Using What We Already Have
Text: Luke 17:5-10
I like the Jesus I meet in the Gospels. I like it when I am exhausted and he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” I like it when I am standing at the bedside of a dying friend and he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me should not perish, but have life everlasting.” I like it when I am feeling lost and vulnerable, and he says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
I cannot say that I care much for the Jesus in our text today. He strikes me as too harsh and demanding, expecting more that anyone can ever hope to give. The twelve followers of Jesus have already left their families and jobs to follow Jesus. They are understandably dazed by the demands of discipleship. Everyone wants something from them and Jesus only adds to the pile of what they must do as his followers. Overwhelmed, they do what any reasonable person would do, they ask for a raise. They want more faith. And, it seems that not only does sweet little Jesus not give them more; he gets a bit sarcastic when he answers them, “If you had any faith, you would not come begging for more.”
In his Lake Woebegone Days, Garrison Keillor writes of a young man frustrated with his Puritan upbringing. The young man talks about his parents for whom he could never do enough. He writes, “For fear of what it might do to me, you never paid a compliment, and when other people did, you beat it away from me with a stick. ‘He certainly is looking nice and grown up’. ‘He’d look a lot nicer if he did something about his skin’. ‘That’s wonderful that he got that job’. ‘Yea, well, we’ll see how long it lasts’. You trained me so well, I now perform this service for myself. I deflect every kind word directed to me, and my denials are much more extravagant than the praise.”
In today’s text, Jesus sounds like that Puritan parent, careful to withhold praise lest it go to the child’s head and reluctant to give credit, lest the child claim all the glory. Jesus here reminds me of the God whom too many people fear and finally give up on, feeling no matter how hard they try nothing will ever be enough.
Once again, I am indebted to biblical scholar and preacher, Fred Craddock, for helping me to hear what Jesus was really saying. He writes, “One could translate this conditional clause, ‘If you had faith [and you do]’.” In other words, Jesus is not reprimanding dense disciples here. He is reminding them that God has already given them a great reservoir of faith. Jesus reminds them that faith is not like clothes’ sizes: petite, medium, large, extra-large, as if some people wear relatively little faith, while others wear a super-sized faith. No, faith is God’s gift to us and whether the size of a walnut or a watermelon is irrelevant. God given faith of any size carries with it the power to cancel out words such as “impossible” and “absurd.”
Some see faith as a magical potion that keeps us safe, protected from the frailties of humanity and the tragedies of life. So, whenever faith is running low, they, like the disciples, ask for more. But, the answer Jesus gives remains the same, “You have plenty already. Use what you already have.”
Years ago, long before the Iron Curtain fell, I traveled to Hungary with a group of church members. I preached in a stone sanctuary built in 1776. As people came forward to receive communion that day, three former leaders of the Communist Town Cooperative stood before me at the communion rail. For the former President of the Cooperative, this was his first time in church in fifty years. Throughout that trip, I saw amazing signs of faith at work in people living amid tremendous religious intimidation and oppression. If any group of Christians could have rightfully pleaded for more faith, these folks could have. Yet, remarkably, they made amazing use of the faith they had.
I returned home only to look out on the congregation I was serving to see faith alive and at work there as well. I do the same each Sunday morning that I stand in this pulpit. I cannot count how many times I have been preceded into a home or hospital room by one of you doing the loving work of faith. I cannot count how many times I have been humbled by your attendance in worship when life was pulling you in a thousand different directions.
I look out and typically see Linda and Beth Neville leading the music at Cove, but today, they are spending precious time with Alice Parker learning more about leading congregational song here, because if faith does nothing else, it makes us sing. I look out and typically see choir members come from their pews to sing what they rehearsed on Wednesday night and today I am watching Walter and company come from pews to sing to the glory of God. For faith makes us sing.
I cannot begin to say how proud I am to look around at the Red Hill School and see a company of sixteen Cove tutors laughing and reading with young scholars who are not only learning to read better but are experiencing the love of supportive adults. I am floored when I head out into the mission field and watch Habitat sit down with residents at Southwood to plan an exciting new housing and business and recreation venture and with Kelly as he persuades donors to make Habitat a priority in their giving and Kristin and Will and Greg and other Cove volunteers who build houses and relationships with future homeowners, and Marilee who makes sure these workers are well fed. I am inspired when I watch folks like Grant fight for decent and affordable housing against considerable odds, Kristel fight for sane environmental policies amid climate change denying leadership, Renee fight for no child going hungry, when hunger and poverty is no longer in our public discourse, Bob and Jan fight for a safe place and a morning meal for those living on the streets, but who are not wanted in our neighborhoods.
I see faith alive not just at Cove and in Charlottesville but in our connections abroad as Jordan helps us partner with friends in Guatemala, while Jennell and Pam help us partner with friends in Haiti. I see faith alive in the health and mental health providers at Cove who extend God’s healing grace in countless ways that we will never know and teachers who light the fire of learning in students who are forever changed and writers who expand our imaginations as they invite us into new worlds and adventures on the page.
Some see faith in a very narrow sense, simply as our personal assent to Jesus. Thankfully, Jesus sees faith through a much wider lens, as that amazing “yes” that you and I say to God when we celebrate the mustard seed of faith that God has planted in us, when we use our minds, our hearts, our souls, our strength, when we are wise and loving stewards of the precious gift of faith that God has given to us, when we pause long enough to take a deep breath and know that we have enough faith for today, for tomorrow, forever.
Earlier I said that there is nothing magical about faith, but maybe I was wrong. For faith brings comfort when we do not think it is humanly possible to be comforted, much less to comfort someone else. Faith brings acceptance when our behavior simply has not been very acceptable. Faith brings forgiveness to us and our forgiveness of others when it would be far easier to simmer in the cauldron of resentment. Faith brings love when we feel as if we could not be more unlovable, much less reach out to someone else in love.
On this World Communion and Peacemaking Sunday, I am grateful for friends who have taught me about faith from Hungary to Haiti, from Alexandria to Atlanta, from Wilmington to Cove. Mostly though, I am grateful for friends, some here, some not, who live out faith, day after day, rarely in spectacular but often in splendid and sublime ways, friends who inspire me to “use the faith [I] you already have.”