Sunday, October 23, 2016

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Central—23 October 2016—Michael Kooiman

Luke 18
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”


Two people went up to the temple to pray, one a Canadian and one American. The Canadian prayed “Thank God I’m not American, too many Trump supporters, nativists, xenophobes. We have Justin and his ‘sunny ways.’” But the American stood off at a distance and prayed “Lord have mercy on us and save us from this election.”

Two people went to the temple to pray, one a sailor and one a power-boater. The sailor prayed “thank God I’m not a power-boater, the price of gas, the pollution, the awful noise.” The power boater stood off and prayed “Lord have mercy on me for the noise and the pollution, but I can still have fun when there’s no wind.”

Two people went to the temple to pray, a Torontonian and someone from somewhere else. The Torontotonian prayed saying “thank God I’m from the precise centre of the universe (except when I’m at the cottage). And anyone from anywhere else says “Lord have mercy on me if I have to face Toronto traffic.”

These things seem to write themselves. Luke gives us the formula and Jesus gives us the best example, and then you proceed from there. Hearing Luke’s opening (“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else”) most of us can’t help but have a flush of recognition: “I know that person!” There’s usually someone we know, even if that someone is us.

So what is it about life-on-earth that lends itself so neatly to self-righteousness? On one level, it’s seems a natural extension of being intentional. People who make choices in life—what they do, where they live, what they eat—tend to put some care into those choices. And having taken the time, develop a sense of comfort or even pride in the way they live. Confronted by others, those who make other choices or those who live without choices, there is a general tendency to feel superior.

As a matter of fact, those who study conflict in congregations (but not this congregation, of course) discovered long ago that when you analyze the source of most conflict in congregations it usually comes down to preference. Old hymns versus new hymns, cookies versus squares, west versus east, and so on. Conflict specialists (yes, they exist) tend to spend much of their time in congregations sorting through what is preference and what is a real conflict.

But beyond the tendency to feel superior in our choices, there is self-righteousness. Now, self-righteousness is tricky, because on the surface at least it ought to be a good thing. If righteousness is good (and being righteous is being good) then being self-righteous (confident in your goodness) ought to be good too. Right? Well, no, it’s not. And Luke tells us why.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.” Luke is reminding us that one inevitable lead to the other. Confidence in your own righteousness tend to become looking down in everyone else. And that’s the soft version. In the King James Version we get a much more literal translation from the Greek: “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” We should use the word ‘spake’ more often. O that we spake the word spake, friends.

And despising is what the Pharisee did. He literally says “thank God I’m not like other people” and gives us a bit of a list: “robbers, evildoers, adulterers” and then he makes the fatal mistake. He looks around and he sees a tax collector and adds him to the list. This is more or less the point he crosses over from confidence to despising everyone else, and Jesus puts the cherry on top: “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would’t even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

Now our friend the Pharisee might try to do some backpedalling, maybe say ‘yeah, but everyone hates tax collectors,” but it’s too late. He took people that are easy to condemn and he added someone that requires a bit of context. He took people that are easy to condemn and he added someone else who was in the temple, someone who also felt the need to pray.

Interesting people, tax collectors. Then, as now, tax collectors are agents of the state, charged with the unenviable task of getting everyone to so something that no one wants to do: pay taxes. In the Roman world, the tax collector was more of a private contractor, returning what Rome required and keeping whatever other monies they could squeeze out of the people. Hence the hate. But despite this, or perhaps because of this, tax collectors has a special place in the heart of Jesus.

He truly was about the least and the last, the ones the world hates most, and top of this list were tax collectors. And perhaps because he took the time to eat and drink with tax collectors, to get to know their stories, to understand that at least some lived with regret, he placed one at the centre of his parable. “The healthy are in no need of a physician” (Mark 2.17) he said, after being asked specifically why he would eat with tax collectors and sinners. And thank God for that. The minute we begin to judge others, we go from self-righteous to sinful, and then we’re the ones in needs of Jesus.

Soon we will stop talking about the mess south of the border (“Believe me” as someone famous might say). But today there seems to be an important bit of context that is missing from the story that ought to be told, both so we can pin the blame where it truly belongs and also so we can begin to feel for the people trapped in a mindset not entirely of their own making. It begins in 1994.

In the months before he became Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich sent a memo to fellow Republicans with the rather sinister title "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control." In it, he offered words and phrases that colleagues could use to bolster their brand while denigrating the other brand.

So for Republicans, he suggested words like “common sense, freedom and prosperity.” And when describing the other side, he suggested “bizarre, corrupt, or pathetic” along with a long list of others. If I said “Greedy liberal traitors betray and steal from you while self-serving unionized bosses protect the status quo” I would be using words all found on Newt’s list.*

But it gets worse. By the 1960’s, Washington had become the ultimate company town, where legislators and their families all knew each other. People on both sides of the aisle socialized, their children went to the same schools, and they attended church together. Work stayed at work, and people regarded folks from the other party as friends and neighbours. Then Newt Gingrich become speaker of the House.**

Beginning in the mid-90’s House members were told not to live in Washington, but to keep families back home. Weekends were spent campaigning and raising money in their districts, and Tuesday to Thursday was spent confronting the Democrats, now considered the enemy. Take the famous memo, and add the fact that socializing came to an end, and you get the seeds of what we now see in the campaign. Listen to Trump and you will hear words from the memo, plus weak and disgusting, a couple of Donald’s personal favourites.

When we no longer see our opponents as human, when we no longer speak or try to understand what they might think or feel, we spiral into mistrust and hatred. This is the real lesson of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Confidence in ourselves and what we do can quickly become “looking down on everyone else, or to use Jesus’ words, it can become hatred.

And it never seems to stop, like perpetual motion. Listening to certain politicians, the people who follow them, the people who created them, it’s hard not to feel self-righteous, even hateful. But Jesus said “The healthy are in no need of a physician.” So where would we find him, in October of an election year? On Hillary’s plane, or hanging out with Bernie at the cottage? No, Jesus would be tailgating with Trump supporters, maybe drinking Bud and waiting for his moment to share a word of life. And thank God for that. Amen.

*http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article4443.htm
**http://www.rollcall.com/news/for_some_members_families_dc_is_the_place_to_be-229162-1.html

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

2 Timothy 3, 4

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.


The internet is no substitute for proper medical advice.

No, no medical personnel present suggested I bring you this message, though I am certain they agree. Put plainly, you just can’t run to Google every time you have an ache or pain an expect to find the answer. In fact, you might need to tackle this problem head on. As soon as someone says “You know, I think I might have a dose of...” you need to be prepared to say “wait, have you been googling symptoms again?”

To be fair to Google, last year they began to partner with a handful of trusted sites to produce helpful information on some of the most commonly searched issues. Google “sore throat” it suggests the search “sore throat symptoms” (which seems a little redundant) and gives you a list. Underneath you see it comes from the Mayo Clinic, one of their trusted partners.

I share all this because I was struck by a turn-of-phrase found in the reading Shauna shared (“they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear”) and so I googled “itching ears.” I found pictures, I found phrases like “fungal infection” and I learned a new word: oto-rhino-laryn-gology. It turns out that if you have a bad case of itching ears, you might be referred to an otorhinolaryngologist. Use it the next time you see someone stick a finger in their ear: “Have you thought about seeing a otorhinolaryngologist?”

I want you to think of the author of 2 Timothy as your own otorhinolaryngologist, dealing head on with the itching ears among the early followers of Jesus, but before that, we need some context.

2 Timothy is one of three “pastoral epistles,” letters written specifically to support pastors, those in leadership in the early church. First and Second Timothy, along with Titus contain practical advice, encouragement and summary conclusions that are meant to help pastors as they travel about and build the church.

As such, it might seem that this is more practitioners’ material, meant more for me than you, but Luther (of course) would disagree, since we are all pastors (and priests) in the Protestant church. To use a medical metaphor, the health of the body of Christ (the church) depends on each member’s health, with itching ears just one symptom of ill-health. More on that in a moment.

The other thing we need to note about 2 Timothy is authorship. The scholarly consensus is that this material is in the spirit of Paul, rather than Paul, since it concerns the nature and health of the early church, matters that emerge as a concern after the death of Paul. My resident scholar would call it pseudepigrapha (she really talks that way) meaning something written in the style of someone noteworthy like Paul. This doesn’t undermine the words—it is still scripture—it simply places it later than Paul in the unfolding story of the church.

So what about these itching ears? Well, it’s a common enough image in the Bible, that ears have a role in the transmission of belief. Jesus is, after all, the Word Made Flesh, the Word being what we hear God saying through Jesus. Paul himself makes this point in Romans (10.17) when he says “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

Same for the time Paul visits the Areopagus in Athens, preaching about the “Unknown God” that he wants to introduce to them, and when he’s finished some say: “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean."

So Paul and the author of 2 Timothy know that the ear is critical to teaching, both locating the transmission of faith in the ear. And just before the passage turns to the danger posed by ‘itching ears,’ there is a final reminder about the importance of the Word itself, saying “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching,” he says, “rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” And just in case we didn’t hear it the first time, our short passage says it again: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” Notice how ‘correct, rebuke and train’ becomes ‘correct, rebuke and encourage,’ but the lesson stands. Scripture is our defense against theological chaos, saving us from incorrect, rebuke-worthy and discouraging ideas.

Then some got itching ears. “For the time will come, he says, “when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

So what’s an example. Well, if we begin at the beginning and look at some of the earliest controversies in the Christian church, we can get a sense of the problem. We can start with Gnosticism, the name itself pointing to a early problem in belief. Gnosis means “knowledge” but it came to mean “hidden knowledge” in the sense that people on the inside understood and people on the outside did not. This closed version of the church was sharply opposed by early thinkers, understood as a barrier to widely sharing this message of new life.

Gnostics also believed that the physical world (including the human body) is evil, and the next life is an opportunity to escape evil here below. And they were convinced that Jesus was merely God posing in some sort of Jesus suit, not really here among us, more in the Monopoly “Just Visiting” space in the corner. I think you can see some of the danger in these ideas: church teaching hidden from outsiders, the earth as evil, Jesus without humanity—but they are itchy ideas none the less.

How often have you heard someone express the idea that this is hell—meaning this life and the state of the world—and we long to escape. This is garden variety bad theology—gnosticism—that can do more harm than good. Imagine if everyone agreed that the physical world was somehow evil—what would that mean for he earth itself? Or our bodies are evil—how would we treat ourselves and others? I hope you see the problem bad theology poses.

And it continues. Three of the last four funerals I attended I have heard words like “we can’t know for certain where they are now” and it took every ounce of my strength to stay seated. The truth is we can know, and we do know, because scripture has the answer:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
(Rev 7)

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching,” it says, “rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

It falls to us understand and use the scriptures in a way that brings life to our relationships and our community.

Imagine if everyone strived to “love their neighbour as yourself.” Or if everyone employed the biblical model of conflict resolution where you confront someone one-on-one and give them the chance to change their behaviour before telling everyone else. Or if everyone considered the needs of the most vulnerable in society (“the widow, the orphan and the stranger”) before worrying about the needs of taxpayers or consumers?

We can imagine because we work hard to know our Bibles, to put into practice the life-giving message found inside, and to live out the wish of the author of 2 Timothy “so that the servants of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” May it be so, now and always, Amen.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Thanksgiving Sunday

Jeremiah 29
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”


There is one among you who possesses special knowledge in the realm of bacon.

Yes, I have a bacon angel. I don’t want to put anyone on the spot, except that say that I remain grateful that this bacon angel will send a text or email every time bacon goes on sale. (There is a sub-theme here about a certain academic who refuses to allow flyers in the house, but that’s another sermon).

This week, however, the bacon angel let me down. Bacon is on sale at Food Basics for $1.88 just now (stay in your pews) and there was no text, no email, nothing. I stumbled on the bacon myself, thankfully, but there was another controversy waiting in the wings. After scoring the $1.88 bacon, I announced that I was going to add it to the stuffing. Turkey with bacon stuffing.

And this, of course, prompted a deep philosophical conversation about tradition versus innovation, the nature and purpose of Thanksgiving, and the role of bacon in the household economy. In the end, tradition won over innovation, and the bacon remained in the fridge. But if you think you can take hold of the bacon baton, and you have a hollow bird at home, it’s $1.88 at Food Basics.

And I will concede that what can only be described as a traditional holiday, may have less room for culinary innovation than say Christmas. There were no turkeys in Bethlehem, but there were in New England, which is the source of much of our celebration.

Yes, some have tried to claim that Champlain celebrated something akin to a thanksgiving in New France, maybe the Irish or the Scots carried the tradition directly from the old country, but I think we’re mature enough to concede that our tradition is American, brought by Loyalists and immigrants from the U.S., and modeled on what was already happening south of the border.

Even our lectionary of scripture readings, mostly developed in the U.S., has Thanksgiving readings scheduled for the end of November, that are optional for our use, including Deuteronomy 26 (“harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you”) and Jesus’s words “I am the bread of life” (John 6)—the promise that whoever comes to him will never be hungry.

The other choice, which we are following this morning, is to take the regular readings of the day and apply them to the holiday. And it seems to be a good fit. Jeremiah speaks and says to the exiles:

4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.”

It is a stirring commendation from the prophet that has watched the people carried off into exile, and now must share a word of hope. He shares a word of hope that is not without controversy, something we’ll turn to in a moment, just after we review the story of the one also known as “the weeping prophet.”

It begins with Jeremiah’s call, given the unenviable task of telling his fellow Judeans that the end is near. God is going to allow the Babylonians to overrun the nation, punishment for their great disobedience, and Jeremiah must let them know.

It should have come as no surprize. Recalling commandments one and two (worship one God, and no idols) the people of Judah might have know that worshipping Baal, erecting high alters to Baal, and generally considering Baal a good guy would only end badly. So the commandments were soundly broken, and it fell to Jeremiah to tell them what would happen next.

I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.
8 The priests did not ask,
‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who deal with the law did not know me;
the leaders rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal,
following worthless idols.
9 “Therefore I bring charges against you again,”
declares the Lord. (Jer 2)

What follows are dozens of verses that state and restate the ways Judah has strayed from the LORD, and the final verdict:

“The whole land will be ruined,
though I will not destroy it completely.
28 Therefore the earth will mourn
and the heavens above grow dark,
because I have spoken and will not relent,
I have decided and will not turn back.” (Jer 4)

So the exile begins, and the court officials, the leading people, the builders and the artisans are all carried off to Babylon, captives of the Babylonian king. And this, of course, will precipitate a variety of responses among the leading people now in exile. Some will experience only defeat, a sense of utter hopelessness expressed in some of the Psalms. Some will attempt revolt, acts of resistance against the Babylonians that end badly. And some will listen for the word of the LORD, that eventually comes from the same prophet that shared the news of destruction:

4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.

So the real shift is less the transition from sorrow to hope—significant in it’s own right—but the shift from God’s destructive anger to God’s word of hope, the shift from punishment for sin to forgiveness in the face of exile. The people are encouraged to live their lives in hope, building houses and enjoying the fruit of the land, because God can’t seem to remain angry for very long.

And eventually they will return home, and other prophets will provide the context for the journey, but for now they remain in Babylon, urged to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it,” they are told, “because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

One of the reasons that these passages continue to resonate is our own experience of exile. One in six Canadians was born somewhere else and made their way to Canada. Add to this the children of immigrants and you get many more, and then add the rest who are in the land that once belonged to our First Nations brothers and sisters, and we now inhabit.

In other words, and with a sizable exception, we are all exiles: settlers from far away isles, or refugees from America, or settlers, or one of the many waves of later immigrants that make up our land.

And like the Judean exiles, there are a variety of responses to life in a new land. Some continue to weep for the old country, and struggle to find a home. Some become nativist, resisting each subsequent wave of immigrants, quickly forgetting their own story. And some embrace their new land, discovering that exile represents a new beginning, and the ability to “build homes and settle down, plant gardens and eat what they produce.”

As we look forward to welcoming our own exiles, in maybe as little as two weeks from now, I give you the story of Walid, a Syrian refugee in Calgary, planning his first Thanksgiving in Canada. Pleased to learn that the local Co-op store sells Halal Turkey, he is planning a meal of both Syrian and Canadian food. He is thankful for the security they enjoy and the warm welcome they have received in Calgary. He is particularly thankful for school: "My kids now are students,” Walid says, “they study everything now."*

And like all Canadians, he partakes in our shared obsession: "I don't like the weather,” he says, “maybe in one hour, it changes."

May we continue to give thanks, recalling the good land and God’s many gifts, and may we continue to welcome exiles, as we too were once exiles. Amen.

*http://www.calgarysun.com/2016/10/08/syrian-refugees-celebrating-first-thanksgiving-in-calgary

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Make our faith stronger!”
6 Jesus replied:
If you had faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree to pull itself up, roots and all, and to plant itself in the ocean. And it would!
7 If your servant comes in from plowing or from taking care of the sheep, would you say, “Welcome! Come on in and have something to eat”? 8 No, you wouldn’t say that. You would say, “Fix me something to eat. Get ready to serve me, so I can have my meal. Then later on you can eat and drink.” 9 Servants don’t deserve special thanks for doing what they are supposed to do. 10 And that’s how it should be with you. When you’ve done all you should, then say, “We are merely servants, and we have simply done our duty.”


CNN and MSNBC in the car.
POTUS on my smartphone.
FiveThirtyEight.com online.
The Washington Post, who may save us all.
New York Times poll tracker.
270towin.com where you can be your own pundit!
Even the Toronto Star, the paper my grandfather cautioned me never to read, has been counting Trump’s lies each day.

So much ink spilled, so many pixels giving their all, and for what? Don’t we do this every four years? And isn’t this happening in another country? Should we even care? Well, aside from all the heated rhetoric about fingers in buttons, the outcome will have some bearing on us. Recall what Trudeau the Elder said:

Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.

Thus endeth the reading. Profound wisdom aside, the election also has a religious dimension, since the country that cries loudest and longest about the separation of church and state seems to do the poorest job separating church and state. And understanding this, we also understand that all election roads lead to Liberty University.

Yes, that Liberty University, 80,000 far-right Christian students ready to welcome any political candidate who promises to stack the Supreme Court with conservative justices. To that end, Mr. Trump appeared, and in the spirit of the place decided to quote St. Paul: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty.” Get it, liberty, like Liberty University.

Except he misspoke. The candidate, who is not a church-goer, told the crowd he was quoting “Two Corinthians.” Well, the media exploded. Late night comics mocked him saying “two corinthians walked into a bar...” And many on the religious right sounded a note of caution, wondering aloud if calling the book ‘Two Corinthians” was a sign that perhaps the candidate is not a real Christian.

Fair question. But wouldn’t it make more sense to consider his greed, vulgarity, sexism, racism, aggression, and a complete disregard for the truth in assessing his faith? If there are any Americans listening (or reading), I would suggest you assess the candidate’s behaviour rather than whether he knows two Corinthians, or three Corinthians, or a whole van load of Corinthians. In other words, faith is something you see, not something you hear a candidate describe on the campaign trail.

Faith is something you see. Day-by-day, the disciples of Jesus saw remarkable displays of faith, people healed, the dead raised, lives transformed, and yet it left them uneasy. And it’s in the context of that unease we get the reading Edna shared:

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Make our faith stronger!”
6 Jesus replied: If you had faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree to pull itself up, roots and all, and to plant itself in the ocean. And it would!

Ah, the mustard seed. That little seed seems to come up time and again in the gospels, and generally in two ways. The first way is a parable about something small becoming large, or something small doing something large beyond our first expectations. So the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—smallest seed becomes a shrub large enough for birds to enjoy. Or yeast in a measure of flour, or treasure hidden in field.

The second way begins in disappointment, when the disciples fail in some way or feel inadequate. So Luke 17 opens with Jesus’ command to forgive someone who is truly sorry, even if they mistreat you seven times in a single day. Another mustard seed passage follows the disciples failure to cast out demons, and another follows Jesus’ unlikely decision to punish the fig tree. Failing at forgiveness, failing at casting out demons, failing to fathom the fig tree’s fate, the disciples ask for more faith.

“If you had faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree to pull itself up, roots and all, and to plant itself in the ocean. And it would!”

And this, of course, opens another question: this time the question of what is moving where. Because Matthew, who is also busy reporting on faith like a mustard seed, isn’t moving trees in the ocean, he’s moving mountains:

“Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move.”

Suddenly we’re moving mountains, which of course, takes us back to St. Paul:

“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Now you’re back at some summer wedding in your mind’s eye, but come back. We have a problem to solve, and I can’t do it all by myself.

Taken together—the miracles of Jesus, the potential of the mustard seed, the promise that faith can move mountains—the most predictable part of the whole narrative are the words “make our faith stronger!” You can’t walk beside the son of the Most High, see the lame walk and the blind see, and not want to possess such faith.

So we have to pause then, and ask the question “who is doing what to whom?” What is truly happening when people are healed and fig trees wither and mountains move? God is at work in the world. In other words, if faith is something you see, then faith is the ability to witness what God is already doing around us.

Faith is the ability to witness what God is already doing around us. And this faith seems to ebb and flow. Back in the 80’s, when good schools like Queen’s were teaching theology to young impressionable people like me, we seemed to lose sight of this overall lesson, opting instead to become church-based sociologists rather than people of faith. Let me explain.

Back in the boom years, the years when we so busy managing hundreds of children in the church school and weekends of weddings, we didn’t have a lot of time left over for the community. People had needs, but we tended to meet the need with benevolent funds rather than outreach, easier to say ‘take the cash and go’ then complicate things by asking how else we could help.

Then when the boom ended, we had the time to look at our communities once more. We quickly realized that we were disconnected from the communities that surround our churches, and we turned to the academy for tools to help. Looking through the eyes of the sociologist, we saw societal problems begging for society-wide solutions and were often immobilized by the need.

Then someone suggested another tack: why not look instead through the eyes of faith—the ability to witness what God is already doing around us. People in the community were already busy doing Matthew 25 work—feeding the hungry and clothing the naked—surely this was God at work.

So we revised our approach from deciding what we thought should happen (God’s church has a mission) to what God is already doing (God’s mission has a church). We used the eyes of faith to see that God is already busy moving mountains and turning the smallest things into something big.

In a few moments, we will turn something small into something big. We will gather at the table and transform simple bread and grape juice into a story of redemption and future hope. We will come as individuals and leave as a whole, remade through Christ’s own presence.

May God bless us with the eyes of faith, the ability to witness what God is already doing in us and others by the Spirit, Amen.