07 October 2013

Sermon: Faith for what?

 I have not written in some time, having "reported" on daily life with Tal and me via photographs on flickr rather than writing regular blog entries.  With a growing urge to begin writing again and having worked hard on a sermon for yesterday, I'm signed back in at least for today.  Making no promises ...

The folks of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection sent me home with the flowers, which had added some wecome fall color to our not-often used dining room.

Sermon for 6 October 2013
Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Greenwood SC (@ Wesley Commons)
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, Luke 17:5-10

            Six weeks ago today I turned 60.  The actual event wasn’t near the trauma I had anticipated as the day made its relentless approach all summer.  In fact, it turned out to be something of a non-event.  Lots of well wishes; but no official celebration.  No cake, no ice cream; no champagne, no toasts.  I turned 60.  And, the day it happened was a lovely enough late summer’s Sunday.

The days since then, however, have made up for it.  While the significance of the milestone didn’t reveal itself on “the day,” its magnitude wormed its way in in short order.  Here’s the gist of it:  During Lent several years ago I heard a talk by Tony Campolo, a popular Christian speaker.[1]  He relayed a pithy anecdote.  Telling someone he was middle aged while within earshot of his wife, resulted in this instant and irreverent response from her:  “Middle-aged!?  Dear, how many 120-year-olds do you know?”  Thank you, Mrs Campolo.

I know in my head all the stuff about life on this earth being a fleeting thing.  I thought I’d faced my own mortality long ago.  So, I hate to admit to a visceral, deep down psychic fear and how completely it took me by surprise.  The clock is ticking; I have lived more days than I will live.  And, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.  All of us wonder if we’ll leave a lasting mark on this world, if our lives will have mattered after they’re over and done.  I’ve been forced by a birthday to face – like I’ve never faced before – one of those elemental parts of being human: the question of meaning.  I wish there were an easy answer.  That’s another elemental part of being human, isn’t it?  The simple solution.  “Make it clear – and make it now.”

Enter the disciples in today’s gospel reading.[2]  “Increase our faith.”  An urgent plea?  A defiant demand?  A little of both, probably.  But, make it clear and make it now.  We don’t know the precise context of this passage from Luke.  It’s part of a collection of sayings, coming right after Jesus has criticized the Pharisees for their choices, for their behavior, for their commitments:  failing to welcome children, denying compassion to the poor, striving for recognition and position.  Jesus’ message to the disciples is something along the lines of “Don’t be like the Pharisees.”  That Jesus has to warn the disciples in this way suggests that they are in need of further formation.  They weren’t getting it.  That Jesus has to tell them not to be like the Pharisees lets us know that they were – like the Pharisees.

The disciples aren’t malicious, of course, in their behavior or in the request we’ve heard this morning.  I think they’re just having trouble understanding what it is Jesus is talking about.  Remember, they’d never encountered anyone like him before.  They can’t seem to get a handle on what Jesus expects of them.  Their situation is much like my angst over the meaning of life – who and how I’m supposed to be.

And, they’re probably thinking matter of factly:  more faith is better than less faith, right?  While they’re genuine in wanting to follow Jesus more faithfully, they’re human, they’re confused, they’re frustrated.  “Enough of this formation stuff.  Just increase our faith and be done with it.”  I have to wonder, though, just what they thought they would get with more faith.  Where did they think they would they be with more faith?

A couple weeks ago I stumbled on an article entitled “Confessions of a Late Bloomer” – an entry in one of those online daily posts intended to inspire.[3]  Confessions of a Late Bloomer.  I perked right up at the title.  Originally published in Psychology Today, it was fine, an interesting piece of writing.  It didn’t give me any pat answers (as much as I wanted them), but it did offer insight. 

·         The author, Scott Kaufman, cited the usual late bloomers, the ones we all know about:  Grandma Moses, Charles Darwin, Sir Alex Fleming.

·         He questioned our society’s time course for success, those defining benchmarks that started for lots of us with an IQ test.

·         Most helpful to me was his suggestion that the apparent over-night success is rare.  Unseen sacrifice and dedicated hard work generally lead to that sort of achievement – which can “happen” in any decade.  Our lives are cumulative, our past experiences informing all that follows.  We cannot know how and when our lives will come together (or if they will).  Living life is the point.  Worrying about the legacy can be a waste.

Mr Kaufman did, however, surprise me.  With a three-word question, he set me on a new course.  “Especially in light of our extended life span, it's worth confronting the very notion of late blooming to ask: late for what?”  It’s worth confronting the very notion of late blooming to ask: late for what?  Late bloomer that I am, what is it I’m late for at 60?  Who defines late? 

Jesus could have asked his disciples, “Faith for what?” couldn’t he?  Who defines faith? 

“Faith.  For what?”  Not to be like the Pharisees?  To have the courage to follow Jesus?  To get, to grasp what he’s talking about?  To be no longer working class, but part of the ruling elite?  To find approval in Jesus’ eyes?  For what were they asking?  “Increase our faith.”  Did they know?

Jesus sees that.  He knows the disciples are not at all certain what they’re asking him to grant them – with their plea, with their demand.  So, he talks about mustard seeds again.  “If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  (I wonder how much that helped.)  From our vantage point perhaps it’s more clear.  It doesn’t take more faith; it takes a better understanding of the seed of faith we already have.  Just the littlest of  bits …  In response to the disciples’ request to increase their faith, Jesus tells them they already have enough.  They’re not using what they do have to its fullest potential.  They are confusing having faith with being faithful.

There are two guys in a rowboat who somehow run into a muddy bank along a stream.  Instead of reversing course, trying to back up and ease their way out of their predicament, the one in the back keeps encouraging his partner in the front by yelling, “Row harder.”  And, of course they get deeper and deeper into the muck. [4]  At some point all of us, the disciples included, get headed in the wrong direction with our faith, in our lives, but continue plunging ahead.  “Row harder!”  “Increase our faith!” 

Jesus is suggesting, I think, that rowing harder, that clamoring for more faith – or for meaning, for that matter – is the wrong approach.   It keeps us in constant motion, ever looking for more – searching, grasping, worrying, fretting.  It’s one thing to demand more faith, and another thing to give ourselves over to being faithful.  Faith isn’t something we don’t have one day and do have the next.  It’s not a commodity, not a possession.  Faith is something we demonstrate – encounter by encounter, conversation by conservation, decision by decision, even mistake by mistake.  Living a life of faith is a cumulative proposition.  And no matter how late you start, it takes a lifetime. 

[1][1] “Wrestling with Angels” (video series), Zondervan, 1993.
[2] Thoughts about the disciples drawn from a sermon by The Rev’d Timothy E Schenck, 3 Oct 04.  Seen online in “Sermons that Work.”
[3] “Daily Good” for 24 Sep 13.
[4] Story from Schenick.