Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sermon: "Mustard Seed Faith"

October 3, 2010

World Communion Sunday

“Mustard Seed Faith”

Luke 17:5-10

Since Pastor Cindy is not here today, we’re taking a hiatus from our weekly journey through Genesis and returning to the lectionary and the Gospel of Luke.

But if you want, when Cindy gets back you can tell her we got past page 9 in the Pew Bible so you can skip over all the begetting that happens in Genesis chapter 10. As in Noah begat Ham, and Ham begat Canaan….

That is unless you want a sermon on begetting….

While we’ve taken a side trip into Genesis in the past month, Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem that began in the Gospel of Luke way back in June has continued in the lectionary. And this week we hear the opening verses of the final leg of that journey.

Along the way Jesus has continued to instruct his followers on the difficult demands of discipleship. And at this point the disciples have had more than a few opportunities to put what they’ve learned into practice. They’ve been sent out by Jesus to cure diseases, to cast out unclean spirits, and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

And they ran into a mountain of opposition along the way.

They encountered diseases and unclean spirits in people, in the social structure, in the empirical government, and in the religious ruling body that were seemingly resistant to any cure or are too ingrained to cast out.

And at this point they’re realizing how big of task it is they have before them.

They’re starting to doubt whether they have what it takes to do what it is Jesus is asking them to do.

They’re beginning to lose hope that they will be able to continue Jesus’ ministry after he is gone.

And they’re questioning whether their faith is BIG enough to counteract all of the evil forces in the world.

And who can blame them.

There are a multitude of evil forces in the world – and whether we believe that evil is an entity unto itself, or that it’s simply the byproduct of humanity misusing the gift of free will, we can not deny that it’s difficult not to feel weighed down by the sheer volume of negativity that surrounds us.

Violence, war, poverty, oppression, discrimination, fear, hate, ….the list itself is overwhelming.

But the one thing that can counteract evil is LOVE,

Love that finds expression in the form of HOPE and FAITH.

The words hope and faith are often used interchangeably.

And while they are two sides of the same coin they are also quite different.

Hope stems from desire - we desire a particular outcome and if there is a possibility of it, we hope for it.

Faith is not a desire, but rather a knowing….it’s a belief IN something or a belief that a particular outcome will occur – it goes beyond desire, beyond the need for empirical proof that it is real.

It is born of an inner knowledge or certainty.

For example, I have faith in God, and I have faith that God will always love me no matter what.

I can’t prove that God exists, or that God loves me, but I know in my innermost being that God is a very real, very palpable force in my life, and I feel God’s love in a very real way even if I can’t explain how or why I do.

Faith is born on an inner certainty.

In contrast,

Hope is born of uncertainty.

You desire a particular outcome but you’re not certain it will turn out the way you want it.

For example, I hope that more often then not my WILL and God’s WILL will line up, but I know from experience that doesn’t always happen.

Hope and faith, while different, are linked together.

Hope, when expressed with faith, recognizes that God is involved in the process even if we can’t predict the outcome.

We may hope that things will turn out a certain way, but we have faith that regardless of how they turn out, God has our best interests at heart.

Hope without faith is simply wishful thinking, and we’re more likely to be disappointed or devastated when things don’t turn out the way we’d hoped.

But what’s even more dangerous is when we link our faith and the outcome of our hopes as if they had a cause and effect relationship.

This happens when we start believing that if our hopes do not come to fruition, then it is because our faith was not strong enough to warrant God’s favor.

I witnessed a glaring example of this linking of faith and hope only just recently.

This semester at seminary, I had a class assignment in which we were required to attend a Worship service at a church that is outside of our own tradition, to help us get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t in the context of Christian Worship.

So last week, I attended a contemporary Worship service at a local non-denominational Christian church. It’s a church that I would say falls on the more conservative or evangelical side of the theological spectrum. Using Pastor Cindy’s scale of Biblical interpretation, it is likely that the congregation at the church I visited has a higher percentage of biblical literalists then we have here at King Street UCC. But while the sermon I heard there last week may not have resonated with me theologically, I could identify with the theme of the service – the theme was Hope.

At the end of the service, members of the congregation performed what is known in evangelical circles as a Cardboard Testimonial.

About 12 members participated, and one by one, they walked out on stage, each holding a hand-written cardboard sign naming a struggle or affliction that once overwhelmed them – “Diagnosed with Cancer at Age 40” - “Unemployed for 17 months” - “Addicted to Cocaine.”

As each person reached the edge of the stage he or she then flipped over their cardboard sign to reveal the grace they had received from God - “Cancer Free at age 45” - “New Job for Higher Pay” - “Total Life Transformation.”

The congregation applauded after each reveal and it was a very powerful display for a group of folks who seemed desperate to hear the message that hope can be found in God’s grace regardless of how dire one’s circumstances seem.

In this case Hope goes hand in hand with Faith –

Having faith that God will be there for us when we’ve hit rock bottom. Having faith that God will lift us up and help us overcome whatever challenge has befallen us.

Of course we HOPE that God’s presence in our life will result in what we would name as a positive outcome – but what if it doesn’t?

And therein lies the danger of connecting hope and faith.

As powerful as those cardboard testimonials were, and as much as I stood and clapped as each person triumphantly revealed the grace that had entered their lives, as much as I wanted to shout “Hurray for you, you had hope, you transformed yourself, you survived!” ….. I couldn’t help but think of those who have hope, who have faith, and yet DO NOT feel touched by God’s grace.

What about the person who has been out of work for more than 17 months and has not yet found a job – is their faith not strong enough for God to reward them with work?

What about the person struggling with addictions who hasn’t yet garnered the strength to seek help – is their faith too small for God to notice that they are in need of a transformation?

What about the 40-year-old who is diagnosed with cancer and does not live to see her 45th birthday – was her faith too meager, too inadequate, for God’s healing Spirit to descend upon her?

Testimonials are wonderful. They make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside and make us feel hopeful that if someone else overcame a hardship that is similar to our own then we can too.

But in encouraging these testimonials we are treading into dangerous theological waters.

It’s as if we are holding up a giant faith-ometer and measuring how much faith it takes to receive God’s grace. God’s love. God’s forgiveness. God’s approval.

We just don’t get it.

We still don’t understand that God’s love and grace is given to us at no cost, and it requires no effort on our own part.

It doesn’t matter how many prayers we say, or how many people we have praying FOR us.

It doesn’t matter how many hours we volunteer at our church, or how much money we put in the collection plate.

It doesn’t matter how fervently we call on God to help us, or how many good deeds we do in God’s name.

God’s grace is there for the taking, regardless of what we do, or say, or pray.

But we so want to believe that that is not true.

We want to believe that we have some control over our fate.

That there is something we can do to influence God, to get God’s attention, to make God approve of us so God will reward us with a new job, a new life, newly restored health or prosperity.

God is GOOD.

And that is what we say when we get that new job, that new life, or have restored health or prosperity.

But God is still good even when we don’t get those things.

It may just mean that God has other plans.

It means that our will and God’s will are not always one and the same.

It means that there is no way for us to know the mind of God.

And the size of our faith has nothing to do with the answer we receive to our prayers.

Jesus’ disciples were worried that the problems of the world were too big for their human sized abilities.

So the disciples said to Jesus, "Increase our faith!"

And Jesus replied, "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.

Here Jesus is not scolding the disciples - telling them that their faith is too small, that they lack even the tiniest amount of faith necessary to perform miraculous deeds.

On the contrary, he’s telling them that they already have it within them to do the things that God has asked them to do.

All it takes is the smallest amount of faith, a faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, to be in touch with the power of God.

And the disciples already had that faith – they had proven that when they answered yes to God’s call to become disciples.

And we all have that same faith as well, that same power of God with in us.

We all have that mustard seed faith.

Whether we’re clergy or congregant, whether we’re life-long Christians or stepping back into a church for the first time in years, or the first time ever.

Faith does not come in sizes – small, medium, and Grande!

Faith comes only in one size. You either have it, or you don’t.

And if you’re talking to God, if you’re asking for God’s help, if you’re arguing with God because you feel as if you just can’t get a break, and its not fair, and why can’t God send you a little good fortune for a change…and you’re starting to doubt whether God is even listening…

If you’re doing all those things, if you’re living in relationship with God then you have faith.

And that faith is plenty big enough to uproot a big old mulberry tree and replant it in the middle of the ocean.

It’s big enough to move mountains.

It’s big enough for you to enact the change in the world that you want to see.

Because you see, we may feel as if we have no control over what happens in our lives, and in many cases, we don’t. Some things we just have to leave up to God and trust that God will provide for us in the long run.

But there are plenty of things that we do have control over, and that’s where the power of our faith comes into play.

Even if we can’t change the circumstances of our own lives, we can change the lives of others.

Like the disciples, our teeny tiny faith gives us the power to cure disease, to cast out demons, to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

We do this every time we sit with a sick friend, help a loved one find their way out of hopelessness and despair, or share our experience of God’s love and forgiveness with someone who desperately needs to have both in their lives.

We are a people who share a mustard seed faith.

A faith that is small when it is planted within us, but grows beyond our wildest dreams when it moves outside of us.

There is much evil in this world. There is much that is broken and diseased.

But when we ask God to increase our faith so that we might fix that brokenness, the answer we receive is that we already have all the faith that we need to do so.

When we call out to God and say, “Why don’t you DO something?”

God responds, “I did do something. I made you.”

We are called to become the answers to our prayers.

And we are called to serve each other in community.

Which is what we do every time we come together around this table...

(proceed to Communion)

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