Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10
Before I launch into a look at this morning’s gospel, a few words are in order about Psalm 137. Needless to say, the last verse is a little shocking—a bit more graphic than we would prefer on a Sunday morning! This psalm is a lament over the Babylonian Exile. In 587 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and carried the smartest and strongest of the Judeans into captivity. This song of remembrance recalls the pain of that exile, where those captive could no longer sing their songs, and were filled with fury toward their captors.
One commentator has said that memory is the theological theme of this text—memory that creates three different responses. Verses 1-4 recount the anguish of living in captivity upon an alien soil. Verses 5-6 refer to the responsibility that those captive have to keep alive the memory of better times and better places. And verses 7-9 show the anger—some might say rage—of the oppressed.
In this last section, the psalmist exhorts God to remember the actions of the Babylonians and the Edomites in this oppression, and pleads that they might also be made to suffer. It concludes with that disturbing fantasy of violence toward the children of Babylon. One scholar comments that, “the psalmist honestly announces how violence enacted upon his community incites a violent impulse in him,” and notes that this is not an uncommon reaction among the oppressed.[i]
This same commentary goes on to say that, “the danger of fantasies of revenge is that they can so quickly become obsessions that drive persons to the very violence they hate.” I can certainly understand how violence perpetrated against one’s people can incite fantasies of revenge, and can sometimes boil over into violent acts. But of course, such violence only makes things worse. As Christians, we are called to help each other to express and process the wrongs perpetrated against us, and to respond to our brothers and sisters who are hurt and angry with a healing response.
So this psalm reminds us not only of the natural human impulses of rage, but also of our responsibility to help others deal honestly and productively with the strong emotions that come from being a victim of violence.
And speaking of emotions, they certainly have been running high in our country this week. To put it simply, everyone seems to be outraged. The events of the last few weeks challenge all of our preconceived notions of the way government should work. When it comes to politicians these days, it’s hard to know who to believe, or what to believe in. And perhaps many of us find ourselves more frustrated with government, and politicians, than ever before, unable to see any light at the end of this seemingly endless tiff that now characterizes Washington, D.C.; many of us are ready to throw up our hands and walk away.
In some ways, this is similar to the place that the disciples find themselves in today’s gospel reading from Luke. In the verses before the ones we heard this morning, Jesus has challenged the disciples to never give up on those who ask forgiveness for their wrongdoings. Chapter 17, verse 4 reads, “if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
The disciples respond to this admonition with the plea that begins today’s gospel lesson: “Lord, increase our faith!”
It seems that they don’t believe they have enough patience or fortitude to be as forgiving as Jesus commands them to be. Or perhaps, like some of us, they have become jaded about the people whom they are asked to forgive.
And Jesus responds with a characteristically rhetorical flourish: “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.”
I have always read this passage as a slam against the disciples. I imagined that Jesus was telling them that their faith was so small as to be microscopic. But in study this week, I came to consider that Jesus may in fact be telling the disciples (and, by extension, us) that they—that we— are, in fact, underestimating ourselves.
I find it easy to identify with the disciples in their frustration. Often I feel overwhelmed by the demands of being a good Christian.
There is so much need in the world, and so many people ready to take advantage of me, that much of the time I feel like I am not really up to the task. And sometimes I become so enraged by the actions of others that I don’t want to be sympathetic; I just want to strike out in rage. Like the disciples, my prayer is often one that asks Jesus to make me better equipped, or to increase my desire to do the right thing. And all of that seems wrapped up in faith.
Now, before we get into all of that, there’s another troubling bit glaring at us in the scripture this morning—another story as perplexing as that presented in the psalms. After Jesus introduces this idea of faith—and that only a little faith is enough—he adds a troubling parable about a master and a slave. Again, we have to remember that Jesus was speaking in a different time, with a different set of norms. The word slave alone conjures all kinds of concepts in feelings for us. But at that time and in that economy, some people worked as servants for a specific period before being freed (similar to a Western concept of indentured servitude). Jesus is referring to a relationship more like our ideas of an employer and an employee, a relationship of mutual accountability and expectation.
I think Jesus adds this parable to suggest that how much faith we have is not really the issue; rather we should understand our relationship to God and to God’s creation and play our role—we should stay in our lane! “To question whether one has enough faith is to miss the mark. The issue at stake is how we live together.”[ii]
But still, I have been pondering faith this week. What does Jesus expect of the disciples—and us? To define faith, I turned to Marcus Borg, the New Testament scholar and theologian. In his book, The Heart of Christianity, he writes extensively about what faith is—and what it isn’t. He says, “the most common understanding of the word ‘faith’ in modern Western Christianity [is] that faith means holding a certain set of ‘beliefs,’ ‘believing’ a set of statements to be true, whether cast as biblical teachings or doctrines or dogma.”[iii] But he goes on to explain that this meaning of faith is only a few hundred years old—prior to the modern period, most Christians understood faith to be a matter of the heart, and not the head. Borg suggests that these heart meanings are closer to the intent of Biblical usage of the word faith.
He then explains that through the history of Christianity there have been four primary meanings of faith. Beyond the concept of faith as belief—giving mental assent to ideas (which is a head thing)—there are three “heart-related” ideas: faith as trust in God, faith as fidelity to God, and faith as a way of seeing and understanding the world. Finally, he asserts that the gospel meaning of belief is centered on love—that “believe” and “belove” are close in meaning. And that the central meaning of faith is found in loving God and loving what God loves—humanity and the creation.
I have to tell you, that works for me. I tested the idea by thinking about the most faithful person I ever knew: My grandmother. You’ve heard me talk about Marguerite Smith before. She grew up in central Texas in a farming family, and she and my grandfather worked as tenant farmers until the onset of World War II, when they went to work in factories. Throughout their lives they went to church; and they lived faithful lives. As I reflect on the shape of those lives, I realize it was all about loving God, and loving God’s creation. They loved their family and neighbors, and they cherished the good earth, growing gardens, raising livestock, and relishing the rugged beauty of their homeland.
My grandmother was a lover of everyone she knew. She had no harsh words about anyone; she was always giving away to others whatever she could; in short, she showed her love in every way she knew how. I don’t remember ever having a theological conversation with her: We didn’t talk about the nature of God, or what parts of the Bible she believed. She simply lived a life of faith, and was an example to all of us. She was always a giant of the faith to me, but I guess like any of us she came into it. I imagine that, through a lifetime of prayer, and worship, and loving, her faith grew.
That’s another important piece of the faith puzzle: We are called to grow into it. Commentator David Lose says, “Faith isn’t an idea, it’s a muscle. The more we use that muscle, the stronger it gets.”[iv] Another commentator, Will Willimon, builds on this idea by saying, “You get more faith not by closing your eyes, trying real hard to feel or to believe something. More faith comes through faithful living. Just do it; your faith will be increased, not as a personal achievement, but as a gift of God.”[v]
We undertake the ritual of worship, and repeat the words of the faith, in order to build a kind of muscle memory. We come forward week after week to take communion to build the habit of faith. Not to fight off our unbelief, but to continually transform ourselves into the faithful people we long to be. To strengthen our hearts for the work of love!
And what about those times when our doubt, or our fear overtakes us? Perhaps you’ve heard the story of a weary and frustrated parishioner who came to her priest and said, “I find it difficult to believe some of the statements in the Creed, How can I stand and affirm what I don’t really believe?”
The priest answered, “Just keep saying it. Eventually, it may come to you. Until then, the church will keep believing for you until you are ready to believe it yourself.”[vi]
We are here as a faith COMMUNITY. An important part of what we do is to stand with each other in faith. We undertake the faithful work of the church for all of our sakes. And perhaps most importantly we are companions for each other on the road of faith.
And as we walk that road, the good news that comes to us from Jesus is that no matter how small we may think our faith, it’s enough!
Even when we are frustrated by the world, or find ourselves filled with rage, or doubt, or fear, or worry that we are not up to the tasks to which we are called, Jesus assures us we are enough. Jesus gives us hearts of faith as a deep well to draw from in moments of need. Your faith is enough; the challenge before each of us today is simply to continue striving toward a deeper, and more life-giving faith; to recommit ourselves to mutual, life-giving relationship with God and all of God’s creation—including one another, in this community and beyond.
Let us pray: O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to us in the breaking of the bread: We thank you for the gift of faith. Help us to know that we are enough; that you have given and will give us all that we need; and that we may always find rest for our weary minds and hearts in your changeless and all-encompassing love. For you are worthy of our faith, and our praise, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
[i] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=10, accessed 10/04/2019.
[ii] Long, Kimberly Bracken, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 144.
[iii] Borg, Marcus, The Heart of Christianity. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2003. p. 25.
[iv] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2773, accessed 10/04/2019.
[v] Willimon, Will. http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/doing-faith-until-you-have-it/, accessed 10/02/2013.