Thursday, October 10, 2019

Increase our Faith

Sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Crawfordsville, Oct. 6 2019
Readings: Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Audio file

Given the toxicity of our current cultural and political moment, it’s a surprise that forgiveness, of all things, was in the news this week.

In the Dallas courtroom where jurors weighed an appropriate sentence for Amber Guyger, an off-duty police officer who entered Botham Jean’s apartment, believing it to be her own, and killing him, believing him to be an intruder, the victim’s brother, Brandt, offered her his forgiveness, and even more unusually, a hug.

This moment has attracted no small amount of attention, commentary, and controversy. After all, this took place following the all too rare conviction of a white police officer in the all too common killing of an unarmed black man. So to put it mildly the case carries a lot of baggage.

So there are people questioning whether Brandt Jean has the right to offer his forgiveness, especially considering that he represents, willingly or not, the families of all of these other victims who have received no justice. And there are people questioning Guyger’s deservingness to be forgiven, given that her conviction carries the weight of so many police officers who have killed but not been convicted, especially given that her 10-year sentence is far lighter than the 98 years it might have been.

The most pointed critiques are directed at us, mostly white people of good will, who run the risk of seeing this tender moment between two people, and sentimentalizing it, interpreting it as a sad and terrible story tied up with a neat bow, and mistaking it for racial healing writ large, breathing a sigh of relief that maybe we have been forgiven our complicity in a system that oppressed people because of the color of their skin, and that maybe we don’t have hard work to do after all.

The sociological points these critiques raise are valid –  especially that last one - but while Brandt Jean and Amber Guyger  do stand  within the larger context of race relations in the United States, they are also real flesh and blood people, one with blood on her hands and a sentence to serve, the other facing an empty seat at the Thanksgiving table, who have to figure out in their own lives, “Ok, what’s next?” And for Brandt Jean, apparently, what he needed to do to get to what’s next was forgive.

When the apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” it’s right after Jesus demands this of them: “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.”

“Increase our faith!” More like, “Are you kidding me?”

Now, when the number seven appears in the Bible, we all know that it’s a number representing wholeness or completeness, so it could be that Jesus is just using the number for effect here, and doesn’t actually mean seven times in one day, because really,  that’s like a coworker sinning against you pretty much every hour on the hour during the course of a workday. So for the sake of argument let’s just say Jesus means three, which is a much more reasonable number of sins to forgive in a twenty-four hour period. We’ll get a pretty good example of that a few chapters on, when three times in just a few hours, Peter denies Jesus before he is sentenced to death.

Huh.  Cutting down the number of sins you have to forgive doesn’t actually make this teaching any easier. Forgiving even one time is hard, really hard. Increase our faith, indeed.

What we can take from the disciples crying, “Increase our faith!” is that they actually want to do this – they hear this “holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9) and long to respond - they do want to follow Jesus.

But they also know their own hearts.

What do you suppose the disciples are asking for when they ask for more faith? I’d venture to say  they’re asking for something to make the task of forgiveness easy.

So Jesus dangles that in front of them – the idea that even a tiny amount of faith, the size of a mustard seed – or, if you’re not really a culinary type and don’t work with mustard seeds a lot – the size of an ice cream sprinkle – then yes, apostles, with that much faith you can effortlessly relocate shrubbery.

Now let’s set aside the experiment we could run to test whether all of the faith gathered in this room
is enough for us to set up a pretty sweet landscaping business. I just want to ask whether any of this makes sense.

Let me rephrase this gospel, using the definition of faith found in the Letter to the Hebrews.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen!” The Lord replied,  “If you had the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen 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.”

“Assurance and conviction the size of a mustard seed” doesn’t have quite the ring to it that “faith the size of a mustard seed” does, which makes me think that the familiarity of the phrase obscures for us what Jesus is doing here. He isn’t saying if you just have a tiny bit of faith you can do really big things with ease. Instead he’s disarming the apostles and setting them up for his real answer, which is what a slave can expect when coming in from the fields, not ease and a seat at the table, but continued labor in the master’s service.

In essence, Jesus is saying there is no easy way to do this – to forgive, or to engage in the other practices of the Christian life. You have to put in the work. You have to embrace the practices of discipleship, and you have to practice them.

Not quite a year ago, I was with some clergy and lay colleagues at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. One of our group had been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer and was preparing to undergo surgery on returning to Indiana. She asked if we would pray with her before we returned home. We went into an empty chapel, and Canon Kristin prayed aloud while we all laid hands on our friend. One of us sang a hymn.

It was a beautiful, powerful moment, and in reflecting on it, it occurred to me that the beauty and power of this healing moment wasn’t borne of chance, but of preparation.

You see, you don’t pray beautifully to the Lord in a friend’s critical moment without being practiced at prayer. You don’t sing beautifully in praise to God in hope of healing without being practiced at song. To be a generous when someone you love really needs you to be generous requires you to already being practiced at giving. To have scripture as a shield in time of trial, requires already spending time with God’s holy word. To forgive the grave sins that tear apart families and societies, so that we can be reconciled to one another and to God, we have to practice forgiving each other’s petty sins, even seven times a day. And we have to practice repenting of those sins, too.

If Jesus’s instruction to just stop complaining and do the work seems a little harsh, go ahead and play forward what happens if you just obey. Consider its rewards. What is it like to be a community of disciples here in Crawfordsville, where prayer and praise pour forth like springs in the desert (Isa. 41:18, para.) where God’s eternal word in scripture is etched into our hearts, where generosity is as natural as breath, and where by the grace of God the cycle of repentance, forgiveness, mercy and wholeness turns again and again and again to the end that each soul that enters these doors be renewed, and that healing comes to this hurting world.

That sounds like a place where the Spirit is active. As canon for evangelism, I am fury bound to remind you that sounds like a place you might invite someone into.
 That sounds a lot like the kingdom of God.

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