Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from October 6, 2013
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St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for Pentecost 20C
October 6, 2013
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Hab. 1:1-4; 2:1-4; ; Ps. 37:1-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10
Yes, it was the wrong thing to ask for. “INCREASE OUR FAITH!” These are the apostles, the ones who’ve been closest to Jesus, following him around. The ones who are getting a real taste of what discipleship entails. And lately, on this road to Jerusalem, they are getting some hard lessons. About wealth. About forgiving who’s offended you seven times in one day. It’s looking really hard, maybe even impossible. “Give me more of what it’s going to take!” ‘Cause I don’t have it.
What do they think more faith will feel like? Is it a feeling at all? is it an opinion? is it a certainty regarding a set of beliefs that makes one so sure that all will be well that he can proceed fearlessly into any situation? What is a sufficient quantity of faith to get us through those impossibly hard times?
And my goodness, the answer Jesus gives doesn’t seem to clarify things. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” Does that mean they don’t have any? And there is this metaphor of the slave, the exhausted slave, I would say. It’s always a challenge to work our way through slavery references in scripture. We have to remember that slavery was their everyday reality. Having slaves were common even among relatively poor families. The very poorest farmed out their children as a way of ensuring that they were fed. The master here, in Jesus’ example, apparently has only one slave, who works all day long in the field and then has to come in and do the cooking and serving. Is there something in here that is helpful? There is something about service without expecting reward. Service to God is not about accumulating merit badges. Perhaps the implication is that it isn’t about reward, which means it isn’t about its parallel, punishment, either. This is a big thing to consider, because you may have imbibed a lot of this idea that the Christian life is about doing the right things, and not doing the wrong things, and hoping that in the end the good column is longer than the bad column, or you will get punished. Please open the possibility that it isn’t that kind of accounting. We walk through life attempting to do so faithfully, doing what we’re here to do. And we have all we need to do the work God needs us to do. We don’t need to be super human or a hero or a saint. What we need is to do our work.
I know I’m not the only one who thinks if I just had more — more time, more energy, more faith — I could do the job God is asking me to do. Perhaps all of us attempting to live faithful lives in the service of God, as best we can, wonder if we have enough of whatever it will take. Especially when we are taxed to the end of our rope and then some. Loss of loved ones. Long term illness. Who hasn’t said: “God, give me strength for this. See me through this.”
Of course we grow in faith. But we grow in faith not because we get more for ourselves, but by leaning on God and learning to trust that God is there. Faith is faith in God, not faith in our own faithfulness.
Faith is not about quantity or a thing, it’s a choice. We are better off thinking of it as a verb, as action. It might be understood as a response, where we entrust ourselves to God’s work in the world. We put ourselves there, we walk into it, open ourselves. A response where we are called to be fully present to life as it unfolds. So we move into experience, without knowing quite what is happening and never knowing fully what God’s purposes are. Because we don’t fully know God’s purposes, faith requires mindful attention.
A couple of years ago, my friend Susan, who is a Quaker, and I planned a camping trip for ourselves, a kind of mini retreat where we would get away for a couple of days, connect with the natural world, and have deep, uninterrupted conversations. So we picked a site northeast of Baxter, planned our menus, packed up our gear, her canoe, her dog Timmy, and out fishing rods, and off we went. Friday night was everything we could hope for. The campsite was beautiful, right on the edge of Scraggly Lake (which is much more beautiful than it sounds). It’s public reserve land, on map 57 on the DeLorme. We sat in the night’s stillness sipping our cognac and listening to the loons and the rustle of pine trees. Then Saturday morning came. And with it a large family arrived and claimed the next campsite, which was about 30 feet from us. 3 carloads. 4 adults. 7 children, 4 of whom were under the age of 6. So much for our peace.
It was not a good night. The men stayed up until the wee hours talking, and in the still night air they could have been right outside our tents. They were finally driven in by the rain, which meant that when we got up the next morning everything was wet. And everyone was grumpy. The children were whining and crying. The parents were yelling. As we were gathering up our things Susan said to me, “you know, Martha, I’ve been thinking. We’re really being set up here. I feel as though I’m getting a message: ‘OK, you two spiritual people, so this isn’t what you’d planned. What are you going to do with that?’ It gets me to wondering,” she said, “what is my work here? Show me my work.” “Like what?” I exclaimed. It all looked pretty hopeless to me. “Let’s just get out of here!” “I don’t know,” She said. “Maybe there’s a way we can inject some positive energy into this situation.”
Well I had no clue how to go about that, and I’m not the hero of this story. But her words caused something to shift in me. Enter into the larger mind. I stopped grumbling about what wasn’t happening and started to be really present to what was going on. I remember summoning the inner resources to smile at people. I consciously tried to open my heart to them. Which, as it turned out, was not hard to do. 4 children under the age of 6 crying? it was not hard to muster some compassion for that, once I turned my attention to it. We happened to be parked next to the outhouse, so people were walking past us all morning. As we were packing up our car an older gentlemen walked by us, and on his way back he came over to me and apologized for keeping us awake. He told me he was a Vietnam vet; and that he had a back injury from the war that kept him awake at night and he had to get up and walk around every couple of hours. He hadn’t seen his sons for a long time. He was from New York, and this was a family reunion.
This story has no grand finale. Nothing momentous happened, except perhaps for me. I got a lesson in faithfulness.
Of course the work of God’s servants is never finished. It goes with the territory. The promise is that faith enables God to work in a person’s life in ways that defy ordinary experience. That we all can be touched by grace.
Theologian Tom Stella writes “I have come to realize that faith is not a body of beliefs to which I give assent; rather , it is putting my body where my beliefs are. Faith is the wholeheartedgiving of myself to God’s ongoing self-revelation; … Faith calls us to be fully present and vulnerable to life.”
A faithful life is about living into God’s plan and not our own. It’s about being open to God’s revelation, moment by moment. We are helped, or not, by our faith practices, our beliefs, our relationships, our activities, our reading material, our choices. If they expand you rather than contract you, open you up rather than close you down, enliven you, and make you more compassionate, you are opening yourself to the Holy Spirit.
Which is to say, that there is a wider purpose of which we are only dimly aware. The Holy Spirit is always present at each and every moment, ready to transform this moment by grace. What we need to do is pay attention.
We have been given all we need for a life of faith. Right here. Right now. Engage.