Sermon – October 6, 2019 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace and peace to you, this day and every day, from God our Father, Christ our Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who gives us faith. Amen.

 

As we grow closer and closer to Pastor Bob’s final worship service with us, one of the things that keeps crossing my mind, is that we might not ever get to hear his infamous sermon on sin. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this reference, from time to time, Pastor Bob will reference a heretofore unheard sermon on sin, promising that it has the approximate preaching time of 45 minutes. As a theology nerd, I’ve been looking forward to it for quite a while. If I were to have a 45 minute sermon in my back pocket, it would probably be on mustard seeds … So, brace yourselves … here we go. I’m kidding … I’m kidding. It would most definitely be on faith, and I’ll do my best to keep it well below 45 minutes.

Faith is one of those words that is used so often in life, in culture, and in church, that at times its meaning seems to be so fluid and so open that it’s almost undefinable. In life we hear it used flippantly in phrases like “have faith that everything will be ok”or “have faith that the Cubs will be better next year.”In culture, faith is all over the place. Everywhere from George Michael’s song circa 1987 to the ever popular Coexist bumper stickers. In recent congressional hearings, the Director of National Intelligence stresses that he believes the whistleblower has “acted in good faith.” Here at St. Matthew we speak of faith when we confess communally that we believe in the triune God and in God’s creative and redemptive acts throughout history.

Faith is a complicated topic and initially, our Lord doesn’t seem to be making it any simpler in our Gospel text today. “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.”The disciples have come to the Lord seeking more faith and He has responded with this critical denigration. This isn’t my favorite Gospel text of all time because it’s a little off-putting. But before we dive into it, I think it is also important to revisit our Old Testament and Epistle readings for this evening/morning.

 

Every once and awhile, when I read portions of the Bible I find myself taken aback. In these moments, it feels like the Word jumps off the page; as if the scriptures were written directly to us just a short while ago. The confluence of life’s events find immediate context in the scriptures and the intimacy of God’s Word strikes me afresh. These moments are surrounded and filled by a dynamic intimacy that causes me to pause and soak in the immediacy of the Word of God. …

When our world seems to repeatedly throw itself into tumultuous violence and social injustice, this evening’s/morning’s words from Habbukuk resound as clearly as if they had come from our own lips. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me, strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”… We’ve felt this way before, and perhaps even now. Life swirls about us with news of corruption, violence, disasters, abuse, disease, neglect, and death.

A bridge collapse in Taiwan. Protests for autonomous freedom in Hong Kong. Violence in our schools and streets. Corruption in our government and in our communities. Civil unrest in Peru. When they’re not forgotten entirely, the innocent; immigrants, children, the elderly, women, and the poor suffer dehumanizing abuse. Systemic racism is on the rise. The opioid epidemic destroys the lives of thousands. Rioting in Puerto Rico. The wheels on the bus go round and round.

When all this happens, the Spirit of the Lord is as powerfully active through the prophet’s words in the present as it was in history. Habbakuk’s words feel fresh. … In response to the prophet’s anxious despair, the Lord promises a vision for the appointed time and implores Habbakuk (and us)to wait for its certain arrival and encourages us saying that by faith, the righteous will live.When the circumstances of life seem exhausting, there is something to love about hearing another confess the same exhaustion and have that confession met with God’s reassurance that our cries for justice, healing, and mercy are heard by the Most High.

I love this immediate intimacy of God’s Word. It continues tonight/today with our reading from 2 Timothy. In this reading, there’s a near tangible quality of closeness between Paul and Timothy. Paul reminds Timothy of the heritage of faith to which he belongs. When Paul speaks of a sincere faith living in Timothy that once lived in his maternal relatives, it is not hard to imagine him speaking to us, referencing the familial vines from which our faith blossomed. … There’s something that warms the soul about these words, here in our scripture, and in our daily interactions between family, friends, and fellow believers … about these words where we are nourished and fed through the dynamic gift of life within the community of faith. Paul’s emotional words of gratitude, longing, and encouragement, speak to you and to me. They remind us that we are called, chosen, and planted in this time and in this placeto live out our faith in a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. We are among those whom God’s people love and remember and for whom they pray. There’s a warming comfort, consolation, and encouragement to be found as we are wrapped up in these words of charitable love

And then … then we come to our Gospel text. … I know that as a passive hearer encountered by the Word, I don’t really get a vote on what parts of God’s Word have worth or value, because they all do.But I do know that when I am encountered by our Gospel text tonight/today, I don’t immediately enjoythe encounter. Let’s dive into this a little bit, and maybe you’ll understand my hesitancy and maybe I’ll get over it. In our Gospel text, Jesus tells the disciples that they are bound to stumble but woe unto them that causeth such a stumbling. He also tells them that if someone sins, is rebuked, and repents, then they are to forgive. He does not limit this requirement to something like ‘3 Strikes, You’re Out.’ Jesus says if another sins against you or me and repents, then we should forgive them each time. In light of Habbakuk’s concerns, this is a lot of responsibility to take in for them. And for us too!We all have responsibilities in life, some chosen and some placed upon us. Christ here is adding to the load of the disciples and to ours as well. And so … the disciples (and perhaps us also) respond in a visceral way, “Increase our faith!”And this … this is where I pump my brakes on my intimate journey of being encountered by God’s Word in my immediate context.

Jesus replies to them, answering their urgent plea, in not the kindest of methods. “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.”Now Jesus is not interested in arboreal transplantation, as if planting a tree into the sea would be a fruitful endeavour. Jesus is declining the disciples’ request and he’s piling criticism on top of it. If y’all had the smallest amount of faith, (adding rhetorically) which you don’t, then you could accomplish the most extraordinary of endeavours.

When Christ goes after the disciples, with this insult-to-injury mustard seed response, He’s giving them tough love. This is Grade A, top notch, barrel proof Sunday School. He’s telling them that they’ve completely missed the boat on what faith is and what faith is capable of. They’ve come to him looking for morefaith. But this isn’t an issue of sufficiency. This isn’t a ‘you must be this tall to ride this ride’situation. Faith is not a virtue. It’s not something that we increase by our own understanding, effort, or practice. Martin Luther wrote, “Since I cannot pour faith into their hearts, I cannot, nor should I, force anyone to have faith. That is God’s work alone, which causes faith to live in the heart.”Faith is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Faith is a gift. It is freely given unto us by Christ. And like all of Christ’s gifts, it is complicated because it is given unto us and yet we are invited to participate in it. … The existential philosopher and Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich says, “Faith is a total and centered act of the personal self, the act of unconditional, infinite, and ultimate concern.”

And this … this is what Christ is after when He expounds hypothetically describing a situation which, although it speaks of the necessity to remain committed and focused on our spiritual and vocational tasks, does so in a way that seems to illustrate and encourage subservient relationships. He concludes by saying, “So 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!’”This isn’t exactly a Hallmark greeting card. But in this Gospel text, Jesus Christ is taking the disciples, and you and me, … to school.

When Christ talks about not taking dinner breaks and persisting in our given tasks, he is speaking of a commitment to ministry that requires the entirety of our personhood. We who are ‘civilized in modernity’obviously have an aversion to the institution of slavery. Yet to the ancient world, a slave is not just a socio-economic entity, but also one wholly devoted to another.Luther says, “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace.”  When Christ speaks of ‘doing what we ought to have done,’ this is not a phrase from Christ that seeks to strip away our sense of self-governance. But it is a Word that recognizes that we are concerned about the Kingdom of the ultimate, about the Kingdom of God. This Word recognizes that we are solely and soulfully devoted to the Lord with everything that makes us who we are. We are concerned about thy will be done and simultaneously ascribe a status of ultimacy tothat concern, above all other things.

So what does this ultimate concern look like? It looks like donated food, time, money, and talents, given freely unto strangers and neighbors. It looks like a farm that feeds hungry stomachs and seeds hope into hungry hearts. It looks like believers who pray for one another. It looks like someone admitting their faith and inviting another to dip their toes into Christ’s healing waters. It looks like an embrace among brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t know when to let go and aren’t in the least bit worried about that. It looks like a shoulder damp with tears as we allow one another to grieve without inhibition.

Despite the fact that these moments can be exhausting, they are blessed none-the-less. It is God’s good gift to us that we are privileged to live our vocations day by day. Sometimes we get exhausted and that’s ok.… In 1869 around Little Butternut Lake, in Polk County, Wisconsin, there was and is a congregation called West Denmark Lutheran Church. In the original steeple of the church building, there hung an inscribed bell. The inscription reads, “To Font and Table. To Prayer and Word. I Call Every Seeking Soul.” When we are exhausted in our lives of faith, in our ultimate ministry of concern, Christ calls to you and to me. He calls us to rest, to breathe, to taste and see, to hear and believe, to have our tired hearts and weary souls restored by His Grace.

This nourishment is what Christ promises to you, and to me, and to every willing heart,  and certifies with His blood on the cross. I’m going to let Paul close us out for the evening/morning. “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now has been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. … For I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”

 

That’s good stuff. Thanks be to God. Amen.