Monday, October 4, 2010

Pentecost 19: Faith as Role & Place

Luke 17:5-10

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.”

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Habakkuk is an ancient prophet with an odd name, but a very contemporary spiritual struggle. He lives in a time in injustice and hardship. The evil prosper while the average, faithful, hard-working citizens suffer. He prays. He preaches. He points out what is wrong. But nothing changes… especially the part that is God’s to fix. And so he cries out, “O God, just how long is this going to go on? I’m going to sit right here and not move until you give me an answer.”

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever wondered when a wrong will be righted, when a wound will be healed, when an agitator will be discredited? If so, then you know Habakkuk’s struggle with God. You believe in God’s word and you have a clear understanding of God’s will for this world and you have been told that God’s way will carry the day. But sometimes – perhaps many times – it doesn’t. What is wrong becomes the way, what is wounded only gets worse, and the wicked always seem to exact their will.

And so Habakkuk puts his foot down and demands a response from God. And here is what God says: “Write this out in huge letters on a big billboard: The dream of justice is still alive, but things like this take time. If it seems to be a long way off, or if it seems like it is not going to happen at all, you must be patient. The proud believe in only what they themselves can do, but the righteous live by faith in what I am going to do.”

Faith like this can be a challenge. Years ago I had a youth group meeting on a Sunday evening when the Cleveland Browns were playing their archrival Pittsburgh Steelers. I set the VCR to record the game and looked forward to watching that night after the meeting was over. I had hoped not to learn of the outcome, but one of the parents – while picking up their teenager – let slip that the Browns won an incredible game. So as I watched the tape, I knew the outcome. For most of the game the Browns were badly outplayed and losing. And for a while I wondered if maybe that parent had misled me. But in the final 8:00 minutes, the Browns returned not one but two punts for touchdowns and pulled off one of the most storied wins in team history.

As people of faith, we possess a word about where all of reality is coming from and to where it is going. All begins and ends in God. This is our hope. This is our faith. There are times when it is not at all clear how it is going to happen. Those times when we are down by 12 with time running out is when our faith begins to wane.

I wish the Lectionary had included in today’s reading the first four verses of the 17th chapter of Luke, because they provide very helpful context for what we heard. Let me read them for you:

Jesus said to his disciples, “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.”

Yes, forgiving is something I want to do. It is something I know I am supposed to do. But it is not always something I find easy to do. Given this teaching, it is no wonder Jesus’ followers ask Him to increase their faith. To this, Jesus responds with two more teachings. In the first about a seed He says that a little bit of faith goes a long way. And in the second (and this one is really curious), like a slave who comes into the master’s house after a hard day’s work, don’t expect a thank you… put dinner out on the table. What in the world does knowing your role and doing your job have to do with faith?

Let me offer this: in Genesis 4, after he murders his brother, God banishes Cain from Paradise. He is condemned to be a vagrant and a wanderer for the rest of his life in a place east of the Eden called “Nod;” a word that literally means ‘homelessness’ or ‘aimlessness.’ If homelessness and aimlessness is a punishment, than having a place and purpose is a blessing. Take Paul, for instance, who in today’s reading from 2 Timothy describes his own sense of calling and relates how it encourages him even when it causes him suffering.

Jesus tells His disciples that if they want more faith they should invest themselves more fully in the work God has given them to do. In the midst of life’s struggles and hardships and uncertainties, there is great comfort in the certainty of the daily round. Yes, sometimes the daily round becomes the daily grind. Sometimes it is little more than drudgery. But at its best, our roles in life have a way of containing us, giving us a sense of identity and place and purpose and meaning. Faith in the midst of hardship means being true to these roles, being authentic in the work we are given to do. “The servant who keeps on doing what he or she has been given to do,” Jesus says, “will have more than enough faith to meet the challenges of the day.”

From the time I began to understand the bible, the 37th Psalm has been one of the most influential passages of Scripture on my life and outlook. It proclaims much of what Jesus says about the role of the servant, but in a much less puzzling way:

Put your trust in the Lord and do good;
Dwell in the land and feed on its riches.

[Notice the connection between blessing and place]

Take delight in the Lord,
and he shall give you your heart’s desire.

Commit your way to the Lord
and put your trust in him,
and he will bring it to pass.

[This is the final score at the end of the game, although the outcome may look to be in doubt well into the fourth quarter]

He will make your righteousness
as clear as the light
and your just dealing as the noonday.

Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him.

[There is that word again, patience. It seems to be integrally linked with faith, doesn’t it!]

If faith is a multilayered cake, than today’s readings are just one slice. They don’t say everything there is to say about faith, but they do say one or two things that are important. First, faith can be a challenge as we live in the midst of what is not to be. And second, if we keep on doing the things God has given us to do – rejoicing in our role and place – we will find that this faithfulness has a way of fostering our faith.