World Communion Sunday 2019
It must be exhausting for the disciples, they have to keep up with Jesus. Not only are they perpetually a step behind, but the longer they follow the more difficult it gets. He just cautioned them against sin, then he tells his friends that they must forgive people who wrong them until they lose count. Is it any wonder they finally throw up their hands and offer a desperate prayer: “Increase our faith?”
My first ever public statement on prayer came as an advisor to our high school youth group. As the group discussed prayer as communication with God, I shared that on my drive to school, I often prayed for a good parking space. Our Christian Educator moderated the discussion, and I think her response was something like, “Perhaps we can think of better examples.”
Oops, I was praying wrong. Prayer is a way of practicing our dependence on God, our faith. Such prayers as my “parking spot” petition seek instead to enlist God to work for us. In hindsight, it does not seem that different than the prayer of the disciples.
We church-going folk often make faith seem like the best thing around. It is, however, incredibly difficult. Faith implies a willingness to deal with uncertainty. To depend on what you cannot see. To trust what you cannot know. And it never feels like enough. Which is why it’s called “faith.” Even two thousand years down this road and it is not uncommon for Jesus’ followers to want to trade their current faith for something a little more substantial.
But Jesus will have none of it. The problem. He tells us, is not a lack of faith, it is a lack of understanding about the nature of faith. We often wish to trade in faith for her shinier cousins, like knowledge and confidence. But those more appealing virtues place the control squarely in our own hands. “Lord, find me that parking spot!” That’s not the nature of discipleship. Faith is less shelter and more sending; less calculation and more chaos.
The Greek for ‘faith” here (pistis) is a noun, derived from an active verb (pisteuo). When the disciples ask Jesus to ‘increase’ their faith, they are asking him to help them be more active in their faith.
Jesus 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.”
The Greek language has two types of “if” clauses, those which express a condition contrary to the fact—‘if I were you” –and those which express a condition according to fact –“if Jesus is our Lord.” Jesus replies to the disciples with the second type: “If you had faith, and you do. Jesus response is not a reprimand for the absence of faith, it is an affirmation of the faith they have.
Jesus is inviting them to live out the full possibilities of their faith. Even the small faith they have cancels out the “impossible” of a tree being uprooted and the “absurd” of it being planted in the sea. Faith lays hold of the power of God with whom nothing is impossible. And it is God who empowers the life of discipleship.
Which is to say, all the faith we will ever need, is right here, within you and me. Right here on this corner. Right here as we begin the to consider pledge commitments for next year. Right here as we are called to care for a needy parent. Right here as we are challenged by failing bodies. Right here as we love our LGBTQ child. Right here as we grieve one we adore. Right here as we address the perplexing task of living in today’s world. Right here!
Fred Craddock tells the story of a church he served in Tennessee were a young girl, about seven years old, came regularly for Sunday school, and occasionally her parents let her stay for worship. They didn’t come. They had moved from New Jersey with the new chemical plant. He was upwardly mobile; they were both very ambitious; and they didn’t come to church. There didn’t seem to be a need. But they were faithful in dropping off their daughter.
On Saturday nights the whole town knew of their parties. They gave parties, not for entertainment, but as part of the upwardly mobile thing. That determined who was invited: the right people, the one just above, and finally on up to the the boss. The parties were full of drinking and wild and vulgar things. Everybody knew. But there was their beautiful daughter on Sunday mornings.
One Sunday morning Fred looked out and saw her sitting, and was stunned to see mom and dad with her. At the close of the service, Mr. & Mrs. Mom and Dad came to the invitation to discipleship. And right there they confessed their faith in Christ. Afterward Fred Craddock askes, “What prompted this?”
“Well, do you know our parties?” they replied.
“Yeah, I have heard about your parties.”
“Well, we had one last night and it got a little loud. It got a little rough, and there was too much drinking. All the commotion woke our daughter. She came down to about the third step. She saw everyone eating and drinking and she said, “Oh, can I saw the blessing?” (‘God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food. Good-night everybody.’) She went back upstairs.
“Oh, my land, it’s time to go, we’ve got to be going.”
“We’ve stayed too long.”
“Within two minutes the room was empty.”
Mr. & Mrs. Mom & Dad began cleaning up, picking up crimpled napkins, spilled peanuts, and empty glasses. They emptied ashtrays and as they took trays of leftovers they met on either side of the sink. They looked at each other, and Mr. Dad expressed what both were thinking: “Where do we think we’re going?”
That moment of truth sprang from the prayer of the smallest of children. There’s plenty of faith to go around, right here.