Sunday, October 27, 2019

20 Pentecost


October 27, 2019

Luke 18.9-14

+ Since I’ve been your priest here at St., Stephen’s of quite some time now, you have gotten to known some of my pet peeves. Let’s open it up. What are some of my pet peeves?

Well, certainly only one of the big ones as a priest is none other than: triangulation. If you want to set me off like a rocket, try to nudge me into that fun catch-22.

Here’s essentially what triangulation is:  Sometimes people come to me as a priest and, because they have some issue with another parishioner, they want me to go to that other person and deal with the situation this other person is having on their behalf.

The excuse here is that, since it is a church issue, the “church guy” should take care of this issue for them. After all, I must be on their side of this issue, right?

Now, to be clear, THEY don’t want to confront the person. But they seem to think it’s somehow the priest’s job to confront that person for them and for this particular issue that they themselves see as something that needs to be confronted.

Before we go on from here I just want to be clear: It is NOT the priest’s job to do this. Nowhere in my contract does it say I am to do this kind of a job.  What this triangulation does is it puts the priest not in their rightful position as priest, but only puts them in an awkward situation in which they can’t win.  Stuck right in the middle.

One of the things I have been very proactive about in my ministry is avoiding that ugly situation of triangulation.  Triangulation, as you can guess, is one of the quickest “clergy killers” out there. You want your priest out, all of you have to do is try to draw them into an ugly triangle like this.  

Actually, I luckily, have not really had to deal with triangulation much here at St. Stephen’s very often. And those times when it has come up, I have reacted pretty strongly against it.  One of the great aspects of St. Stephen’s has been the self-reliance of the parishioners. But, in other congregations, let me tell you, they do attempt to resort to triangulation quite often. And…I hear many fellow clergy share stories in which they have found themselves trapped in the middle of those situations.

In the past, when I have found myself being nudged into such a situation, I finally have had to ask a question.  I, of course, tell the person: you need to talk to this person if you have an issue with them.  You’re talking to them will probably be much more successful than my talking to them on your behalf.

But, if that doesn’t work—and it usually doesn’t work—I ask those people: “have you tried praying for them?” And I’m not saying, praying for them to change, for them to be more like what you expect them to be. Have you just prayed for them, as they are? Because when we do that, we find that maybe nothing in that other person changes—ultimately we can’t control how other people act or do things—but rather we are the ones who change. We are the ones who find ourselves changing our attitude about that person, or seeing that person from another perspective.

However it works, prayer like this can be disconcerting and frightening.  Let me tell you. I have done it. I’ll be honest: I have had issues with people who do not meet my own personal expectations.

But I do find that as I pray for them, as I struggle before God about them, sometimes nothing in that other person changes. (God also does not allow God’s self to be triangulated) But I often find myself changing my attitude about them, even when I don’t want to.

Prayer, often, is the key. But not controlling prayer.  Rather, prayer that allows us to surrender to God’s will.  That’s essentially what’s happening in today’s Gospel reading.

In our story we find the Pharisee.  A Pharisee was a very righteous person. They belonged to an ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism that placed utmost importance on a strict observance of the Law of Moses—the Torah.  

The Pharisee is not praying for any change in himself. He arrogantly brags to God about how wonderful and great he is in comparison to others.

 The tax collector—someone who was ritually unclean according the Law of Moses— however, prays that wonderful, pure prayer

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

It’s not eloquent. It’s not fancy. But it’s honest. And it cuts right to heart of it all.

To me, in my humble opinion, that is the most perfect prayer any of us can pray.

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

It’s a prayer I have held very, very dear for so long. And it is a prayer that had never let me down once. Prayers for mercy are probably one of the purest and most honest prayers we can make.  And what I love even more about this parable is the fact that the prayer of the Pharisee isn’t even necessarily a bad prayer in and of itself.  I mean, there’s an honesty in it as well.

The Pharisee is the religious one, after all.  He is the one who is doing right according to organized religion.   He is doing what Pharisees do; he is doing the “right” thing; he is filling his prayer with thanksgiving to God.  

In fact, every morning, the Pharisee, like all orthodox Jewish men even to this day, pray a series of “morning blessings.” These morning blessings include petitions like

“Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the Universe, who made me a son of Israel.”

“Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the Universe, who did not make me a slave.”

And this petition:

“Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the Universe, who did not make me a woman.”

So, this prayer we hear the Pharisee pray in our story this morning is very much in line with the prayers he would’ve prayed each morning.

Again, we should be clear: we should all thank God for all the good things God grants us. The problem arises in the fact that the prayer is so horribly self-righteous and self-indulgent that it manages to cancel out the rightness of the prayer.  The arrogance of the prayer essentially renders it null and void.

The tax collector’s prayer however is so pure.  It is simple and straight-to-the-point.  This is the kind of prayer Jesus again and again holds up as an ideal form of prayer.  But what gives it its punch is that is a prayer of absolute humility.

And humility is the key here.  It gives the prayer just that extra touch.   There is no doubt in our minds as we hear this parable that God hears—and grants—this prayer, even though it is being prayed by someone considered to be the exact opposite of the Pharisee.

Whereas the Pharisee is the religious one, the righteous one, the tax collector, handling all that pagan unclean money of the conquerors, is unclean.  He is an outcast. 

Humility really is the key. And it is one of the things, speaking only for myself here, that I am sometimes lacking in my own spiritual life.

But, humility is important.  It is essential to us as followers of Jesus.

St. Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite saint, once said, “Humility, humility. In this way we let our Lord conquer, so that [God] hears our prayer.”

I think we’re all a bit guilty of lacking humility in our own lives, certainly in our spiritual lives and in being self-righteous when it comes to sin.  We all occasionally find ourselves wishing we could control and correct the shortcomings and failures of others.   When a person fails miserably, or is caught in a scandal,  find myself saying: “Thank God it’s them and not me.” Which is terrible of me! And maybe that’s also an honest prayer to make.  Because what we also say in that prayer is that we, too, are capable of being just that  guilty.

We all have a shadow side.  And maybe that’s what we’re seeing in those people we want to correct.  There’s no way around the fact that we do have shadow sides. But the fact is, the only sins we’re responsible for ultimately—the only people who can ultimately control—are our own sins—not the sins of others.  

We can’t pay the price of other’s sins—only Jesus can and has done that—nor should we delight in the failings or shortcomings of others. All we can do as Christians, sometimes, is humble ourselves.  Again and again.

Sometimes all we can do is let God deal with a situation, or a person who drives us crazy.

God, have mercy on me, a sinner

We must learn to overlook what others are doing sometimes.  Doing so, exhausts me.  And so I don’t know why I would want to deal with other’s issues if my own issues exhaust me.

There are too many self-righteous Christians in the world.   We know them.  They frustrate us.   And they irritate us.   We don’t need anymore.  

What we need are more humble, contrite Christians.   We need to be Christians who don’t see anyone as inferior to us—as charity cases to whom we can share our wealth and privileges and whom we wish to control and make just like us.

Rather, to paraphrase the great St. Therese of Lisieux: we should sit down with sinners, not as their benefactors but as the “most wretched of them all.”

That is true humility.  In our own eyes, if we carry true humility within us, if we are our own stiffest and most objective judges, then we know that we are the most wretched of them all and that we are in no place to condemn others. In dealing with others, we have no other options than just simply to love those people—fully and completely, even when they drive us crazy.

 Sin or no sin, we must simply love them and hate our own sins.   That is what it means to be a true follower of Jesus.  It is essential if we are going to truly love those we are called by Jesus to love and it is essential to our sense of honesty before God.

So, let us steer clear of such self-righteousness. But, in being humble, let us also not beat ourselves up and be self-deprecating. Rather, let us work to overcome our own shortcomings and rise above them.  Let us look at others with pure eyes—with eyes of love.  Let us not see the shortcomings and failures of others, but let us see the light and love of God permeating through them, no matter who they are.  And with this perception, let us realize that all of us who have been humbled will be lifted up by God and exalted in ways so wonderful we cannot even begin to fathom them in this moment.



Sunday, October 20, 2019

19 Pentecost


October 20, 2019

Genesis 32.22-31; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8

+ In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures today, we get this very famous, very visual story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It is a story that really grabs us. It captures our imagination.

We can actually picture this momentous event. Maybe we do because most of us think instantly when we hear this story of that famous Gustav Dore illustration, of Jacob
and the Angel locked in battle, pushing against each other, the angel’s wings raised above the scene. 

And I know, we often like to personalize this story.  I know we tend to look at this battle between ourselves and God.

But I once heard a preacher share how in her opinion this could very much be an analogy for our own struggled with the Word of God or scripture. I love that analogy. Because, that also is true. Oftentimes, our struggle with scripture feels like we’re wrestling with an angel.

You’ve heard me reference scripture as a potentially dangerous two-edged sword.  An often unwieldy  two-edged sword, especially for those who use it as a weapon.

And we’ve all known those people who use the Bible as a weapon.

You’ve heard me say, again and again, that if our intention is to cut people down with the sword of scripture, just be prepared…  It too will in turn cut the one wielding the sword.  And I believe that. That is what scripture does when we misuse it.  

However, if we use scripture as it meant to be used—as an object of love, as a way in which God can speak to us—then it is also two-edged.   If we use it as way to open the channels of God’s love to others, then the channels of God’s love will be opened to us as well.

Now, I am very firm on this point.  When it comes to people using scripture in a negative way, wildly waving that sword around, I love crack the knuckles. Because, I truly do love the Bible.  

We all should crack our knuckles whenever we see or hear people misusing the scriptures in such a way.

After all, we are followers of Jesus, and as followers of Jesus we hold the scriptures in the same esteem as Jesus did. OK. “Esteem” isn’t the right word. We, as followers of Jesus are steeped and saturated with scripture just as Jesus was seeped and saturated with scripture.

Why?

Well, let’s just take a book in our Prayer Book.  If we look in our Prayer Book, as we do on a very regular basis, back in that place I like to direct us to go sometimes—the Catechism—we find a little expansion on this thinking.  On page 853, you will find this question:

“Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?”

The answer:

“We call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks through the Bible.”

I think that is a wonderfully down-to-earth, practical and rational explanation. Still, that doesn’t mean that we can use and misuse it by taking it out of context.  And let’s face it; there are scriptures that we don’t like hearing.

But none of gets to edit the Bible.   We don’t get to cross out those things we don’t like.  We have to confront those difficult and uncomfortable scriptures and meet them face-on. And we have to wrestle with them, as Jacob wrestled with that angel, and in wrestling with them we must use a good dose of reason, and a good dose of tradition, as good catholic-minded Anglicans do.  And if we do that, we come away from those difficult scriptures with a new sense of what they say to us.

For example,  I personally might not like what the Apostle  Paul says sometimes—I might not even agree with it—but, good or bad, it isn’t up to me.   Or any of one of us.   It’s up to the Church, of which we, as individuals, are one part and parcel.

For us Episcopalians, we don’t have to despair over those things Paul says that might offend our delicate 21st century ears.  We just need to remind ourselves that our beliefs about Scripture are based on a rational approach tempered with the tradition of the Church.

In fact, if we continue reading on page 853 in the Catechism, we will find this answer to the question, “How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?”

The answer:

“We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of Scripture.”

There you see a very solid approach to understanding Scripture.   Reason (in this sense the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), along with the Church (or Tradition) helps us in interpreting Scripture.  

Very Anglican. Think of Richard Hooker’s 3-legged stool of Scripture, tradition and reason.


Such thinking prevents us from falling into that awful muck of fundamentalist heresy.   Such thinking steers us clear of this misconception that that the Scriptures are without flaw.  Such thinking also steers clear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, with regard to Scripture as well. Sometimes, if we use too much reason in our approach to Scripture, we find ourselves reasoning it all away and it becomes nothing but a quaint book of myths, morals and legends.

Yes, the Scriptures are not without flaws.  As God-inspired as they might be, they were written by fallible human beings.  Pre-scientific human beings, writing in a language that has been translated and retranslated over and over again.  

I hate to break the news to you, but God didn’t set down a perfectly formed Bible, writ in stone and perfect King James English in our midst.

And human beings have been notorious—even in Scripture—of not always being able to get everything perfect, no matter how God-inspired they are.  Not even Scripture expects us to be perfect.

But, the second part our explanation of the question from the Catechism of why we call Holy Scripture the Word of God is even more important to me.

“God still speaks to us through scripture.”

I love the idea that God does still speak to us through these God-inspired writings by flawed human beings.  And what God speaks to us through Scriptures is, again and again, a message of love and justice, even in the midst of some of the more violent, or fantastic stories we read in Scripture.

Our Gospel reading is a prime example of that.  What does the widow in Jesus’ parable pray?

“Grant me justice against my opponent,” she prays.

This also a truly interesting story. 

This widow, who would not take no for an answer, persisted.  This widow, who, in that time and place without a man in her life was in bad shape, was demanded to be heard.

This widow who had been taken advantage of (someone cheated her of her rightful inheritance) did not let discouragement stop her.
This widow prayed day and night.

And what happened? God heard her. And turned the hearts of the unjust.

That, definitely, speaks to us right now. That is what we should be praying for right now in this country.

See, God is definitely speaking loudly here to us through this scripture.  We are to pray for justice, not only against our opponents. But we should be praying for justice in this country and this world.

Please, God, turn the hearts of the unjust! And grant us justice!

The scriptural definition of “justice” is “to make right.” So, to seek justice from God means that something went wrong in the process, and we long for “rightness.” We too need to be praying hard, over and over again, for justice.

God also seems to be speaking loud and clear through Paul, himself a very flawed human being, in his letter to Timothy.

“All scripture is inspired by God,” Paul instructs, “and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

I love that. That is some rational, solid thinking, if you ask me.  Scripture here is intended not to condemn, not bash, not to hurt, but to build up and equip us for “every good work.”

“Proclaim the message, “ he tells Timothy (and us), “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

For any of us who have been teachers, those words strike home.  But, if you notice, nowhere does Paul say we must condemn or pound down, or coerce others using Scripture.

Scripture must build up and encourage and teach us to serve and to love.   And Scripture must be a conduit through which God continues to speak to us.

Yes, our encounter with God in scripture sometimes is very much like Jacob wrestling with angel. If scripture doesn’t do things for us sometimes, if we only go to scripture to feel good about ourselves, to prove ourselves right about things, and not be challenged, then we are using scripture incorrectly and it may, in fact, come back to cut us.

So, let us embrace this balanced and reasonable and very Anglican approach to Scripture.  Let us listen to Scripture and hear the Word of God speaking to us through it.  Let us continue to place the Scriptures at the center of our lives and let us allow them to guide us into a pathway of love and service.   And, most importantly, let us use it, again and again, as an instrument of love rather than a weapon of war and hatred.   When we do, we will find that the two-edged sword of that instrument of love, will open the doors of God’s love to us as well.



Sunday, October 13, 2019

18 Pentecost


October 13, 2019


+ As a poet, I find myself obsessing over words on occasion. There are certain words I find myself examining. Often there are words I find myself examining like a little jewel, turning it around and weighing it and considering it like it’s a brand new word.

One of those words I’ve recently enjoyed re-examining is the word “Mercy.” It’s a beautiful word! And I love the fact that, in French, the word for “Thank you” is “merci.”

Mercy is something we tend to overlook. Certainly in regard to others.

But let me tell you, it is not something we overlook when it comes to us. To be on the receiving end of mercy is a wonderful thing!  Mercy is like a fresh wonderful breeze on our face, especially if it is something we are being granted after a hardship in our lives.  Mercy is not something we think of too often in our lives, certainly not on a daily basis.

But for Jesus and those Jewish people of his time, mercy was an important part of their understanding of the world and their relationship with God.

Tonight, at sundown, the Jewish feast of Sukkot begins Sukkot is an important feast in Judaism. It is also called “The feast of Booths,” which refers to the tents the Israelites lived in during their 40 years in the desert. In fact, in some Jewish homes, a tent is often set up during this high holy day as a commemoration of the feast.

On the Feast of Sukkot, the “Great Hallel” is prayed. Hallel means “praise,” and refers to the group of psalms recited at the time of the new moon, as well on feasts like Sukkot, which commemorates the period of time the Tribe of Israel spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land.  “Hallel” is the refrain from Psalm 136 that celebrates the fact that God’s mercy endures forever.  It is believed that Jesus himself would have sang the Great Hallael with his disciples when they went to the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper on the night before his death.

Now, mercy in this context means more than just forgiveness or some kind of reprieve Mercy also means, in a Jewish understanding of the word, such things as God’s enduring love for Israel and the mercy that goes with that love. Mercy also means, in this context, behaving in a particular way. It means being ethical and being faithful to God’s will.

Mercy.

It really is an incredible word.  And it is so packed with meaning and substance!  And it’s one that I think sums up so many of the prayers we pray. Certainly, the prayers I pray. In those moments in which I am overwhelmed or exhausted or simply don’t know what to pray, I often find myself just praying, Please God, have mercy on me, or on the person for whom I’m praying.

Today, in our Gospel reading, we find that word, Mercy, in a very prevalent place. In fact the petition the leper makes to Jesus is a powerful one.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on me!”

And what does Jesus do? He does just that. He has mercy on him.   And, by doing so, Jesus sets the tone for us as well.

Just as Jesus showed mercy, so should we show mercy again and again in our own lives.  We see, in our Gospel reading today, mercy in action.  And it is a truly wonderful thing!   These lepers are healed.

But, before we lose track of this story, let’s take a little deeper look at what is exactly happening.  Now, first of all, we need to be clear about who lepers were in that day. Lepers, as we all know, were unclean. But they were worse than that. They were contagiously unclean. And their disease was considered a very severe punishment for something. Sin of course. But whose sin? Their own sin? Or the sins of their parents? Or grandparents?

So, to even engage these lepers was a huge deal.  It meant that to engage them meant to engage their sin in some way.

But, the real interesting aspect of this story is what you might not have noticed. The lepers themselves are interesting. There are, of course, ten of them. Nine lepers who were, it seems, children of Israel. And one Samaritan leper.

Now a Samaritan, for good Jews like Jesus, would have been a double curse. It was bad enough being a leper. But to be a Samaritan leper was much worse.  Samaritans, as also know, were also unclean and enemies. They didn’t worship God in the same way that good, orthodox Jews worshipped God. They had turned away from the Temple in Jerusalem.  And they didn’t follow the Judaic Law that Jews of Jesus’ time strived to follow.

But the lepers, knowing who they are and what they are, do the “right” thing (according to Judaic law). Again and again, throughout the story they do the right thing.

They first of all stand far off from Jesus and the others. That’s what contagious (unclean) people do.

And when they are healed, the nine again do the right thing. They heed Jesus’ words and, like good Jews, they head off to the priest to be declared clean. According to the Law, it was the priest who would examine them and declare them “clean” by Judaic Law.

But they do one “wrong” thing before they do so. Did you notice what thing they didn’t do?  Before heading off to the priest, they don’t first thank Jesus.

Only the Samaritan stays.  And the reason he stays is because, as a Samaritan, he wouldn’t need to approach the Jewish priest. So, he turns back.  And he engages this Jesus who healed him.  He comes back, praising God and bowing down in gratitude before Jesus. After all, it is through Jesus that God has worked this amazing miracle!  But Jesus does not care about this homage.   He is irritated by the fact the others did not come back.

Still, despite his irritation, if you notice, his mercy remained. Those ungrateful lepers—along with the Samaritan—remain healed. Despite their ingratitude, they are still healed.

That is how mercy works.

The interesting thing for us is, we are not always so good at mercy. We are good as being vindictive, especially to those who have wronged us. We are very good as seeking to make others’ lives as miserable as our lives are at times.

If someone wrongs us, what do we want to do? We want to get revenge. We want to “show them.” After all, THAT is what they deserve, we rationalize.

But, that is not the way of Jesus. If we follow Jesus, revenge and vindictive behavior is not the way to act.  If we are followers of Jesus, the only option we have toward those who have wronged us is…mercy.

Still, even then, we are not so good at mercy, especially mercy to those who have turned away from us and walked away after we have done something good for them. It hurts when someone is an ingrate to us. It hurts when people snub us or ignore us or return our goodness with indifference.  In those cases, the last thing in the world we are thinking of is mercy for them.

Sadly, none of us are Jesus. Because Jesus was—and is—a master at mercy. And because he is, we, as followers of Jesus, are challenged.

If the one we follow shows mercy, we know it is our job to do so as well. No matter what. No matter if those to whom we show mercy ignore us and walk away from us. No matter if they show no gratitude to us. No matter if they snub us or turn their backs to us or ignore us.

Our job is not to concern ourselves with such things. Our job, as followers of Jesus, is simply to show mercy again and again and again. And to seek mercy again and again and again.

Have mercy on me, we should pray to God on a regular basis.

God, have mercy on me.

Please, God,  have mercy on me.

Please, God, have mercy on my loved ones.

Please, God, have mercy on St. Stephen’s.

Please, God, have mercy on our country.  

This is our deepest prayer. This is the prayer of our heart. This is prayer we pray when  our voices and minds no longer function perfectly. This is the prayer that keeps on praying with every heartbeat within us.

And by praying this prayer, by living this prayer, by reflecting this prayer to others, we will know. We will know—beyond a shadow of doubt—that we too can get up and go our way. We too can know that, yes, our faith has made us well.


Sunday, October 6, 2019

17 Pentecost


17 Pentecost

October 6, 2019

Luke 17.5-10

+ This past week I was working on updating some of the wording on our website. (Make sure to take a perusal through our website www.ststephensfargo.org 
 ).

And as I sought to find different ways to describe who we are here and what we are, I have to say, we are truly are a spiritual powerhouse. An eclectic spiritual powerhouse.  And, as I was thinking about it, I realized that when we say we are truly welcoming and inclusive, we really are a welcoming and inclusive congregation.

We welcome everyone and we include everyone, even people who might not believe the same things about certain issues.  

People who have different political views.

People who have different spiritual views.

As is posted on the Welcome page of our website we are:

An Inclusive Congregation of the  Episcopal Church
in the progressive Anglo-Catholic Tradition


Yet, despite that description, there truly is a wide spectrum of belief here at St. Stephen’s. We encompass many people and beliefs here. And I love that!  And, as I’ve said, even people who don’t believe, or don’t know what they believe, are always welcome here.  And included.

That includes even atheists.  

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 I “get” them.  I understand them.  I appreciate them.  And I have lots of atheists in my life!

Agnostics and atheists have always intrigued me.  In fact, as many of you know, 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.

An atheist—a theist is a person who believes in a god, an “a” in front of it negates it, so a person who does not believe a 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 very good thing.  Our agnosticism 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 cut-out, some magic man living in the sky from Monte Python’s Search for the Holy Grail, then, 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, reaches out to us, here in the muck of our lives.  Certainly that is not some distant, strange, human-made God.  Rather that is a close, loving, God, a God who knows us and is with us.

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 of mystery.

“Increase our faith!” the apostles petition 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.  Doubt 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—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 (12 point font).  

. = (the actual size of a mustard seed)

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% doubt and 1% 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.  

We all doubt.  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 by 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 or agnostic. 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 miniscule it is.   Let’s not 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.