Exercising Faith

Sermon , St. Philip’s Episcopal Church Easthampton, MA- October 2nd,  2016
I find that the old words of the purported Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times,” echoes personally with a haunting and troublesome reality.  Living in these times of ours, the daily news of strife and violence and death raise up an unwanted sense of worry within me, which then spawns a gnawing and fruitless desire on my part to have some sense of control, some sense of stability in what frequently feels like sailing on a roiling sea.

Each day the news brings more turmoil to this fearful storm: The unaccountable atrocities in Syria, with the people – and specifically the children — of Aleppo being used as human pawns for international power plays; the flood of desperate refugees fleeing the chaos of war and hopelessness; the deadly encounters between police and black men open old and painful wounds in our nation; the bitterness expressed in our political and civic discourse, mitigating against the possibility of effective government for the common good – no matter who wins election; and yes, the state of our own parish church, struggling to risk doing ministry rather than just surviving.  In the face of all this, I find myself wishing that I had more faith.  Worse yet, I feel myself wondering what difference the faith I do have makes?

“Interesting times,” to be sure: I don’t think that I am alone in wishing occasionally for a good dose of boring ordinariness.  The disciples lived in “interesting times,” too; and our gospel reading from Luke gives evidence to the burden of those times on their sense of faith.

The precise context for what we heard in this morning’s reading is not included in this gospel lesson.  The seventeenth chapter of Luke begins rather abruptly with Jesus offering a stern sounding warning to his followers.  He says, “Temptations to sin are surely to come; but woe to [the one] by whom they come!”  And then the Lord goes on from there: “It would be better for [that person] if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to [stumble.]” [17:1-2]

As if this were not enough sobering news for what it takes to be a disciple, Jesus continues his dire warning by speaking about the weighty demands of forgiveness.  He tells the disciples that they must forgive beyond what seems reasonable or humanly possible, even and especially forgiving every time a repeat offender asks for forgiveness.

Can’t you see the disciples’ faces after Jesus finishes this stern admonition?  It’s pretty much the way your faces are looking now.  Their cry: “Increase our faith!” is our cry, too; isn’t it?  For the demands of faith that Jesus describes seemingly go beyond what mere mortals in the God-life (such as us) can manage.  It’s all too much

“Increase our faith!”  That is what the Twelve cry out in response to the demands of following Jesus.  And on the surface of things, the Lord’s reply to the disciples’ and to our frustrating sense of powerlessness doesn’t exactly help.  Together with the Twelve and in the face of our very human limitations, we entreat Jesus: “Give us more faith.” [Message. 17:5]  And what does Jesus say to our fervent request?  “You don’t need more faith.  There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith.  If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it.” [Message. 17:6]

Oh my!  Very clearly, what we have here is a lesson in what faith is and what it demands of us.  No wonder that in the face of what Jesus is saying that a majority of folks (including those of us who claim to be “Christians”) choose the option of walking away from this stern warning.  It’s just too hard.  I get this; but there are those of us for whom walking away is not an option.  So, if we dare to take what Jesus is saying seriously, where is our toehold?  How do we get into what he is saying?

I think the core of the problem of getting at what Jesus is saying about faith is that you and I tend to regard faith as if it were a commodity.  Faith is not a commodity.  It is an attitude.  More precisely, faith is a function of being in relationship.

At the heart of my own theology lies the understanding that life – at all its levels – is about relationship; and the health of any relationship is a function of how much trust surrounds that connection.  “Trust” is another word for “faith.”  “Commitment,” “being there,” “showing up” is what it takes outwardly to demonstrate this trust, this faith.  “Commitment” is also the reason “faith” is not a spectator sport but rather a “full-contact” experience.  Yet, rather than seeing faith and faith’s commitment as gigantic enterprises, Jesus actually suggests that exercising faith is a matter of taking a single, small step, a matter of using the faith that we have.  For in taking that small step, we put ourselves into a position to see things differently.

You see, there is a world of difference between a near miss and a head-on collision.  All it often takes to have a “near-miss” rather than a head-on collision is to take one step.  And everyone is capable of taking that step.

So it is that Jesus speaks about faith as taking a small step, which then leads to seeing things from a different angle, a different position, a different experience.  In this regard, faith affords us with a kind of window, through which something important can be seen.   And to Jesus’ point, the size of the window is irrelevant.[1]  Even faith as a peephole provides the opportunity to see things anew.

Perhaps the real issue at hand is to ask what we really want, when we ask for more faith.  Do we want certitude or the moral superiority of not being wrong?  Do we wish not to have to respond to the challenges of our lives, not to be haunted by doubt?  Certitude and being right do not require faith or even having to show up.  Remember: Doubt is not the opposite of faith; fear is.  The real faith question is how we deal with our fears.  So, how do we get this kind of fear-fighting faith?

I can name four ways faith emerges and can be developed in hopes that we, as individuals and as a community, may live more faithfully and more fruitfully.

The first way is prayer.  Prayer is the avenue by which we may get to know God and trust in the Lord’s desire for Communion with us.

Prayer involves our keeping in touch with God; and as such prayer at its most important level requires that we not only participate in a relationship with God but also work on our listening to God.

How is it with you, when someone claims friendship with you but hardly reaches out to you to keep in touch, except when that person needs something from you?  Does this approach describe our practice of prayer?

I was talking with a colleague this past week about a program she is developing.  It’s called “5-30.”  It’s a simple program that asks people to commit themselves to praying for five minutes a day for thirty days and then to share with the other participants what this is like for them.  What about it, St. Philip’s?  Want to know God more clearly and deeply; or are we content with a “911” experience of the holy?

Prayer as an artery of faith is quickly followed by a second issue: study and reflection.  We need to take advantage of the fact that we are not the first people to ask questions about the faith or even to struggle with faith.  As I said to you last week, if we knew one-tenth as much about our Christian story as we do about the Red Sox or Patriots, we’d be in a very different and more helpful place.  How can St. Philip’s be a more dynamic resource for our learning what it means to be God’s people and Christ’s Body?

A third way we develop this faith, this trust is through our associations, who we hang with.  This is to say that a faith community is a necessity, if we are to mature in our ability and willingness to trust God and the God-life.  We need the example and support of other faithful people to help us stay the course.  None of us are spiritual heroes.

I have said to you that we should never discount the power of our presence at worship, our presence in the community.  This is so because we never know who needs to see us on our knees, or singing hymns, or sharing the Peace.  We never know how our presence, our “showing up” can bolster and reinforce someone else whose faith is faltering.

I personally will always remember with humble gratitude a life-saving experience of community that I had.  I was in emotional and spiritual trouble, and in desperation I went to a mentoring parishioner in this dark time.  I knocked on her door; and when she opened it and greeted me, my face spoke volumes of anguish.  I told her that I was giving up – on my priesthood, on my marriage, that I had lost my faith.  Her instant and unpretentious response saved me.  Without missing a breath, she said: “That’s ok.  I have enough faith today.  You can have some of mine, until yours returns.”

Community is the public soil of faith.

The last suggestion I have for developing our faith in God and in his Christ is putting that faith to work.  There is an admittedly course-but-true expression that applies here: “Use it or lose it.”  Or another aphorism: “Practice makes perfect.”  In this sense, faith is similar to a muscle.  The most famous athlete has the same number of muscles as you and I do.  The difference between that athlete and us is development, usage, application.  How can we use our faith in order to strengthen our willingness to be even more faithful?  And, in turn, how does the utilization, the application, the sharing of our faith propel us to deeper prayer, more mature learning about what it means to be “Christ-like, and how to be more intentionally together in all this?

Perhaps on this day, when we are holding our fourth quarterly parish meeting after this worship, you know where I am going with all of this.  I hope so.  How can St. Philip’s be the place where our faith is taken seriously, developed and shared?  How can St. Philip’s be a place of prayer, a place of Christian formation and learning, a place of supportive and compassionate community, and a place that reaches out in confidence and joy to a town and a world that needs confidence, healing, and unshakable joy?

How can you and I, as St. Philip’s, do this?  As our patron saint, Philip is famous for saying: “Come and see.” [John 1:46]  Amen


[1] N. T. Wright. Luke for Everyone, page 204.

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