Increase Our Faith

pm_posterRecently, there have been many disturbing news stories about the persecution of Christians. During the terrorist attack on the shopping mall in Kenya, captives were asked questions about Islam. Those who could answer the questions were set free, while those who could not were executed. Two weeks ago in Pakistan, Taliban suicide bombers killed nearly one-hundred worshipers at a historic Christian church. In Egypt, where our missionary friends Rebecca and Josh are serving, the Coptic church, one of our faith’s oldest denominations, has been under the worst attack it has seen in 700 years. In Iraq, it has been estimated that in the past decade, two-thirds of the Christian population either has fled or been murdered. And the list goes on.[1]

These are some of the people and places on my mind this World Communion Sunday, as we remember and celebrate our connections with God’s children in the larger Church, the Church with a capital “C.” In this complicated and sometimes crazy world, how do we respond?

Our scripture readings give us some clues.

Passionate expressions of sorrow are the essence of Hebrew Testament readings suggested for today by the Revised Common Lectionary. The Book of Lamentations (which we did not hear) and the 137th Psalm (which Joy read for us) express a grief that our brothers and sisters in other places certainly feel today. It’s the anguish that comes when enemies overrun your city, when your home is insecure and your place of worship desecrated. In circumstances like that, deep sadness is a normal response.

When you listen to the 137th Psalm, it’s easy to hear sentimental longing for the past: “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” Another way we respond to complexity and craziness is with nostalgia for the “good old days.” But when were those good old days, exactly?

Forty years ago, I clipped the front page of the newspaper for a school project. A couple of pieces of The Flint Journal survived the decades and now are stored in my files. In January 1973, we were trying to get out of a war in Vietnam that, by that time, had cost more than 46,000 American lives. Families were trying to identify POWs, and secure their release. Americans were trying to figure out what a new Supreme Court ruling meant for the lives of unborn children and the health of pregnant women.  They were worried about declining morality, represented in the prevalence of marijuana and public nudity. The cost of living was rising, and thousands of people were being evacuated after a volcanic eruption in Iceland. All this and more from the front page of a couple of evening newspapers from my childhood make me think there probably never were any good old days.

When experiencing trouble, sad lament and wistful nostalgia are natural responses. But they don’t get us very far, and soon outlive their usefulness.

Probably that’s why Jesus’ disciples get around to asking for more faith. They’ve been with Jesus on a long journey full of opportunities for teaching, preaching, serving, and healing. They’ve encountered resistance from Jesus’ enemies. Jesus has more than hinted that a day is coming that will be messy, and full of death. In the midst of the stress and anticipatory grief, Jesus challenges them to be both preachers of repentance and exemplars of forgiveness. They are not sure they can rise to that sort of challenge. “Increase our faith!” they pray.

Jesus’ reply comes in two parts.

The first part uses an image from nature, the mustard seed. In an age before microscopes and molecular biology, a mustard seed was one of the smallest things imaginable, usually one or two millimeters in diameter. When Jesus talks about seeds, I think he usually is implying that quality is more important than quantity. You don’t need a LOT of faith; you just need to use the little you have. If you use the tiniest little microbe of faith, then it can make all the difference in the world.

The second part of Jesus’ reply sounds a little more unpleasant to our ears. It’s about the relationship of slaves to masters, and Jesus is casting us in the role we’d rather not play. But if you can linger with the story long enough, then you’ll see the point. Jesus is not condoning the institution of slavery. He’s still trying to teach the disciples about the faith that they have requested him to increase. He is defining faith as a duty. This can be difficult for us to understand because so often we’re tempted to think of faith as a particularly warm and noble feeling, or a personal strength of mind and spirit that levitates objects like Luke Skywalker is able to do in Star Wars. But when you remember that biblical faith is more akin to “trust,” that “to believe” is to dutifully trust each day in God’s leading and direction, then Jesus’ reply makes sense.

Jesus tells us that a little faith can do a lot of good when it’s exercised regularly and conscientiously, and that message is the essence of good news today:

  • When, in 1933, Presbyterians founded World Communion Sunday, and when Christians celebrate it each year, you and I exercise our trust that God’s love overcomes hatred, that our unity in Christ is more powerful than all human conflict in Madison County, in Springfield, in Washington D.C., and beyond.
  • When, in 1980, Presbyterians called for a new emphasis on peacemaking, and when you and I financially support that emphasis each year, we exercise our trust that God’s abundance can overcome human scarcity, that the dutiful contributions of one congregation can alleviate conflict and ease suffering from Edwardsville to Glen Carbon, from Chicago to New Orleans, from Iraq to Syria, from Egypt to Kenya, and all over the world.

I confess that I often feel overwhelmed by too much information and too little time to absorb it, by too many projects and not enough energy to accomplish all of them. But I also agree with those who say we need to be paying attention to the persecution of the Church near and far, and supporting those who face violence and persecution. Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, preaching about sharing in suffering, once said, “When we notice as Jesus notices, we find ourselves transformed,

  • Away from self-sufficiency to solidarity,
  • Away from private privilege to communal engagement,
  • Away from hard, dismissive indifference to compassion.”[2]

In some small measure, we’re paying attention and providing support today, dutifully trusting God to take the words and actions we offer, and make them an expression of solidarity, and engagement, and compassion. It may not seem like much. But Jesus said that you don’t need a lot of faith; you just need to use the little that you have. When added up, all our little acts of faith make a difference. And in a complicated and sometimes crazy world, that is good news.

[1] Kirsten Powers, “A Global Slaughter of Christians, but America’s Churches Stay Silent,” The Daily Beast, 27 Sept. 2013.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “Joined in Suffering … Reliant on God’s Power,” Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, ed. Anna Carter Florence, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004, p. 121.


~ by JohnH1962 on October 6, 2013.

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