Saturday, October 22, 2016

Seeds of Faith

Luke 17: 5-10

When I was a child I used to own a pendant that was a small glass sphere about the diameter of a dime.  Inside of the glass sphere was a mustard seed.  This mustard seed was to remind me of faith and how if I had even one mustard seed size amount of faith, I could do anything.  Well somewhere along the way the pendant went missing along with my fancy doll collection, a stuffed animal from my dad and my Barbie doll that I loved.  My faith however did not go missing.

Years later a friend and I were going through a pretty tough time teaching a diversity class.  The mix of students didn’t gel, the curriculum didn’t fit and we were at our wits end.   One day she gave me a pendant unlike the other in many ways but like the other in that it had a mustard seed.  She said to me, ‘I thought we needed a little boost of faith’.  Indeed she was right!  I needed a boost and all it took was encouragement, and seeing the mustard seed to remind me that God was in charge, just have faith.  Well the students didn’t change but we adjusted the curriculum, and finished the class celebrating our accomplishment of just making it through.  

As you might guess our scripture for reflection today comes from Luke 17 and it is the parable of the mustard seed.  But it is followed up with another parable that will give us pause and so we will examine both of theses parables in context.  Hear now Luke 17: 5-10.

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.

“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!’”

Remember now, both of these parables are a response to the disciples burning request to ‘increase their faith’.  What we need to understand is why did they ask for increased faith?  What’s the urgent rush for more faith for them?  Well just before that in verses 1-4 Jesus warns them that ‘occasions for stumbling will abound’ and ‘woe’ to them. 

He says if your brother sins you must reprimand him and if that brother repents you must forgive.  And, if that same brother sins against you seven times a day, and repents seven times a day, then you must forgive seven times a day.  Well now that would get trying having to forgive someone seven times or more a day, that’s a tall order.  I think that I, too, would get perturbed at having to forgive someone seven times a day, my patience would wear real thin like the heal of a well worn sock, and my faith might falter a bit.

The life of discipleship or following Jesus is demanding at best and so the disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”  In essence they are saying, help us Lord we don’t know if we we’re cut out for this discipleship thing so please deepen our faith.  So Jesus, true to form, answers them with two parables, one of the mustard seed and one of the worthless slave.  Following Jesus is just not for the faint of heart, and hearing his parables is sometimes like hearing fingernails scratch a blackboard.

But first about the mustard seed.  It’s pretty small, if you had faith just that teeny tiny amount you could rearrange the landscape!  Luke says that you could replant mulberry trees in the sea and if we were to look at this parable in Matthew it says you could move mountains with just a thimbleful of faith.  (Matt 17:20)  That’s pretty amazing.  But we have to be careful here; faith is not quantifiable.  It would take a supernatural power to accomplish these things or some hocus pocus.   You just can’t measure your life in Christ by the amount of faith you do or do not have.  

The parable of the mustard seed not a ‘prosperity gospel’ that televangelists preach about, that if you believe in your goals and have faith in God you’ll be able to accomplish them because God is so awesome that God wants everyone happy, healthy and wealthy.  We have to be careful in our interpretation.   

This parable is a reminder to do big things with limited resources that we might have.  You know great things have been done by people with very little, who believed in a dream and had faith.  Anglican priest and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu is one such person and he changed the landscape of South Africa.  Educated in mission schools he wanted a medical career but when his family couldn’t afford it he went into teaching.  That later led to his theological training and deep held beliefs in human dignity and rights for all people no matter the color of your skin. 

He held a fearless stance in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime and maintained a nonviolent approach as the path to liberation for the South African blacks.  Remarkable accomplishments from a man of humble beginnings, a dream and a little faith!  So far so good with Jesus’ parable about faith.

Now let’s turn our attention to the second parable that Jesus told the disciples as a response to “Increase our faith.”  This parable is about the underappreciated slave or servant.  Now this is or should be a very large obstacle for us of contemporary culture and faith.  It is perplexing and prickly because slavery pierces the soul of America and we have strived to rid ourselves of our uncomfortable past.  But we can never really rid ourselves of it; it is our history and we can only accept it as fact and then transition to a better way of life because we know that slavery is inhuman and inappropriate.

This is the chasm that exists between the first century and the twenty-first century and us trying to figure out what is going on.  This is why this parable is jarring and to understand slavery in the context of our text is essential.  Just as we need to understand the context of the 6 scripture passages that, on first glance, seem to condemn homosexuality, we need to understand why Jesus would use a slave (or servant) as an answer to ‘Increase our faith’.

Then people worked as servants or slaves before becoming free, it was the norm and not the exception, and hierarchy was monumental to an ordered way of life.  Masters would expect their servants to perform duties and servants would expect that, when their hard work is done, they would receive nourishment and rest.  Slaves were to put their needs on the back burner in order to serve their master.  And when they have served their master they would have done their duty just as when we serve God we will have done our duty as faithful disciples.

Let me say that I do not support structures of oppression in any way, shape, or form.  But to glean from this parable a useful word then we work with what we have in front of us and understand this slave-master thing as communal relationship.

So we look at the entire passage to gain some understanding.  We are to not cause anyone to stumble and we are to forgive those who offend us.  We are to exercise our faith and to be a disciple who does one’s duty.

Jesus is talking about the life of a disciple.  And that is to be in community with others who love God and want to serve God and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  Faith here is less about personal fortitude and more about mutual forbearance because we know that to be in Christian community is not always easy.  It’s got its ups and downs.  How might we, as a community of believers be loving, forgiving, and more caring towards one another?  How might we, together ask God to ‘increase our faith’ so that when times get tough we can tough it out together? 

Faith is a way of life.   It’s about serving and being served in our commonality and our love of God.  It’s about having faith that we can do a lot with so very little all for the good of humankind.


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