Sunday, October 03, 2004

Proper 22 C

Habakkuk 1:1-13, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:3-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

We all know the story by now....the small group of companions traveling the road to the great city, their journey full of interruptions and side-trips, sometimes even full of danger. At every turn they complain about what they lack, what they are unable to accomplish or understand. The one who has brought them together is kind and wise and powerful, but never satisfactorily explains the significance of their journey or how they might make the way easier. Finally, certain that their lives cannot go on in the same way without serious intervention from the most powerful person they know, they cry out, "Increase our....our brains....our hearts....our courage...."

I don’t remember the first time I saw The Wizard of Oz. But I remember being afraid of the Wicked Witch, and I remember dressing up as Dorothy one Halloween night, and I remember learning how to play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on the piano and singing along for all I was worth....We watched it every year when it came on television, cheering when Toto escaped from Miss Gulch’s bicycle basket, peering from behind pillows when the Witch appeared and disappeared in clouds of red smoke, giggling when the Lion’s tail wouldn’t stay hidden under his castle guard disguise, crying with Dorothy when she said goodbye to her friends.

The movie has managed to stay magic for me all these years. Who hasn’t wished, with Dorothy, that all the gray dreariness of life would give way to something more colorful, more exciting, more....alive. Who hasn’t been convinced that just on the other side of somewhere that better world was waiting, and all we had to do was get away from here and get to there. Who hasn’t been certain, like the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, that if we only had a little more of something, our lives would be just right? If they only had the brains, the heart, the nerve....

At this point in Luke’s gospel, the disciples have been walking the road with Jesus for quite some time - we’ve been hearing about it since Pentecost. They’ve had all sorts of interruptions and side-trips - remember when Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to preach the kingdom of God? Remember when they stopped by Martha and Mary’s house? And they’ve come face to face with danger - at least, Jesus has, in the form of religious leaders who are increasingly uncomfortable with what he is teaching. Remember when he talked about the narrow door that yet would admit all sorts of riff-raff into the kingdom? The Pharisees hadn’t liked the sound of that. And throughout this section of the gospel, Luke drops all sorts of hints that Jesus knows exactly what dangers are waiting for him in the great city of Jerusalem.

Most recently, Jesus has been talking about discipleship, about what it means to follow him on this road. He’s talked about giving up all one’s possessions. He’s talked about placing God before family. He’s talked about persevering in the face of opposition and evil. In the verses just before today’s gospel begins, he’s talked about the need to forgive people without exception, without limit, without conditions.

It must have been this forgiveness bit that pushed the disciples over the edge. They had been struggling to understand the meaning of Jesus’ parables, to be compassionate toward those Torah called untouchable, to be loyal to Jesus despite the danger....they’d used up all the brains and heart and courage they had, and they cried out in desperation, Increase our faith!

Who among us hasn’t wished, with the disciples, that we had more faith? That, with more faith, we could transform gray dreariness into color; that then, we could make the world better; that then, surely, our lives would be fulfilled? If we only had the faith....If only....If....

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request hinges on the word "if." In the Greek language, conditional clauses beginning with "if" either show that a situation is contrary to fact (as in "if you were me, which clearly you are not") or they show that the situation is in accordance with fact. It is this second kind of conditional clause that Jesus uses. If you had faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, which is to say, you do have at least this much faith.... you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

I’m not sure if it’s what the disciples wanted to hear or not. Jesus wouldn’t increase their faith, but he didn’t judge them by how much faith they had. He affirmed their faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, and told them even that was enough to do impossible, absurd, unthinkable things, like planting mulberry trees at the bottom of the ocean. Faith the size of a grain of mustard seed - barely visible, barely there at all....

The thing is, I don’t think Jesus was measuring their faith at all, not as they were, not as we are inclined to do, as though an extra pound or two of faith would make them or us more competent as disciples, would make it easier to understand, to love, to be brave. Faith isn’t measured by more or less - faith is either there or it is not.

Robert Farrar Capon writes, "It is not as if we have a faith meter in our chests, that our progress toward salvation consists in cranking it up over a lifetime from cold to lukewarm to toasty to red hot....If we have anything in our chests, it is....a simple switch: on, for yes to Jesus....and off, for no. The head of steam we work up in throwing the switch, either way, has nothing to do with the case."

Jesus tests our faith right away in yet another difficult-to-understand parable, which many have called the parable of the "unworthy" slave. But this week a friend whose brains and heart and courage I admire suggested a better title might be the parable of the "faithful" slave. This slave works hard all day in the fields, and then returns home not to eat a well-deserved dinner but to cook and serve dinner for the slave owner. There is no thanks, no reward. The slave was only doing faithfully what slaves were supposed to do - it’s not as though he went above and beyond the call of duty.

It is an imperfect parable for us today, because we regard slavery in such a different light than those in Jesus’ time. But it can still teach us, perhaps all the more powerfully, because the only parallel that might even begin to make sense to us is that of a disciple. Christian discipleship is hard work, so hard that even those who walked with Jesus in the flesh believed they were inadequate for the task. Christian discipleship is a Christian’s duty - it is not something above and beyond what we are called to do. Increase our faith!

If we have said yes to Jesus - even a mustard-seed-sized yes - then we have the faith we need. Faith, the willingness to imagine God at work in us and through us, doing impossible things. If we can imagine a mulberry tree being uprooted and planted in the sea, if we can imagine bread and wine filling us with God, if we can imagine an empty tomb, can’t we also imagine an end to hunger, poverty, war, genocide, discrimination, hatred, fear? Are these things really so impossible?

Christian discipleship is hard work, it is long work, and it is work that is not rewarded, not in the way we are accustomed to being paid for our efforts. It does not earn us God’s favor - we already have that. Christian discipleship is, in fact, our response to the faith that is already given to us by God. Christian discipleship is our living of that faith, our imagining that God can and does work through us, growing our mustard seed efforts to impossible heights. Faith is not measured by more or less - it is measured by the effort, by the life we put into it.

The slave is faithful to his life calling, and although it is an imperfect image for us, we might redeem it by considering that we, too, should be faithful in our work, the work we were called to in our baptism, proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace.

After they have finished all the tasks set before them - traveling to the great Emerald City, defeating the Wicked Witch of the West, and bringing the witch’s broomstick to the Wizard’s chambers - after they have done all the work they were given to do, Dorothy and her companions were angry and hurt to discover that they would not be rewarded for their efforts. The things they so desperately longed for in their lives would not be given to them.

The Wizard did not increase their brains, their hearts, their courage - instead, he shows them that all they had accomplished together was made possible by the ways in which they had already acted wisely, compassionately, and courageously. They didn’t need more - they needed to learn to see what they already had, and to see that it was more than enough.

I think, perhaps, L. Frank Baum might have liked our baptismal liturgy if he had seen it, for the prayer said over us after the mustard seeds of our faith have had their first good soaking reads: "Give them an inquiring and a discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you...."

Increase our faith! No, Jesus tells us. Release your faith. Let it live, let me work in you and through you and together we will do impossible things. Amen.

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