Proper 27: Lamentations 3:19-26; Psalm 137; 2Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10;
and World Communion Sunday.
Jesus said, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…”
I knew a woman who would have been considered a pillar of her church. She attended services every Sunday, was a regular at Bible Study and Prayer Meetings, helped out with church suppers, and did whatever else was asked of her to support the life of her church community.
Others would have looked to her as an example of a life of faith.
But when she lay dying, she was gripped by fear that she would be rejected by God because she had not been able to convince her son to go to church.
It was challenging to be her chaplain – there were no words or actions that brought her any assurance or relief from her terror. It didn’t matter that she had tried her best all her life to please God, or that her son was a grown man who had to make his own life choices. She believed she had failed God, and would not receive the ultimate reward of heaven.
The problem was not that she had too little faith – but that her faith was shallow – informed by a rigid system of belief that was based on the concept of reward and punishment. God was “the Big Guy in the Sky” who could only love her for her good behavior. One slip-up and she was doomed forever.
Sadly, despite her “faithfulness” and her “good works”, she had become a perfect reflection of her understanding of God – looking down on others, judging them when they did not measure up to her expectations.
I would bet that we all know people like her, or have maybe even been her at some point in our lives – I know I have.
We often speak of faith and belief as being interchangeable concepts, but they are very different. One dictionary definition of belief is that it is “an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.”
While the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
It seems to me that our system of belief is a living thing – and like all living things it needs to grow. Faith is tied to belief – it is the essence – the perfume of a living and expanding understanding of God.
Holding on to a rigid or static system of belief can destroy our ability to experience a faith that helps us in times of challenge or crisis – as long as the world or our experiences conform to what we believe about God, our faith in God is safe. We get into real trouble when we are unable to reconcile what we see happening in the world or in our own lives, with the things we have come to believe about God.
No wonder the disciples cried out to Jesus, ”Increase our faith!” And no wonder we might be disconcerted to know that with faith no larger than the size of a mustard seed, we could do wondrous things.
How does that make you feel about the size of your faith this morning?
There was a time in our human history when even the most learned of scholars believed that the sun and the stars revolved around the earth; or that the earth was flat. Imagine where we would be if we hadn’t embraced new information about our world and its relationship to the rest of the Creation.
Our God is Unfolding Mystery – continually engaged in a process of self-revelation that can, if we are willing to consider the possibilities, have an impact on what we believe – about God, about the world, about our relationships with others, and about ourselves. If we are not able to embrace this process of changing perspectives, our experience of faith may remain shallow and unable to sustain us in times of crisis and challenge.
Unlike the writer of Lamentations, we get stuck in that place of “wormwood” and “gall”, never getting beyond it to hope.
I believe that the size of our faith does not matter so much as what we do with it.
I think it just might be possible that God gives us the precise amount of faith we will need to accomplish the things God is calling us to do.
As we grow in our understanding of God, we experience an expanding and deepening of that faith that moves us from being spectators, to participants with God in the work of healing and redeeming the world.
Growing in our understanding of God so that we can grow in our faith, is challenging and risky work because it can take us into uncomfortable places where we are confronted by the truth about ourselves and the world around us. It takes commitment, and courage and yes, even a little faith, to embark on this journey. But it is the road that leads to life – not just for us, but life for the whole world.
Today, in the Christian ecumenical tradition, we celebrate World Communion Sunday – the day when we envision a unified world Christianity where we reach across the barriers of doctrine and tradition that divide us, and embrace one another in the true unity we have in Jesus Christ.
But I would like to challenge all of us to expand even this seemingly impossible vision of Communion, to encompass all faith traditions, all cultures, all creatures – because in Christ, we are all a part of one-another.
Many of us who have been taught that we are the pinnacle of God’s Creation might be dismayed to discover how much of our basic DNA we share with other species. And in his book, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh, Matthew Fox speaks of the fact that our bodies are made up of the same elements that are found in the stars, and planets, the earth and all its creatures. We are “one flesh” he insists with everything that exists in all of Creation.
And yet, even as our understanding of the world expands through the use of technology, our sense of connectedness with that world seems to be diminishing.
We continue to act on a system of beliefs that focuses on what separates us from other people, (and even from the earth that sustains our life), and puts our needs, our experience, at the centre of everything – often at the expense of everything else in Creation. Like those who were opposed to Jesus’ message in his lifetime, we fail to hear the prophetic voices of our own time because it would be inconvenient to our comfort and status quo to embrace their messages.
I was struck by the story in the news this week of yet another “homeless camp” that is causing problems for people in the surrounding neighbourhood. As I listened to people complaining of the garbage, the unacceptable behaviours, the disruptions to their own comfort and sense of security, and their demands for governments to do something about the situation, I couldn’t help but think, “And what are you prepared to do about it?”
Mahatma Ghandi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
This doesn’t mean bulldozing a homeless camp into the ground.
But we can take action by first recognizing that we are not as different from others as we would like to think we are.
We want the same things as those people who live in the homeless camps: dignity, warmth, shelter from life’s storms.
We want the same things as those who flee the ravages of war-torn cities and countries: safety, freedom from fear, a homeland where our children can learn and grow.
We want the same things as those who visit our food bank: to be able to provide for our families, to see our children with rosy cheeks and bright eyes, and an opportunity for a better future.
We want the same thing as those elders who sit alone in nursing homes: to love and be loved, to be needed and have meaning in our lives.
It is only in becoming a reflection of the God who wants these things too – for everyone – that we can affect real and lasting change in this world.
But it will take love, and patience, and humility, and vulnerability, and just enough faith.
And though we might not see signs as great as a mighty tree being uprooted and planted in the sea, every little act of faith has a profound effect on the bigger picture. And when we put all those small acts together we do see wonders.
I feel anger when I think of the pain of that dying woman I met so many years ago – that in her long life as a Christian, she had been taught only to turn her attention inward so that she might save herself. That she had not been taught to see the face of Christ in those with whom she worked and worshipped. That she had not been encouraged to go deep into the mystery of the God who is Love and Mercy and Forgiveness; the God who cherishes each one of her children – the good and the not so good.
I am angry that her heart had not been opened to the joy and the pain of serving others – not for hope of reward, but because it is who we are all meant to be as the sisters and brothers of Christ. And I feel anger because that little kernel of faith – tiny but just enough – was not kindled in her so that it might inform her actions, warm her in her dying moments, and be a legacy of love for her son and everyone who knew her.
This is not God’s fault but the fault of those who were her teachers and mentors in the faith.
As this community of faith moves into this time of transition, may we have confidence in the evidence of God’s love for us and the abundance of gifts we have been given to use in our work as servants of Christ in the world. May the Spirit rekindle in us a desire to learn and grow, and may we have just enough faith to love as we have been loved.