A Sermon Delivered by
The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 6, 2019
Trinity Bicentennial: 1819 - 2019
The task of the preacher on any occasion is to proclaim the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. Today is the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost; a day when we continue to reflect on the mystery of our faith and its relevance to our beliefs and convictions. It’s also an opportunity to learn from our lectionary selections in order to see where Scripture directs us, and where we should be going as Episcopalians in America, right here in Morgantown, WV. To that end in this morning’s Gospel we heard:
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord 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. (Luke 17:5-10)
Well, I don’t know about you; but when I hear a passage like this I become very confused – mustard seeds? Mulberry trees? Uprooting and planting vegetation in the sea? That’s not part of my daily vocabulary, nor is it attuned to my regular work schedule. What’s this all about anyway; and what literally, pray-tell, does this scripture have to do with our faith as Christian believers right now this first Sunday of October during the fall of 2019; the tail end of WVU’s Homecoming weekend?
Perhaps we need to reframe the whole question of faith scripturally, and reassess the context in which the Gospel passage occurs. That can be seen as risky-business because it puts us into the realm of explanations and interpretations somewhat prematurely. The truth is the particular insight which captures our attention this morning may be illumined most favorably if and when we do in fact take the wider interpretive view.
Consider looking at it this way. In our increasingly secular society we are obsessed with our consumption of more-and-more; but more-and-more of what? Who has the biggest, who has the fastest, who has the greatest, who has the most luxurious, and who has the most desired “whatever-it-is” we are looking for? We seem to be saying that if something is good, then more of it will be better. So we manufacture faster computers, and send billions of text-messages daily. We interact by smart-phones and talk to artificially intelligent robots, commanding them to do menial tasks. We save money to live in bigger houses, buy fancier cars, wear stylish clothes, and so on. But living in a culture where bigger is better leaves you thinking that what you actually do, or how you actually behave, or what in truth you already have, isn’t enough.
But who said so? Who are the authorities in your mind bouncing-around inside your head, firing the synapses in your brain? Who is in control of your life? Culture profoundly affects all of us of course, perhaps more than we realize. No argument there. But we still need to figure some things out for ourselves. And as church people – people of God – we are confronted with numerous organizational matters to resolve: issues that impact our polity and speak to the way we worship and pray; as well as “live, and move, and have our being”…to quote our Prayerbook.
Listen to the way all this has affected a relatively new pastor in a Lutheran church set apart in a prosperous suburban locale. He says: “I am always wondering if anything is enough. I feel like I entered this clerical church profession with overwhelmingly huge deficits. Can I preach good sermons? Can I engage in small talk? Can I connect with the congregation? It’s hard to look at other pastors—people who are master pulpiteers, orators, and speakers, who exegete the Bible like nobody else can—and not feel in some way inadequate. I wonder, as I deal with shrinking congregations and budgets, can I continue this ministry to the community around me? Is it worth it? In short, can I ever be an authentic Christian example to others?
Well, I admit this lament hits pretty close to home. Yet maybe it’s time for all of us to confront the challenges we face as best we can in regard to the endless dilemmas of life we’ve inevitably encountered, using straight-forward approaches and sincere inquiries.
In today’s Gospel, for example, the disciples ask Jesus to “increase their faith.” On the surface, this seems like a rather simple, albeit naive request. They have been with Jesus for quite a while, and now they are on their way to Jerusalem. Isn’t it a bit late to be asking for a pep talk?
Well to some degree, yes, it is a bit out of sequence; and yet, just like most of us modern-day folks, the disciples tended to think that more-is-better. If they could only have a bit more faith, then everything would be all right. They have seen what Jesus has done in the past. Jesus made blind people see, removed leprosy, cast out demons, fed 5,000 people with a few fish and a little bread, and so much more. How do you live up to that? The Disciples realized there is no way they could ever do what he did with their own limited faith. If they wanted to do even 10 percent of what Jesus did, they needed a new-and-improved extra-strength faith – like new and improved TIDE, the washing detergent. That’s the reality of the world we live in, where more is always better. So it logically follows, the Disciples in their own time bristled and clamored – “Hey Jesus, increase our faith.”
But Jesus counters this by telling his disciples that to move a mountain, you only need faith the size of a mustard seed. Now that’s a conversation-stopper, right there. It’s not simply about having enough faith. Being faithful apparently, is doing what God would have us do in the world even when we think our faith is incomplete and doesn’t measure up. Jesus is not a figure-skating judge with scorecards rating us on our faith. No – Jesus is the Savior of the World!
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Have you ever noticed in Scripture that God seems to have a preference for small things; not necessarily bigger and better things? Scripture tells us that Gideon, for example, the weakest military leader in the land of Israel according to the Book of Judges, is called by God to defeat an occupying army. You’re kidding! His 300 men defeat thousands on the other side? – Apparently so: for with God all things are possible.
Or another more telling example: When God chooses a young, poor woman living in Israel under Roman occupation— it is a surprise that she is the one who would give birth to Jesus. Mary, the Mother of God. The point is simply this: God is always using what little we have to offer, and then performing great works with what we think are meager resources. God calls us to be faithful—faithful and diligent as we seek to do God’s work in the world. Faithfulness is about being a witness to the grace and mercy of Jesus; it is about trusting in God’s faithfulness even when our faith is wavering. We are faithful when we proclaim the good news and do acts of compassion, even on those days when our faith seems small and inconsequential.
But hold on, because there’s a second part to today’s Gospel text, the theological part that flows sequentially from the first portion, and it’s critical to proclaiming the Good News. Jesus is calling on his disciples to do exactly as he is doing, to be a servant to others within the means available to him. Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die. He will be a servant even unto his own death. So listen up!
Jesus introduces a very important mandate, something that seems to be falling out of favor in society: it’s called a sense of duty. Duty sounds archaic and old-fashioned like something that hasn’t been used in years. But Jesus is going to be faithful to God even though it means facing an untimely end. That’s his duty. He is talking about doing what we are all called to do: even when it might cost us something precious. Take note. Our very souls are at stake.
So in conclusion, the Disciples don’t need more faith, and to some extent, neither do we. We are all called to trust God with the faith we have. It may not be a fully-refined faith and it may not even seem like much faith at all, but when expressed sincerely in the name of Christ, it will move mountains. It is not about having enough of it; it’s about knowing enough of it; and knowing that in God’s eyes (“just as we are without one plea” – to quote the old gospel hymn) we are enough, and our faith is sufficient and acceptable; in fact, it’s all that matters, and it’s all to the glory of God.
And this we offer up …
in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request.
Dennis Sanders: Mahtomedi, MN
Christian Century 9/25/19