As I said at the beginning of our worship service today, it’s good to be back with you, resuming the awesome responsibility of supporting us as a community as we gather to worship our God; and stepping into the pulpit again, and submitting to the terrible privilege of leading us as we listen to Scripture, these ancient texts, and straining to hear within them God’s Word for us as we gather today.
faith the size of a mustard seed
I’m going to focus on the gospel text today, and the first thing I want to say about it is that this text poses some problems for us as it lands in our context—our cultural context, our worldview, our way of looking at the world. The first “problem” that the text poses for us is in its depiction of miracles: ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,’ Jesus says, ‘you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’
Now, for the most part, we simply don’t believe that such a thing is possible. That’s part of our modern culture: to disbelieve in miracles. We have a hard time believing that the laws of physics—as we know them—can be suspended.
There’s more to it than that of course. We are also deeply suspicious of the connection between faith and the miraculous in terms of our personal lives and situations. We’ve heard about, or we’ve seen, or sometimes we’ve directly encountered this notion that ‘if you just have enough faith everything will turn out well.’
Sometimes that gets played out in the context of a catastrophic illness, a cancer diagnosis maybe. And a person is told, ‘if you just pray hard enough, your cancer will be cured.’ But, of course, as we know, cancer often isn’t cured. And we’re left with questions like, ‘Didn’t we pray hard enough? Didn’t God hear our prayers? Did we do something wrong?’ Another place this gets played out is in the so-called prosperity gospel that suggests that if we only have faith all our dreams will come true: we will be healthy, wealthy, attractive, and wise.
If only we have faith. And then again, for the great swath of us who don’t end up living the lifestyles of the rich and beautiful, we might end up asking ourselves, ‘Didn’t we pray hard enough? Didn’t God hear our prayers? Is there something wrong, something deficient with our faith?’
So this association of sufficient faith with particular outcomes—that’s the first problem we encounter as we hear this text.
the whole notion of slavery
The second “problem” that comes up for us as we hear this text is the whole notion of slavery. First of all, we may be appalled that Jesus appears to be so nonchalant about the existence of the institution of slavery; he just seems to accept it. And worse, he seems to encourage masters to keep their slaves in their place, and to discourage any inappropriate fraternizing between slaves and masters. This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know, who invites everyone to dine together at his table. And then—to make matters even worse—Jesus encourages us to identify as worthless slaves, and to accept our lot without complaining.
This little story offends us because we live in a society and culture that rejects slavery. Though we must admit, to our shame, that modern forms of slavery—indentured servitude, human trafficking, exploitation of vulnerable workers—are remarkably persistent in our own day. But Jesus’ apparent acceptance of slavery puts up a barrier to our ability to hear what he has to say in this text.
Again, there’s more to it than that. We live in a particular cultural era that goes back to the 1960s. It’s an era of liberation, of celebration of human dignity and human potential, with feminism and the movement for gender equality, the sexual revolution, and the Civil Rights movement.
We’ve thrown off what were persistent cultural norms that saw women, people of color, people with disabilities, gay and lesbian people, First Nations peoples, and others consistently treated as ‘less than,’ and in many circumstances treated as worthless. We’ve thrown off a system which saw those things as normal; though at times these days we are reminded once more of how persistent these dehumanizing norms can be.
As a church in this culture, we also live with a persistent perception that the church, for much of its history and in many places today, has served to reinforce those older cultural norms. We also live with the persistent perception that Christianity—religion in general—reinforces notions of worthlessness and perpetuates negative images of human potential.
So this is the second problem we encounter to hearing what this text may have to say to us: slavery as a kind of metaphor for the life of faith.
Okay, so those are the problems we face with this text. My speaking time is running out and I’ve only gotten to the problems so far!
I had the same challenge with my thesis: I spent the first five chapters detailing the problems, and then only had the last chapter to suggest what we might do about them. I think the reason for this—both in my thesis and in talking about this text today—is that as a Christian community living in this particular time and culture, we have a lot of background work to do.
It’s no secret that in our time and culture the church is becoming less popular at an accelerating rate: people are tuning out, and turning away from the church, more so with each generation. It’s a hard time to be the church, and it has been for some time now.
Over the past five decades we’ve tried many things to make ourselves more attractive, more appealing to our culture. We’ve been tempted to put some distance between us and our traditions; we’ve turned away from doctrines and dogmas, and the particular language of our faith; we’ve even distanced ourselves from Scripture, believing that all these things—the traditions, the language, the practices, the beliefs—have been getting in the way of people joining the church.
We’ve tried to be relevant, to be hip; we’ve followed all the trends, thinking that if we could just keep up, speak the language of the street, or the market, or the school, or the workplace, that people would like us, and they would come to church. And, for the most part, this hasn’t worked.
In the meantime, I believe we have become less clear about who we are as a Christian community, about what we believe, what we’re about, what we have to say to the world, what we have to offer to the world.
That’s why I believe we need to do this background work, going back to our traditions, our stories, Scripture, and working to recover a sense of who we are and what we are about.
to reengage with Scripture
Rather than distance ourselves from Scripture—to do as Gretta Vosper suggests and put the Bible up on a shelf alongside other sources of wisdom—we need to reengage with Scripture. We need to bring our questions to it; our struggles too. We’re allowed to say, ‘Hey Jesus, that doesn’t seem right when you say that about faith; that doesn’t seem right when you seem to tell us we are worthless.’ We can bring our questions, we can bring our challenges, but then the other side of the bargain here is that we also need to be willing to listen to what Scripture has to say to us. It’s a conversation, so we don’t just say our piece and leave; we say our piece and then wait—patience is sometimes required here—for a response.
So what response might we get if we stick around and listen to this text? Well, we might hear this as a conversation in which the disciples are asking for more faith, as though they are asking for special super-powers, to be able to do what is asked of them. And Jesus in response is saying, you don’t need super-powers; and if you had them, you’d think that everything you accomplished was down to your terrific powers. You’d think it was all about you. But it’s not.
All you need is a mustard seed-sized quantity of faith. You just need a little bit of trust, not in your own powers, but in God and in God’s promises. And, as hard as this is to hear, God doesn’t promise us a life free from trouble—or from cancer. God doesn’t promise us wealth, looks, or a lifestyle of leisure. God promises, ‘I will be with you.’ ‘I will be with you.’ That’s what we are invited to trust in, to have faith in.
As to the imagery of slavery: I have to say this is a tougher one in our culture. Because part of what Jesus is saying here is that the Christian life is a life of obedience. It’s a life of following, of following certain commandments.
The all-important questions are, who is the one we follow, and what are the commandments we are asked to obey? Well, the commandments are summed up as love God, and love your neighbor. And the one we follow, according to Paul, is one
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6-8).
Jesus personifies God as a master who acts like a slave. Not one who exploits or dominates, or leaves one to wait for dinner until after he has been served. One who washes the feet of his followers; one who serves; one who recognizes the full humanity of each person; one who gives his life for us.
The is the one we are called to follow, the one in whom we are called to put even our mustard seed-sized faith.
This is the one who invites us to his table, no matter how strong or how frail our faith. At Christ’s table all are fed with the bread and the cup—body and lifeblood—tiny portions, but more than enough to equip us to be the church for this day. Amen.