Saturday, October 5, 2013


My deepest appreciation to Greg Carey and D. Mark Davis for their incredible insights into the Gospel reading. The commenter I refer to in the body of my sermon can be found on Rev. Davis' page.

If you're interested (and I hope you are), Tim Kurek's book, "The Cross in the Closet," is available on

LUKE 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord 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.
"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

I have a friend, named Tim Kurek, who is an author. He and I were speaking on Friday about his book, “The Cross In The Closet,” which (as the title may suggest) has a very controversial subject matter. The book has sold pretty well, has gotten him some appearances on MSNBC and The View, and some speaking engagements. He told me about a review he’d gotten from a very conservative group of Christians, tearing the book apart. They hated it.


In the text of the review, the writer said, and I quote, “Kurek is an eloquent storyteller who transports readers into his world with skill and competence.”

So Tim took just these two sentences out of that whole scathing review, and posted them on his author page… making it look, for all the world, as if this hyper-conservative religious organization liked his work!

Context matters.

I bring this up because bits and pieces of our Gospel reading today have been used, out of their context, in a wide variety of very troubling ways.

The whole faith-the-size-of-a-mustard-seed has been misinterpreted to say, “if you have enough faith then you should be able to do the miraculous (heal the sick, world peace, etc) and if you can’t do those things it is because you are not faithful enough!” It’s been used to promote a Prosperity name-it-and-claim it Gospel, it’s been used to tell hurting people – the twenty-five-year employee whose corporation has downsized him out, the woman whose lump was malignant, the boy whose spot on the varsity was supposed to resolve old feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and unpopularity – that their faith just wasn’t ‘big enough.’

This is to say nothing of the latter part of the reading, which has been used though the ages to keep the oppressed – be they women or African Americans or whoever – in their place.

Context matters.

So I want to expand our reading just a little bit this morning, and add the first four verses of Chapter 17 to what we have already read:

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’”

Isn’t it interesting that the antecedent to the apostles’ demand for increased faith isn’t the desire to do miraculous signs and wonders, isn’t a greedy quest to have more and better, isn’t to have more of something – faith, money, power – than the next person?

The apostles are overwhelmed with the fear of causing a little one to stumble, smothered by the idea of having to forgive, and forgive, and forgive, and forgive…

And yes, in the original language that the Gospel of Luke is written in, the apostles are pretty clearly making a demand: “Hey, whoah there, if you are gonna expect us to do something like that, all that forgiving over and over, well, we are gonna need a power-up, buddy. I don’t care if it’s an anabolic faith steroid or cosmic enlightenment or a get-out-of-Hell-free card, but pay up, fella.”

Now, in that context, all the rest of what Jesus says falls into place, doesn’t it? And in its proper context, we now learn a whole lot about faith in a very short time – real, substantive, useful-in-the-real-world information!

In his response to a commentary, Barry Rempp makes a fascinating observation about Jesus’ opening statement: “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.”

Rempp says, “…[R]ather than being a ‘conditional statement contrary to fact’ (which is how the English-speaking world traditionally understands it), it is a ‘conditional statement according to fact.’ To illustrate [and] expand: ‘IF you have faith as small as a seed of mustard - AND YOU DO - whenever you were saying to this [sycamore] tree...’ Hence the purpose is to encourage rather than chide. …The point is not that they need more faith; rather, they need to understand that faith enables God to work in a person's life in ways that defy ordinary human experience.”

This excites me! It isn’t “oh, if I only had more faith, I wouldn’t have to struggle to pay the bills, my family wouldn’t get sick, if only, if only, if only…” It tells me that there are certain things that faith is not:

Faith is not the coins we drop into the cosmic vending machine, so God will dispense whatever we want whenever we want.

Faith is not a badge earned or an award achieved or proof that one person is holier than another. We do not, we cannot, earn faith. Faith is a gift from God, it is a component of grace, just one example of God’s egregious and inexhaustible love for us, God’s unmerited favor.

Faith is not the magic behind theological parlor games, be they snake-handling or faith healing or a perfectly crafted doctrinal statement.

And in the context – because, again, context is important – of the first four verses of the chapter:

Faith is not license to do whatever we want to whomever we want for whatever reason seems “right” to us at the time. We cannot use God or our faith or our Christian name to mislead or to do harm to another human being for any reason.

Faith is not permission to condemn another human being. “Rebuking” in the way Jesus uses it has the immediate goal of repentance and forgiveness, and that forgiveness is to be inexhaustible. It isn’t the Christian saying “you are bad!” it is the Christian saying, “You’re broken. I’ve been broken, and maybe I’ve been broken just like you. Please, let me help.”

Faith does not put the Christian in a superior position over any other person in any way, shape, or form – our namesake, the focal point of our entire belief system, on the very night he was arrested and led off to be brutally tortured and killed, this King of Kings and Lord of Lords, present at and active in the creation of the universe, took off his robes and donned the clothing of the lowest of household slaves and washed his disciples’ feet – even the feet of the man who would betray him to his death!

That is the context. That is our faith.

Jesus is telling his apostles, and us, that with the faith we have, we can do anything – replant sycamores in the ocean, or as Matthew and Mark recount the saying, move mountains into the sea…

So we don’t have to earn faith, we just have to use it. And in the context of the last part of our reading, we ain’t using faith to get in God’s good graces, or maybe merit ourselves a better mansion in the sky… we use our faith because it is who we are.

I don’t want to wander too far down a rabbit trail, but I think we in Western religious culture too often confuse great faith with good marketing and well-targeted PR, skillfully crafted presentations and masterful crowd manipulation. Faith is not about how many arenas a given TV preacher can pack or how well this or that Christian author’s last book sold.

Faith is about driving a sick acquaintance to the doctor. Faith is getting on the phone with a depressed friend. Faith is feeding, faith is clothing, faith is offering shelter. Faith is making sure a thirsty child in sub-Saharan Africa has clean water to drink, and it is making sure that no child in our country ever has to go to bed hungry because there is not enough food. It is giving up our seat for another person, and it is speaking up for the rights of all people.

Christ Jesus modeled a perfect faith in that he always put the needs of others before his own needs, even going so far as to give his life. Jesus modeled a perfect faith in that his primary and all-consuming focus, his singular goal, was to glorify God his Father.

If Jesus was popular, he was popular with all the wrong people. His fame got him killed, when you think about it.

But what he did, day in and day out, was to heal and to speak hope and to break bread and to walk and to listen and to give and to love. He did the boring things, the things no one else could be bothered to do, for the people no one else could be bothered to care about.

Phillipians chapter two, verses six through eight: “Christ was truly God. But he did not try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us. Christ was humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross.”

Faith is the miraculous and the mundane. Faith is the mountain peak and the valley floor. Faith is the energy, the drive, the encouragement, the reassurance to forgive and to love and to forgive and forgive and forgive again.

Faith is what we do because of who we are.

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