Sunday, October 7, 2007

19 Pentecost

Oct. 7, 2007
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND

Luke 17.5-10

“Increase our faith!” the apostles ask Jesus in today’s Gospel. And two thousand years later, we—Jesus disciples now—are still asking him to do that for us as well.

It’s an honest prayer. We want our faith increased. We want to believe more fully than we do. We want to believe in a way that will eliminate doubt. And we are afraid that with little faith and a lot of doubt, doubt will win out.

We are crying out to Jesus—like those first apostles—for more than we have. But Jesus—in that way that Jesus does—turns it all back on us. He tells us that we shouldn’t be worrying about increasing our faith. We should be concerned about the mustard seed of faith that we have right now.

Think of that for a moment. Think of what a mustard seed is. It’s one of the smallest things we can see. It’s a minuscule thing. It’s the side of a period at the end of a sentence or a dot on a lower-case i. It is that small.

Jesus tells us that with that little bit of faith—that small amount of real faith—we can tell a mulberry tree, “be uprooted and planted in the sea.” In other words, those of us who are afraid that a whole lot of doubt can overwhelm that little bit of faith have nothing to worry about. Because even a little bit of faith—even a mustard seed of faith—is more powerful than an ocean of doubt.

A little seed of faith is the most powerful thing in the world, because that tiny amount of faith will drive us and push us and motivate us to do incredible things. And doing those things, spurred on and nourished by that little bit of faith, does make a difference in the world.
But we do occasionally have to ask ourselves, “Why are we doing these things?” Because that is the real heart of today’s Gospel reading: Why are we doing what we do? Why do we do what we do as Christians? Are we coming to church on Sunday, or being kind to people, or praying, or attempting to live out our Gospel life of attempting to bring the Kingdom of God into our midst simply because we are looking for a reward? Are we doing the things we do as Christians simply because we believe there is someone somewhere marking down everything we do and hoping that, when the time comes, our good deeds will outweigh our bad and we can go to heaven? Or are we doing we are doing—attempting in whatever small ways we can—to bring the Kingdom of God into our lives and the lives of those around us—simply because Jesus tells us this is what we must do?

Because what we should be saying, when we live as Christians—when we love God and love each other as ourselves—“we’ve done only what we have ought to done.” And that is the message we take away from our Gospel reading.

We should, in some sense, live our Christianity without any sense of reward. We should do the good things in our lives blindly, mindlessly. Now, when I say mindlessly, I don’t mean stupidly, nor am I saying we should make ourselves dumb. I am using the word mindless here in the same sense that Buddhists would use that word. In Buddhism and in most forms of meditation, one of the instructions is to “clear one’s mind.” That’s what we should do as Christians. We should clear our minds of everything expect doing what we ought to do. We should do what we ought to do for the sole intention of doing good and not for the intention of receiving something in return for what we do.

Because the fact is, our place in the next world—our place in the heaven, with God—isn’t going to be guaranteed by the things we do. If it did, that might not be such a bad thing, really. I mean, certainly, we could almost expect that we would have a place. All we would have to do is go feed some needy people at the Salvation Army or at a soup kitchen. We could just go and give some money to the homeless. We could go and visit the sick, or act nice and friendly all the time and smile at people. We could go to church every Sunday and pray and fast and study the Bible. And all of those things are good things—things we SHOULD be doing.

But we sometimes have to reevaluate why we are doing those things. We have to face the fact sometimes that we do those things to help bring the Kingdom of God about in our midst, but we don’t do those things just because we think we are going to get a personal reward for them.
But then the big question does arise: what do we need to get to heaven? And the answer is not what we expect. It’s easy for us to think: the big things are what get us to heaven. The things other people can see—or the things God—way up there—can see. But the things that win us our salvation are the small things.

The thing that wins us our salvation is faith. And all it takes is faith the size of a mustard seed.
A few weeks ago, in one my classes at the University of Mary, we were discussing what it means to be a Christian. As I’ve preached here many times, I truly believe that what it means to be a Christian is to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is what the Gospel is based on. Jesus is clear again and again: this is what salvation is based on. And certainly—when we look at these two factors—loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves—seem at one moment, gigantic and yet, at the same, miniscule.

As we were discussing this in class, the subject of the faith of one of the students—one of my favorite students—came up. This student, who has taken every course I teach, who has passed every one these courses with flying colors, has also been very honest about his faith: he is an atheist. He simply does not nor cannot believe in God. For him, there is not even a mustard seed of faith in God. For him, when he looks outward, at the world around him, he sees no God. And when he looks deep within him, he cannot imagine there being any God. And yet, this kid is one of most compassionate, nicest people you’ve ever met.

Now, of course, as I’ve just said, being nice isn’t going to get us into heaven. But, he does do one thing that can get us into heaven: He loves his neighbor as himself. He has worked hard to put himself through school and to work in the ambulance business. His reasons for working as an Emergency Technician are simple: he does it because he wants to help people, because he legitimately cares for people. He doesn’t do this for any personal reward—he certainly never brags about the work he does—and we are certain he does not do this job because he thinks he’s going to get a reward in heaven.

As we discussed the Great Commandments of loving God and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, he piped up one night and said, “I get that last part—the neighbor part. That’s no problem for me. But it’s the first part I can get.”

I countered with this: “If you’re doing the second part—if you’re loving your neighbor as yourself—then you’re doing the first part too.”

“Excuse me?” he said. “What do you mean by that?”

I said, “You can’t do one without the other. You can’t love your neighbor as your self without loving God. And you can’t love God without loving your neighbor as yourself. If you are loving your neighbor as yourself, if you serving them out of love and nothing else, with no thought of reward, then you are love God as well. Because we truly do believe that in serving others, we are serving God.” And I can’t help but believe that God sees this as well.

This student’ faith might not be in what he considers a supernatural being, but it is in doing small things for others without any thought of reward. His faith in loving his neighbor as himself really is faith as well in the God, who dwells with us and in us. By loving his neighbor as himself—be acting out of that love—he is making a major difference in the world and, in his own way, is furthering the Kingdom of God in our midst.

And that is what we are truly called to do as Christians. That is what it means to be a Christian. That is what loving and loving our neighbor as ourselves does. It furthers the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Now, I understand that it’s very rare that a priest will ever get up and say, “look as this atheist as an example of how to help you increase your faith.” But I think God does work in that way sometimes. I have no doubt that God can increase our faith my any means necessary. I have no doubt that God can work even in the mustard-sized faith found deep within someone who claims to be an atheist. And if God can do that in the life and example of an atheist, imagine what God can do in your life—in you, who are a Christian.

So, cultivate that mustard-sized faith inside you. Don’t fret over how small it is. Don’t worry about weighing on the scale against the doubt in your life. Don’t despair over how small it is. Realize instead that even that mustard seed of faith within you can do incredible things in your life and those around you. And in doing those small things, without thought of a personal reward for yourself, you are bringing the Kingdom of God into our midst.

Amen.

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