Proper 22 – Luke 17:5 – 10
They were a small church. They were declining. A very small group of them had listened to the older people in town describing lonely Christmas day experiences. With family far away and not travelling to see them, they spent the day alone. With all of the restaurants closed in town and no Meals on Wheels delivery, they were also left with no Christmas dinner. When this small group of dreamers brought the idea of a Christmas Day dinner on Christmas Day to the Vestry, they met huge resistance. That’s a family day.
“Lord, there won’t be enough.”
They’re a small church. Average Sunday attendance is only 48. As they began discerning where God was calling them to serve the Fenton area, they determined that they were being challenged to respond to the homeless n needs in this area. They had no idea what this might mean or how they might respond to the need, and they were excited about where this new dream might take them, so they started renovations to their building. Now, with bedrooms, shared kitchen and living space, they were ready. They decided to become a Family Promise host site. Alone. Keep in mind that we are a part of three separate congregations as we participate in Family Promise and even with only a part of the responsibilities of a week hosting time it’s often difficult to find enough volunteers.
“Lord, there’s not enough.”
They were looking for Sunday School teachers and Youth Group leaders. The kids had grown – in age and in faith. Now the questions that were being asked were really deep. Prospective volunteers wondered if they had the knowledge to answer correctly. Afterall, they hadn’t gone to school to learn the “right answers”. They felt out of their element and way outside their comfort zone.
“Lord, we’re not enough.”
Jesus has been on a roll over these past weeks. One parable after another, one challenge after another, Jesus has been spelling out what it means to be a disciple. The disciples are, perhaps, feeling overwhelmed and they cry out to Jesus.
“Lord, increase our faith.” The crushing challenges about to face them were becoming more than clear and they didn’t know if they had enough faith to face everything that was about to become a part of normal life. “Lord, we don’t have enough. Increase our faith.” They are unsure and, I think, we can certainly relate. How many times in our lives, even in our faith lives, does it seem like we don’t have enough. Enough money. Enough volunteers. Enough knowledge. Enough……
Jesus’s response can sound a lot like Jesus is chastising the disciples. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” Maybe we need to take another look. I think that we should look a little bit more closely at that word, “if” and listen to it in the way that it would have been heard when it was scribed in Luke’s time.
Fred Craddock in his Interpretation Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Luke suggests that this is one of those places where our English translations don’t fully capture the essence of the original language. In Greek there are two kinds of “if”.
Craddock believes that Jesus is NOT saying that the disciples don’t have faith or at least enough faith. In one of the ways you can use the word “if” in Greek, there is an implicit and unspoken phrase added to what is actually spoken. If Craddock is correct, then Jesus would be saying, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, and you DO…”
Jesus’s response isn’t a criticism being offered to the apostles. It’s more like a pep talk! If this is really what the author of the Gospel intended, it might suggest that the apostles are asking for the wrong thing. Rather than asking for more faith, maybe they should be asking for Jesus to help them to trust that their faith was enough for them to do what they were being called to do.
I think that Craddock is right. When you look at the second part of what Jesus says in today’s Gospel, we might get a different perspective on what Jesus means when he says “if you had faith the size of a mustard seed.” Jesus’s words in this second part might seem a little disjointed and they might leave us feeling a little uncomfortable. After all, the whole topic of slavery is challenging for us to hear in today’s world.
Jesus is speaking about slaves and the expectation of the master to have dinner on the table, even after a hard day’s work out in the fields. This kind of metaphor made sense in Jesus’s day. Slaves understood that their time and their work were totally dependent on the desires and expectations of their master. Given the realities of culture in the time of Jesus, I think Jesus is simply reinforcing that the apostles were expected to work, just like the slaves of his story. They are to work for God. Their Master. And our Master.
What if Jesus is saying that even the smallest amount of faith is enough? What if, instead of focusing on a belief that we don’t have enough, we focus on the work we’re being called to do? What happens then? Let’s go back to the stories I shared at the beginning of the sermon. What happened in each of them?
Well, the Christmas Day dinner did begin the year it was suggested, despite the controversy. It continued and grew year after year. The volunteer pool from the church itself remained fairly small. As the years rolled around, something amazing began to happen. People unconnected with the church began calling and asking if they might come and volunteer for the dinner. In the end, the dinner became a place for community outreach as much as it served a need to provide a meal and groceries for those alone or in need.
There was more than enough. An abundance of families of volunteers wanting to participate in a day that offered them a chance to teach their children to give back.
The Road Church in Fenton has moved forward with their outreach to the homeless in the area as they have become a host church for Family Promise. Their first week went really well with an energy that was life-giving. They are still short on volunteers. A quick look at their volunteer sheets show a handful of volunteers serving up to six times in one week. But they are moving forward with future weeks to host already scheduled.
Their next host week is the week of Christmas and we’ve offered to step in and help out if need be. And they already have three weeks of hosting scheduled for next year.
Abundance is being experienced in sharing the excitement of a church grabbing hold of a new ministry and meeting need right here in Fenton.
What about those who had felt unqualified to teach Sunday School and lead Youth Group? Well, some of those who were invited to teach and lead decided to jump in and help out. They discovered that when they were open to learning together with the kids, when they began exploring together rather than simply offering an experience of information transfer into children’s heads, they discovered more about their own faith as well. They received as much, if not more, as they gave.
They had all come together, teacher and student alike, with a variety and abundance of life experiences and God experiences. When we all join in the conversation and share our experiences and our perspectives, we all learn and grow together.
I think this is what Jesus is talking about. It’s easy to be paralyzed into inaction in those places where the perception of scarcity abounds. When we can shift our vision, when we can instead focus on the work God is calling us to do, we discover what Jesus knew all along. God is all about abundance. When God calls us to particular work, God also provides everything that we need to accomplish the task. Everything. In abundance.
“Lord, increase our faith.” Jesus responds that we already have all that we need. You see, what seems to us to be scarcity is, in God’s hands, tremendous abundance. When we can listen and respond to the pep talk Jesus is offering in today’s Gospel, we’ll find that amazing things are not only possible. They are reality!