Sunday, October 6, 2013

20 Pentecost

October 6, 2013

Luke 17.5-10

+ It happens rarely. Very rarely. Occasionally, in our collective Christian lives, there comes along a person. They change things. They rile things up. They challenge. They step outside the box, a bit.

I know what you’re thinking. That is soooo Father Jamie. Thank you. But no…I’m not talking about myself.

No, I am actually talking about someone who is taking the Christian world—at least here in the United States—by storm. I am talking about Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is a Lutheran pastor you have heard me talk about a few times before. I first heard her speak in 2010 in Des Moines, at a Provincial meeting, and was very taken with her style—she wore a band collar on her sleeveless black clerical shirt which showed off the tattoos on her arms.  (You all may remember me talking about how much I secretly wish to have a tattoo, if I wasn’t such a  wimp—so that kind of appealed to me)

I am not alone in my appreciation of her, obviously. Our own Senior Warden, John Baird, a few weeks ago, visited her church plant in Denver, called The House of All Sinners and Saints.  And when Pastor Nadia spoke at the Chester Fritz in Grand Forks this past Thursday, our own Sandy Kenz made the pilgrimage to cheer her on.

Pastor Nadia’s book, Pastrix, is definitely taking the Church by storm. Everybody’s talking about this book. I read it while I was on vacation and liked it very much. It’s full of fresh insight, new ways of thinking about God and the Church, solid theology—and a fair share of cussing (everything I like).  I will probably be quoting from this book again and again, but one thing she addressed in her book was this interesting anecdote.  

One time, while in Clinical pastoral Education, Pastor Nadia visited an elderly woman recovering from shoulder surgery is she would like he to pay for her.

“Oh that’s nonsense, dear. I’m an atheist.”

What I loved, was Pastor Nadia’s response: “Man, good for you. I wish I could pull that off.”

Which is very similar to the response I have when someone tells me they’re an atheist.

I love atheists, as many of you know. And I don’t mean, by saying that, that I love them because of some intent to convert them. No. My love for atheists has simply to do with the fact that “get” them. I understand them. I appreciate them—even if I don’t necessarily believe what they say. And I have lots of atheists in my life!

Agnostics and atheists have always intrigued me. In fact, I was an agnostic, verging on atheism, once a long time ago in my life. Now to be clear, agnosticism and atheism are two similar though different aspects of belief or disbelief.

An agnostic—gnostic meaning knowledge, an “a” in front of it negates that word, so no knowledge of God—is simply someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not.

And atheist—a theist is a person who believes in god, an “a” in front of it negates it, so a person who does not believe God—in someone who simply does not or cannot believe.

You have heard me say often that we are all agnostics, to some extent. There are things about our faith we simply—and honestly—don’t know. That’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing. It keeps us on our toes.  I think agnosticism is an honest response.

But atheism is interesting and certainly honest too, in this sense. Whenever I ask an atheist what kind of God they don’t believe in, and they tell me, I, quite honestly, have to agree. When atheists tell me they don’t believe in some white-bearded man seated on a throne in some far-off, cloud filled kingdom like some Monty Python cut-out, I have to say, “I don’t believe in that God either.”

I am an atheist in regard to that God—that idolatrous god made in our own image. If that’s what an atheist is, then count me in.

But the God I do believe in—the God of mystery, the God of wonder and faith and love—now, that God is a God I can serve and worship. And this God of mystery and love that I serve has, I believe, chosen to come to us, here in the muck of our lives, and become one of us in Jesus. Certainly that is not some distant, strange, human-made God. Rather it is a close, loving, God-made-human.

But there are issues with such a belief. Believing in a God of mystery means we now have work cut out for us in cultivating our faith in that God.

“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 essentially 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, because doubt is so…uncertain. It is a sometimes frightening place to explore. 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 rather 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 really 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’s just 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. Even if we have 99% of doubt and 1% of faith, that 1% wins out over the rest, again and again.

We are going to doubt. We are going to sometimes gaze into that void and have a hard time seeing, for certain—without any doubt—that God truly is there.  And that’s all right to do.

But if we still go on loving, if we still go on serving, if we still go on trying to bring the sacred and holy into our midst and into this world even in the face of that 99% of doubt, that is our mustard seed of faith at work. That is what it means to be a Christian.  That is what loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves does. It furthers the Kingdom of God in our midst, even when we might be doubting that there is even a Kingdom of God.

Now, yes, I understand that it’s weird to hear a priest get up here and say that atheists and agnostics and other doubters can teach us lessons about faith. But they can. I think God does work in that way sometimes. I have no doubt that God can increase our faith my any means necessary, even despite our doubts. I have no doubt that God can work even in the mustard-sized faith found deep within someone who is an atheist.

And if God can do that in the life and example of an atheist, imagine what God can do in our lives—in us, who are committed Christians who stand up every Sunday in church and profess our faiths in the Creed we are about to recite together.

So, let us cultivate that mustard-sized faith inside us. Let’s not fret over how small it is.  Let’s not worry about weighing it on the scale against the doubt in our lives.  Let’s not despair over how small it is.  Let’s fear doubt. Let us not be scared of our natural agnosticism. Rather, let us realize that even that mustard seed of faith within us can do incredible things in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  And in doing those small things, we all are bringing the Kingdom of God into our midst.

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