October 6, 2013 – Pentecost 20

Luke 13:18-19

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.

Luke 17:1-10

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 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. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 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.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  The Lord replied, “If you had faith as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.    “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’? 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’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 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!’”

Pentecost 20   October 6, 2010 (Habakkuk 2:1-4, Luke 13:18-19) Luke 17:1-10

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The apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith, and Jesus says, ‘if you’ve got faith like a mustard seed, you can tell trees to tango and they’ll be dancing across the ocean.’

Some think the apostles are asking for a mega-dose of faith to be able to do miracles like they’ve seen Jesus doing. Which could be a possibility.

But my guess is these disciples are asking for more faith mostly just to be able to live up to the job description for people-of-faith as they hear Jesus describing it.  Consider how –

Jesus has just warned his followers it’s better to be fish-bait at the bottom of the ocean, with a quarter-ton-stone-sinker attached, than to be leading any of God’s little ones astray. I used to think “little ones” meant literally children – and leading children astray, in the broadest sense, is hard enough to avoid – and children, for sure are included in Jesus’ warning. But now I’m convinced by the many bible commentaries that say Jesus is calling all believers, of any age, “little ones” – which makes doing no serious harm even harder. And I’m sure hoping Jesus grades on a very gentle curve… And I’m praying, Lord, increase my faith.

Then Jesus says, when any of you sins, all the rest need to call them on it. Demand accountability. That’s hard enough. Then he says – and even if someone sins against you seven times a day – if they repent, forgive them, every time. (Elsewhere Jesus says 77 times, probably meaning don’t keep track and don’t stop forgiving.) Which again is not an easy thing… And again I’m praying, “Lord, increase my faith!”

And next thing we know, Jesus is telling us to think of ourselves as slaves or hired servants, coming in after a long day of plowing fields or milking cows, to serve our master supper before we can sit down to eat, ourselves. Don’t be expecting thanks when we’ve done all our chores, Jesus says. Instead say, ‘we’re just hired hands doing what we’re supposed to do.’

Elsewhere in Luke (ch. 12) Jesus does say when he returns, he himself will dress as a servant, wait on table, and serve his servants. The life of faith is full of many awesome and wonderful blessings. Yet Jesus also tells us clearly not to expect thanks or praise for doing what he says to do… No wonder we may be saying sometimes, “Lord, increase our faith!”

And when we ask for an extra dose of faith we’re in good company. John Wesley, our Methodist forefather, had strong faith – and strong doubt also. As a young man, Wesley spent several years in colonial Georgia as a missionary pastor. He left home in England hoping to be part of a great revival, but no one seemed to ever come to faith in his church. He met and courted a Christian woman in Georgia, who might have been the love of his life, but after many misunderstandings, the relationship ended quite poorly. Now his faith was suffering badly… And on the ship heading home, now along came along a raging storm at sea, as if nature itself was accentuating Wesley’s inner storms of doubt.

Then he noticed a band of Moravian missionaries on shipboard, who remained incredibly calm through the worst of the storm. They seemed to possess an abundance of the faith he felt so lacking in himself. So he asked one of the leaders of the Moravians, ‘how can I get this faith you’ve got?’ And he was told, “Preach faith till you have faith. Then preach faith because you have faith.”

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So Wesley preached faith till he had faith. Then he preached faith because soon he found he had faith, after all, all along. Faith that only needed to be revived by the practice of faith.

Within the next decade millions were coming to Christ, having lives turned around, because they heard the good news of Jesus, preached with power by John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield and others – as the Methodist revival movement grew from tiny seeds of faith, spread by winds of the Holy Spirit, all across England, then across the Atlantic into America. Beginning with John Wesley hearing –  “Preach faith til you have faith. Then preach faith because you have faith.”

The advice given Wesley worked so well – that he kept preaching and practicing faith – now passing along to others what he’d received – who passed the secret of faith along to others – one believer to another, ever since.

Which, of course, is not the end of the story.

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Jesus’ disciples of old had faith to leave all and follow Jesus. But these same first disciples often didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, often didn’t comprehend what he was about, didn’t know where he was going or where they were supposed to follow. They really didn’t get it, St Luke tell us, most of the time. First-round-draft-choice disciple Peter even denied he knew Jesus three times in that one night of the last supper, just before the cross….

But the first disciples kept practicing faith, best they could… Following Jesus, learning to teach, preach, heal the sick, proclaim the kingdom of God, even without understanding… And soon Peter, in spite of all his doubts, would be leading thousands to Jesus…

John Wesley also had many more moments of doubt, crises of faith, on and off, through most of his life. (Only in the last decade of life was he able to feel fully firm in his faith.) Even when he was preaching to five thousand at a time and seeing thousands come to Christ, there were still days on which Wesley would write in his journal “I don’t know if I’m even a Christian…”

But in spite of many doubts Wesley kept practicing faith, best he could –  preaching, teaching, organizing the Methodist movement… that kept growing…and growing…  in spite of all his doubts.

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So when we ask Jesus, Lord increase our faith – maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to hear Jesus telling us – we don’t need more faith. We just need to believe the seed of faith we’ve been given will grow, organically, as if by itself – if we but tend the seed and practice our faith together.

Practice the faith we’ve been given, already, by grace. We don’t all have the same gifts and graces as the first disciples or early Methodists… But anyone who asks –  persistently asks – receives. And every time we choose to believe and receive, we find – the gift of faith has already been graciously given. We just need to practice our faith till our faith is functioning…. Then practice faith because now our faith is functional…

The details of our faith struggles –  the details of how each of our faith-lives grow, like seed, to become a tree, will all be different – even as our gifts and graces and personalities are different.

Sometimes the gospel needs to be transmitted with words, loud and clear – shouted from the rooftops. Other times the gospel needs to grow quietly, silently, like seed, becoming a tree….branching out, slowly…giving shelter and nurture to life… all around us…

Always the gospel of Jesus Christ is about living deeper into the faith we’ve been given by our gracious God, who never gives too little. God who reminds us that the tiny seed knows how to grow into a tree…soaking up God’s freely given sunshine and rain… putting out branches for birds to build nests in… (Near-Eastern mustard seed grows to be the size of a small tree. And even a little mustard seed scattered abroad can grow til it covers a large field…And – )

The miracle of faith that Jesus is looking for from us for isn’t about leaping trees – it’s about all of us timing leaps of faith together – asking in faith for Christ’s kingdom-come – and the guidance of the Holy Spirit for all…

And the secret of the faith God has planted in us by design – the secret of the faith Jesus nurtures and stirs up in us – isn’t about our ability to tell trees to jump in a lake or mountains to move.

The secret of our faith in God – and God’s faith in us – is about ordinary people of faith being gifted by God to do every-day miracles of faith –

Like visiting the sick and shut-ins and whoever needs a visit – transforming a world of loneliness into a place where God’s kingdom is truly present.

Every-day miracles like 2400 pumpkins coming off a fifty-foot-long-truck in two hours, thanks to many hearts praying, many hands helping.

Every-day miracles like ordinary folks serving at every-day tables, literally and metaphorically waiting on others in many ways. Encouraging the faith-challenged – and challenging the strong-in-faith to share faith more extravagantly, more creatively, more persistently.

Every-day miracles of faith transforming us – transforming the world –  one seed, one tree, one field, one forest – one person, one church, one community at a time…

And I thank God for all of you who model faith for me and for many – as you live and share your faith in so many ways. It’s a joy and blessing always… to watch our faith growing… together…

And through our practice of faith together – with God’s gracious help – here we are together, Christ’s servants – giving thanks for his presence among us… as we prepare to [celebrate baptism of a beloved child of God and–] feast together at his table.

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Thanks be to God.  Amen.