Sunday, October 06, 2013

“Give Us More Faith”

Sermon on Proper 22, Year C, given October 6 2013 by Ken Lyon at Grace Episcopal Church, Cincinnati OH.

Collect of the Day

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Hebrew Scripture: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous--therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

Psalm 37:1-10 Page 633, BCP

Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; *do not be jealous of those who do wrong.
For they shall soon wither like the grass, *and like the green grass fade away.
Put your trust in the LORD and do good; *dwell in the land and feed on its riches.
Take delight in the LORD, *and he shall give you your heart's desire.
Commit your way to the LORD and put your trust in him, *and he will bring it to pass.
He will make your righteousness as clear as the light *and your just dealing as the noonday.
Be still before the LORD *and wait patiently for him.
Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *the one who succeeds in evil schemes.
Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; *do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
For evildoers shall be cut off, *but those who wait upon the LORD shall possess the land.

The Epistle: 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, my beloved child:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I am grateful to God--whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did--when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

The Gospel: Luke 17:5-10

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.

"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

The Sermon

We humans are never satisfied! Whatever the situation is, it’s not what it should be, and we want it fixed, and we want it fixed now!

To paraphrase the prophet Habakkuk in today’s Old Testament lesson.

O Lord, how long must I cry for help. Why aren’t you listening? Violence threatens, and you will not save. Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. The law is flouted; justice never prevails. The wicked gang up on the righteous, and the truth gets twisted.

Habakkuk shouts to God: "What are you going to do about this!" And he stations himself in a watch tower, saying “I’m waiting for your answer, God.”

Who can’t identify with Habakkuk?

Just this week, there are plenty of things to feel that way about.

  • The civil war in Syria, or the mall massacre in Nairobi, African migrants drowning off Italy,
  • Closer to home, it’s said that the economy is recovering from the Great Recession, but that’s not the case for most Americans. The rich are richer, but the poor and middle class are still worse off than they have been for many years. But never fear, our elected representatives in Washington are going to make it right. Right! . No matter where you stand, I think you’ll agree that what they’re doing just doesn’t cut it.
  • In our personal lives, we may also be experiencing situations that demand explanations from God. I have had times in my life when I’ve cried out, “My life is a sandwich I didn’t order!: or “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!”
  • Perhaps even in our life here at Grace Church, we worry that, for all our great values and all our dreams and for all our best efforts, we always seem to be between a rock and a hard place, resource-wise. The opportunities and problems are large, and we feel so small.

And so, like Habakkuk, we have cause to cry for help to God, and to castigate him for his inaction. "Things aren’t the way they are supposed to be! Come down here and fix this!"

And like Habukkuk, we wait for an answer. And the answer he gets is the answer we get. And it isn’t very satisfying: The answer? "Wait! We’re in the middle of things. In the end, it’ll be right. In the meantime, “the righteous shall live by faith."" In more modern parlance: keep the faith!

O o o

We humans always seem to want more. More money, more friends, more success, more peace, more strength, more love. As much as we might have, we feel that something is lacking. And, in today’s Gospel lesson, its faith.

The apostles demand of Jesus: Increase our faith!

And Jesus gives two answers, neither of which is very satisfying, but which do contain important truths, if we can get over being insulted by them.

The first answer: If your faith was as big as a mustard seed, you could throw this tree into the ocean!

What’s Jesus saying here? Let’s recognize that Jesus often exaggerates for effect, and that many times, he’s actually telling a little joke to make a point. So what’s the point? Obviously, we can’t pull up trees by the roots and throw them into the ocean. I know I’m hard pressed to pull up some of those little trees that keep coming up in our garden. So is Jesus belittling our tiny faith? I don’t think so. What if he’s saying instead, “C’mon folks, I know you have faith, otherwise you wouldn’t even be here asking. And the faith you have is enough. You’re not expected to uproot trees, or other superhuman acts. The faith you have is already sufficient to what you’re being called on to do." And I hear him saying as well, "Don’t use the excuse that you don’t have enough faith to keep you from doing what you already know you need to be doing."

And then there’s that other story about slaves and masters—terminology that is rather loaded and inappropriate today. Let me paraphrase in more modern terms:

Who among you would say to your assistant who has spent the morning sorting through your mail, typing up letters and handling phone calls, “We’re having a board of directors meeting, c’mon in here and join us at the table.” Wouldn’t you say instead, "How about getting us some lunch and setting it up for us. You can have your lunch later." Do you thank him or her for doing the expected? So you, also, when you have done all that was expected of you, say, “We’re employees after all, and we’ve simply done our job.”

Put that way, at least I can find myself in the story. But what does that have to do with the original question: Give us more faith?

If we’re wanting more faith so we can have the power to make things come out they way we want them to, then what we really asking for is to have a place at God’s table: to be equal with God. And that’s not gonna happen. God’s god; and we’re not. God’s in charge, and we’re not. We’re about as able to comprehend God’s thoughts about his world as we here today can comprehend a P&G CEO’s thoughts about his company.

I think the point of both of these responses to the request for more faith is the same: The faith we have is enough for us to do what’s expected of us—to live the faithful life.

"But what about my doubts?" you say.

Well what about your doubts?

Do you doubt God’s existence? You’re not alone. Many great people of faith have wondered. But consider the alternative: a world without God: a world with no purpose and no values, other than whatever people make up at the moment. You can choose to live in a world created by a loving God in which what people do is of eternal consequence. Or not, which is, as I believe some existentialists have described it, like living in hell.

Do you have doubts about your place in God’s creation? Do you wonder what you’re here for? I know I’ve had many moments when I wondered how I fit in. There are things I can’t do that other people seem to find easy. There are natural athletes; I’m not one of them. There are people who can make plans and stick to them—I’m not one of them. Not being a football hero is a problem perhaps only on the high school dating scene, but being disorganized and a procrastinator causes major problems and stress if you happen to come down in large, well-organized corporation. Perhaps you have your own list of things that, if you were only made differently, everything would be so much better. Maybe you’ve even spent time trying to make yourself do things that are—for you—unnatural acts. And have had about as much luck as cramming a square peg in a round hole.

But what if we trusted—had faith—that however we’re made is exactly how God intended for us to be made? What if we trusted that who we are, with our unique God-given gifts, and with the amount of faith we already have, was exactly what was needed in God’s world?

I’ve often heard is said that in order to succeed, you have to have faith in yourself. There’s truth in that, of course, but I think it’s better to have faith that God made us who and how we are for a purpose. If we have faith only in ourselves, we’re left to find our own direction and can end up living a life that’s not connected to anyone or anything larger than ourselves. If we keep God’s perspective always in mind, we’re more likely life a life that makes sense in the larger world—God’s world.

And how about faith in the institutional church? Being involved in the church can be pretty intense. I’ve heard it said that there’s nothing like church work to make you lose your religion—in fact, I’ve said it myself. But the overwhelming fact is that the church is the only game in town. And of course it can be intense: it’s dealing with things of real importance. It’s the only organization that even tries to make the whole world a better place; the only organization committed to exploring basic life and death questions, the only place designed to put you in touch with the meaning of your life, that can help grow your faith in a loving, caring God.

Sometimes we think of faith as a thing that we can possess, but it’s not like that. It’s more related to a way of living our lives. Faithful living begets faith and faith begets faithful living. It’s sort of a chicken and egg thing—you really can’t say which comes first.

Now I realize that that’s rather cryptic, so let me illustrate by telling about my own experience of understanding what faith is.

Somehow, as I grew up, I came to believe that “being saved” was the norm for the Christian experience. People would be living in sin and unbelief and then, through some life-changing event, they’d suddenly see the light, and become true believers in God and Jesus. I grew up hearing about the apostle Paul’s Road to Damascus experience, where he was knocked off his horse and blinded, heard Jesus speaking to him, and was suddenly changed from a persecutor of Christians to being Christianity’s most successful spokesman. I’d read about revival meetings where the preacher preached fire and brimstone, creating such a fear of burning in hell that people would confess their sins and throw themselves on the mercy of God and would promise to change their lives. Read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” for a taste, if you’re not familiar with this genre.

I have to admit that “being saved wasn’t really part of the lives of the people around me while I was growing up, but somehow, it became important to me to hope that someday, I, too, might be “saved”--have that life-changing moment when all my doubts would be erased and all would become clear. In retrospect, I, like the apostles in today’s Gospel, couldn’t get mind around the idea that the faith I already had was sufficient. That God didn’t require any more of me to be loved and accepted by him.

It wasn’t until I came to this church that I heard about another way to think about faith. Talking with then-rector Ray Betts, I expressed my concern that I had not had that life-changing moment when I became a believer. Ray said gently, “Some of us believe that there is another way—we call it the sacramental life.” I came to understand that he meant that it’s through the regular practice of the faithful life that we grow in our faith. In my vocabulary of that time, I said, “Oh, we get saved a little at a time!” Ray was kind enough to let it go at that.

The truth is that faith isn’t an on-off thing. We can grow in our faith. Our faith can grow in us. As we are all created differently, there is no one-size-fits-all way this happens.

For many, including myself, our faith is supported through regular participation in the liturgies the church has developed to build our faith. The words and actions we participate in every Sunday remind us of who we are and what we’re about, even though there may be things that are we can’t get our minds around. There are still parts of the Nicene Creed that don’t make sense for me, but I continue to say them. I have faith that someday I may get a flash of insight brings new understanding. I have that faith, because it’s happened before. Words I’ve heard or sung many times before have suddenly struck me in new and amazing ways.

Small groups are a place where hearing others’ faith stories can be faith building. For me, Education for Ministry, both as a student and as a mentor, strengthened my faith. Most recently, leading the 9am Bible Study has been faith-building. But through it all, I think the most faith-building thing of all has been finding ways to use the particular gifts God has given me to work in support of Grace Church. There’s a place for me here, and our values express the hope that all sorts and conditions of people may also find a place for themselves here.

Oh, and before I forget it, contributing money is faith-building. I don’t say this just because my wife is chairing the Annual Giving Campaign. Jesus recognized a truth about human nature when he said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” There’s nothing that draws our interest and dedication to an organization like having our money in it.

Yes, as we go about living our daily lives faithfully, at home, at work, at church, our faith builds. There’s something about living faithfully—living as though one had faith—that brings more faith.

But what if we feel like we’re about to lose the faith we have? What if we’re tempted to simply give up trying to live faithfully? Stay home Sundays and play golf or read the New York Times Sunday edition, or simply sleep in?

Based on everything I’ve said, here's my advice: when you feel like you’re about to lose it—your faith—do something faithful: participate in Sunday worship, or help with the Community Dinner or help host Interfaith Hospitality Network or supervise the parolees, or join a small group, like the prayer shawl knitting group, bible study, prayer & mediation, or try out the Wednesday night healing service, or talk to a faithful friend.


In those moments when you feel like your faith is holding on by a thread, read some psalms. They were written by people experiencing all kinds of faith-related situations, for others having similar experiences. Some of the lines in today’s psalm are especially pertinent for us today:

Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; *do not be jealous of those who do wrong.
Put your trust in the LORD and do good; *dwell in the land and feed on its riches.
Take delight in the LORD, *and he shall give you your heart's desire.
Commit your way to the LORD and put your trust in him, *and he will bring it to pass.
Be still before the LORD *and wait patiently for him.
Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *the one who succeeds in evil schemes.
Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; *do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.

All of this is to say that faith is not an accomplishment, it’s a journey—and it’s a journey we can take together. I am amazed at how well the prayer that our Friday morning Prayer & Meditation group created recently expresses this:

O God, who is the creator of all that was, that is and that will be--who dwells within us. We're all in different places on our spiritual journey. We give thanks that Grace's doors of hospitality remain open so that we may learn and grow together as a group. We pray through the Holy Spirit within us..

I’ll close by reminding us of that short lesson from Habakkuk. When you’re angry with the state of your world, resist the urge to go up in your tower and wait for God to come and fix things, or to explain himself to you. God will fix things in his own good time and in his own—probably unexpected—ways. In the meantime, live by faith. Live faithfully. Keep the faith.

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