2 Timothy 1:1-14
A third-grader came home with her first report card of the year and was in tears because of some challenging comments her teacher had made in the report. “But I tried my best,” she
kept repeating to her mother. She had this notion that if you tried your best, the teacher was obligated to give you a decent grade. Once her mother helped her better understand what her teacher’s job was, and what her job was, she rose to meet the new challenges, and did much better in the next marking period. Challenging words are never easy to hear, but they’re often the very things we need to hear to spur us on to grow to new levels.[i]
In today’s Gospel lesson we hear some challenging words that Jesus speaks to his disciples – and to us as well. Let’s take a look at each of these challenges. The first challenge is a stern one – don’t do or say anything that will cause these little ones to stumble. And just who are these “little ones?” – perhaps those new to the faith, or those younger, or those weaker in their faith, or those struggling to respond to Jesus’ teachings. What would be a stumbling block for them? – anything that would cause them to lose faith or to lose their way in life. We’re not to do anything intentionally or unintentionally that would cause someone new to the faith or weaker in their faith to abandon that faith or wander away from the right pathways.
For example, what if a new family comes to church, sits down in one of the pews, and a few minutes later an active member comes along and says to them, “Uh, excuse me, but you’re sitting in my pew!” Not exactly welcoming, nor conducive to the new family’s growth in faith, right? Could it cause them to leave and never come back? Perhaps. Or, if a new person to church goes to coffee hour, and stands there with a cup of coffee in her hand, but no one speaks to her. Oh, everyone’s speaking to one another, just not to the stranger in their midst. Is this a big enough stumbling block to cause her to lose her faith or prevent her from returning to church another Sunday? Perhaps. It sounds like Jesus has zero tolerance
for these kinds of behavior. But there’s more.
The second challenge Jesus throws down is about forgiveness. If someone sins against us, and then repents, we must forgive them, even up to seven times a day! “I’m sorry.” “Okay, I forgive you.” “I’m sorry.” “Okay, I forgive you.” Seven times a day! He’s got to be kidding, right? This is incredibly challenging. Yet forgiveness is essential to human relationships. Not to forgive imprisons us in the past and locks out any possibility for change.
An immigrant rabbi once made this startling statement: “Before coming to America, I had to forgive Adolf Hitler. I did not want to bring Hitler inside me to my new country.” For sure, often the only person healed by forgiveness is the one who forgives – but that’s enough. To forgive is to set the prisoner free, and then discover that the prisoner is you! But to forgive seven times a day? When the disciples hear Jesus throw down this challenge, they respond,
“Lord, if this is what you want, then you’ve got to increase our faith! Your teachings are much too difficult. We need more faith to accomplish them!” We’ll come back to this shortly.
The final challenge Jesus throws down is perhaps the hardest to understand. The distasteful term “slave” is difficult to swallow; maybe substituting “servant” would make more sense to us.
Think of “Downton Abbey” – (I know most of you watched the series; d on’t tell me you didn’t!) The servants there did not sit down with the family for a meal; they served the family their meal, and when they were finished, then they had their own meal in their own quarters down below. Nor did they expect to be thanked for doing their duty. They just did it, because this is what servants are expected to do. Jesus is saying in effect, “You are servants of the Lord. Don’t expect a reward for doing what God commands. Just do what you’re supposed to do!” We disciples cannot put boundaries around our service to the Lord. We can’t say, for example, “Oh, I taught Sunday School way back when my kids were younger; let someone else do it now. I’ve done my time; I’ve paid my dues.” In God’s kingdom, a servant is a servant is a servant. By doing what we’re supposed to do, we are achieving the essence of morality and right living.
Sort of buried in the midst of these three challenges is our main focus this morning – the disciples’ request, “Increase our faith!” They want more faith. According to the Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen …”
Faith is the firm foundation that makes life easier to live. But for many of us, the foundation on which we stand is the assurance of our bank account, or IRA, or stock portfolio, or pension fund, or the assurance of insurance. Many of us stand on the faithfulness of relationships,
marital vows, or other covenants. We place our faith and trust in these things, or these people,
or these covenants, until the stock market crashes, or until we realize that all the insurance in the world cannot take the place of a lost loved one, or until our spouse walks out on us, or until our business associate defrauds us, etc., and then we become aware that we need much more.[ii]
We need faith in something or someone greater than ourselves. So, we also might cry out, “Lord, increase our faith!”
Jesus’ response to the disciples perhaps catches us by surprise. His sharp answer to their request implies that they have misunderstood the nature of genuine faith. They assumed they needed more faith – a booster shot if you will – in order to measure up to Jesus’ challenge for us
to forgive seven times those who have sinned against us. But he tells them – and indirectly us – that they only need to have faith comparable to a mustard seed, and then they could command a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Faith enables God to work in a person’s life in ways that defy ordinary human experience. It’s not about miraculous works or spectacular tricks – even a little faith can enable them (and us) to live by our Lord’s teachings about discipleship.[iii]
Another way to put this is: embrace the faith you already have. A mustard seed faith is sufficient, is more than enough. Yet in our society where more is better, this is hard to understand. We want the biggest and the best, the newest and the shiniest, all the bells, lights, and whistles. But Jesus says to us, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed [and that’s really, really tiny], you could say to a mulberry tree [and that’s a really huge tree with deep roots], ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
For sure our faith does sometimes increase over time. Like a mustard seed, our faith can grow, mature, and blossom. But for this to happen, it needs the steady nurture, the right conditions,
and the patient vision of a long-haul discipleship, which we’re more likely to get when we’re connected to a faith community, to a church that nurtures us in the faith, and to other Christians who share our faith visions. Yet ironically, as followers of Christ, we can accomplish much with the faith, even a mustard seed faith, we may already have, even a simple faith in God’s ability to use us to do the impossible.[iv]
What’s “impossible” to do in your life and in mine? How about refraining from doing those things we all do – and you know what you do and I know what I do – with our tone of voice, snide remarks, cutting sarcasm, etc., that at times cause another person pain or discomfort, or cause another to lose faith – in us, or in God? Or, how about doing something positive, like forgiving others over and over and over again? Or, how about serving the real needs of others? Or, how about just doing what we’re supposed to do? If these are not “impossible,” they’re pretty darned difficult. The good news is that the more challenging the task, or the more weak and unprepared we may feel, the more God can work in and through us – if we’ll only trust in God’s grace. Faith isn’t about us and our ability to get things done; it’s about God’s ability to do the job through us, because with God “all things are possible.”
The Apostle Paul, writing to his young protégé, Timothy, acknowledges the young man’s “sincere faith,” that came from and was nurtured by his mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois. Parents, grandparents, others involved with child-care – do not ever underestimate the importance of your role in nurturing the faith of those entrusted to your care. Faith is always God’s gift and never our accomplishment, but it is nurtured in loving, caring families and faith communities.
Faith, even a mustard seed faith, is a response empowered by an amazing grace that comes from
beyond ourselves and our own efforts. Faith enables us to entrust ourselves willingly to the One we have found trustworthy.[v] A fanciful little story about faith and trust: One day God decides to sow some violet seeds along the roadside to beautify the earth. But as the seeds are scattered, one little seed rolls over the curb and into the gutter. “O God, don’t leave me here,” cries the little seed. But God responds, “Don’t worry, that’s where I want you to be; that’s the spot I want you to beautify.” “But I can’t grow here. There’s no soil. What will I eat?”
“I’ll nourish you,” God answers gently. “I have a special assignment for you. There’ll be some folks coming by who will be needing a sign of encouragement, and you will be that sign.”
“But it would take a miracle for me to do any good here.” “I know, and I’ve got a miracle just your size. Trust me.” “I’ve got some problems with miracles,” admits the seed. “I do too,” God confides, and then continues: “I draw up these miracle contracts and everything is fine until I get to the bottom line, where I need a signature before I can put the miracle into operation. But folks oftentimes seem to have their own plans; they’d rather trust in their own endeavors, and they’re reluctant to sign my contract,” says God almost wearily. “What would be my part of the contract if I signed?” asks the seed. “Just be willing to stand, to grow, and to bloom – and to trust me,” says God. And the little seed replies, “Okay, I’m willing, Lord. Where do I sign?”[vi]
One final story. There’s a food kitchen for the needy I read about called the Catholic Worker House, where they pride themselves in never running out of food. The meals prepared may be with mismatched foods, like all vegetables, but there’s always food. However, one Saturday night they run out of food completely. Two of the volunteers, Fran and Brad, are there alone,
discussing what they will do with no food for the Sunday noon meal. They earnestly pray that somehow food will be there in time. At 9 p.m. that night, just as they are closing up to go home, an unexpected group comes to the back door with five large pans of lasagna, and a big quantity of rolls, chips, and cookies. The next day at noon, over 100 guests show up, and they are treated to a lasagna feast. No appeal ever went out, except that prayer. Now, do you suppose that Fran and Brad’s faith and prayer caught God’s attention and caused the food to be given? Well, not exactly. The food was already cooking in someone’s oven when the two entrusted their anxiety to God. But what may have happened was that their prayer nurtured their seed of faith, enabling the potential for trust to grow larger than their concern and anxiety.
Their prayer held their hearts in hope, filled them with peace rather than worry, and assured them that what they needed would come their way somehow.[vii] And it did.
Shortly we will be gathering for another kind of feast, what we sometimes call the “joyful feast of the people of God.” On this World Communion Sunday, we celebrate with other Christians around the world the common faith we’ve been given. At the table we recognize that we are all recipients of costly grace, abundant life, and fabulous feasts, where even the tiniest bit of bread and fruit of the vine are enough to satisfy our deepest spiritual hunger and thirst. Let us also remember that the faith that we have, even if it’s the tiniest bit of a mustard seed faith, is sufficient for the tasks that God gives to us, is enough for us to accomplish the difficult and at times daunting acts of discipleship that God calls us to do. A mustard seed faith is enough to move mountains; it is enough to cast a big mulberry tree into the sea; it is enough to do the “impossible” by God‘s grace … it is enough, because God is faithful to us. And that’s all that matters. Amen. Rev. Kenneth C. Landall
[i] Rev. Bill Lamont, Preaching Word & Witness, 10/3/04.
[ii] Donna M. Claycomb, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 32, No. 4, 10/3/04.
[iii] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, 1995, p. 322
[iv] Homiletics, Vol. 16, No. 5, 10/3/04.
[v] John Rollefson, The Christian Century, 9/21/04, p.21.
[vi] Arlene Anderson, Dorans (Bethel notes), in “Fanning the Flames,” KCL, 10/8/95.
[vii] Joyce Rupp, Homiletics, op. cit.