Increase our Faith! Sermon Trinity 16, 6 October 2019 by Rev'd Dana English
Lectionary Readings for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
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 wrongdoing 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 judgement comes forth perverted. I will stand at my watch-post, 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: 1-9
Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday. Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
II 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 Saviour 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.
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 ploughing 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!” ’
Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
There is so much bad news these days that I just can’t read any more about it, sometimes. I go for a walk; I read a book on an unrelated topic. Where are the leaders full of nobility and of vision? Where are the peacemakers who can actually effect peace? Where is there any sign that human beings are not messing everything up in our world to a degree that must grieve God’s very heart? The two Old Testament readings we are given for today are extraordinary and beautiful reassurances not to give up! Not to allow the terribly dispiriting news of our time to make us give in to despair.
Habakkuk has this to say: For there is still a vision for the appointed time. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.
And the Psalmist: Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
Words of beauty, words of truth. And words of hope!
I went to divinity school straight out of university partly because I had no idea what useful occupation I might possibly be aiming for. I had eliminated lots of ideas; still, no clear job category had emerged. But I did know that there was a lot more to learn about all kinds of things, and one of them was what kind of foundation did my faith have? I knew I had it, but what would I have to say about it if I had to stand up for it in the real world? So I made a mental commitment to a year of more study and chose four classes. I didn’t hang back! One of those four was called Seminar in the Theology of Karl Barth. I was Presbyterian then, and I knew that Karl Barth was the great name in the Reformed tradition. Barth became a great hero to me—-I should say here that Karl Barth is considered, not only by me, to be the greatest theologian of the twentieth century—he inspired and led the German churches in their resistance to Hitler, he shaped the work of most of the theologians around and after him—-Rudolph Bultmann, Hans Kung, Reinhold Niebuhr, many others—-he was also profoundly influential in the culture of the larger world. He was even featured on the cover of Time magazine in April of 1962. Those were the days….
It was Barth who uttered the famous statement in his advice to young theologians (but also to us, I think): take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible. He felt that newspapers were so important that, he said, I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church—in that order. It matters who our heroes are. Barth remains one of mine. Amid the bad news of our day, it is important that we not stop reading the newspapers, but that we also not lose hope. And so we must not stop reading the words of hope that our sacred scripture gives us.
But sometimes the words seem remote…..how can we make them live for us? It is a big question.
When I was a young girl growing up in rural East Texas my life was a nice life, a contented life, but to my mind, a little dull. I escaped from the unexciting features of my ordinary life by reading. Lots and lots of reading. Lots of novels—-Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, Thackeray—all the great classic English ones—-you see where I have ended up!—-and the Russians—Tolstoy, etc. And others. For me, they were all full of colour and action and romance and destiny. I also read the Bible, also full of color and action and romance and destiny. I knew those stories. Jesus was the natural hero. Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, Rahab, Esther, and many Marys—-they were the natural heroines. So I grew up knowing what those qualities were that were embodied in the heroes and heroines of the stories I read over and over. The qualities of love, commitment, courage, and sacrifice. The disciples collecting around Jesus in those early days had some of these qualities, but they themselves were not so outstanding. I felt that I, the reader, was kind of following along with them as they were educated by Jesus, as to what it would take to be a hero of the story—-the big story—the story the Bible was telling. So that when they said, Increase our faith! I understood. That they wanted to be greater than they were. More loving, more committed, more courageous, more capable of sacrifice. Like Jesus.
The disciples, as I picture them, were a ragged lot—-dusty, aching from unrelenting manual labour, perpetually lacking the ease of a good dinner—-I would say they were lacking in almost every material comfort. They had all left behind the occupation that had given them some stable kind of life. Because of the charisma of this Jesus, this figure who came out of nowhere, really, asking them to give up everything. They must have been, like us, looking for something that would give their lives purpose and meaning—-drama and excitement, also, perhaps. And amid the hardness and harshness of daily life—the average life expectancy was around 35 years—amid boredom and sadness and heat and cold Jesus walks over to them and summons them to a journey whose end was not clear at that time.
Are we not like them? Are we not like them—a bit ragged sometimes, earnest, looking for something that gives our lives purpose and meaning? Increase our faith! I find this exclamation infinitely touching—-it is three words, simple, unmistakeable. from the heart. If you are who you are, the disciples say to Jesus, and you can do anything, then do this for us, because we fall short: increase our faith! So that we can be more like you. What interested me, as a girl, and later on, also, as I grew up, were the responses that Jesus made to these rather never-getting-it-right disciples. Because a lot of the responses he made were not straightforward, and were sometimes not at all clear.
Take both of these sayings in Luke. They were not originally connected; it is Luke who has placed them together. Luke has put together what is called a “travel narrative,” from chapter 9: 51 to chapter 19: 27, that arranges material in the framework of Jesus’s final journey to Jerusalem. The theme is all about the fulfilment of Jesus’s destiny there. It is also all about discipleship—-what it means to take that journey with him. What comes before these two sayings is the story of the rich man and Lazarus; what follows is Jesus’s healing of ten lepers, only one of whom looks back to thank him. Share what you have with the poor; remember to be grateful: the meaning is clear.
But the second of our two sayings for today—-it is less clear. The first saying is straightforward: small as a mustard seed is, it will be able to bear great fruit. It is not how much, but how real faith is, that matters. But the second saying seems offensive and obscure. We are sensitive about this issue of slavery. Jesus’s conclusion seems strange to us: 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!” No praise here, no gratitude for a job well done. What does he mean? In the end, we cannot commend ourselves to God on the basis of sheer hard work. Or of being a very good person, in our own eyes. We may have fulfilled every task we could possibly think of, but even then, we have done only what we ought to have done! The destiny that awaits us is grace. Read, have faith, wait in confidence for God’s own gathering in; but in the end, our destiny is grace.
Increase our faith? How? Here are the beautiful words from our readings for today—-they answer: For there is still a vision for the appointed time 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.
Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.
God gave us a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
I know the one in whom I have put my trust.
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.
All is not right in the world, but there is no cause for despair. The words of our Faith are there, are here, to inspire us, to encourage us, to strengthen us. The words remain, for our reading, and re-reading, and pondering, and prayer, not to mention, discussing with one another….
As followers of the Christ who loved infinitely, surrounded by the Spirit, we have all that we need to be a present and powerful witness to Faith in this present age. May that same Spirit fill us with the gift of grace, that having done all that was asked, we may be found acceptable in your service, O Lord our God. Amen.
The Rev’d Dana English
St George’s Church Campden Hill and St John the Baptist Holland Road
October 6, 2019