Acts of Faith

Sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2016 || Proper 22C || Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14

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.

Read literally, this passage could have saved the church several thousand dollars this summer. It’s true! After all, we had to have several trees removed from our property, and getting that done safely and expertly was expensive. But Jesus seems to say that a faithful person could just tell a tree to be uprooted and hurled into the Mystic River. I must confess to the members of the vestry and finance committee in attendance that I didn’t try this tactic before we engaged the tree-removal service. I apologize.

Then again, I would not have been my own first choice within this parish as the person of faith to go talking the trees out of the ground. I don’t have nearly as much faith as some sitting in this room.

And right there, with that thought, I fall into the same trap that catches the apostles at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. I fall into the trap of thinking faith has something to do with quantity. “Increase our faith,” they say. “Increase our faith.” Give us more. We don’t have enough yet. Continue reading “Acts of Faith”

The Gospel’s Only Thanks-Giver (Besides Jesus)

(Sermon for Sunday, October 13, 2013 || Proper 23C || Luke 17:11-19)

Sometimes when I sit down to study a passage of the Gospel such as today’s, I wonder what Luke chose not to include in his text. After all, we don’t have a minute-by-minute account of Jesus’ life. The Gospel writers weren’t following behind Jesus taking dictation. Decades after the events of the Gospel, they collected material – certainly more than they ended up using – and put together their accounts. In those accounts, the writers bounce around, crafting their narratives with stories and themes and progressions that make the most sense to their various audiences. Asking “What did Luke leave out” prompts another set of questions: “Why did Luke put this in? What about this specific story makes it special enough to include in something as important as the greatest story ever told?

CodexAureusThese questions surfaced for me this week when I read today’s Gospel lesson. At face value, this story is quite simple. Ten diseased outcasts petition Jesus for mercy, he heals them, and one returns to say, “Thank you.” Seems like a pretty ordinary healing story, doesn’t it? Boilerplate, even. (Well, as ordinary as a miracle can get.) So why would Luke choose to include another healing story? He healed someone with a skin disease way back in Chapter Five, not to mention plenty of people with plenty of other maladies in between.

So what makes this story special? In such a short piece of writing as the Gospel, why this narrative? Turns out there is something extra special in this story, but it’s hidden. There’s one element in the story – the last element I mentioned earlier, the “Thank you” from the Samaritan – that pushes today’s lesson into the extraordinary. I did a quick survey of the rest of the Gospel – all four accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) – and this Samaritan is the only person Jesus heals who then says “Thank you” to him. This hidden thanksgiving makes this story special. We remember this Samaritan ex-leper because he said “thank you” to Jesus.

Giving thanks is fundamental to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Each week, when we gather to worship God, we engage in the special event known as the Holy Eucharist. This strange word comprehends both our hearing of God’s Word of Holy Scripture and our sharing God’s meal of Holy Communion. Do you know what this strange word – Eucharist – means in its original language of Greek? It means “thanksgiving.”

So each and every Sunday we gather here to give thanks to God for all the blessings God has given us. We do this not to relegate the act of thanksgiving to an hour on Sunday morning, but so that we begin each week with the right frame of mind and heart: a mind aware of blessing and a heart inclined toward gratitude. Giving thanks here on Sunday morning propels us along a trajectory in which we continue thanking God over the course of the week.

With that being said, why engage in the act of thanksgiving in the first place? Right off the bat, giving thanks makes us more generous people. Generosity blossoms in an environment where fear of scarcity holds no sway. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are looking out over a sea of hungry faces. There’s more than five thousand of them, and they haven’t eaten all day. Jesus and his friends have nothing more than one family’s lunch – five loaves of bread and two fish – but he tells them to feed the crowd anyway. Their supplies are laughably meager, and yet Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks to God for it. And somehow all the people in the crowd eat their fill. In the act of giving thanks, Jesus dismisses the fear of scarcity. When we give thanks to God – in times of scarcity and in times of abundance – we move away from fear and toward generosity. The more generous we are, the more apt we are to rely on God’s grace, which continues moving us away from fear. With this movement, a virtuous cycle develops, and the act of giving thanks starts making generosity a defining characteristic of our identities.

And yet giving thanks does so much more. God is always present in our lives, but we are not always present to God. Giving thanks offers us an opportunity to participate and deepen our relationships with God. When we are simply glad, our gladness has no target. We say we are glad about something, but not that we are glad to something. Not so with gratitude. When we are grateful, we can say we are grateful about something and grateful to someone. The Samaritan man in today’s Gospel lesson returns to Jesus to express his gratitude, to give thanks. The other nine are presumably glad they were healed, but they do not show their gratitude. By returning to Jesus, the Samaritan signals his desire to remain in relationship with Jesus, who blesses him again saying, “Your faith has made you well.” When we give thanks to God, we show our gratitude to our creator, who in turn blesses us with deeper relationship.

And yet giving thanks does even more. When Jesus sat at table with his friends on the night before died, he took bread, and gave thanks to God for them and for the time they were sharing together. He implored them not to forget him, and he gave them his presence in the bread, which he called his body. Then he shared the bread with them, and ever since his followers have been doing the same. Thus the act of giving thanks – especially in the meal we will share together in a few minutes – gets us outside ourselves and wards off the illusion of self-sufficiency. We give thanks together. We share Christ’s presence as a community. Giving thanks, then, makes the community stronger.

Because Jesus calls us to give thanks as a community, we can find one more reason (among the thousands we don’t have time to discuss) to engage in thanksgiving. Giving thanks propels us to use our gifts. The best way to give thanks to God for a gift God has given is to use it for God’s greater glory. I can thank God for my singing voice by saying, “Thank you God for the gift of music.” Or I can sing. When we serve one another and the world by using our gifts, then we have truly thanked God for them.

Giving thanks is fundamental to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. We remember the Samaritan man today precisely because he did what no one else in the entire Gospel does. He returns to thank the one who healed him. I wonder what you are thankful for today? I wonder when was the last time you felt generous or when you felt your relationship with God deepen or when you shared in a community or when you used a gift? I invite you this week to reflect on how natural it is for you to give thanks to God throughout your day. If you find it uncommon, pray for more awareness and generosity. If you find it common, give more thanks for that joyful conclusion. No matter what, know that whenever you find yourself in a position to give thanks to God, God is giving thanks for you.

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.