Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Faith You Can Muster

The Faith You Can Muster
Lk. 17:1-10[1]
  Just as there’s a fine line between honesty and dishonesty, so I think there’s a fine line between faith and unbelief.  You might think that they are poles apart, opposites on the ends of a very long continuum.  But I don’t think so.  In my opinion, that makes faith into something complicated, something we have to create on our own, and perhaps even something that is within our ability to control.  But I would say that faith is at once simpler and more profound than that.  As the twelve-step movement reminds us, faith can be as simple as surrendering, as simple as “letting go and letting God.”  And yet, maintaining even that simple faith is something that can test us to the very core of our being.  At times, it can be beyond our grasp, something that seems impossible for us to muster.[2]  Even then, the Scriptures remind us that “nothing shall be impossible with God”!
  In our Gospel lesson for today we find Jesus instructing the disciples about some of the ways in which their life together could get sticky.  Especially in the time when Luke was composing this Gospel, every community of Christians would experience the tension that results from having persons at various stages in the faith journey.  Unfortunately, sometimes those who are just beginning the journey can go too far in their zeal, and can look down on the more mature faith of those who have been walking the path for many years.  But the opposite can happen as well, sometimes those whose faith is deep enough to allow them the freedom to find joy in all aspects of life can forget that new Christians may be offended by their freedom.  In fact, they may even stumble so far as to seemingly “lose” their faith.  Jesus insisted, as did St. Paul, that those who are more experienced with the Christian faith and with their discipleship to Jesus must consider the effect of their conduct on those whose faith may be more fragile.[3]
  Another sticky situation in the community of those who seek to follow Christ is when one person positively sins against another.  Perhaps it’s a matter of someone taking what is not theirs.  Or we may lose our temper with a Christian brother or sister and let hurtful words damage the relationship.  Or, as can often happen, perhaps one person may be guilty of publicly slandering another.  All of these situations create a potential rift in the body of Christ, which is supposed to be united.  So Jesus urged his disciples to correct those who sin against them, and when they repent, to forgive them.  In fact, he wanted them to know that this was so important to the community of faith that he instructed them that even if someone sinned against them in the exact same way seven times in one day, when they returned and repented, the disciples were to forgive.
  Now, we’ve been following Jesus and his disciples in the Gospel of Luke as they’ve been making their way from Galilee to Jerusalem.  And we’ve listened in to the extended “Sermon on the Way to Jerusalem,” and all that Jesus has said to them about what it means to follow him in discipleship.  We’ve heard him warn them to let go of their pretension about their own righteousness, to let go of their expectations for any recognition or reward for following him, to let go their compulsion to fill their lives with “stuff” instead of God.  We’ve heard Jesus call the disciples to persevere in living out the values of God’s Kingdom in the face of the contradictions of the other loyalties of our world.   We’ve heard him challenge them to recognize the humanity of every face, especially the poor and needy, and to recognize the injustice that oppresses them.  And we’ve heard him insist that those who follow him must include everyone they meet in the grace and mercy of God.
  It’s no wonder that when Jesus added to all that the demand that they see themselves as responsible for the well-being of other disciples they cried out, “Increase our faith” (Lk. 17:5)!  And yet, Jesus’ somewhat strange response makes it clear that they were approaching it from the wrong perspective altogether.[4]  They were assuming that their ability to live out their commitment to following Jesus was ultimately dependent upon their own strength, their own abilities, and their own faithfulness.  From that perspective, fulfilling the demands of discipleship might seem as impossible as commanding a mulberry tree to be uprooted and plant itself in the sea!  But Jesus knew something they seemed to forget often: with God all things are possible.  If they could just muster enough faith to let go and let God take care of the “impossibilities,” they would find they had all the faith they need.[5]
  For some of us, faith comes easy.  It’s as natural as a fish swimming in water, or a bird flying in the air, or a horse running through a pasture.  For others of us, faith seems like a wall that is impossible to climb.  For all of us, Jesus encourages us to think outside the box of our own abilities.  When we let go and let God, when we stop holding on so tightly and simply open our hands and let go the illusion that we’re in control of our lives, then we can walk the path of following Jesus. [6]  And as we walk the path, seeking our lives in God and not in the stuff around us, loving those around us, all those around us, living in the imperfect community of those who are striving to follow Jesus, the farther we go the more we find that the faith that once may have seemed beyond our grasp is really quite simple after all.[7]  All it takes is all the faith we can muster.  And whether all the faith we can muster is a lot or a little, it’s enough.[8]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/6/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, where he says that a religious sense of life moves us “past the manageable prospects of the present, beyond the sphere in which we have some mastery, beyond the domain of sensible possibilities that we can get our hands on” and into “the sphere of the impossible, of something whose possibility we just cannot conceive” where “only the great passions of faith and love and hope will see us through.”
[3] Cf. Clark Pinnock, Luke, 199: “Paul states what Luke 17:1-2 implies: there is a law higher than the law of freedom and that is the law of love.  In the fellowship of believers, disciples are to be responsibly considerate of one another.”
[4] John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 839: “For those who have been touched by the coming of the kingdom of God in connection with the ministry of Jesus, what is needed is not the increase of faith, but simply the active exercise of faith.”
[5] Cf. John Rollefson, “The Measure of Faith,” The Christian Century (Sept. 21, 2004): 21: “Faith is ever and only a response empowered by an amazing grace originating from outside of our own efforts that enables us to entrust ourselves willingly to One we have found trustworthy.”
[6] Cf. Pinnock, Luke, 200: “Faith lays hold of God with whom nothing is impossible, and it is God who empowers the life of discipleship.”
[7] Cf. William Willimon, “Doing Faith Until You Have It,” accessed at http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/doing-faith-until-you-have-it/.  He says, “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.”
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:233.

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