St. Paul’s – Proper 22 – October 2, 2022
Try this one. The opposite of North is South. The opposite of in is out. The opposite of agree is disagree. And the opposite of faith is…. There are different options available each with a different connotation about what faith is. First, there’s this one. The opposite of faith is doubt, skepticism. This suggests that faith is a kind of firm belief. Then there’s this one. The opposite of Faith or the opposite of being faithful is being unfaithful. That suggests that faith is about honoring a relationship.
But for Jesus again and again the opposite of faith is fear, timidity, an attitude of defeat and complacency. A kind of resignation. In story after story what Jesus calls faith comes down to boldness, chutzpah, audacity, resourcefulness, courage. That’s the meaning he typically has in mind.
In one story, one of my favorites, because they can’t get through the crowds at Jesus’s house, a group climbs up, and digs down through the roof, lowering their friend down to Jesus to be healed. And what does Jesus see? Seeing all this as his house is destroyed, as pieces of his roof flutter down all around him. He sees faith.
Or again, another story. A woman with a hemorrhage pushes through a crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ clothing. Which in those days would have been considered an act of scandalous disrespect to the holy man. And what does Jesus do? He lifts her up as an exemplar of….you guessed it, faith. Audacious boldness. Creative courage. That’s what says faith. And so it’s easy to conclude that what Jesus wants for us is to have as much faith as possible. In fact, a big strong faith… the chutzpah of a hero. And churches are places where such heroes get together each week. A club for the courageous. And so it comes as something of a surprise to find out that this isn’t it at all. It is not what Jesus has in mind. For him, the church isn’t a community of big strong faith. It’s a community of little faith or indeed of no faith at all.
When I became Christian, I was continuously learning about Christian thought and Christian life. I remember coming to a crossroads many times and asking myself, do I really believe this stuff. You know Jesus walked on water and fed thousands with a few loaves and fish, rose from the dead. The whole Christmas story. I mean do you really believe these things happened? I mean really happened.
For me, the more I studied the great minds and teachers in the Christian tradition and in the great passages of scripture., the more I realize that that’s not really the right question. Not quite, anyway. I had a professor at theJewish Theological seminary who once said in a lecture, look, you’re all skeptical, right. You’re skeptical of Miracle stories. Well, of course you’re skeptical. You’re supposed to be skeptical. it’s a miracle story. That’s the whole point. It’s supposed to perplex and astound. If you simply believe it, no questions asked, then you aren’t really astounded. Are you any more astounded than if you simply disbelieve it? You know, dismiss it out of hand. Either way, you’re not taking the story on its own terms.
And I thought, huh? Then I read a Christian theologian, who said something similar. He said when it comes to miracle stories we should neither believe nor disbelieve them. Instead, we should be continually taken aback. Should we believe them? No. They’re miraculous. They’re unbelievable. As we say, incredible, right? Not credible. And nor should we disbelieve them. For who’s to say, There’s more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies to paraphrase Shakespeare. The moment we close the case and declare, yep, that happened or nope, that never happened….The moment we shut it down, the story ceases to do its work. It ceases to astound.
If instead we carve out this space of being taken aback, the space between belief and disbelief, this openness…. And if we return to these stories with an open mind again, and again, what begins to happen is that we cultivate that openness. An openness to the idea that abundance can emerge even in the midst of what looks like scarcity. That peace can emerge from what looks like catastrophe. That the limits of possibility of what we think is possible and impossible, and then those limits shift. Slowly over time or suddenly overnight. It’s like Nelson Mandela said, it always seems impossible until it’s done.
And because of this, because abundance can come out of scarcity, because what seems impossible sometimes does happen. Because of this openness, a kind of courage can be born. Even and especially in the face of catastrophe. And that’s the courage that really counts. It’s a kind of stance in the world where you say, all right there’s a lot here that’s discouraging. That’s true. But the limits, what we take to be the limits of our situation, they’re not the end of the story. It always seems impossible until it’s done. So keep your chin up, you know, have courage, something astounding may be on its way.
After all the mother of all miracle stories is creation itself, right? The Divine poet making the great epic poem of the universe. Something out of what looks like nothing. Order and hospitality out of what looks like chaos. I mean, the walking on water is a snap compared to creating everything that is. And look how the library of the bible handles the mystery of creation. Genesis opens with a story rhythmically arranged. Like a poem itself narrating this marvel. And then that story comes to its close and a second creation story simply begins. A quite different story. In the first, humanity is created last of all creatures. In the second, humanity is created first of all creatures.. These stories are irreconcilable, but reconciliation isn’t the goal? The goal is to keep the mystery open. To keep the astonishment open. To keep our minds open. The creation of all that is the mother of all miracles. It is a subject we could never hope to fully grasp. Rather only to glimpse and to be astounded by the glimpse. And so sure enough, the biblical library offers us a creation story. A glimpse. And then a second creation story. A quite different glimpse.
It’s the same with the New Testament. Here’s a gospel. A glimpse of Jesus. And here’s a second gospel and a third and a fourth. No embarrassment about the differences between them. No attempt to paper them over. These aren’t pieces of evidence. They are windows into great mysteries. They don’t agree on all the details. These differences enrich the collective portrait. It is the Mosaic the church inherits. And sometimes, two or more gospels agree on something Jesus said. But differ on what He meant. Take the famous Mustard Seed Parable from this mornings gospel. If you had faith, the size of a mustard seed, Jesus says, amazing things would happen. Matthew puts this parable in a list of several parables without much framing or context. And Luke in our gospel today has
Jesus offering the parable as a response to a particular situation and the meaning shifts accordingly. As Luke tells it, Jesus is teaching the disciples about the kind of life he has in mind for them. And he seems to be painting a picture of a difficult, challenging life. You know, give up all your possessions, forgive, forgive, forgive even seven times a day, he says. Sounds like the life of a saint, right? A spiritual hero. And so, the disciples understandably are a bit concerned. For these kinds of heroics, they figure, they’re going to need a bigger faith, right? Increase our faith, they say to Jesus. Increase our faith. We need more than what we have. And in response., Jesus says, look if you had faith 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.
In the flow of the story, Jesus isn’t scolding the disciples for not having a big enough faith. He’s reassuring them. That all they need is a tiny speck like a mustard seed or a poppy seed. The disciples are saying if you want us to live generous forgiving lives, you’re going to have to increase our capacity. And Jesus says, no, you don’t need increased capacity. You were born to be generous and forgiving. This is who you really are. And you don’t need a truckload of faith to do what you do. You only need to plant a single seed. The tiniest of all seeds. I mean, you can’t even feel the weight of a mustard seed in your palm. That’s how much faith you need to become who you are. Generous, and forgiving, merciful and just. These things are natural to you. Just as a tiny Seed, will naturally do great things. So will you. All you need is a little faith. And so, my friends, you’re in luck, you of little faith.
And then Jesus takes one more step. He tells them another parable. The upshot of which is that, when we do these things, when we share and forgive and love and respect, we’re not going above and beyond. We’re just being who we are. And because of this, we can do these things in a spirit of humility. They aren’t superhuman. They’re human. They aren’t signs of a super Faith, their signs of a little faith, infinitesimally little. A speck in our hands. And yet if we plant it, wonderful things can happen. Even beyond what we ever thought possible.
Last week we said, a church is a mission of mercy. Sharing resources, and forgiveness and helping to repair the world. This mercy involves faith that is courage, chutzpah, boldness, creativity, but not a super faith. A faith that leads to boasting. No, the church from the very beginning has been about a little faith, next to nothing. A spec in your hand that can nevertheless do astounding things. A faith that therefore leads, not to boasting but to thanksgiving to the One who gives us the tiny seed and who makes the garden grow. Bringing something out of nothing and who made us in that image, the image of God. Each one of us, a little miracle. Making little miracles in our own corner of the garden. It always seems impossible until it’s done.
In the end, the question really isn’t do we believe the miracle stories, but rather are we willing to become part of one?
Where is your faith? Jesus says. You of little faith, Jesus says. That’s the church at our best. A community of little faith or no faith at all. Last Sunday, we touched upon Pope Francis’ metaphor of the church as a field Hospital. Well, many Christians over the years have offered another image for the church. It is a kind of school where we learn to become who we are. The word disciple after all means student. And students, by definition are not those who already know, but rather those on the way to knowing, on the way to courage, on the way, little by little, to faith.