2 October – Faith in a faithful God

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Pentecost 20

Lamentations 1:1-6
Lamentations 3:19-26
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

Some of our favourite scripture texts are conveniently quoted out of context. A good one for when not many people turn up for a church event is from Mt 18 – For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Matthew 18:20) It cheers us up enormously. Of course it is perfectly true – whether it be in worship or a meeting or a working bee – Christ is among his faithful, attendance numbers notwithstanding. For our comfort, when numbers are down, may we always be glad to be reminded that Christ is among us.

But the context of this text is discipline. Matthew 18 sets out a program for correcting behaviour in the Christian community. It is only after a step by step program for correcting a wayward member of the church in the name of God is outlined that we hear the text about Christ being among the two or three.

I mention this because this morning’s gospel is a good one for shifting the context a little.

The beginning of this morning’s gospel lesson is not one of the church’s favourites – probably because it rarely sees much need for casting mulberry trees into the sea, and the bits that follow about the slave coming in after working the fields then being expected to cook dinner is puzzling, though probably best appreciated by wives and mothers.

Strangely, the context of this text also has to do with discipline. The request by the disciples to increase their faith follows a stern rebuke by Jesus about the misuse of authority in the church community. The teaching about discipline begins with Jesus saying: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!  2 It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17:1-2)

So the disciples have heard Jesus saying that if they, as leaders of the church, jeopardise the salvation of one of the little ones there will be dire consequences. Those consequences are not specified but they do rate at least one point beyond having a mill stone tied to the neck and being thrown into the sea – so, pretty dire. If this isn’t enough to put the wind up the future leaders of the church, Jesus goes on to tell them that when they are disciplining a member of the church and that person repents, they must forgive that person. Not only that, but they have to keep forgiving even if the pattern of bad behaviour does not change and the process of discipline followed by repentance continues up to seven times.

Now it is not clear whether the disciples are overwhelmed by the mill stone throwing prospect or the need to forgive a repeat offender, but their request of Jesus in the next verse – the beginning of our gospel lesson this morning, indicates that they do not feel up to Jesus expectations. So they ask, “Increase our faith.”

Jesus response is the memorable one about having faith the size of a mustard seed. That is all you would need to cast a mulberry tree into the sea. Matthew heard this saying a bit differently. He thought Jesus said you could cast a mountain into the sea. The point is that the faith the disciples have is affirmed. If you had so tiny a measure of faith, and you do have at least that much, that is all that is needed for the exercise of faithfulness in the Kingdom proclaimed in and by Jesus.

Then follows the uncomfortable bit about the relentless service demanded of a slave. This is uncomfortable in our culture – or it should be. We have hard won laws to guard against the kind of exploitation that is depicted here. We can only assume that those hearing and reading this account of what Jesus said understood the analogy and that the message was and is – service in the Kingdom doesn’t have a holiday. Now we know Jesus took time out, that he was wearied by the demands of crowds demanding his attention, that he enjoyed time off – so we can take heart that service in the Kingdom is not a relentless grind. I am encouraged in this thought by the prayer of St Augustine:

Lord, you are the light of the minds who know you, the
life of the souls who love you, and the strength of the
souls who serve you. Help us to know you that we may
truly love you, so to love you that we may fully serve
You, whose service is perfect freedom.

It is perhaps a curious juxtaposition of these two sayings of Jesus – the possibility of different sizes in faith and the servant who does not expect to be served. But it feeds into an issue that is visited a few times in the gospels, that of status in the Kingdom. Remember the disciples who asked for preferred seating arrangements in the Kingdom and arguments over who was greater. In the early church Luke tells of different Christian communities who claimed one or other leader as their authority on matters of faith. See? Nothing new. The message is clear – the Kingdom of God does not have a class structure.

The positioning of the two sayings points up the truth that people do seem to have different measures of faith (whatever that means) but faith the size of a mustard seed or the size of an avocado pip does not translate to time off for good behaviour in the service department.

The thing is that just as it is OK to take the ‘where two or three are gathered in my name’ text out of context, it seems to me OK to take the ‘increase our faith’ text out of context too. The context that Luke sets it in is that there will be difficult discipline issues to deal with to prompt the cry that denotes not coping – I am overwhelmed, I will need more faith. But the lesson that applies to this context may well apply to other dilemmas of life that prompt the same cry – we face difficulties as a congregation, as a denomination, difficulties as a Christian faith living among other faiths, difficulties living as a nation coping with the impact of world events that drive us to despair –  if only I had more faith I could cope with this. With more faith I could do something about these things.

Fortunately, living faithfully does not have to do with the size of my faith. If that were true my life would be very scary. I have to stay reliant on the hope that God is faithful. Does that let me off the hook? The outcome of the difficulties that beset me and the church and the nation are not dependant on the efficacy of my faith, or our faith. Luke writes about faith and its potency and then immediately writes about service that does not take a holiday. Faith is lived out in service and Augustine’s joy was that the in the God’s service is found perfect freedom.

When Jeremiah lamented for his people defeated and sent into exile, still he could say:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;  23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)