Vision and Action

Sermon Notes for Sunday October 3, 2010 || Proper 22, Year C, RCL || Luke 17:5-10

(This Sunday was our first family service, at which I preached a sermon without notes. I gleaned the sermon out of the following brainstorm, which also made for the basis of the sermon for the early service.)

I’m really glad I got to preach this Sunday because the prospect of preaching makes me sit down and think long and hard about the words I am going to say, about the words I believe God is calling me to say. This week I sat down with our Gospel passage from Luke and thought long and hard about faith. And very quickly, I realized that – even with all my schooling and sermons and work in the church – I hadn’t really thought all that much about faith. I knew I had faith. I knew that my doubts didn’t cancel out my faith. I knew that God’s faith in me gave me the ability to have faith in God. But when I dug a little bit deeper, I found myself at a loss for words about how faith works in my life.

My confusion mirrored that of the disciples in this morning’s Gospel. Right before the passage we read today, Jesus tells them that if someone wrongs them seven times in the same day, they should forgive all seven times. The disciples don’t think they have enough faith to do something like that, so they say: “Increase our faith!” Jesus’ responds that a tiny amount of faith is enough to do amazing things. I must confess that the words about the mustard seed and mulberry tree have always seemed rather quaint and comforting, but with no real applicable meaning – like words your great aunt cross-stitches into pillows. But this week, the statement vexed me.

Jesus seems to be saying that an increase in the quantity of faith is not necessary – you can’t get much smaller than a mustard seed, after all. By using such an exaggeratedly small thing, Jesus says that measuring the amount of faith is unimportant. Indeed, thinking of faith as a unit of measure makes no sense. I wouldn’t say, “Last year I had 25 faith, but this year I have 27.” Faith isn’t a statistic.

So when the disciples ask for an increase in faith, I think that Jesus makes the hyperbolic statement about the mustard seed in order to make the disciples see that it’s not an increase in the quantity of faith that matters, but an increase in what faith does. When my thinking brought me away from the static notion of quantity of faith, I realized that I needed to bring my focus back to two simple concepts having to do with faith. First, faith in God sharpens our vision. Second, faith in God motivates our action.

I’ve had blurry vision since middle school. My parents brought me to the optometrist, who noticed my nearsightedness right away. He prescribed glasses, which I hated wearing, as any eighth grader would. Indeed, my desire to keep people from knowing I needed glasses was so great that I skipped trying out for the high school baseball team. I couldn’t see fly balls without my glasses, but I was unwilling to put them on.

You’ve probably noticed that at some point during the fourteen years since my original diagnosis of myopia, I’ve gotten comfortable wearing glasses. And now I finally have a pair that, thanks to Doctor Who, I know are pretty fashionable. But there is another sort of lenses that I fail to put on just as often as I did with my glasses in middle school. These are the lenses of faith. My glasses sharpen my vision of objects in the world around me. The lenses of faith sharpen our vision of the God who is present in and around all things.

Indeed, my glasses don’t give me the ability to see; rather, they give me the ability to see well. When we put on the lenses of faith, we see the world with clearer eyes. Our sharp vision allows us to see God’s directing movement between us and those people, places, and things with which we interact. We stand forever in God’s presence and God moves with us down the paths of our lives. Faith sharpens our vision to catch glimpses of this movement.

Here’s an example. I was standing in Boston’s North Station not too long ago during morning rush hour. I was trying to figure out from which track my train would depart. As I stood there looking up at the departures board, several trains unloaded their passengers at once. I watched as hundreds of people queued up on the platforms and, as one, began trudging toward the glass doors of the station. As they reached the doors, I was spellbound. The intricate, random choreography of the morning commuters was beautiful. They crisscrossed and hurried and meandered and loped along. And not one person ran into another. They passed me as I stood still, and I felt like I was watching a slow motion scene from a film. Each of these people was connected to me and to one another. I could all but see the wispy threads of a tapestry linking us. Faith sharpens our vision. That morning at North Station, the lenses of faith helped me see clearly the reality that God connects each of us to one another.

But sharp vision isn’t quite enough. When we see the world through the eyes of faith, we become aware of how we can participate in God’s work in the world. When I saw clearly my connection to all the people at North Station, I remembered once again that I am called to serve God in all people. Thus, the first thing that faith does – sharpen our vision – leads directly into the second thing that faith does. Faith in God motivates our action.

In many of the stories about Jesus healing various people, Jesus speaks of their faith making them well. Now if we subscribe to the “quantity” notion of faith, we might be tempted to think that Jesus healed these folks because they reached a certain statistical threshold on the faith scale, which qualified them for healing. But the mustard seed reminds us that the quantity of faith is less important than the action of faith. The healing stories, therefore, are really about people whose faith motivated them to the action of seeking out Jesus in the first place. The Gospel writers recorded those healings because of the sometimes heroic, sometimes simple action of faith.

Again, when Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he is not speaking about quantity. We do not have a collection of faith in the same way that we have collections of baseball cards or teapots or old comic books. Faith is not something we can store up in a safe deposit box. Rather, we have faith the same way we have energy. Energy propels us to run and work and play; faith propels us to love and serve and forgive. Indeed, faith is the energy that motivates us to participate in God’s work in the world.

And like energy, faith unused can begin to fade away. Like Langston Hughes’s “Dream Deferred,” unused faith can “dry up like a raisin in the sun.” This is why we come to worship. This is why we meet one another at the table for the nourishing food of Christ’s Body and Blood. This is why we do spiritual practices that keep us in contact with God and with other faithful people. God gave us faith to motivate us to love and serve God. As exercise is to energy, our participation in God’s work is to faith. And the more we allow our faith to motivate our action, the more resilient is our faith when we are confronted with difficult and demanding situations.

Faith in God sharpens our vision. Viewing the world through the lenses of faith shows a deeper layer of reality, the eternal reality of God’s presence. Then faith in God motivates us to act, to live lives full of God’s love and grace, to bring God’s gifts to other people and call God’s gifts forth from those people. Faith in God motivates us to participate in God’s healing and reconciling work in the world. Faith is not a static thing. Faith is not a statistic. Faith is the great gift from God that shows God’s faith in us. Faith is the catalyst that kindles all of our other God-given gifts to shine. Thanks be to God for faith.

One thought on “Vision and Action

  1. A fine sermon indeed (or at least, fine notes and brainstorm!).

    A question though, with perhaps a barb–but keep listening…

    What is a “family service”? Who is included and who is excluded by that label? Does “family service” mean “children are welcome” or “families are welcome”, and what does it say to people who do not have family in church with them? Why is “family” a euphemism for “children”? What ages are implied here? How does it relate to the New Testament’s great ambivalence about families? What about those for whom the church is a respite away from toxic families?

    Are we allowed to preach and teach hard stuff at family services? (Is it permitted to mention that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, or that the world includes rapists and murderers? Is it permitted to say at a family service that families can be dangerous things? Can we say that children are sometimes called upon to disobey their parents?)

    What is a non-“family service”? Is it a service at which children are not welcome?

    What would the reaction be if we tried this with other social divisions? Can we stomach the thought of a “poor people’s service” or a “wealthy people’s service” being advertised? Should we have a “women’s service” and a “men’s service”, with different styles of music and ceremonial?

    What about social groups for which the word “family” has become a symbol of exclusion and hatred? (James Dobson and all that.) When we say “this is for families”, is it understood that this is only some families, or is it really all the diverse shapes of American households? And if the latter, is there advertising to make this clear? (If someone thinks that “family” in a church context means “heterosexual couple with small children” and a strong undercurrent of “and gay couples aren’t really families, but actually family-destroying things”, how does the advertising make clear that all families are included? Or are they?)

    And this isn’t just idle…it’s a live issue, or rather, an issue of life or death. It might seem like a quibble, but it is out of this that people actually die, something I am extremely acutely aware of this month, what with homophobia chewing up more young lives and all, and Rowan explaining that gay people are “wounding” the church.

    The disciples said “increase our faith”, because they wanted to beg off. They wanted a convenient excuse. “We can’t do this or that because we don’t have enough faith; increase our faith.” Jesus says that the tiniest bit is enough, that they already have all they need. What they lack is not faith, but will.

    We have plenty of faith that God welcomes all. Do we have the will to make that a reality in our lives by taking concrete steps?

    A non-question: The last thing America needs is more ways in which heterosexuals with children can feel affirmed. How about reaching out to the excluded?

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