October 3, 2010
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
“This is the joyful feast of the people of God!” says the person standing at the table as the rustling of bulletins quiets down, and attention turns, and eyes shift. A joyful feast! A table is set, with some nice dishes. From the other side of the room, you can see that it is a bit fancy, or at least a bit formal, or maybe it just looks like the table is prepared for a meal, like a meal in your home when guests are coming, and you set the table real nice. A meal is about to happen. A joyful feast, someone said. All signs point to quite a celebration! After a bit of praying and some familiar words and actions, some taking, blessing, and breaking, some lifting and pouring; it’s not quite like a toast, raising a glass at a big event, but it all means the meal is coming, eating and drinking is about to happen, let the feast begin! With some movement, some serving, some passing, game on, feast on. Then with bread in a hand, a small piece of bread, a little bitty cube of bread in hand, a young voice from somewhere around says loud enough for all to hear; “This is a feast?” And with a morsel in hand, and a very little cup yet to come, all within earshot of that young voice decide that its not such a bad question.
In our family, first experiences of eating in the school cafeteria were necessarily and immediately followed by a lesson in economics, spending, and portion control. Nobody every wants the nicely prepared, appropriately priced hot lunch option. It’s the ala carte line that provides the education: a piece of pizza here, maybe a sandwhich wrap over there, some French fries please, and maybe a cookie or two. And $64 dollars later and with food gone to waste, and not enough time to eat anyway, the school day continues. It’s not the first, nor the last time that someone growing up has to learn that more isn’t always better. This is a feast?
The disciples must have thought that more would be better, that more faith would be better. They were asking Jesus for more faith. “Increase our faith: the apostles said to the Lord. And Jesus replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it would obey you.” Mustard seed faith. You will remember that elsewhere Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. The kingdom is like that mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, that someone plants in the field and it grows to the greatest of shrub as the birds comes and make a nest. Mustard seed and the kingdom. But mustard seed faith? In Matthew’s gospel, a man came to Jesus asking for his son to be healed. “Your disciples could not do it”, he said. Jesus healed the boy and disciples took him aside and asked him why they couldn’t do it. “Because of your little faith” Jesus told them. “If you have the faith the size of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Too little faith, he told them.
So when the apostles asked for more faith, here in Luke, it’s understandable, really. Increase our faith. Like another man who came to Jesus desperately trying to help his son. “I believe” the father cried out, “Help my unbelief.” Like Peter when Jesus stooped to wash his feet in John’s gospel, “not just my feet, my hands, my head, too Lord.” Like the Samaritan woman at the well who ask for enough of that living water that she might never be thirsty.” More. More. More. Lord!
But Jesus teaching on mustard seed faith here in Luke 17, it is different. There’s a different tone. The grammar functions differently. The context is different. This isn’t a man begging for his son. This isn’t the disciples wanting to know why they couldn’t heal someone. This is Jesus teaching about forgiveness, and life among the faithful. Jesus teaching about the concern for those who are young in faith. And when the disciples ask for more faith, when they say to Jesus, if we’re going to live like that, you need to increase our faith, the Lord replies, “If you had faith the size of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.” If you had even the faith of a mustard seen, you could take a tree and plant it in the sea of you wanted to. If you just had the faith of a mustard seed.
Plant a tree in the sea. A mulberry tree planted in the sea. It’s kind of silly, absurd, an exaggeration. Not followed up with the promise of doing impossible things. Just a tree growing in the sea. If you had the faith the size of a mustard seed, you could do that kind of crazy thing….all I am asking, Jesus seems to imply, is that you forgive, and you love, and you live in community….and by the way, you have enough faith for that. Just after the mustard seed comment in Luke, Jesus offers a culturally bound reference to servants simply doing what they have been commanded to do. You can’t expect a reward for simply living and loving and being the way a servant of Jesus is called to live, and love and be. Increase our faith? You have enough faith, Jesus is saying.
Increased faith. Early in Luke’s gospel after Jesus stands up in the synagogue and announces that the scripture has been fulfilled; scripture about bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and the oppressed going free, after Jesus stands up, no one cried out for increased faith. In Luke 5, when Jesus offered the puzzling teaching about new garments and old garments, new wineskin and old wineskin, when Jesus says something that’s just plain hard to understand, no one asks for more faith. After the parable of the Good Samaritan, when it was abundantly clear that Jesus was telling people to “go and do likewise” to act like that nameless, unclean, foreigner who showed mercy”, right then, no one asked Jesus to increase faith. Even when Jesus said “you cannot serve God and mammon” not even then, did one the apostles stop him and say, “woe, come on now, Lord, we’re going need more faith for this!”
No, when it came to forgiving, and not hurting one another, and protecting the young and new to faith, helping them not to stumble, when it came to loving one another, when it came to what the Apostle Paul would call “the more excellent way”, that’s when the apostles cried out for more faith. “Actually”, Jesus said, “you already have enough faith for this, for this life together, life in the Body of Christ.
I spent the summer before seminary living in Jackson, MS working with Voice of Calvary Ministries. Interns from around the country came to work in this urban ministry committed to education, racial reconciliation, and what we would call now “multi-cultural worship.” Of the many challenges faced that summer, the most surprising and the hardest was living in a big old house with a dozen or so Christian college kids from around the country. At the low point we were all shopping for our own food and keeping it all marked in the fridge and on the shelves. The cross-cultural experience, the education about poverty, volunteering at camps all around the city, all of it very memorable. Our life together with a bunch of well-intentioned Christians college kids full of idealism ready to change the world, pretty much a disaster. The apostles must have known. They must have known how hard it is. Increase our faith!
Supersized faith isn’t the answer; that you believe more than me, that someone here understands more than you, that she can just accept more tenets of faith, that he seems to read more bible than you; more, more, more. According to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, the apostles had the faith to live as his servants right then; to love, forgive, nurture, teach, proclaim. Mustard seed faith here isn’t an image that assumes more is better. It is an image that affirms that our tiny little morsel of faith is a part of something bigger. The frail and brittle faith that we do have, taps into the promise of God. Faith is a gift of God, by grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, the smallest portion, the weakest part, the shabbiest, dimmest, flimiest faith we have, still rests with the power and the presence and promise of God. Christ Jesus has blessed us with enough faith for the hardest part; which may not be figuring out the bodily resurrection, it may not be fully understanding His presence at this table. The hardest part may not be proclaiming Christ in a post-modern world, or trying to balance the demands of discipleship in this crazy busy life of ours, or trying to look for God when flood waters rage, or trying to stay strong when grief overwhelms your heart.
The hardest part, according to the apostles, is loving, forgiving, nurturing, teaching, proclaiming. The hardest part is protecting the most vulnerable, and righting wrongs, and seeing Christ himself in every relationship, every encounter, every action, every reaction. The hardest part is committing to a life together that is pleasing to God where how you treat one another is as important as what you believe. And yes, according to Christ himself, we already have faith for that. Our faith, your faith, my faith, embedded forever in the faithfulness of God. Mustard seed faith.
It is a feast, not because of the portion size, but because of the boundless, overflowing love of God. It is a feast and you need no bigger portion than this. Just a taste of the endless, vast, unimaginable, bottomless, grace of God. The portion helps you to remember that we are part of something so much greater. And you find yourself with a little piece of bread, a little cup of juice. When you find yourself at the feast, some days you remember how Jesus died. Some days you ask for forgiveness. Some days with bread and cup in hand, you find yourself praying for someone you love, or yearning for a closer walk with Thee. And yes, some days, you may be asking for more. But every once and while, you ought to ponder how this, how the promise of God, is going help you love someone, and forgive, and nurture, and live as Christ calls us to live.
And somewhere a voice calls out in more than a whisper….this is such a feast!
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