October 6, 2019: The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost


October 6, 2019: The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17: 5-10

From the Gospel according to Luke, “The apostles said … Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     “That’s not my job!” Ever heard that expression? Perhaps, some of you might have said it. I know I have. (Of course, not here!) In my former career as a Human Resources professional, I found that whenever an employee refused to comply with a reasonable request of a supervisor, their most common response was, “that’s not my job!” And I was always amazed that those same employees could recite verbatim their entire job description and yet, when questioned about company policies, procedures, or even our mission statement, they’d say, “I didn’t know” as if that eliminated any responsibility.

     The truth is, Job Descriptions don’t say, “This is all you have to do” but rather, they describe the minimum expected of employees, hence, the tag line on every job description, “Other duties as assigned.” See, Job descriptions tell us where we start, not finish. I thought of job descriptions when meditating on this week’s scripture lessons.    

     In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, Increase our faith!” And Jesus responds with a lesson about job descriptions. He starts talking about seeds, plowing and tending crops, serving meals, and when to eat, and then he concludes, “We are all worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.” I picture Peter, John, Luke, and the others scratching their heads looking at each other afterwards saying, “Gee, all we wanted was a little more faith. What was that about?” 

     But our Lord’s answer in this short passage from Luke’s Gospel goes to the very heart of what it means to havefaith and be people of faith. See, in response to their asking, “Lord, increase our faith” Jesus shares that it’s not the amount of faith that matters in life. Faith the size of a tiny seed can remove any obstacle. It’s not about needing more faith. It’s about putting the faith we already have into action. It’s about letting our faith become who we are. It’s about grasping the difference faith should make in our daily lives.  

     St. Paul tells Timothy in today’s Epistle reading that faith is a gift of God to be treasured,  guarded, and nurtured. Paul says, “Rekindle the gift of God in you.” Keep it burning! Well, the only way I know to keep a fire going is by feeding it. It needs more wood or paper and it needs more oxygen, or else it will go out. Paul says we must not only guard the faith we already have, this gift of God within us, but keep feeding it and refreshing it with the word of God and the oxygen or breath of the Holy Spirit, otherwise it will be gone. Paul says faith matters because in the end, it is all we have. So rekindle it and nurture it, keep it burning and alive so that faith means something.

     The Hebrew people of the Old Testament had faith and lots of it. They knew what they believed. They knew where they came from, that they were chosen people and heirs of God’s covenant with Abraham. They had a huge, beautiful temple to worship in at Jerusalem – it was a landmark - and, as we remember from prior Old Testament readings these many weeks, the people were devout in making sure they attended all the special services of the Temple. They were there for every Sabbath and every feast day. If anyone wanted to know if they had faith, they just pointed to the Temple. To bring these words into a contemporary setting, there are a gazillion churches dotting the countryside throughout our nation today. To the casual observer such would lead one to believe we are a nation and people of great faith where everyone attends a place of worship and does so frequently. Yes, we have faith just like the Hebrew people in scripture had faith.

But, as Amos, Joel, Ezekiel, Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah kept telling the people of Israel and still tell us today, “Life isn’t about having lots of faith. It’s about living the faith we have.” Faith that is not active, faith that doesn’t change us to the very core of our being, faith that does not urge us to serve the poor, the hungry, the widowed, the orphaned, faith that doesn’t care for and welcome the stranger, faith that doesn’t stir us to share our food, and clothing and housing so that no one is in need, is no faith at all. And scripture shows us that people without active faith perish.

     In today’s reading from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, we hear the depth of grief and wailing that arose from the ruins of Jerusalem after the Babylonians had utterly destroyed this once holy and beautiful city. “But we had faith! We had a marvelous temple that proved how much faith we had. Yes, it’s true, we lived as we chose to during the week: a little adultery here, a little cheating someone there.” (Note Jeremiah’s references to Jerusalem’s lovers. The plural “lovers” suggests infidelity to God’s ways.) But, “Hey, I was at temple on the Sabbath. I believed in God. I knew all the creeds and could say them by heart.” Still, the Babylonians came, and all was lost. Oh, the people had faith, but for many, that faith made no difference in how they chose to live or nurture their relationship with God and neighbor.

     And that brings us to today’s Psalm. You know, a lot of churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary this morning omitted the final verse of today’s Psalm because those words make congregations uncomfortable. But, I believe the day we start skipping over scripture that bothers us, is the day we are finished as people of faith. So let me offer my perspective on this harsh text.

Written during the Babylonian exile, Psalm 137 captures the utter despair of the homeless and exiled Israelites. Stripped of their rights and any voice, and after years of being spat upon and treated as less than human, it is no wonder they sought revenge even though they were people of faith. See, just because someone has faith – even a deep, active, and abiding faith like Job – doesn’t mean they will never be discouraged, bewildered or even angry with society or with God. These were terrible times for the people of Israel. No wonder they said, “Happy will be the one who pays you back for what you have done to us … Happy will be the one who dashes your children against the rocks.” And such words came from people of faith held captive for only a few years. Imagine the sense of despair and hopelessness people feel when they are marginalized, and segregated and looked down upon by society not just day after day, but year after year, generation after generation. This Psalm is a reminder that oppression and ill-treatment can destroy even the hearts of God’s people. It is an urgent call to put faith into action so that it transforms our values and impels us to always uphold the dignity of every human being – even our enemies or those with whom we disagree.

     Jesus says we have all the faith we need, and he is right. We received it at baptism when the Holy Spirit began its work of regeneration in us. But, that work of recreating and reshaping us into the very image of Christ takes focus. Like any seed, it needs water and nutrients to grow just as fire needs oxygen and materials otherwise it dies. Jesus says we have all the faith we need but keeping it alive, that is feeding it through prayer, scripture reading and study, and in service to others takes a conscious effort on our part. Active faith proves who and whose we really are.

      But then, Jesus continues and, you know, sometimes I wish he would just stop. But he goes on to say faith is more than service: it is about humility in service. He describes laborers who have worked hard all day in the field and yet, when they come into the house, they are not invited to sit down and eat. They are always servants and they will always have more to do and often do so without thanks. But Jesus says servants don’t expect to be thanked because they are just doing their job. And so should we. Jesus calls us to recognize that regardless of everything we might do, “We have done only what we ought to have done.”

      Now, this parish is second to none, in my opinion, when it comes to putting faith into action and doing so in ways that make a difference in our lives and the lives of our neighbors. So, like you, I have wondered how these texts apply to us. Is there some deeper message here?  In these diverse lessons of scripture, we hear God’s call to not only put faith into action, but also to nurture the faith we have – to study it and grow it because having faith, keeping faith and being people of faith is a twenty-four hour per day, seven day per week commitment. Such is the minimum God requires.

     So I invite you to join me this week in asking God how we might to encourage one another to continue to kindle God’s gift of faith in, and to, each of us. So much so, that should anyone ever ask, “Why do you live your faith?” we might with one voice, and in all humility, answer, “Gosh … we’re just doing our job.” Amen.