that we’re somehow better or more advanced than those who doubt and continue to search.  But, again, what is faith?  I think it is trust in something so much bigger than we are that we cannot imagine it.  I think it is accepting a certainty in the existence of something of which we are a little (or maybe a whole lot) uncertain.  And I think it is, finally, realizing that we are not in full control of our lives, or our world, or our destiny, and that what we do is only a small piece of this veritable tapestry that is our world.

The only certainty that we really have is that faith involves uncertainty.  We are not called to a blind and unexamined faith but one that is illumined with all that God calls us to encounter in life.  “Increase our faith?”   What does that mean?  Remember, faith is faith.  You could say, then, that merely desiring faith is faith.  And desiring to increase one’s faith is a faithful and faith-filled response to God’s calling into relationship.  This is not a commodity nor is it a finished product that we must work to obtain.  Faith is faith.  Desiring faith is faith.  And “having faith” is not about faith at all.  Flannery O’Connor once said that “when we get our spiritual house in order, we’ll be dead.  This goes on.  You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness.  Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you.  It is trust not certainty.”

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • How prevalent do you think the thinking that we “earn” God’s love or that we “earn” heaven is today? What does that say about our faith?
  • What is faith to you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

There are two ways to slide easily through life:  to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking. (Theodore Rubin)

Faith listens to life and hears something new. Faith drifts off during a sermon and lands on new terrain. Faith sings a new song and suddenly knows more. Faith feeds a stranger and responds differently to one’s own meal. Faith makes wild leaps, risks strange thoughts, dashes outside the box, asks foolish questions, hears unexpected voices. Little by little, faith’s “whole being” grows deeper and deeper, broader and broader.  (Tom Ehrich, 12/09/2005, Listening Faith:  Teens and Others)

It’s when we learn faith that happiness comes—real happiness, that underlying descant of the soul that tells us over and over again that what is, in some strange, unexplainable way, is good.  Most of all, faith tells us that what is, is more than good.  It is becoming always better.  In ways we never thought possible.  And how can that be?  Because God’s ways are not our ways.  It is in the depths of darkness that we learn faith; it is in retrospect that we come to recognize love in darkness.  (Joan Chittister, Called to Question, 213)

 

Closing

Plunge into the Ocean of Love, where heart meets Heart, Where sorrows are comforted and wounds are mended.  There, melodies of sadness mingle with dolphin songs of joy; Past fears dissolve in deep harmonic tones, the future—pure mystery.  For eternal moments lived in total surrender glide smoothly over troubled waters.

Hide not from Love, O friends, sink not into the sea of despair, the mire of hatred.  Awaken, O my heart, that I drown not in fear!  Too long have I sailed where’ere the winds have blown!  Drop anchor!  O, Heart of all hearts, set a clear course, that I might follow!  Guide me to the Promised Shore!

Amen. (Nan Merrill, Psalms for Praying:  An Invitation to Wholeness, Psalm 137, p. 288.)

 

 

Proper 7B: Unharbored

"Storm Before the Calm", Lucy Dickens at www.lucydickensfineart.com
“Storm Before the Calm”, Lucy Dickens at http://www.lucydickensfineart.com

OLD TESTAMENT: 1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

Those of us who grew up going to Sunday School remember stories about David and Goliath. David was the youngest “little brother” of Jesse’s eight sons, relegated to errand boy status, while his older brothers battled the Philistines as manly soldiers. Twice the writer describes David as “only a boy.” The narrator pictures David as “ruddy and handsome,” hardly the traits of a warrior. When his brothers berated him when he delivered reinforcements to the front lines, he responded plaintively, “Can’t I even speak?” Saul’s armor was so big on him that he couldn’t move. Then, of course, there was his famous slingshot that he wielded to slay the nine-foot Goliath who had “defied the armies of the living God”.

The punch line about David and Goliath was something to the effect that God uses insignificant people and unlikely means to accomplish improbable feats. It has been used for generations to open up tiny minds to the majesty and greatness of the Lord’s power. That is certainly true. But there’s one horrifying detail in the story that my Sunday School teacher skipped. David “took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the scabbard. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword”. (a little over the top, don’t you think?) David then displayed Goliath’s head in Jerusalem, brandished it before King Saul, and kept his sword in his tent as a souvenir. By decapitating Goliath, David wanted to “show the whole world that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by the sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands”.  It was his way of claiming his God as God.  It was a testament of insurmountable faith in the face of the insurmountable.

This is essentially one of those so-called “texts of terror”. We struggle between its claim of impressive and authentic faith and out and out violence. You might dismiss the decapitation of Goliath as patriotic fiction or legend, but that takes the easy way out; for some reason, we have included this story (and other disturbing ones) in our sacred canon. That does not mean that God necessarily approved of it, of course.  It was, though, part of the human culture of the time.

The truth is, most of us identify with David.  Regardless of our place or status in this society, we think we’re the “little guy” on the righteous side of justice.  But violence in God’s name often knows no boundaries.  All religions have engaged in terror in the name of God, in the name of their religion.  Why is this?  And how can we tell when we cross that line?  Martin Niemoller, who protested Hitler’s anti-Semitic measures once said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of his enemies.” Ann Lamott says that “when God hates all the same people that you hate, you can be absolutely certain that you have created him in your own image.”

But this story of David leaves us with one claim: Perhaps we should judge religions by their most authentic examples of faith than by their worst corruptions. There is also a difference in evil acts committed by religious people and evil acts committed in the name of religion. Charles Kimball, in his book When Religion Becomes Evil, cited what he saw as eight warning signs that depict that evil has become religious and that religion has become evil. They are:

  • Fanatical claims of knowing and understanding absolute truth.
  • Blind obedience to totalitarian, charismatic, and authoritarian leaders or their views that undermines moral integrity, personal freedom, individual responsibility, and intellectual inquiry.
  • Identifying and rationalizing “end times” scenarios in the name of your religion.
  • Justifying religious ends by dubious means.
  • Any and all forms of dehumanization, from openly declaring war on your enemy, demonizing those who differ from you, construing your neighbor as an Other, to claiming that God is on your side alone.
  • Pressure tactics of coercion, deception, and false advertisement.
  • Alienation, isolation and withdrawal from family, friends and society, whether psychologically or literally.
  • Exploitation and all forms of unreasonable demands upon one’s time, money, resources, family, friendships, sexuality, etc.

Perhaps the question that we need to ask ourselves, hard as it is to ask, is whether or not the way we live out our faith and our belief system is really a faith-filled and grace-filled way of being God’s love in the world.  In other words, what does the way we live say about our understanding of God and the message that God has for all?   The truth is, David wasn’t completely at fault.  We can’t blame him totally.  He was scared, scared that his very life and the way he lives it would be taken away.  And he was, after all, defending God.  (Hmmm…is that what we’re called to do?  Does God really need defending?)  But those five smooth stones were his way of doing that.  He probably really believed, right or wrong, that he was doing what God called him to do and defending his faith against a huge obstacle, against a seemingly insurmountable challenge.  Maybe the question that we should ask is what defending our faith actually does to our faith.  Where is the line between what God calls us to do and what we think God calls us to do?  Where is the line between who God calls us to be and who we envision ourselves to be?

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • Where do you see yourself in this story?
  • What can we bring to our own culture and society and world from it?
  • What does the way we live say of God’s message in the world?
  • In what ways does our way of “being” Christian not depict God’s message in the world?
  • Are we called to defend God or defend our faith? What does that look like?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Corinthians 6: 1-13

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage actually puts us in the middle of some complex communication. In other words, we’re sort of coming into the middle of it. This is toward the end of Paul’s argument describing and defending his and his coworkers’ ministry to the congregation at Corinth. Paul does not argue but instead comes at the issue from a number of different perspectives. He exhorts the Corinthians to view their ministry as embodying the work, if not the very being, of Christ and to act appropriately in response to the grace that they have received through Christ. Paul contends that accepting the grace of God for oneself corresponds to opening wide your hearts to those doing ministry.

He asserts his and his coworkers’ legitimacy as ministers of Christ and at the same time shows their care for the community as beloved children of God. This also implies that good and legitimate ministry does not always mean success. That was not Christ’s story for ministry. This means that we cannot always measure authentic ministry in terms of numbers, enthusiasm, or dollars. These are possible outcomes but do not necessarily define authenticity or “success”.

The Gospel is often explained in terms of blessings, a Gospel of Success. “Believe in Jesus and all your worries will fade away.” (Or believe in God and God will stand up for the little guy, in the case of the take on David and Goliath) And yet, many times, ones troubles multiply BECAUSE they are Christian. Jesus never promised that if we believe in him our life will by “joy, joy, joy”. No, the Christian walk is both glory and dishonor. There is a sense where our life is lived possessing everything, but having nothing. We will have to carry this tension with us always while in this “mortal frame.” Doing the splits is not easy, but it is how we must live life – one foot in heaven and one on earth.

Paul tells his readers to “open wide” their hearts and to see that salvation is right in front of them. It cannot be measured. It just is. That is the Gospel and that is how we should live and model our behavior.

 

  • How does this passage speak to you?
  • What, then, is “fruitfulness” in ministry?
  • What do you think most people think of when they hear the word “ministry”?
  • How does the “Gospel of Success” get in our way as ministers of the Gospel?
  • What would that mean to “open wide” our hearts to the salvation that is right in front of us?

GOSPEL: Mark 4: 35-41

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This passage comes immediately after Jesus’ telling of the Parable of the Sower. So after a long day of teaching the crowds, Jesus needs a break. He initiates a trip across the Sea of Galilee with the disciples and other boats, making a small entourage. A great windstorm arises, so great that the waves crash against the boat and water begins to fill up the boat. Even the experienced fishermen in their midst could do nothing.

So they turn to Jesus. Jesus will save them. “Jesus, save us!” And there is Jesus, sound asleep on the boat cushion at the rear of the boat. You can imagine what the disciples thought. “Are you kidding me? Here we are, dying, and you are asleep! What are you thinking? Get up and save us! Get up now!” Now, odd as this may be to us, you can’t really blame Jesus. He had to be tired. He had been teaching in the hot sun and the crowds just wouldn’t leave him alone. So, he lay down and he rested. Everything would be alright. And then he is jolted awake by these whining disciples who can’t seem to take care of themselves or each other. “Good grief,” he thought, “have you learned nothing from me?”

So he got up and with a simple word, the storm subsided. And they floated for a few moments, not saying a word to each other, as the boat floated as if on glass. Then Jesus turned to them. “Have you no faith?” Well this was truly a little much. Who was this man that even the sea and the winds obey his voice? You’ll remember that in many ancient myths, the god of the sea is the god of chaos. We cannot control the water. So, as you can imagine, the disciples came to the sudden realization that no one other than God has the power to tame and order chaos.

What is interesting is that Jesus suggests they go just as the sun was setting (darkness) and set off to the other side (the unknown) and while on the trip, a storm came about (peril). And through it all, Jesus rested, confident not only in God but in the disciples themselves. Now, our experience has been that Jesus does not usually do things that are not intentional. What does all this mean? God had entrusted the disciples with a faith. Jesus knew this. But, instead, the disciples let fear get in the way of trusting not only in God but in their own faith.

I think we miss something if we reduce this story to pure wonder and miracles.  We miss the journey of faith.  It also can lead to what I think is just sort of bad theology.  If God is only here to make storms and destruction disappear, then why Katrina?  Why the recent earthquakes and tornadoes and devastating floods?  Why are there difficulties at all in our lives?  Because faith in God does not change the scenery.  It shows us the way through it.  We were never meant to stay safely and predictably in the harbor.  Have faith in the faith that God puts in you to walk with God through all of life.

In this passage, Jesus is not leading the disciples into danger. Frederick Buechner says that Christ is instead saying to them, “Go…Go for God’s sake, and for your own sake, too, and for the sake of the world. Climb into your little tub of a boat and keep going… [because] Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us, and…in whatever way we can call on him…to give us courage, to give us hope, to show us our way. (Frederick Buechner, from Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons)

The winds will still rage.  The waves will fill our boat with water until we are sure that we will die.  And the boat will rock until we can stand it no more.  Emmet Fox said this: “Suppose your whole world seems to rock on its foundation. Hold on steadily and let it rock, and when the rocking is over, the picture will have reassembled itself into something much nearer to your heart’s desire.” For you see, my friends, this is life.  And all that is life has God in its very being.  We are not on the journey alone.  God has given us unharbored faith and has faith in us that we will use it and come through the storm.  As Jesus showed us, it is our faith in God and in the faith that God has in us that in the midst of the darkness, at the height of the storm, we will be able to breathe the words, “Peace!  Be still!”   Have faith in the faith that God has in you!

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • How does this speak to you about your own faith?
  • What does this say about our own life?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

It’s when we learn faith that happiness comes—real happiness, that underlying descant of the soul that tells us over and over again that what is, in some strange, unexplainable way, is good.  Most of all, faith tells us that what is, is more than good.  It is becoming always better.  In ways we never thought possible.  And how can that be?  Because God’s ways are not our ways.  It is in the depths of darkness that we learn faith; it is in retrospect that we come to recognize love in darkness.  (Joan Chittister, Called to Question, 213) 

Nothing worth doing is complete in our lifetime; Therefore we are saved by hope.  Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;  Therefore, we are saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.  Therefore, we are saved by love.  No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness. (Reinhold Niebuhr)

God’s love goes before us in a way we can never fully name. (Anne Carr)

 

Closing

 

As we sit in the palm of your hand, loving God, may we continue to see your strength revealed in the vulnerability…The dying, the crying, the rising of your people. May our seeing thus inspire our acting. Amen. (Katherine Hawker, 1997)