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Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost – October 13, 2019
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.
Dr. Benjamin McLane Spock was an American pediatrician who lived from May 2, 1903 to March 15, 1998, and who in 1946 published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, one of the best-selling books of the twentieth century, selling 500,000 copies in the six months after its initial publication and 50 million copies by the time of Spock’s death. As of 2011, the book has been translated into 39 languages.
Before Spock, pediatric care was permeated by rigid schedules, especially for feeding and potty training. Spock’s predecessors in the late nineteenth century also believed that, in order to avoid spoiling children or making them “fussy,” parents should only kiss them on the forehead and limit hugs and other displays of affection. Yet Spock found these methods cruel and believed that they neglected the emotional needs of children. As a result, he encouraged flexibility and affection in caring for children.
While Dr. Spock and his book have been the subject of some well-deserved criticism over the decades since its publication immediately following World War II, in 1990 Life magazine named Spock one off the most influential people of the twentieth century. When he died in 1998, The New York Times noted that “babies do not arrive with owner’s manuals…. But for three generations of American parents, the next best thing was Baby and Child Care…Dr. Benjamin Spock…breathed humanity and common sense into child-rearing.”(1)
Spock’s book is famous for, among other things, its famous opening sentence, which ranks with “Call me Ishmael” and “In the great green room there was a telephone…” in the pantheon of great first lines: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” I never read Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, but I always knew that first line, and I called upon it more times than I could count when my daughters were small, especially when I became a father for the first time and everything was at once beautiful and terrifying, fearsome and new, for this line seemed to have a faith in me as a father that I was only beginning to have in myself.
“You know more than you think you do” seems to be what Jesus is telling his disciples in this morning’s short reading from the Gospel of Luke. Today’s reading actually occurs just before last week’s story of the cleansing of the ten lepers, and is found in a section of chapter seventeen often referred to simply as “some sayings of Jesus.” Today’s text seems to have little to do with what is just before it, an entreaty to forgive, and what immediately follows, and entreaty on duty. Yet this morning’s text remains one of the most beloved sayings of Jesus, one called upon both in times of hope and despair, a saying that reminds us of nothing less than the very power of God in our midst.
In this morning’s text, the disciples ask Jesus to “increase their faith,” a somewhat strange request given that we are well into Luke’s gospel and the disciples are in Jesus’ physical presence. Jesus famously replies “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.’” Throughout the years, I have heard this saying as being much more about God’s power than about human response to that power. A cursory reading of this scripture makes it sound like Jesus is telling his disciples that they lack any faith whatsoever: If (only) you had faith the size of a mustard seed…
Yet, preparing for this sermon changed my mind. It opened up to me the possibility that Jesus is essentially saying to his disciples “You do not need to ask for more faith before you are of use to God’s kingdom. You already have more than enough, even if what you have is quite small. The issue then is not the amount of faith you have, it is instead your willingness to utilize what you already possess.”
Or, to put it another way, “you know more than you think you do,” or as In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes “You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know.”
Not long ago, I told a story in a sermon about a man I once knew in a previous pastoral appointment, an elderly pastor retired from the British Methodist Church, a man named Ray Wright. Each time Ray and his wife Peggy came for a visit to the states, I would have Ray preach for me and sing in our choir. Ray was a diminutive man in his late seventies, with glasses, a full head of white hair, and a strong and beautiful English accent, and he had this holy gift of being able to show up when I was experiencing difficulties in my ministry, and he always knew how to at once bolster and straighten me out with his well-seasoned wisdom about life, the church, and pastoral ministry.
One day, after hearing the details of Pastor Doug’s Anxiety d’Jour, he told me of a time when he was pastoring in rural Idaho, of all places, when he learned that two parishioners, a husband and wife, whose young son was living on the west coast had had become quite ill and was about to slip from this life to life everlasting. The husband knew that time was of the essence that night for him to see his son once more in this world, so when a member of the community offered immediately to fly him west in his small, private plane, the husband took him up on the offer.
They submitted their flight plan and the wife knew when the plane was supposed to land and her husband was to call and tell her he was safely on the ground. Yet, an hour passed, and then two, and then three hours with no call.
Ray drove to the farmhouse to be with the anguished, waiting wife and mother, and as he sat there at the kitchen table, he said to her, “You and I both know that this looks very, very bad, and it does not look like it is going to be better anytime soon. All we can do at this point is pray and know that the church is with you, come what may.”
As they sat there, Ray noticed a plaque on the wall behind this terrified, grieving woman. It was made of wood and was emblazoned with the words “God is love.” A few days later, when Ray and the woman sat at that same table to plan the funeral for the father and son, he looked at the wall and noticed that the plaque was gone, removed without comment. And yet when he visited her again some time after the burials, as they sat once again at the kitchen table at the farmhouse, the plaque was back on the wall.
Ray noticed it, and he pointed to the plaque and said to the grieving woman sitting across from him, “Had it been me, when I took that plaque off the wall, and would have gone into the back yard and thrown it as far as I possibly could.”
And as he said this, she looked him in the eyes and said to him “I knew I had reached a point where I just needed those words to be true.”
Ray told me this story, and then he said to me, “Do not ever underestimate the depth of the faith of the people God has entrusted to you and has given to you to care for.”
“Increase our faith!” The apostles said to the Lord.
“You have more than you think, and it does not even take much to work miracles,” the Lord said in reply, “The challenge, therefore, is to put that faith to work in the world, trusting in the God who trusts in you.”
One of the great joys of pastoral ministry is giving people opportunities to do new things, things that they could never do if God were not with them. The sweetest prayers to my ears are the prayers you pray at the beginning or end of our meetings or other gatherings. The sweetest reflections of life at Reveille are composed not by me, but by you. The greatest victories in our life together are not my victories, but your victories. The most profound theological truths are uttered, not from this pulpit, but from your lips, in your homes, at your kitchen tables, in your small groups, in your words.
Funeral sermons afford clergy the great privilege of telling other people’s stories. Pastoral prayers afford us the great burden of lifting before God the wounds, the loss, and the pain of the people we have been charged to serve and serve alongside. And yet, the most beautiful creations borne of our life together are the ones that weave our disparate lives and stories together into a rich tapestry of grace that bespeaks the story of God the master weaver, blending your threads and my threads together into something that tells nothing less than the story of God in our midst.
When I had only been out of seminary for a short while, Tracy and I served the poor in the mountains of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee though a home repair ministry called the Appalachia Service Project. One year, as we served in a remote mountainous holler in Kentucky and spent our nights in a disused elementary school, our meals were provided for us by a very small Presbyterian congregation in the local community.
This church had been without a pastor for over a year, and they had no one on the way coming to serve them. Presbyterians call their own clergy, who are not sent by a bishop as they are in United Methodism, and they had found that their potential clergy leaders tended to arrive in town, take one look at the place, and have a sudden sense of clarity that God was most certainly calling them to serve elsewhere.
And for over a year, they found a way to make it work. They looked at each other and realized that this was who they had, that these people were who God was calling (and equipping) them to work with for the foreseeable future. They would preach their own worship services. They would raise their own funds. They would teach their own classes. They would visit their own sick, and they would bury their own dead, and they would do it all because, while God had not provided them with a pastor, God had given them a charge to keep, a community to serve, a God to glorify, and one another to do it all with.
It turned our that they knew more than they thought, and they had more faith then they knew they had.
It is a mistake to believe that faith is all about believing in God. It isn’t. Just as much as faith is about believing in a God that we so often cannot see, it is also about believing that this same God has faith in you, faith in me, and faith that somehow in our life together, God’s redeeming love for all of humankind is made real in our midst and visible to an unbelieving world, as transformation happens all around us, if only we have eyes to see.
There is an immediacy to what Jesus says to us this morning. By reminding us that we have more faith than we realize and need less faith than we believe, Jesus removes so many excuses and so many impediments from our path. Some of the truest advice about parenting that I ever received before I became a father was “If you wait until you are ready, you will never do it. You just have to do your best, come what may.”
Tracy said that to me, and more than once.
If you and I wait until we have “enough” faith to believe that we are of use to God in all the things that God calls us to do each day in our customary round, we will never do anything at all. Like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, God gives us daily bread, just not all at once. The challenge, then, is for us to have faith in our living and in our giving that God’s grace is enough, sufficient for all of our needs, for all that God is calling us to do. Every time we pass the plate, every time we give of our money, time, and talents, we are putting that mustard seed to work by placing it into the hands of the God of abundance, the God who multiplies, the same God who has more faith in you than you may have in God.
You are here. We are here. You have more faith than you think. I have more faith than I think. It is time to put it to work, for the sake of Christ and for the world he died to save.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.