Clear the Way for Hope

John the Baptist is one of those characters that you remember. He eats bugs, and wears ridiculous things. He’s also one of those characters that, as a pastor, you get to preach on every single year. Every Second Sunday of Advent, we have John preaching in the wilderness. John is such a rich character with a deep and nuanced message, there are many ways you take a sermon on him. I choose to do something a little unusual for me this year, and focus in on just a couple words: repentance and judgment.

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent can be found here: Advent 2 readings

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

John the Baptist is kind of like the Ebenezer Scrooge of Advent. Just when we’re getting into the spirit of things, lighting candles, singing Advent hymns, here comes John with a bah humbug and a horrifying announcement about burning in an unquenchable fire. John is definitely not the guy you want to invite to the Christmas party. He makes everyone uncomfortable, not just with the way he dresses and what he eats, but with the way he just says things. He tells it like it is and he doesn’t care if it offends people. Don’t ask John if he likes your new haircut or outfit. He’s not going to be nice just to spare your feelings—he’ll tell you if he thinks you look terrible.

Unwelcome guest though he may be, John the Baptist bursts onto the scene every year on the Second Sunday of Advent to give us some difficult truths that we need to hear. To tell it like it is. Jesus’ cousin, John is a prophet who understands his purpose: to prepare the way of the Lord. To prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. He does not use his platform to promote himself, but rather to point to Jesus, to get the people ready for God’s chosen one.

And so here John is, in the wilderness, that great testing ground of God’s people, getting people ready by preaching judgment and repentance. I want to really dig in to both of those words, because they both carry a lot of baggage and assumptions. And the two are very much tied together for John. Jesus is coming to judge the world, says John, and so we are to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Often, we think repentance means feeling sorry, or feeling guilty, or feeling ashamed.  And sometimes church, religion, has been used to make us feel that way, to make us feel like we’re not worthy, or we’re broken, that we need to be ashamed. And then, once we feel repentance, we confess, we ask for forgiveness, and we move on.

But repentance actually has very little to do with what our feelings are, and much more to do with what our actions are. Repentance doesn’t mean to feel sorry or to feel guilty. The word that John the Baptist uses for repentance is metanoia, which means to turn around. To turn around. To reorient ourselves. Repentance is not feelings of regret or guilt, repentance is making changes, doing things differently moving forward. Confession is a part of that, but it is just the first part. Confession is acknowledging the ways we haven’t been living as God wants. Repentance is honestly trying to do something different in the future.

Think about, for a silly example, if you’ve stepped on someone’s foot. You can apologize for that, but unless you pick your foot up, that apology doesn’t mean very much. Repentance isn’t just saying sorry. It’s picking up your foot and trying not to step on that person again.

And John the Baptist calls all people to repentance. No one is exempt. What do we need to repent from? What things in our lives, in our world, are not life-giving? What things are not aligned with Christ? What stops us from being the people God created us to be? The people God so wants us to be?

Perhaps sometimes the things we need to repent from are our feelings of guilt and shame that keep us from living life fully. Our own self-doubt, that nagging voice that tells us we’re not good enough: that keeps us from being the wonderful, beloved person that God created. Our fears and our anxieties that keep us from fully embracing life.

Our prejudices, our self-righteousness that keep us from fully experiencing the community God intends for us. Our greed. Our self-centeredness. Our apathy. These are things that we need to repent from, not only because they hurt others in our lives and in our community—and they do—but also because they hurt us. They keep us from experiencing life the way that God intends.

John the Baptist calls us to prepare the way of the Lord by repenting of all the things that get in God’s way. To prepare for Christ’s reign among us by turning away from all these things that impede God’s love and justice and hope in our lives.

But then there’s that scary, disconcerting piece about judgment. The bad trees will be cut down and the chaff will burn in the unquenchable fire. Judgment, just like repentance, is another loaded word. We hear it, and we think: condemnation, wrath, punishment. Words we don’t like to think about when we think of God.

To judge something, though, in its most basic sense, is to see it clearly. To discern the truth about it. What if John the Baptist is promising us that Jesus is a Messiah who will really see us? Who will know us clearly? What if being judged is a good thing?

Jesus sees us, God sees us, and sees the truth about ourselves. Truth that we sometimes like to hide, even from ourselves. God sees the wonderful fruit that we bear, the lives we touch, the love we share, the justice we work for in the world. And God also sees the ways we sometimes bear bad fruit, through words we shouldn’t have said, times when we didn’t speak up when we needed to, things we wish we could do over.

We are none of us all wheat or all chaff. We bear within ourselves a mix of beauty and brokenness. Can we imagine that Jesus’ winnowing fork is an instrument of love? That Jesus sees, and wants to free us from, the things that keep us from being God’s people? The parts of ourselves that we know are hurtful, that only give pain? That, in separating the wheat from the chaff, Jesus is seeking to burn away the parts of ourselves that hurt us? That hurt the world.

Repentance isn’t something we do alone. Repentance is trusting in God’s power to see us, to love us, and to reshape us. To guide us to new ways of being. To bring us from hatred to love. From prejudice to inclusion. From fear to trust. From despair to hope. No wonder John preaches in the wilderness. That place where God’s people first learned how to be God’s people.

God rescues the Israelites from Egypt, but even after that, after God has claimed them and saved them, they still need to learn how to be God’s people. In the wilderness, the people are changed. They learn God’s ways and God’s hopes and dreams for them. They didn’t do it so that God might love them—that was already evident—but because God loved them. And they didn’t do it alone. God guided them all their way.

There’s a voice in the wilderness crying: Prepare the way of the Lord. God is calling us to be shaped and molded by the love of Christ. To be reformed and renewed as God’s people, bearing good fruit to a weary world. Prepare the way of the Lord, that God’s love and justice may enter in. Amen.

The Source of Hope

This Advent, we’re doing a series called “All Earth is Hopeful.” The first Sunday’s sermon topic was: The Source of Hope. Even though I’m the one who picked this series, I had to shake my head a little bit. “The source of hope?” Don’t they know that Advent 1 is filled with apocalyptic texts? But perhaps that is in fact where we find the source of our hope.

Readings can be found here: Advent 1 lectionary texts

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Christmas seems to come a little bit earlier every year. You know what I mean. I didn’t even manage to scoop up any cheap leftover Halloween candy this year, because by the time I got to the store—the very next day—Christmas displays were out instead. There were wreaths up at the King of Prussia mall before Halloween even!

Something, I’m not sure exactly what, is pushing us to start the Christmas spirit earlier and earlier every year. Except, at church, it’s not Christmas yet, but Advent. I’m reminded of a quote from the British show Call the Midwife, the true story of a young woman goes to work as a midwife in 1950s London. She lives at Nonnatus House, a convent of nuns who are also nurses.

She remembers back, saying: “My first Christmas in Poplar was unlike any other I had known. The streets, like all streets, were strung with colored lights, and children drew up lists, like children everywhere. As the days ticked down, it seemed as though the district was fizzing with delight. But at Nonnatus House, a different magic was at work. The sisters spent Advent in prayer and meditation, and the atmosphere was not one of excitement, but of expectant, joyous calm. I wasn’t entirely sure what I should make of it.”

A lot of us aren’t entirely sure what to make of Advent. All around us, the party spirit is in full swing already, but the season of Advent asks us to wait. Advent is focused, not on celebration, but on expectation. On longing. On hope—which is our theme for this Advent’s sermon series: All Earth is Hopeful.

But what exactly are we hoping for? As a child, I always thought that Advent was about waiting and hoping for baby Jesus to be born—that’s what happened at Christmas, after all. Is that what we are hoping for? Not really. We don’t have to hope and wait for Jesus to be born, because that already happened.

The word “Advent” means coming, or arrival. The first arrival of Jesus, as a baby in a manger, is certainly part of that, as we explore what it means for our lives. But so is the future arrival of Jesus, in what is often called the Second Coming. The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is always an apocalyptic reading, always Jesus describing what the end of the world will be like.

Some years he talks in grand visions, with stars falling from the sky, but this year we read of two people working in the field, and one will be taken, and one will be left. Two people will be together grinding grain, and one will be taken, and one will be left. So stay awake! Because you don’t know when it’s going to happen.

So, is this what we’re hoping for? I think many, if not most of us, would say that we are in fact not hoping for the end of the world. Hope is found not in hoping for the end of the world to come right now, but in knowing God’s promised future which gives us hope for the present. What does that promised future, that consummation of God’s kingdom look like?

Isaiah offers us this vision, this promise of what God has in store for God’s people and the world. This vision comes from the second chapter of Isaiah. When things are terrible, when the people are about to destroyed as a nation and go into exile. And in the middle of this, Isaiah proclaims the impossible possibility. Destroyed and despairing, Jerusalem shall become a place of pilgrimage and hope, of those seeking to create and not destroy. Strangers will find a home in the holy city. Refugees will experience safety once more. War will be abolished, and nations will no longer plan on destroying one another. Laughter and joy will fill the city streets. The days of mourning will be a thing of the past as God’s future beckons us forward.

We can look forward to our future—to God’s future—in hope, because we look back at what God has done for us and what God has promised us. We look to Isaiah to see God’s vision of the future and it gives us hope for our present time. Hope because we get to flip to the last chapter of the book and know the end of the story. We know the future God has promised, so we look forward, not with anxiety or apathy, but with hopeful expectation.

Advent is not just about the future arrival of Christ and the consummation of God’s kingdom, just as it is not just about the past arrival of Christ in Bethlehem. I somewhere heard it described as the “Three Advents of Christ”: in history, in mystery, and in majesty. The history is the baby in the manger, the physical incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Majesty is what I’ve been talking about, that final triumphant arrival to usher in God’s reign of peace and justice.

But mystery is what we have right now. Because God has not abandoned this world to its own devices, but continues to come to us, even now. In the meal of Holy Communion, Christ comes to us in bread and wine, and we get to take God’s promise into ourselves. To let it feed us and sustain us. The promise of the future, the promise of God’s grace and forgiveness and love, the promise of communion—of community—with each other, becomes embodied within us as we share in this meal.

And it opens our eyes to the ways that God is at work in the world. Stay awake! Jesus tells his followers. Because you do not know when the Son of Man is coming. Stay awake! Or you might miss it.  Stay awake to the ways that God is active in our world, right now. Holy moments may catch you by surprise, so pay attention. Pay attention to what God is doing, to the people God is putting in your path, to the glimpses of God’s promised future breaking through into the present.

Jesus’ words challenge us to live faithfully, to live in expectant hope, right now. To live in God’s kingdom, right now. To be awake and attentive to God’s presence among us. So even as we cry out, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, come, Lord Jesus to this world in need of healing and peace and renewal, we live as people of hope. So come, Lord Jesus. Come to your people this Advent. Awaken us to your presence in the world. Give us your hope, we pray. Amen.

 

A Different Kind of King

What do you do when it’s Christ the King, Consecration Sunday, and a baptism, all in one go? Try to make them all work together of course! I both struggle with, and really love, Christ the King. I don’t always like the language of ~king~. I think it needs to be unpacked, because Jesus isn’t the typical king. In fact, he completely inverts our understanding of what it means to be king. Then, I love Christ the King. What does it mean to claim Christ as our King, when he refuses to act like a king? Let me know what you think!

Here is a link to site with all the readings from Sunday: Reign of Christ Readings.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Well, once again it’s Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday of our liturgical year, which begins anew next week with the first Sunday of Advent. Did you know that Christ the King is a relatively new festival? At least when you compare it to things like Easter, and Pentecost, and All Saints.  It was only started in 1925, by Pope Pius XI, and took much, much longer to catch on in Lutheran churches.

The festival was inaugurated to combat the rising nationalism and fascism around Europe, especially in Italy where the Vatican sits. It’s a festival that asks us to consider what it means that we proclaim Christ king. What type of king do we have in Jesus? What does it actually mean for our lives, 2,000 years later, to say that Jesus is king?

It’s not a bad idea to begin by asking what we think of when we use words like ‘king’, ‘ruler’, ‘kingdom.’ What is a king? Or a queen? The third season of The Crown recently came out on Netflix, all about the British monarchy in the last century, and Elizabeth II in particular.

The royal family has a very specific understanding of what it means to be a king—or in this case, queen. The crown must be protected at all costs. At one point, Princess Margaret, the queen’s sister, says to her: You can’t blink. If you blink, it will al be over. You cannot show weakness, at any cost. The crown must always appear strong.

If you’re like me, this is probably the type of thing you think of when you think of kings and kingdoms. The king being the most important—the one who is protected, the one who is served by others. Strong, unshakable, invincible. That tends to be the type of characteristics we want in a ruler—king or otherwise.

And so Christ the King can come as a shock to our systems. We don’t get strong, unshakable, or invincible. We don’t read of Jesus being enthroned in glory and power. Instead we read the story of the crucifixion. Jesus on the cross at his lowest moment. Executed as an enemy of the state. Mocked, derided.

And we look at that and we say—this is our king. This is the one we will serve. It is only in this moment, on the cross, that Jesus is ever actually proclaimed king. And so, the question remains, what kind of king do we have?

We do not have a king who seeks to be served by others, we do not have a king who seeks to be above others. Jesus doesn’t do that. He refuses to come in power but instead appears in abject vulnerability. He does not vow retribution on even those who crucify him but instead offers forgiveness.

He does not come down off his cross to prove his kingly status but instead remains on that instrument of torture and humiliation, the representative of all who suffer unjustly. And he does not promise a better tomorrow but instead offers to redeem us today.

He offers to redeem us today. Not in some far off distant future, but this very day. It is the promise made to the thief on the cross, and it is the promise that we too receive. When we proclaim that Christ is King, it means that we proclaim he is king right here and now—not waiting for some future time.

And so we come again to my second question: what does it mean for us, 2,000 years later, to say that Christ is King? It is a statement that requires us to recognize that the kingdom of God is all around us. If Christ is King right now, then we must realize that we live in the kingdom of God. It’s not something that we either attain after our death or will get to in some final cataclysmic event.

The Kingdom of God is here and now, and the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims represents a whole new reality where nothing is the same — not our relationships or rules, not our view of self or others, not our priorities or principles — nothing.

Saying that Jesus is our king, is our lord, is also saying what is not our lord. Charles Greenly is being baptized this morning, and in the baptism service, we all declare that we renounce the Satan, the powers of evil, and everything that draws us from God. We are saying that we do not give these things permission to control us. They do not get to be our lord. Since Jesus is Lord, our overfull calendars are not. Our debt is not. Our anxiety is not. Our addiction is not. Our pain and our grief is not. Our prejudices are not. That’s not to say that these things don’t impact us—of course they do—but they are not our Lord. They do not get to define us. Jesus does—and in baptism he calls us all beloved children and makes us citizens of God’s kingdom.

As citizens of God’s kingdom, we’re called to be stewards of all that has been entrusted to our care. That stewardship involves the wise and prayerful use of all of our resources, and a part of that is what we give away for the benefit of others.

It is consecration Sunday, when we take time to consider our stewardship, and consider how we might support the church in the coming year. When you come forward for communion, you are invited to place your commitment card in the bowl in the aisle. We take time to do this every year because it allows us the opportunity as a church, as individuals, and as families, to thoughtfully consider what it means to be stewards for God. What it means to be part of God’s kingdom.

How are our resources best used? How are the church’s resources best used? Because we are stewards of God’s kingdom, whether we think about it or not. We’re able, as a church, to do so much to show and share the kingdom and love of God in this world—our outreach programs, our educational programs, our worship—it is all possible, and it is only possible, because of stewards like you and me.

What does it mean to proclaim that Christ is king? It means living in the kingdom. It means living as a reflection of our king. A king who welcomes a criminal into his realm and promises relief and release amid obvious agony. A king who refuses to conform to the expectations of this world, a king who will not be governed by its limited vision of worthiness or justice.

A king who is not content to rule from afar, but rather comes to meet us in our weakness and need. A king willing to embrace all, forgive all, redeem all, because that is his deepest and truest nature. It is, finally, our king, come to usher us into his kingdom even as he implores us to recognize and make manifest that kingdom already around us. This is our king. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Do not grow weary

You know we are approaching the end of the church year when the readings take a little…apocalyptic bent. The church year always ends with Reign of Christ (often called Christ the King), which is next week. The week before Reign of Christ, we always read Jesus foretelling the destruction of the Temple. These can be odd readings for us, because unlike the first disciples we generally aren’t anticipating the end of the world any time soon. (For the most part, anyway.) But, if we pay attention, we notice that Jesus doesn’t talk much about the actual end of the world, instead he focuses on the trying times before the end. What does Jesus have to tell us about living in difficult and scary times? (If you want, read Luke and Thessalonians, which I focus on in the sermon.)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you’ve ever watched Parks and Recreation, you might remember a group called “The Reasonablists.” These people were a cult, who were convinced that the world was going to end soon, when their leader Zorp came back to earth. They named themselves Reasonablists, because they decided no one would want to oppose them. To do so would be unreasonable.

In one episode, they rented a city park to celebrate and be together, because that was the night that the world was going to end. Zorp was coming back finally. Now, these guys were pretty harmless. Their rituals included playing music on wooden recorders and dancing around a fire. One of the main characters loved the Reasonablists, because he carved recorders to sell to them. And they would pay any price. They even laughed while asking if he took checks. Because they were convinced those checks were never going to get cashed. The world was ending! It didn’t matter what they did.

Only, as you can imagine, the world didn’t end, and those checks definitely got cashed. In the Parks and Rec story, this was just a funny way to point out some of the many ways humans can be ridiculous and unreasonable. But this actually happens, and it’s not always funny. Back in 2011, a man named Harold Camping thought the world was going to end. He amassed a huge following of supporters, many of whom sold their homes and gave him their life savings.

Well, the world didn’t end, and these people had no recourse. He hadn’t done anything illegal. It happens often—at least once a generation, but it seems like more often now—people become convinced that the end times are near and quit their jobs, sell their homes, take drastic measures. It’s funny when it’s a TV show, but it wasn’t funny at all when almost a thousand people died at Jonestown, all because they thought it could bring about the second coming.

Why this obsession with apocalypse and the end of time? And what is a faithful Christian response? This is some of what the Apostle Paul is trying to address in his letter to the Thessalonians. This very early community of Christians was convinced that the end was upon them, that Jesus would be returning any day.

They lived in the Roman town of Thessalonica. They were an extreme minority and were probably experiencing persecution. All around them, they thought they saw signs of Jesus’ second coming—as he had promised his followers. Wars, persecutions, troubling times. And it led some of them to stop working. They thought there was no reason to tend to the fields or the shop, because soon all would be gathered in the Lord. They had given up their day-to-day lives.

And Paul tells them: guys, you can’t do that. You have to keep working, you have to keep living life. You can’t be mere busybodies. Because if you don’t participate, the whole community suffers. You can’t just sit around waiting for the end times to come, because we don’t know when that’s going to happen. Instead, do not grow weary of doing what is right.

Jesus himself seems to say pretty clearly that it’s not our job to try to figure out when the end will be. In our reading this morning, he is standing outside the Temple, during the last week of his life, and he says to his disciples that one day the entire Temple will fall. This huge, marvelous, impressive building will crumble to nothing.

Immediately, they want to know when this will happen. There are lots of people who are going to try to tell you that the end is near, warns Jesus. Don’t be led astray. Things are going to be terrifying, but do not be alarmed, do not be afraid.

You’re going to live through wars and persecutions, famines and earthquakes, but these thing are not the end, but rather an opportunity to testify. Terrible things will happen—some of the terrible things that were surely happening to the church in Thessalonica, but Jesus promises protection and confidence even in the midst of terrible, terrifying events, and urges the disciples to see them as an opportunity to make their faith known.

Maybe we don’t have the same inclination as the early church to look for the end of times. When we see wars and famines and natural disasters, we are more likely to see the ways human hatred and greed have caused such brokenness than to think it is God bringing about the end of the world.

But Jesus’ words speak to us still. They speak to us about what our calling is in the midst of difficult things. In the midst of natural disasters and climate change. In the midst of political unrest and upheaval. In the midst of an uncertain future that we wish we could somehow predict.

First comes the promise: You are not alone in this. Do not be alarmed. God is always with you, and God will never leave you. And second comes the calling: Use this as an opportunity to testify. Use the time which you have been given, the circumstances that you find yourself living in, to testify to God.

Jesus promises that he will provide words and wisdom when we need them. And he has. The church has been equipped with all kinds of gifts: some of us are gifted in the ways of speaking publicly for God’s kingdom. Of advocating for justice. Some are gifted to organize efforts to care for those in need. Some are gifted in prayer to support the work of the church and lift up all in need. Some are gifted in resources to provide for the work of ministry. Some are gifted in teaching to raise up new generations.

All have been given gifts by the Holy Spirit, and so all are needed. We can’t have mere busybodies in the church, like they did in Thessalonica. Because all of us have a part to play in testifying to God’s love and justice in the times we have been given. We all have gifts to offer, and the church is not complete, our testimony is not complete, without all of them.

These are scary texts today. But Jesus knew his disciples were going to have to deal with scary things. Following Jesus doesn’t mean you get a free pass through life’s difficulties. We have to deal with scary things in our lives and in our world. But siblings in Christ, do not grow weary in doing what is right. Because we not are alone. And we have the amazing—and sometimes overwhelming—call to be God’s voice, God’s heart, God’s hands, in the times that we live. This is an opportunity to testify. And the message we bring of love and hope and justice is something our world needs to hear. Amen.

 

I Know that My Redeemer Lives

Every Sunday is a little Easter–that is, every week we celebrate Christ’s victory over death and experience the joy of the resurrection in word and meal together. Some Sundays are a little more little Easters than others, though. Yesterday, all of our readings had to do with resurrection in one way or another. We heard Job declare that in the last day he would see God in his flesh, Paul warned the Thessalonians to hold fast to what they knew to be true about the end times, and Jesus discussed what resurrection looks like with some Pharisees. What questions do you have about the resurrection?

Alleluia, Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!). You all did really well with that, I thought it might take a second or two for you to catch on. It feels out of place for me to use the traditional Easter Sunday greeting on a random Sunday in November. But the word of the day today is “Resurrection.” It is absolutely everywhere in our readings.

The first lesson, from the book of Job, sees Job himself declare: I know that my Redeemer lives…and in the last day…in my flesh, I shall see God.” Job, who at this point has seen his entire life destroyed, and had his friends badger him about what he did to deserve it (he hadn’t done anything to deserve it, by the way), Job says to those friends: I know that God is alive, and that means this is not the end of my story.

In Second Thessalonians, Paul is writing to those who are shaken and alarmed by the things they see happening around them. He tells them not to lose sight of the hope of their calling. These tumultuous times and rulers that they are living through do not get the final word on their lives, but rather God, who has called them in love, and chooses them to be the first fruits of salvation. So, hold fast to that hope in the face of worry and anxiety, says Paul.

And finally, in our gospel reading, Jesus is approached with a question from some Sadducees. If a married man dies childless, his widow is married to his next oldest brother. In the Sadducees’ story, there are seven brothers, and seven childless deaths. How is this going to work in the resurrection, they wonder? To whom will the woman belong? This practice is known as Leverite marriage—it was part of the laws of Moses—and its purpose was to care for the widow. A woman without a son or a husband was incredibly vulnerable in ancient times. This law was a way of protecting her and of providing descendants for the dead brother.

The Sadducees’ story provides an exaggerated case of something that really did happen. And they want to see how Jesus thinks the resurrection works. I had a theology professor in seminary who, whenever you asked a question, invariably asked you, “Why do you ask that question?” Eventually, we started to preempt him by sharing our reasons for asking before ever asking the question. He knew, though, that questions about God, about the Bible, about the resurrection, about church—they often stem from real situations, from our worries and doubts about ourselves and our family and what will happen to us.

Now, Jesus knew why the Sadducees were asking this question. As Luke helpfully explains in his narration, Sadducees, unlike some other Jewish groups at the time, did not believe in the resurrection. They’re not asking this question because they have been widowed and remarried or know someone who has. They’re not actually concerned about the plight of the woman in their story or anyone like her. They want to trap Jesus by mocking his own beliefs. They want to point out how silly believing in the resurrection is.

And when Jesus answers them, he almost says, “Yes, you’re right. The resurrection doesn’t make any sense. At least, not the way you’re thinking about it.” The Sadducees are asking the wrong question. Who will the woman belong to in the resurrection? She will belong to God. The very premise of their question is wrong. Their conception of God is too small. To try to grasp what the resurrection will be like in earthly terms is impossible; it’s a reality of an entirely different order, an order that can only be approached by faith. The ways we define relationships and society won’t apply, because they won’t be needed.

The Sadducees hoped to trip Jesus up with this story of the widow handed from brother to brother. Jesus knows why they’re asking this question, and he knows it isn’t sincere. But we often have very sincere questions about the resurrection: will I see my loved ones again? What will my body be like—will it be like my old age, or like when I was young? Will my grandmother—who didn’t know who I was for the last five years of her life—will she recognize me? Will there be dogs there? Or maybe even a genuine version of the Sadducees’ question: I have been widowed and remarried—what does that mean for me and my spouses? Is the resurrection even something I really believe in anyway?

We don’t ask these questions to one-up Jesus or to score theological points. We ask because we miss our loved ones. Because we wonder about what happens when we die. Because we’re scared that maybe there isn’t life after death after all. What is the resurrection like?

Well, I don’t know for sure, because no one’s ever experienced it and come back—except for Jesus. This is one area where we truly have to go on faith. But I think of Job, sitting in the literal ash heap of his life, resolutely, even stubbornly, defiantly declaring: I know that God lives. And because of that I know that I too will live. Despite all the evidence to the contrary around me, God is good and God intends life for us.

I think of the woman in the Sadducees’ story. What did resurrection look like for her? The idea of not being married or given in marriage in the resurrection was probably pretty appealing. Imagine her finally arriving in a place where her worth and her belovedness don’t depend on her husband, or her fertility. She no longer belongs to anyone but the God who created her and who now surrounds her with eternal, unconditional love.

Jesus doesn’t answer all of our questions about the resurrection in this passage. In fact, he might have created more questions in us than when he started talking. That’s okay. Questions aren’t bad. Questions come from our desire to know God and to understand our place in the world. Questions are good, as long as we’re okay with sitting with them sometimes. Because Jesus doesn’t answer them all, no matter how much we might wish he would.

What he does do, though, is point us to a God whose faithfulness to us is immeasurable and inexhaustible. A God who chose us, and called us, who gives us eternal comfort and hope through grace. And in God’s faithfulness to us, we find the strength to endure all that life and death will ask of us.

What will the resurrection be like? I’m not exactly sure. But I know that my Redeemer lives. Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed.) Amen.

Blessed are you…

All Saints’ Sunday is one of my favorites of the church year. A time to commemorate all the saints who have gone before us and are at rest, all the saints who still form the church on earth today, and all the saints who are yet to be. Together forming one mystical communion that crosses the bounds of time and space.

And then we had our gospel reading, the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, one of my favorite passages. Luke doesn’t go Matthew’s route and spiritualize the conditions Jesus calls blessed: there’s no “blessed are the poor in heart, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake.” Instead for Luke it is just “blessed are you poor, blessed are you hungry.”

So, favorite day, favorite passage, this should be easy, right? The challenge was making these two things speak to and inform each other. What do the Beatitudes have to do with All Saints’? What does All Saints’ have to say about what blessing means?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

They’ve come from all around. The nearby villages and towns, but some from Jerusalem and all over Judea, even as far away as Tyre and Sidon. They’re dusty and tired, but they’ve come to see this Jesus that they’ve heard about. They’ve heard he can heal people who have been sick for years. They’ve heard he can cast out demons. They’ve heard about the kingdom he talks about—a kingdom where the blind will see, and the prisoners will be released. And they want to know it for themselves.

Some are poor and hungry, but hope that through seeing Jesus they might be fed. Others are dressed in fine clothes and are curious about what this Jesus means for them. Some are limping with illness and pain after their journeys. Others have rested at inns along the way. And as they watch, he and his newly chosen disciples come down off the mountain. And Jesus stands on a level place with the rest of the crowd. They’re reaching out to him, hoping to touch just a piece of his cloak. Hoping for healing. Hoping for a miracle.

And then he speaks. Only it’s not to heal or to cast out demons. It’s not to teach. It’s to bless them. He speaks right to them, as if they were important people, and says: Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry, blessed are you who weep. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame on account of the Son of Man. Leap for joy and be happy!

They can’t believe it! Surely, they’ve heard him wrong. Blessed are…us poor ones? Who worry every day about how to take care of our families? Who have seen our children go hungry and suffer pain? Who cry in the night, unsure of how to face the next day? No one has ever called us blessed before. No one has seen us anything other than a burden, an inconvenience, a failure. Blessed are…us?

The Beatitudes, what we call these blessings that Jesus offers, are striking in their imagery, but also so very familiar to us. So familiar, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine what it was like hearing them for the first time. How shocking and surprising these blessings are. And, in a sense, how shocking to hear them today. On All Saints’ Sunday, why does the church have us read this list of blessings and woes, and not, maybe, something about saints?

What is All Saints’ Sunday about, anyway? Originally, it started as a feast day to honor all the early Christian martyrs whose names we do not know. Saints with names get their own feast days. But not wanting to forget those countless saints whose names are known only to God, the church began the feast of All Saints. And through the years, we’ve come to recognize not just the unnamed martyrs, but all those who have died in Christ, even especially those that we do know. Those saints who were very much known and loved and cherished by us.

But even as we remember and honor those who have died, All Saints is also about letting that remembrance shape our lives right now. Saint is not just a term that is reserved for those who have died. All of the baptized are saints of God. And that means that God has a purpose for us—right now. Our lives as saints do not begin with our deaths, but with our baptisms. And so, Jesus’ words about blessings and woe speak a powerful message to us saints on earth today.

How ought God’s saints be living and viewing one another? Jesus gives us a different ethic here, a kingdom ethic. To see and treat one another, not as the world does, but the way they are in the kingdom of God. The poor are honored. The grieving are comforted. The hungry are filled with good things. We are to pray for our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to do good for those who would harm us. This is what it means to be part of God’s new kingdom come, says Jesus.

And then there are those pesky woe statements. You notice I haven’t really touched on them yet. Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full now. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you. And this is where many of us might start to squirm in our seats. That sounds like me. I might not consider myself rich, but I certainly have enough. I have a full stomach and a pantry full of food. I’m not perfect, but I think people generally like and respect me. Why are these bad things? Aren’t these really the blessings, instead of poverty and hunger and grief?

But Jesus isn’t describing blessings the way we’re used to. He’s describing what blessing looks like in God’s kingdom. These woes shouldn’t be seen as some eternal damnation—instead think of them as a warning. Watch out! Says Jesus to the rich and full and happy. The things you think are advantages are actually misleading. You’re thinking about the wrong things when you think of blessing. The things you think are good might just be things that are drawing you further from God.

Instead Jesus invites us into a new way of being. A new community, a new social reality. We are invited into the communion of saints—the community of saints. To be a saint literally means to be a holy one, a person set apart. And that is who we are, a holy, set apart people, as we are marked as Christ’s own in baptism. With all the saints—past, present, and future—we get to be God’s body, God’s set apart people, in the world.

As our reading from Ephesians said, we are set apart for God’s purposes in this world. That’s what it means to be a saint. To be marked with God’s love and blessing, and to have that blessing shape us, shape the community we create to fulfill God’s purpose.

In this sermon on the plain, Jesus blesses us. He blesses some more directly than others, but he blesses the entire community gathered by forming as people of God’s kingdom, by shaping us into his body to be blessed and broken for the sake of the world. Rejoice in this day and leap for joy, for you are God’s blessed and holy saints, set apart for God’s purposes in this world. Amen.

 

Reformation Freedom

Yesterday, we commemorated the Reformation in worship at St. Paul’s. Reformation Sunday is one of the days in the church calendar that is assigned the same readings every year. So, even though I haven’t been doing this too long, I already feel like I’m running out of things to say about John 8. I tried to focus on just one part of it–what does it mean to be captive (a slave) to sin? And how does Jesus set us free from that?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever been offered something you had no idea you needed? Something, in fact, that you thought you most certainly did not need? It’s happened to me more than once, but the most memorable, and probably funniest, time for me was when I was in third grade. My teacher sent a note home to let my parents know I needed glasses.

I was devasted and more than a little bit offended. I could see just fine! How was he to know what I could and couldn’t see anyway? I maintained this stubborn conviction that I had no need of glasses at all until the moment I walked out of the optometrists wearing them for the first time. And suddenly, everything was clear. I had thought I could see fine, but only because I had no idea what I was missing. Trees had leaves! Like, leaves that you could see individually!

A week before, I was positive that I had no trouble seeing at all. And I would argue endlessly with anyone who would suggest otherwise. It was only after the fact that I realized, I did, in fact, need help.

When people point out help that we don’t think we need, it’s a natural reaction to become defensive, offended, or upset. Jesus says to his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

“What do you mean?” they ask, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. Why are you telling us ‘You will be made free?’” We shouldn’t miss the irony here, that these people are descendants of Abraham, and therefore their ancestors have been enslaved by the Egyptians, by the Babylonians, and now they are living under Roman occupation.

But in offering them freedom, Jesus has implied that freedom is something they don’t already have. That they are the opposite of free right now. No wonder they were upset. Imagine if Jesus walked into our sanctuary this morning and said to us, “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” We are Americans, Jesus. We are free, who are you to tell us that we’re not?

But we, and they, have missed the point. Jesus isn’t talking about political freedom, as he explains. He’s talking about freedom from sin. Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, he says. I’m honestly not sure if that is more or less offensive than what they originally assumed he meant.

Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin—pair that with our reading from Romans, where Paul writes: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and we are left to assume that all of us are slaves to sin. In fact, in a prayer of confession that we often use, we say the words: we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We say the very thing that Jesus says, and that Paul reiterates: we are slaves to sin.

But what does it mean to be captive to sin? To think about that question, I want to look at what happens just before Jesus says this in the Gospel of John. When we read these lessons in church, we always have just a short snippet of a much larger narrative. And we have to, or else we’d be here for hours each week. But sometimes it’s helpful to see what’s going on around the piece that we read. Because Jesus didn’t just start talking about freedom from sin out of the blue.

Jesus had been teaching his disciples, and the other Jews who believed in him, when the scribes and Pharisees who didn’t believe in him brought a woman before him. “Teacher,” they said, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. The law says we are to stone such women. What do you say?”

It’s admitted that this is a test. They want to catch Jesus making a mistake, so that they might bring a charge against him. Jesus bends over and writes in the dirt. We’re never told what he writes. But he straightens up and says: “Let anyone who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And one by one, they leave, until it is just the woman and Jesus. “Where are they?” Jesus asks her, “has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replies.

Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  Being captive to sin means that we’re stuck in this vicious circle where we know there’s something wrong, but we can’t do anything about it. Sin becomes a power over us, and we are unable to do the right or just thing. Instead, we try to justify ourselves.

Like the Pharisees and scribes, we can feel the weight of our sin—of our inadequacies or our vulnerability—and we try to cover it up by pointing the finger at others, by blaming, by making excuses, by working harder, by never taking a day off.  We try to cover it up by putting our trust in our ability to at least not be as awful as everyone else.

That way doesn’t lead to freedom, Jesus says, but there is a way that does. When we are able to accept that we are, in fact, in need of help, the way forward is there. Stop trying to free yourself from what binds you—for it is God who will make you free. It is God who calls us daughters and sons and gives us a place in the household. We are justified by God’s grace as a gift. We are set free from sin—from needing to prove ourselves, from seeking glory, from hurting one another—not by anything we have done, but because of God’s righteousness. And that freedom is found in relationship. Relationship with Jesus, relationship with God. A place in God’s household forever, not as slaves, but as children.

Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation over 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517. We still mark that event today in our church, not to celebrate the history or to remind ourselves what happened. We still commemorate the Reformation because we still need to hear its truths today. Luther and the Reformers sought to invite Christians into a new vision of the possibility of genuine relationship with God, of the promise of forgiveness predicated not upon what we have done but upon what Christ has done.

We are justified by God’s grace as gift, Paul wrote in the first century. We still need to hear that unbelievable promise today: God’s love is not something we can earn, because we already have it. “The truth will set you free,” says Jesus. Free from the need to prove ourselves. Free from the need to earn our place in the household. Free from the guilt and shame that we feel when we don’t measure up. Free to experience God’s love—with no strings attached—and to let that love permeate every part of lives. Free from living the cycles of sin and free to live God’s way of righteousness.

If you continue in my word, you will be my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. May the truth of God’s unconditional, unearned love and grace set us free this day, and every day. Amen.

Wrestling with God

What is prayer? How do we pray? One of my professors once described prayer as “buzzing God’s ear with God’s promises.” Reminding God of the things that God promised to do: establish justice and mercy, peace and wholeness. There’s a couple examples of prayer in our readings for Sunday: Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow, and Jacob’s wrestling match with God. What about you? Is this an apt description of your prayer life, or do you have another metaphor to share?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was in Target recently, I noticed a young boy shopping with his mom. He was maybe eight or nine years old. And he was jogging next to the cart she was pushing, carrying a baseball bat. He was trying to convince his mom to let him put the bat in the cart. “No,” she said, “that’s not what we’re shopping for today.” As I turned down another aisle, I could hear him begin to explain his reasons for needing this particular baseball bat.

I saw them later again in another section of the store. The bat wasn’t in the cart yet, but his mom also hadn’t made him put it back. “Please,” he said, “please.” He said he would do chores to pay for. He said it was just what he needed to improve his game. He said he wouldn’t ask for anything else ever again. He said it was on sale; this was a great price. I honestly didn’t know whether to admire him or to be annoyed on his mom’s behalf. The last time I saw them was in the parking lot. Feeling very nosy, but needing to know, I peeked in their cart. And lo and behold, there it was! He got the bat. His persistence had paid off.

In light of our reading for today, it makes me wonder—is this what prayer is supposed to be like? Today we read the parable of the persistent widow from the gospel of Luke. This poor widow just wants justice. The judge is a bad man. He doesn’t fear God or respect people—something he openly admits. He gives the widow justice in the end, but only because she kept bothering him. Pestering him. Nagging him.

This is not an easy parable to interpret. Is God like the judge? How can that be? The judge is not a good person, at all. The judge can’t represent God, because we know that God is good. So, God is not the judge, but we can learn from the story of the judge, says Jesus. If even an unjust judge will grant justice eventually, imagine what our good and gracious God will do for us!

Pray and don’t give up is a good message. I can get on board with that being the main point of the parable, but even there we run into problems. There are times in my life when I have prayed faithfully and persistently for things that I just didn’t get. I bet it is the same for you. Why is that? Jesus seems to say here that God will swiftly answer prayers, if we are persistent. And yet we don’t see that played out in our lives.

Sometimes, especially in hindsight, it’s easy to see why God doesn’t give us all the things we pray for. I’ve certainly prayed for ill-advised things from time to time. When I’ve been really hurting and angry, I’ve wanted God to hurt the people who hurt me. Just a couple of strategically placed lightning bolts. God hasn’t said yes to those sorts of prayers for me. Something I’m thankful for after the fact.

But what about the prayers for things that are reasonable? What about hungry people who are just praying for something to eat? What about sick people desperately praying for a cure? What about people like the widow crying out for justice? We know that God is on the side of justice. Why can’t those prayers be answered, and answered quickly? The difficult, but honest, truth is: I don’t know.

I don’t know why, sometimes, even though we’re praying for good and just things, there just seems to be no response from God. And our readings today don’t offer any answers to the question of unanswered prayer. They do, though, offer us another perspective on prayer. Our reading starts, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” It’s not a parable about why some prayers are answered and some aren’t. It’s a parable about persisting in prayer, even when we might want to lose heart.

And in that case, it is paired perfectly with our first reading from Genesis. Jacob wrestling with a man, that sometime in the course of the night, he realizes is God. Jacob is in a tough spot here. He knows that his brother Esau—whose birthright he stole—has an army and might be ready to move against him. He’s scared, he’s defenseless, and out of the middle of nowhere, this man comes and starts to wrestle with him.

They strive together all night. Neither can prevail against the other. When morning is beginning to break, the figure strikes Jacob on the hip, putting it out of joint. But still Jacob will not let go. Realizing who he has been wrestling with, he demands a blessing. What is your name, the Lord asks? Jacob—which means supplanter, he responds. It’s a name he’s had since birth, since he came out of the womb grasping his twin’s heel. From now on, the Lord says, you shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and prevailed. Israel—he who strives with God. Jacob leaves this encounter with a new name, a blessing, and a limp.

What does perseverance in prayer look like? Refusing to let go of God. Fighting with God to demand a blessing. Being willing to be changed, even to be damaged, in this exchange with the Almighty, and coming out on the other side limping, but blessed.

What these readings seem to say to me about prayer is that God delights in those who dare to strive with God. To contend with God. To wrestle with God. Wrestling with God, clawing and grabbing and grappling for some hold, it’s not a bad thing. Wrestling is the opposite of apathy. It’s the opposite of resignation. To fight with God is to stay close, to keep our arms wrapped around the one who alone can bless us. Fighting with God means we refuse to walk away.

Prayer is not passive—prayer is a no-holds-barred wrestling match. And when we are discouraged in prayer, when we lose heart (and it’s honest to admit we will sometimes feel that way), we will sometimes feel like the widow, begging for justice and not getting the answers we want. When we feel that way, the message is clear: persevere. We might not get the answer we want, we might end up limping and hurting, but when God is our wrestling partner, we will come out on the other side blessed. Amen.

 

I’m Grateful

Gratitude is having a bit of moment lately. There have been several studies about the benefits of gratitude. Here’s an article from Psychology Today that talks about seven proven benefits of gratitude. I think talking about gratitude is especially important in society today, when having more or better is seemingly prized above all else. But as Christians, we don’t talk about gratitude in the general sense. We think about gratitude as a response to all that God has done for us. In our Gospel lesson from Luke, the Samaritan leper is able to express his gratitude to God in person and finds himself the recipient of another blessing. What are you grateful for?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“I’m grateful.” If you ask our bishop, Pat Davenport, how she’s doing, that’s the response you’re likely going to get. “I’m grateful.” The first couple of times I heard it in answer to my casual, “How are you?”, I was surprised. I was expecting to hear “good,” “fine,” maybe even “great” or perhaps “tired.” But not “grateful.”

Even now, expecting to get this answer from her, I’m still often surprised. I serve on our synod council, the governing board of the synod, and I know that there are many reasons why our bishop might not be grateful at any given time. A lot of her time is spent dealing with bureaucracy, upset churches and pastors, legal matters. As the first black woman bishop in our church, she deals with a lot of institutionalized racism and is constantly being asked to speak and address various issues. She could easily say, “I’m tired…I’m frustrated…I’m busy.” But instead, she chooses to say, “I’m grateful.” Each and every time.

I don’t doubt that gratitude is something she is truly feeling in the moment, but in saying, “I’m grateful,” she is also choosing her words with care. She is making a point, to the person asking the question, and to herself. There are dozens of emotions we might feel at any moment. Bishop Davenport chooses to give voice to her gratitude. She chooses to practice being grateful.

When we practice gratitude in life’s ordinary, everyday moments, we are more likely to turn to gratitude when we’re thrown a curve ball. What made the one leper turn back after being healed? Were not all of them grateful? I have to imagine that this tenth leper had practiced gratitude, had cultivated gratitude, in his life.

Luke’s gospel says that Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee when he came upon these lepers. If you take a look at a first century map of the Middle East, you’ll see that there is no region between Samaria and Galilee. The two are neighboring regions. But they had a contentious history with each other. A history of exile and pain, of religious fighting and long-bred hatred for each other. And Jesus is in no-man’s land. The space in between, the space that is neither one nor the other.

And it’s in this in between space that he comes upon these ten lepers. They keep their distance, because they do not want to infect anyone else with their disease. What is called leprosy in the Bible could actually refer to any number of skin diseases, some of them not contagious at all, and others very much so. The people didn’t understand what caused the diseases or how they spread, so lepers were cast out from their homes and villages to keep others safe. And in this group of lepers we surprisingly find both Galileans and a Samaritan. Their differences are overcome by their shared status as outsiders.

And these ten lepers call out to Jesus for mercy. And much like Elisha in the first reading, Jesus does no fancy hand-waving or calling on God’s name. He simply tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. That’s what you did when you thought you were healed of leprosy. The priests could confirm that you were healed, and you could come back to be part of the community again.

And so, they go to see the priests. And on the way, they are miraculously healed. It’s not just a healing of their bodies. This is a restoration of their identities. Jesus has enabled their return to all that makes us fully human—family, community, companionship, and intimacy. He releases them to feel again—to embrace and to be embraced, to worship in community, to reclaim all the social and spiritual ties their disease has stolen from them. Jesus found them in a no-man’s land and invited ten exiles home.

And that’s when our lepers take two different paths. One of them, seeing that he was healed, turns back to give praise to God and acknowledge Jesus. The other nine—well, we don’t actually know what they do. The story doesn’t tell us. Presumably, they do exactly what Jesus told them to do and continue on to the priests. They, too, are healed. All ten are healed; all ten are restored to their community and receive a miraculous blessing. The nine haven’t done anything wrong. They did what Jesus told them to, and they received their healing.

But the one turned back. And this one was a Samaritan. This one not only saw that he was healed but returned to give thanks. To give voice to the feeling of gratitude that surely all ten felt. And Jesus blesses him a second time, saying: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. It could also be translated: your faith has healed you. Your faith has made you whole. Or even, your faith has saved you.

Giving thanks gives this Samaritan leper a second blessing: a wellness that runs beyond the physical. He acknowledges what has happened to him, and in turn sees himself blessed again. He’s not any more physically healed than he was before he returned to Jesus, but his ability to give voice to his gratitude has opened the door to a new way of being.

Awareness of what God is doing in our lives opens us up to the blessings that are right there. Being grateful, acknowledging the ways God has blessed us—it doesn’t cause us to get good things. Just as the lepers were healed whether or not they were thankful, so too we receive God’s blessings day after day whether we thankful or not. God is generous. God wills wholeness. No matter who is broken, God’s mission is healing.

Gratitude, though, opens us up to a second blessing. It’s a blessing of perspective. A blessing of realizing just what God is up to in our lives. A blessing of abundance and grace. A blessing that can change our outlook, improve our relationships, and actually make us physically healthier. No wonder Jesus told the grateful leper: your faith has made you well.

Gratitude isn’t about sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that everything is wonderful. There’s plenty in our world that we shouldn’t be grateful for. Gratitude isn’t about ignoring very real problems in our own lives and in the world. But it is about not letting them be the controlling forces in our lives. Instead we let God’s abundance and love control how we respond to things. We let that shape our perspective and rule how we deal with the rest.

So this week, let’s try to practice gratitude. It’s going to be my goal to start and end each day by thinking of just three things I am grateful to God for. I invite you to join me in that. When we give voice to ways God has loved us and cared for us each day, we might just see ourselves a doubly-blessed. How am I today? I’m grateful. Amen.

Size Doesn’t Matter

Have you ever wanted more faith? Faith that would take away your doubts or fears or second-thoughts? Faith that would make you capable of what you needed to do? If so, you’re in good company. The disciples in our gospel are feeling just that way. See what Jesus has to say to them, and what he says to us this day.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The disciples said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” Increase our faith! Have you ever felt like the disciples in this reading? I know I have. Something happens in your life, or in the world, and you just don’t know how you’re going to handle it. You’re scared, or anxious, you have doubts. And it seems that if only you could have more faith, you might be alright.

The disciples aren’t in an easy spot right here. At this point in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. He is on a dedicated journey that will take him to his own death. The disciples might not know exactly what lies ahead, but they have the sense at least that it won’t easy. Jesus has told them after all, that being his disciple means doing hard things. It might even require their lives.

And just before our reading started, he shared more about what it means to be his follower. He said to them, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 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. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And 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.”

And that’s where our reading picks up and the apostles cry out, “Increase our faith!” Increase our faith indeed. They earnestly want to be able to do these things that Jesus says, to forgive, to lift one another up, but they fear that their faith is not up to the task. They worry they don’t have enough faith to see them through. I can’t say I blame them—it’s quite the task.

And, as I said, I think we can understand how they feel. When tossed about by life’s storms, dealing with sickness or grief, with mental illness or addiction, with seemingly impossible political and social ills, we too want to cry out, “increase our faith!” If only I had more faith, then I wouldn’t doubt so much. If only I had more faith, then I would know what to do. If only I had more faith, then…

Jesus’ response to this earnest and desperate plea at first seems terribly dismissive. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” He seems to say that they lack even that infinitesimal about of faith.

But what if he’s saying something else entirely? What if instead of dismissing their plea, he’s telling them it’s an unnecessary one? What if faith isn’t something that you can have more or less of in the first place? What do we mean when we talk about faith? What exactly are we asking when we beg God to give us more faith?

The disciples, and us sometimes, have commoditized faith. We’ve turned it into something that we can have, that we can store up and accumulate. But faith doesn’t work like that. As Jesus says, it’s not the size of one’s faith that’s important. Because maybe faith can’t even be measured in size terms at all. The disciples ask for their faith to be increased. You’re asking the wrong question, says Jesus. You don’t need more faith, he says. Even if you have this much faith (his thumb and forefinger pinching together) it is enough! Even a tiny seed of faith holds tree-like potential. And you have it within you! God has given you faith that is sufficient, even when it might not always seem like it.

Your faith—your faith—has the ability to do amazing things. Even when it feels small. Even when it feels like you need more. Even in the face of great challenges and hardships. Because faith is about trusting in God. And there’s no more or less of that. There’s just trust.

And then Jesus gives an example of what this faith looks like in our lives. There’s this parable about the master and his slave. And it’s good to say that this parable probably makes us uncomfortable. To hear Jesus talking so casually about slavery. But slavery then isn’t the same as what in America think of with our history of chattel slavery based on race. In Jesus’ time, people found themselves as slaves often for a set period of years. It wasn’t based on race, and it wasn’t something that could be passed down to your children.

To hear Jesus use analogies of masters and slaves wouldn’t be surprising, it would just been a helpful analogy at the time. While it’s good for us to acknowledge how this analogy falls short in our time, we can also see what he originally meant. So, what does faith look like in this parable? It isn’t big or flashy. There’s certainly no trees jumping into the sea. Faith is simply doing the task that’s been given to you right now. When one task is done, another will take its place.

Faith isn’t always moving mountains or performing miracles. Often, our lives call us to things that seem mundane, ordinary, even boring. But done in faith, there is no such thing as an ordinary task. It was Mother Teresa who said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” We can do small things with great faith, too.

Having faith doesn’t mean that our lives will be simpler or easier. Having faith doesn’t mean we won’t have doubts. Having faith doesn’t mean that we won’t have trials or temptations. Having faith doesn’t mean we won’t wonder what God is doing in our lives or in the world. Having faith doesn’t mean we won’t have pain or suffering in our lives. Having faith means trusting that we are not alone in any of these things. Faith means trusting that God will see us through.

Increase our faith! The disciples begged Jesus. They had one thing very right: God gives us faith. Faith is something that comes to us, not because we tried really hard or did the right things. Faith comes to us as a gift from God. God gives us faith, and God has given us more than we need. No matter how big or small your faith feels—faith from God, faith in God, even in tiny amounts, has the ability to do amazing and wonderful things. If your faith is only the size of a mustard seed—it is enough to make a huge difference. Amen.