Sermon for October 2nd

First Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Gospel Reading: Luke 17:5-10

Sermon “How Much Is Enough?”

I’d like a cup of Faith with a twist of Hope please. That of course is not an order you can place at your local Starbucks. Things like faith and Hope don’t easily yield to measurement. 8 oz of faith, what is that? Neither do they yield to simple recipes or off the shelf components. You can buy an espresso machine, but how do you obtain more faith? Similarly, what did Jesus mean by faith the size of a mustard seed? All these questions swirl around today’s readings.

As you heard, this morning’s reading began with the disciples saying “Lord, increase our faith!” It seems a cry for help and and likely was. We need to back up a a few verses and see what caused the distress. It was these words – Luke 17:1-4 NIV [1] Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. [2] It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. [3] So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. [4] Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

I think If we were honest, those things make us swallow hard too. The warning that how we live with each other, may be familiar, but these verses say it matters a great deal indeed. We are never to contribute to circumstances that could cause a child or a young christian to stumble. True, as Christians we have a great deal of freedom, but that freedom is limited by how it affects others around us. Now that’s tough, but the next part about limitless forgiveness strains the best saints in room. You see, the intention is not that we should be counting to seven, but rather that we shouldn’t be counting at all. We recognize that 7 is the number of completeness in the Bible – full measure. In Matthew’s version, Peter asks Jesus, if he should forgive as many as seven times, thinking that he was being very generous and Jesus said “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. No wonder they exclaimed “increase our faith!”

In our culture, more is generally looked on as a good thing, so we are right there with those disciples – yeh – we want more faith! But this isn’t that sort of thing at all. How does one measure the quantity of faith anyway? I’m sure someone has developed some sort of self evaluation form for it, but really its about what and who we have faith in – its the quality of our faith that’s in question. So it comes as no surprise then that Jesus replies to them with a somewhat strange answer: “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

That is a truly surprising illustration isn’t it. Mulberry trees flying off to the ocean? That something you don’t see everyday! That’s walking on the water sort of stuff. Yet Jesus says such is the power of faith. Now the implications here are important to catch correctly. “If you have Faith as a mustard seed”, the implication is that they do have at least that much, though its hard to see how the size of a mustard seed has much to do with faith – but the attributes, the qualities of a mustard seed may have everything to do with the point. Jesus doesn’t answer their request as they put it. It’s not more faith that they need. It’s a different kind of faith: “Mustard seed, wait, I hope you don’t think I’m being sacrilegious here, but dare to suggest we say mustard weed faith.”

Wild mustard was the scourge of farmers in Palestine. It grew wild. Birds would ingest but not entirely digest its seeds and drop them everywhere. It would take over fields and vineyards. It would compete with existing crops. Pulling it up did only temporary good, because more birds would just bring more seed from somewhere else, and you’d be back in the same place in a few weeks. It was persistent, irritating, and fast-spreading. It would be there whether you liked it or not. Mustard weed was so effective and such a menace, because it was so purpose-built and so intent on fulfilling its purpose—to propagate itself by all means everywhere.

Even the domestic mustard that I plant in my garden is surprisingly vigorous. With other seeds, I carefully control the planting depth, carefully water – just enough – not too much and am pleased if half of them come up. Not mustard – just throw it out there and almost everyone of them will sprout. Most years I plant a row for greens in the garden in the spring and always, when the hot weather hits, they bolt rapidly to abundant seed stalks, so I pull them out. If I’m late however, a few weeks later, I have a second crop come up now that the sun could get in, more seeds had sprouted – They were delicious. It’s not uncommon for it to show up the following year even after I root till. More mustard plants! The stuff is amazing.

That’s the kind of faith we need, Jesus says. Faith both durable and contagious enough to be carried everywhere, like the birds do with the seed. Not more. Not bigger. Not even deeper. Just durable and attractive enough to be sought, transported, and vigorous enough to take root. More or bigger faith isn’t what it’s about. It’s faith that endures and keeps on coming. Its the kind of faith that Paul noted in Timothy. It hadn’t started with him; he had picked it up at home, Paul notes in 2 Timothy 1:5 NIV [5] “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also”. You see faith endures and spreads.

There are a few frustrating things about faith though, aren’t there? Faith means understanding that we are not in charge, God is. Events precede according to God’s calendar, not ours. The plaintive words of Habakkuk we heard this morning sometimes resonate deeply with us don’t they. Where are you God? Aren’t you watching this? Or in the prophets words Habakkuk 1:2-3 NIV

[2] How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? [3] Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

We could speak these very words each and every time we listen to or read the news. Yet faith at times needs to wait as the the Lord replies:Habakkuk 2:2-3 NIV [2] Then the Lord replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. [3] For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. But it is God’s calendar, not ours.

Likewise God is in charge, not us. Faith is really a relationship. The important question is who is our faith in? Its not about us, its about the God we worship and serve. Rather than watching for flying Mulberry trees, we just need to get on with living out our faith, in constant relationship with God. Sprouting like a seed where we are planted, growing and bearing fruit – which of course contains yet more seeds.

Jesus puts that peculiar little story of the servant and master in here with the intention, it seems of reminding us of that very point. Listen to it again: Luke 17:7-10 NIV [7] “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? [8] Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? [9] Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? [10] So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”

Now that may seem a little harsh. The relationship of indentured servant and master is unfamiliar to us these days. But the point is still obvious. Jesus is in charge, not us. The faith does not spread like mustard weed if we think we’ve got all the strategies and methods down just right, or if we think we control the mission and act like we do. The mission is God’s, not ours. We get to help, even as we’ve been helped. We go and serve at the bidding of Jesus, like a family servant, not because we feel like it or because we want to make our own ministries bigger. And when the day is done, ours is to say, “We are servants of no use to anyone else. We have done your will, O God.”

Mustard seed faith is grounded in obedience to Christ. Every hour. Every day. Paul knew this well. His second letter to Timothy is written very near the end of his life – while he was in prison and awaiting his martyrdom, yet his faith did not waiver and his understanding of his position as a servant of God remained firm. He wrote to Timothy urging him to stand fast in the faith as he himself was doing:

2 Timothy 1:7-12 NIV [7] For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. [8] So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. [9] He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, [10] but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. [11] And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. [12] That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.

That is faith worth living for; That is mustard seed faith.