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Sizing Your Faith

Sermon - 10/03/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 17:5-6

Our text for this morning seems like an appropriate one for continuing on that theme of "More than enough", our stewardship campaign slogan for this year. The text is actually the lectionary text from the 17th chapter of Luke's gospel, verses 5 and 6:

The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.'

 

I think that probably is the shortest passage I have ever selected for a sermon. So it stands to reason, this ought to be a short one, right? You would be so lucky.

First of all, I want to give an addendum to last week's sermon, sort of a postscript for those that were here. You may recall that that I referred to many headlines in the paper that I used to clip out, on statistics of wealth and poverty. In 1989: "The rich get richer, the poor get poorer". 1990: "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer". 1992: "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer", and so on and so forth.

Well, did you catch Wednesday's headline? It was right there in the paper. You might not have caught it from the headline, but it said "Recession rips at marriages, expands income gap". And then the first sentence of the article said "Marriage is at an all-time low", evidently too expensive to get married in these tough economic times. Saving money, want to get our economic situation settled before we get married. "While pleas for food stamps have reached a record high, and the gap between the rich and poor has grown to its widest ever".

Same old, same old.

So, it turns out real wealth, adjusted for inflation (not that we've had much) of the top 5% in this country increased during the recession. While it decreased basically for everyone else. So for 95% of the population, real wealth was in decline, and we, in the infinite wisdom of forward-thinking during this period of a recession, 10% unemployment, great economic uncertainty, have chosen for our theme for our stewardship campaign: "More Than Enough". What were we thinking? :)

Only Jesus makes perfectly clear in this text that in fact, even now, we have more than enough.

Now, before I get too far in that direction, I'd like to do a little biblical work here on the text. You come to church, you've got to do biblical work, right? Don't worry, we only have 2 verses to look at :). But I want to compare it to 5 other verses with very much the same kind of notion of the relationship between faith and the power to move things.

First of all, in the gospel of Mark, it says (this is Jesus talking): "Have faith in God. Truly I tell you if you say to this mountain 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea', and if you do not doubt in your heart but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you".

In the Gospel of Matthew: "For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain 'Move from here to there', and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you".

Again in Matthew: "For truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, even if you say to this mountain 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea' it will be done".

Then in the Gospel of Thomas -- you all read the Gospel of Thomas, right? Don't look for it in your pew Bible, you won't find it. The Gospel of Thomas is kind of interesting because it's a second-century text (some people think it may be even older), a collection of the sayings of Jesus that tells us about some of the other things that were being remembered in the community of what Jesus said. And not that it has scriptural status, but still it's fascinating. I love this one, from the Gospel of Thomas: "If two make peace with each other in a single house, they will say to the mountain 'Move from here", and it will move". Any of you know families where it's that difficult to get peace in the household? And if you achieve that, you could move a mountain.

Again in the Gospel of Thomas: "When you say 'Mountain move from here', it will move".

And then we have our text for this morning, from the Gospel of Luke.

So my question for you, Bible scholars, is as you look at these, and compare these, what is unique to Luke's version? Let me help you with some color-coding:

"Have faith in God. Truly I tell you if you say to this mountain 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea', and if you do not doubt in your heart but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you".

For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain 'Move from here to there', and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you".

"For truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, even if you say to this mountain 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea' it will be done".

"If two make peace with each other in a single house, they will say to the mountain 'Move from here", and it will move"

"When you say 'Mountain move from here', it will move".

The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.'

 

Ah, look!  Mountain. . . . mountain. . . .mountain. . . .mountain. . . mulberry tree!  Did you like my green & yellow shading? :)


Isn't that interesting? Yeah, Luke's the only one that uses the image of the Mulberry tree. So what's going on here?

I start my work on the sermon early in the week, and I'm reading the commentaries. I start with the text, read the text, then I reflect on it a little bit, go to the commentaries, looking for a little help, what's behind this Mulberry tree business? They were no help whatsoever! They're all scratching their heads, saying they don't have a clue! This is just an odd image. What are you supposed to do with that? Everyone else is talking about a mountain, and Luke is talking about a Mulberry tree.

Now, why is Jesus using a mountain image over here, and then uses the Mulberry tree over here? Just to confuse them?

Well, if you think about it, the mountain image makes sense. If you want to impress people with the power of faith, you pick your biggest, most immovable, inanimate object, and you throw that into the sea. Faith that can move mountains, right?

What's the matter with Luke, did he not get the memo? That the mountain is the symbol of the power of faith? Or does he just have something against trees? You know, he's a developer, wants to cut them all down and throw them into the sea.

I was pondering this all week, I read the commentaries, it's Wednesday, and I'm thinking I've got to come up with something. It's Thursday, my Thursday morning group, we read the text, I'm asking the group, "C'mon, we've got to come up with something!". It's Friday, it's my day off, and I've got to come up with something. It's Saturday morning, we're doing our World of Paul pilgrimage breakfast, having a wonderful time, and the whole time I'm thinking "I've got to come up with something". . . . . .It's halftime :), Ducks are down, ye of little faith, down 21-3, worried. Was I worried? No, no, no :)

Here's what I finally came up with, chewing on this all week long, the only thing that makes sense to me: it's a koan. That's an idea from Zen Buddhism. It's not that Jesus studied Zen Buddhism or anything, just that Jesus has that kind of mind, thinks in that kind of way, particularly Eastern thought, just very insightful and divine and all the rest.

A Koan is this idea of something unthinkable. That when you ponder the impossible, kind of like Alice in Wonderland, Alice who thinks 6 impossible thoughts every morning before breakfast. You know, how she could possibly beat the Jabberwocky, she has to think impossible thoughts. It helps you to move beyond logic. Beyond reason. To do the impossible, to dream the impossible dream.

And so the classic koan in Zen Buddhism is "What is the sound of 1 hand clapping?" Or, "What is the shape of a round square?". Or, "What would the impact be of the Ducks losing a football game?" You know, the impossible thought :).

Well, here's the point of the koan: we typically read this text as criticism by Jesus of the lack of faith of the disciples. If you only had a little faith. But that's not what is happening at all. Jesus here is using a nonsensical notion -- planting trees in the ocean -- to get the questioner to recognize the illogic of the request. What is the request? "Increase our faith".

And Jesus, in effect, replies: "Well, sure, I'll do that as soon as you fly to the moon". If you'll take that faith and use it to make water dry. Or fire cold. And they say, 'Well, Jesus, we can't do that, that's impossible'. Yeah, that's the point. And Jesus is saying 'I can't increase your faith, because faith is not something you can measure like flour in a recipe, or something you can fill up like water in a bottle'.

We tend to think of faith as something you can size. If I only had more faith, then I could do . . . XYZ. If I only had as much faith as so and so, then maybe I could. . . . And you see, what Jesus is saying here is that is not what faith is about. And he replies with this almost comical notion of faith as small as a mustard seed -- little tiny seed. And trees planted in the ocean.

It's not about the size of your faith, the quantity of your faith. It's about quality. It's about what you put your faith in.

Walter Wink, a biblical scholar, says: "It's not a matter of how much you have, but of having any at all. Even the slightest amount can be overwhelmingly effective because it's not faith in our own faith, but simply faith in God. Faith that God is God, that God is able to act in our world. If we believe in God, even just a little bit, it is enough".

While I'm at it, let me challenge one other misconception about faith. One of my pet peeves, people who travel across the country in a beat-up car, and are surprised when it breaks down, come into our office for money, have no money for gas, started out on their trip with no money for gas, and come in looking for help. And we are able to help some, but typically when we ask questions like 'what was your plan? what were you thinking?', they'll say something like 'I was just trusting, having faith in God, that God would get me there somehow'.

Well, stop and think about that for a second. If that's what faith is, it means that faith is about encouraging certain risks, it's about taking silly or absurd risks without any planning or preparation. And you see, I don't think that's what Jesus means. That's not faith, that's immaturity.

Faith is not about encouraging risk-taking (undoubtedly there are risks involved -- the Ducks kicking the on-side kick against Stanford, you know, took a lot of faith :), but that is not so much faith as it is trusting your team. Faith is more about encouraging trust. And you don't demonstrate trust by ripping up trees from healthy ground and sticking them in large bodies of salty water and then hope that they'll grow.

Rather, faith is about showing trust in God by living the life God desires. Showing trust in Jesus by following the way of Jesus.

Now, one more note on this text. In Greek, there are two different kinds of conditional clauses. A conditional clause is something like "If, something-or-other". One expresses a contrary condition -- something like "If I were you". Well, you're not me, because if you were me then you would say "If I were I and you were you", and then it would be, well, I've lost myself :). That's a contrary condition.

The second expresses a current condition. Something like "If I were a Duck fan". . . . well, duh! And this is the latter -- Jesus isn't questioning their lack of faith, he's affirming they have more faith than they realize. The faith of even just a mustard seed.


So the basic message of Jesus is simply this: quit worrying about the faith you don't have, and put to use the faith you do have. Because it's more than enough. Why? Because it's faith in God.

So how do we use our faith?

If I were to ask one question, that I could get everyone to ponder this week, seriously reflect on, it would be this: how do I use my faith? how do I put my faith into practice?

And when I look around this congregation, I see incredible amounts of faith at work. Our musicians, that give so much time every week. There's other things they could be doing, but for no other purpose than just the joy of singing and leading us in worship.

Our elders, who take communion to our shut-in folks every week, so that they know we have not forgotten them, they are part of our worship even when they are not here.

Our Sunday school teachers, who understand children don't gain faith through osmosis, but through teaching, good teaching, and sharing the stories of Jesus and scripture.

Our Helping Hand and Good Samaritan ministries, those volunteers who put in so much time -- ministries that are totally volunteer-run. For the sake of the least of these in our community. And now our Sunday breakfast, how many helped out this morning? Good crew of folks who are helping, and people who came for a free breakfast, for many of those folks, the only free breakfast on the weekend, here, and now twice a month that we are offering that.

I used the example of Peter Straton in our first service, that I think is a great example of faith. If you follow letters-to-the-editor, he's a name that's in there almost every month, and he'd write more letters if the Register Guard would let him. Often on the very same topics we talk about. His last letter we really got a kick out of, because it was almost as if he knew my sermon before I preached it. On Monday morning, I opened the paper, and here's this letter from one of our members, almost exactly on what I preached on, and of course he had to submit it a week before.

Mildred, growing things in our garden around the church, and Phyllis Weare and our community garden and others that work on that. You know, you have that faith, you put that seed in the ground, and you take care of it, you water it, and it produces.

I could go on and on and on. Our office volunteers, our communion preparers, our committee members, our officers, our Mission to Mexico travelers, our Mission to Ecuador travelers, our vision builders. In two weeks, we're going to have this wonderful opportunity to take a tour of all the ministries of the church. We're going to do it in an hour. It's going to be great. We did it once a number of years ago, a little different this year. I hope you can be a part of that, sharing in that, and learning not just what all of the ministries that we do, but also learning what role you might play in choosing to be a part in any of those.

All of that is essential and good and amazing. But there's one more area where the faith of this congregation has been incredible, and without which none of the rest would happen.

As I noted, we've been in a recession, in which the real income of 95% of this country has been stagnant or declining. And yet, quite amazingly, if you've been following along in our bulletin regarding our donations, we're over 100% of where we were last year, and what we set out as an ambitious budget for this year. 19 years, going on 20, I have been in this congregation, I don't think that's ever happened. Last year I turned over the Resource Ministry to April (Oristano) -- I guess I should have done that a long time ago! Where were you? And the lay leaders leading that, it truly is a wonderful thing to witness.

And how can that be in this economic time? There are many reasons -- new new members have really stepped up to the plate, and that's part of it. But mostly, I attribute it to the faith people have that giving back to God is not an obligation but a joy. It's not a burden, but a blessing. It's not a duty, but an opportunity.

And people who truly know that, and know that God indeed has given them more than enough, and especially those people who know that 905 is more than enough and giving back 10%, a tithe, back to God, is part of their faith. And then there are those who go even further yet, and see the tithe not as a ceiling but as a floor. Not as a goal they set for their giving, but as a foundation of their faith.

And then we have those who take Marcus Borg's challenge seriously, who challenges us to match all of our charitable giving with giving to social change and economic justice movements. And he says if we would do that, that would truly make a tremendous difference.

I ran across a phenomenal statistic in the Christian Century this week from David Beckman, Bread for the World President, who said if you take all of the giving to charitable causes to feed people (so, take our Sunday breakfast, take the sack lunches, the food boxes that churches and nonprofits give out, take all of Food for Lane County, all of the food bank systems, Second Harvest, take all of that charitable giving to provide people with enough so that nobody has to hunger in this country) and that amounts to 6% of that effort to feed people.

94% comes from the government. And if we put all of our emphasis on that 6% and we don't pay attention to the 94%, what's going to happen? I have great concern that that's where we're headed in this country. A lot of folks want to reduce the size of government. If you're reducing the size of government, you are making people hungry. And folks, churches cannot make up that gap.

And that worries me.

Most are aware that we have taken as one of our 'mottos': Transforming lives, Transforming Christianity, Transforming the world. We have set some ambitious goals for ourselves, to grow this congregation, that we may be of a size to fit the large mission that we have taken on for ourselves.

This week we received notice from our General Office last year we were in the top 10% of churches in our denomination, of our size, for the number of additions added to the life of the church. Amen? And we're on track for the same number this year, although that may bump us up into the larger category.

But we still have a long ways to go. Increasing our staffing that we need to underwrite, growing the percentage we give to mission (to be a truly global mission church), expanding our scholarship program so that every youth in this congregation receives support if they go on to higher education (they know their church is behind them), expanding the Sunday breakfast, and Good Samaritans, and Helping Hand, supporting our youth ministry, our children's ministry, our music ministry. We desperately need to expand our advertising so that people know who we are, what kind of church we are, and I'm embarrassed by how little we spend on that.

And even while we do all of this, as many of you know, next year we've got to figure out a way to replace our heating system, because EWEB is going to turn off the steam. And our Board is going to hear a proposal on that this afternoon.

So the challenge is there. The simple fact is, none of that is going to happen without adequate financial support.

So hear the good news from Jesus: if you have just a little bit of faith, and you put that to work, it is more than enough.

Somewhere, off the coast of Florence, I am convinced, there grows a Mulberry Tree.

 


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