October 2, 2016
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2 It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
3 Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4 And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 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.
7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 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!’”
When I started my sabbatical I had this idea that if I just had enough time and space to really focus, I could become a more faithful person. If I had time to read more, to pray more, to reflect more, to write more, that I could become more spiritual, more able to be peaceful and less anxious and unsure, stronger, tougher, more able to just love without thinking about it.
So perhaps you hear the theme – more, more, more. This can become the drumbeat of our hearts.
We look at our lives and the people around us, our parents and our children. And we feel like more is needed. We should be more forgiving. We should do more. We should be more loving, less judge-y, less critical, less afraid.
We look at the world around us and we feel like we should do more. There are big problems in the world – people who are hungry who need to be fed, women and children fleeing violence and streaming across our borders, 45 million people who are enslaved.
And maybe we feel like Jesus always pushes us to do more, give more, be more, be less sinner and more saint.
“Increase our faith” we might feel like calling out. Increase our faith because we do not feel like we are enough. Increase our faith because the task is just too big and overwhelming for us. Increase our faith because we are facing impossible things. Increase our faith because most days it just feels like we don’t have enough to get through the day.
We stand with those who have been following Jesus and listening to everything he has to say. And he has told them parable after parable that has completely overturned what they thought faith was all about.
To be a follower they have first take care of family matters because the kingdom of God needs to be their first priority; to follow Jesus they will have to carry a cross, they will have to put family allegiances behind them, and give up all their possessions.
Faith is in forgiving and loving (7:44-50), in not being afraid (8:22-25), and taking risks that challenge the status quo (8:43-48). Faith is in thanksgiving (17:11-19), in having confidence in God’s justice (18:1-8), and being willing to call out to Jesus in our suffering (18:35-43).
Luke tells us that those we least expect to have faith are the ones who have it – the sinful woman who kisses Jesus feet, the blind beggar who wants to see again, the Samaritan leper who thanks Jesus after he has been healed, the hemorrhaging woman who touches Jesus’ cloak, the Roman centurion who goes to enormous lengths to get Jesus to heal a beloved servant.
And Jesus exclaims, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
And the disciples, they seem so often to be completely lost – when they get anxious in the boat in the storm, Jesus asks, “Where is your faith?”
In the text we read this morning we come to the end of a series of teachings. You’ll notice in your pew Bibles that the NRSV calls what we read today, “Some Sayings of Jesus” as if this is the stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else, like the last box you pack when you are moving which has one winter glove and two Tupperware lids.
But I’m not sure that is fair to Luke.
Jesus has been telling them what it means to be a follower of Jesus, what it means to be faithful, and what God is really up to in the world, and he goes further in the first couple verses we read this morning.
If someone else stumbles and sins and struggles, and you had some part in that, the burden you bear is like having a rock hung around your neck while you are trying to swim up for air. This is not about judging the other person’s sin, you have got to watch yourself.
And then Jesus says, you have to forgive, and if they sin again, you forgive again, and again and again.
You might have noticed that while Jesus says all these things to disciples, it is the apostles (those in leadership, those closest to Jesus) who cry out “Increase our faith.”
Jesus’ response is puzzling. You’ll notice first that he doesn’t say, “Because you have asked for more faith, it shall be granted unto you.” He doesn’t give them anything.
Second, Jesus sounds annoyed.
And then he says something mystifying, “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.”
This is like the time in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life when Jesus says if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can move a mountain.
But the disciples aren’t moving mountains or flying trees to the sea, and as a rule, neither are we. So does that mean we have no faith at all?
Here is what we need to know about what Jesus says.
We so often think about faith the way we think about something we own – we can measure it and we can get a bigger, better one. And it sort of feels like Jesus is saying something along these lines when he talks about mustard seeds – it feels like he is talking about measuring out our faith. But what if he is doing something different here.
In the Greek there are different kind of clauses, and Jesus is using a specific one here – a present real conditional clause – so really instead of “if you had the faith the size of a mustard seed” which feels like Jesus is saying we don’t even have that yet, instead we should hear it more like “It takes just a miniscule portion of the faith you already have to do things beyond your imagining” I took a little bit of artistic license with that, but that is the feel of what Jesus is trying to say.
We watch Jesus bend down in a field and pick up a fallen seed off the ground and let it roll around in the palm of his hand and show it to his disciples and say – look at this small thing – what if this small thing could make something which seemed impossible, possible? What if this small thing could produce a landscape altering change? What if this small thing could do something that seems at this moment ridiculous?
What we hear from Jesus is that we have already been given everything we need.
We don’t need more, we need eyes to see what we already have.
We need eyes to see that small things matter.
Sometimes when we take youth and adults on mission trips, it feels like we are putting a beautiful band aid on a deep wound.
We do small things – like fixing a leaking roof, getting a bathroom working again, pulling out poison ivy, rebuilding a deck – we do small things and wonder if it really matters. Jesus says, even the small things matter.
Going to McAllen, Texas and giving children who come into our country with nothing, pillows to hold and comfort them (it was your hands that sewed the beautiful pillow cases).
Making a dish for Men on a mission.
Committing to pray for our Ethiopian mission team.
Repenting. Forgiving. Big things begin as a small act of trust.
So what I learned on sabbatical was not how to arrive at some higher plane of spirituality.
What I learned was what it meant to pay attention to small things, as the Jesuits say, to see God in everything, to notice how meaningful it was to do very small things with great love, and to love the ordinary things because those are the things God uses to do the extraordinary things. Amen.