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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Mulberry Trees and Mountains

Luke 17:5-10
       What a perfect way for this text to begin. O Lord, increase our faith.
How often do we make this cry? O Lord, increase our faith.
There are so many fearful things happening in our world today, as structures around us threaten and do crumble and fall. “O Lord, increase our faith.”
We are immersed in what is perhaps the most bitter and frightening presidential election in our time, with what many fear will have the costliest of results, and we cry, “O Lord, increase our faith.”
We absorb the news of this week alone: a train barreling into a train station in New Jersey, a shooting at an elementary school, and we have doubt. There are children shooting children, the aftermath of yet another police shooting and we have doubt. There are typhoons in one hemisphere and hurricanes in the other and flooding in our region and fires consuming parts of the west, and we feel fear. “O Lord, increase our faith.”
We watch an African American child bravely and tearfully struggle to put into words the pain and the sadness and fear she feels living community in a country pathologically weighed down by its racism and bigotry, and we feel hope leaking away and our hearts are heavy with despair at injustice, pain and suffering of so many in the world, and we doubt. “O Lord, increase our faith,”
We face sadness in our own lives: personal failures, lost relationships, a devastating diagnosis, and we doubt. We bear the heavy marks of sin, and while we want to believe in God’s mercy and grace at the same time, we plead, “Lord, increase our faith.”
It seems like this is a plea that Jesus would want to hear from his disciples. After all, as he is traveling on this road that will lead him to the cross, Jesus has been teaching and preparing his apostles and other disciples for the kind of work they will be doing. Jesus knows he will be leaving them. You know, if I were Jesus, it would seem a good thing for my disciples to know they need faith for this difficult, challenging, critical ministry ahead – for how could we ever do this work, live these lives, without faith?
They’ve already had a taste of challenge – for as they have traveled together, Jesus has asked difficult things of his disciples. He’s told them to give away their possessions, to leave behind anything that might claim a higher allegiance in their lives than their relationship with God, including family and friends.
       Jesus has instructed them to look out for the countless poor, to love the outcast, to let go of the old ways in order to make way for new life. Jesus has instructed those who wish to follow him to give away money, comfort, even their very lives. Jesus has sent them out into hostile territory to preach and teach and heal with nothing but the sandals on their feet and the coats on their backs.
       Throughout this time Jesus has constantly contrasted the pointless pursuit of greatness (even the greatness of faith and discipleship) with the vain efforts that characterize our worldly attempts to save ourselves, with the humility, love, grace and mercy with which God responds to the needs of all people.
       Jesus says only those willing to lose will ever really win. “Pick up your cross, and follow me.”
       It’s no wonder that the disciples cry out what we might see as the perfect demand for discipleship: “Increase our faith!”
Then we hear the words of Jesus, “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.” You might even remember the words from another gospel, “you could move mountains.” Mountains – mulberry trees -either way, we know that what Jesus is saying is impossible. So what does Jesus mean?
It is here that I recall the words of Martin Luther:
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.”
       Our problem is the same as the disciples’, - we frame things as the world frames them: anything worth having is worth having in large, larger, and largest quantity.
Forget about believing and trusting confidently that God’s grace is sufficient for all our needs. Money is good, and useful, and can do wonders, we think – well then, more is better. Anything worth having, is worth having more of.
       Like so many things in life says Jesus, it isn’t how much you have, but what you do with what you have been given that counts. Trusting in the sufficiency of what God had given is essential for the life of the disciple.

Faith is not quantifiable. There is no “more” or “less.” Even our faith is a gift from God, and what God has given us is “enough”. But what we do with our faith is directly related to the quality of our discipleship.
In baptism, God consecrated our lives as hands were laid on us and the Holy Spirit blessed us and claimed us. God accomplished all this in bountiful love, and God continues to equip and defend us each and every day by grace through faith.
While God has done this for every one of us, the faith God gives us is not for us alone, but for the sake of the kingdom of God.
You are God’s beloved child, and not only have you received the gift of faith, you already have all the faith you need to follow Christ.
That faith, freely given to you, is for everyday living. It was given so that as we live out our lives as disciples of Christ, we can trust that we truly have all we need to serve, to share, and to follow Christ; it is sufficient for our needs.         
How we use our faith, what we do with this gift, is the truest measure of our relationship with God.
I give you the story of Jerry. I knew Jerry and his family, as members of our home church, for many years.
Jerry was of particularly small stature but strong and generous heart. For over a decade he worked hard and had built a good career in finance and as an actuary at a large insurance company in Wilmington. I had lost track of Jerry and his family for the last decade or so as we moved in different directions, but I met up with them a couple of months ago when they visited here during worship, ironically. Jerry told me that in his mid-thirties, he had made a career change.
After the events of 9-11, Jerry decided that his life needed to mean something, he said. He needed to give back. His career had given him and his family a good life, but had come to have little meaning, he told me. Chasing the corporate dream wasn’t what he was meant to do. He wanted to make a difference. Jerry decided that his whole life needed to be lived in service to others.
So, Jerry followed another dream, and became a fire fighter, and for 13 years, despite his small stature, he was known as a powerhouse. He served with integrity. He was often the first in and the last out on a fire call, and his sisters and brothers in the fire company forever kidded him about being the dirtiest – because Jerry always placed himself right in the thick of things, and coming away from a fire his clothing, hair and skin bore the results – soot, dirt, water, tar.
Last weekend, right there in the thick of things, serving others with his life, Jerry was killed, in the line of duty.
Jerry lived his faith, and in the ordinary give and take of his days, he lived a life shaped by his faith: shaped by the cross of Jesus. He wasn’t a big man; he didn’t need to be. God gave him all the strength he needed. He didn’t have a lot of faith; he didn’t need to have. God gave him all the faith he needed -  just enough faith – to serve humbly and with dedication in the calling to which he was called.
People call Jerry a hero. And what he did truly was heroic. But the truth is, he lived an ordinary life and through it gave extraordinary testimony to the love of God and the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. 
Luther said, “I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my Guide.” Through Jesus, we too know our God.
Through the faith given to us in Baptism, through the Scriptures and through the communion of saints, our lives are transformed to live out our faith in the many ordinary things we do each day -
·         Getting the kids off to school.
·         Sitting and compassionately listening to someone struggling with their life.
·         Delivering meals to low-income seniors and the disabled.
·         Writing a thank you note to someone who has shown you a kindness.
·         Greeting a stranger and thereby unknowingly serving as an angel in their lives that day.
·         Reaching out to someone you haven’t seen lately, just to see how they are doing.
·         Praying for a friend or for someone whose name is unknown to you.
Our days are filled with the examples of the ordinary things of life - and a testimony to the grace of God in the faith you have been given.
Whether you are a doctor or nurse, teacher or administrator, student or musician, clerk or beautician, business owner or secretary, janitor or bus driver, spouse or child, homebound or on-the-road, your faith, blessed by God and lived out in acts both large and small, changes the world.
Faith in action points to God’s power, not our own. It points to how God has called us according to God’s purpose and grace, not our own.
Let’s leave it up to God to move the trees. Let us, through these simple acts, tell the story.

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