Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

 

Increase our faith! It seems like a reasonable request, right? 

 

That’s why Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request is so puzzling. Isn’t it a sign of spiritual growth to ask for more faith? And if so, should he not have rewarded them by granting their request? At least he should have encouraged them. Just as we expect of a teacher that she should encourage her students in their learning, so also we expect of Jesus that he should encourage his disciples in their spiritual growth.

 

Only this encouragement isn’t forthcoming. Far from it. To the contrary, his words must have deflated them. “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6). But the point of making the request is that they don’t have faith like this. Why frustrate them by reminding them of what they don’t have?

 

And then, to make matters worse, Jesus treats his disciples to a rather harsh lecture on the subject of service. When your master is at his table, make sure that you serve him. Only afterward, should you look after yourself and your own needs. And if you meet his demands, don’t congratulate yourself; you are only doing your job. In fact, you are no more than a worthless slave. 

 

“Okay, but what in the world does that have to do with faith?” That’s what we thought we were talking about. The one doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the other.

 

Mustard seed, mulberry tree and worthless slaves? What are we to make of this seeming jumble of words?

 

Perhaps Jesus is trying to tell us that we aren’t going to grow in our faith simply by asking for it. Evidently faith is not a quantity that we can track on a financial chart. It’s not as if we can say: I have increased in faith by 25 per cent this year. Even less is faith a magic power that we can invoke to solve all our problems. 

 

Perhaps instead, Jesus means to tell us that faith is not a noun, but a verb. We don’t have faith, rather we practice faith. And faith only grows through practice, especially when faith is put to the test in challenging situations.

 

The Gospels in fact recount several of these challenging situations in the life of Jesus and his disciples. For example, there was the time when great crowds followed them to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee, because of all the healings Jesus was performing.

 

Far from home and tired out from the long journey, the people were hungry and needed something eat. But how were the disciples going to feed them?

 

They found a boy with five loaves of barley bread, and two fish. In effect, Jesus invited them to believe that there was enough in this boy’s lunch to feed the multitude.

 

Now they could have hesitated, taken a step back and assessed the situation, and then doubted whether they had enough faith to move forward. Imagine if they had turned to Jesus just then and cried out, “increase our faith!” How would he have responded? “Have the people sit down and get to work.” That’s how he did in fact respond.

 

“Trust God and step out in faith.” Maybe you felt called by God to launch out into the unknown, accept a new role, take on a new responsibility. You hesitated, because you were afraid. And when you turned to your spouse or your close friend and confided your fear to them, they responded to you with these words: “Trust God and step out in faith.”

 

During the pandemic, I used to see these yard signs in front of people’s houses. “Faith over fear.” Maybe you have seen them too. Putting aside for the moment the political message these signs probably intend to convey, we can say that these words ring true. Faith doesn’t cancel out fear; it will probably be right there with us when we do step out in faith. But fear doesn’t have to overwhelm us. Faith over fear. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world.

 

Tradition has given us a profile of Timothy as a fearful man. In our epistle lesson, Paul encourages Timothy to be brave in the face of hardship. He reminds him of the faith of his grandmother and mother. Timothy comes from a strong family, at least from a family of strong women.

 

When you look back on your own journey of faith, do you find there a parent or grandparent who left an example for you to follow? It is such a blessing to have had someone like that.

 

Timothy was evidently afraid to use the gift he had in service to the church. To use his gift in public was to practice his faith. But fear held him back. Paul then pointed him away from himself to the God in whom he believed. Always remember that faith is less about the amount of, than about the placing in. And this faith is placed in the God who did not give us a “spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:17).

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. exemplified this spirit when he began receiving death threats during the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-1950s. One night after an especially disturbing phone call, King became paralyzed by fear, unable to sleep, and ready to give up. While offering up a desperate prayer in the middle of the night, King says that he felt the presence of God like never before and heard the words speaking to him in the depth of his soul, “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” As King notes, “the outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.”

 

King moved forward. In moving forward in obedience to God’s word, to God’s direction, we too will find out that faith is discovered in the act of faith. James makes this point in his epistle. In James 2: 18: we read: “Now someone will say: ‘I have faith, you have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”

 

It’s been said of faith that it is a muscle. It only grows when it is exercised. Or it’s been said of faith that it’s an unopened gift. It’s accepted and cherished by the recipients, but they won’t really know what they have until they open it.

 

“Increase our faith!” Do you want Jesus to answer this request? Then be faithful. We increase our faith through practicing our faith.

 

It’s not really the same idea as “working to earn it.” It’s more like acting in a manner consistent with who you are as a servant of God. Then you will find your faith growing and coming to fulfillment in your life.

 

This is Jesus’ answer to his disciples. It’s significant that Jesus chose as examples of serving plowing and tending sheep in the field. After all, he is talking to servants who have been plowing (that is, sowing the word) and caring for the sheep (that is, pastoring).

 

Their arrival home is not the time to end their work, but to bring it as an offering to the table. In effect, Jesus is saying: once you have shared your faith in word and deed, it’s time to bring it all to completion at the table of communion.

 

After all, this is what Jesus did. He emptied himself as a servant healing people of all their diseases and teaching them about the kingdom of God, and when he knew that his end was near, he celebrated a final meal that symbolized everything that happened in the past and was about to be fulfilled in the future.

 

Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s fitting for us that our Gospel lesson affords us the opportunity to make an observation or two about communion.

 

The communion table has been called the summit and source of the Christian life. Or, as one author put it, its destination and launching pad. Here we celebrate all that we are and all that we have in Christ and at the same time are nourished for all that we are called to do in our lives as servants in God’s kingdom.

 

Parenthetically, when we use the word “we,” we are not only referring to the few of us who are here in this sanctuary today. “We” encompasses all who confess faith in Christ, all who on this day come to the communion table to share a symbolic meal in memory of him.

 

It’s not easy to make statements that apply to all human beings. An increasingly-connected planet has taught us that the number of these statements is indeed very few. But let us try anyway.  

 

All human beings need food to live. No one will dispute this. None of us can go very long without eating. But the statement is too broad. It doesn’t set us apart from the animals, which also need food to live.

 

But human beings are the only animals that cook their food. When we consider that for most of human history, we spent most of our waking hours hunting, producing and gathering our food, this is remarkable.

 

We probably have spent at least as many hours, if not more, cooking and preparing our food.

 

This points to something else that sets us apart from animals. Eating for us is a social affair. That is to say, we eat together. Throughout history, across the world, we have marked events with meals—birthdays, graduations, weddings, and funerals. Families mark the end of their day by gathering together at the dinner table. 

 

To be sure, some animals eat together. Think, for example, of a pride of lions around a fresh kill. But we don’t eat only to satisfy our instinct for survival. We don’t eat only because our bodies require it. For us it is far more than that. Sharing food is not the same as sharing a meal together, which is a profoundly and uniquely human thing.

 

That brings us to a final statement. Human beings as social animals are bonded to one another through shared meals.

 

What more fitting symbol can there be than a table to express the universality of the church! The one church, despite its many unhappy divisions, stretches out across the whole inhabited earth, and its members are bonded to one another through this one meal we know as the Lord’s Supper. 

 

After we are nourished by this meal at the Lord’s table, we return to the field. Once we are served, we go out to serve. This is the rhythm of the Christian life.

 

Consider how we begin our week. On the first day of the week, we set aside our normal routine. We rest. We worship God. In our worship God meets us in word and sacrament and nourishes and strengthen us. By his Spirit he inspires us. We go out nourished and restored, to love and serve God in the world.

 

Are we still to see ourselves as “worthless slaves” out there? That word “worthless” is often translated as “being of no use or profit,” hence “worthless.”

 

But that may not be the best translation. In fact, a good case can be made that it should be translated as “without need.” In other words, Jesus could be telling his disciples that they are responding, gratefully: “We are slaves without need; we have only done what we ought to have done.”

 

This makes the verse appear very differently. The response has nothing to do with who they are, but everything to do with the one they serve. Their master is good and generous, providing for all their needs. The follower of Jesus is a “slave” for whom his master accepts total responsibility, and who therefore can enjoy total security.

 

In loving and serving God in the world, we discover that the satisfaction that comes from loving and serving is its own reward. We become aware of the privilege that God grants us in calling us to be his servants. God uses the gifts he gives to us, that in turn we place in his service, to accomplish his work in the world. And that is something worth celebrating. Amen. 

 

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