Pentecost 17, October 6, 2019

Proper 22C: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Ps 37:1-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Here’s a thing that bugs me: It’s when people talk about not having enough faith. I’ve heard things like, I don’t have enough faith to be baptized, or as one guy told me, “I haven’t lived up to it yet.” Or, My faith isn’t deep enough to deserve God’s attention… or, to be able to serve in the Church. And others might say, It’s no wonder that person is in a bad way because they don’t believe enough. That one, by the way, is based on the assessment of people who see themselves as having superior faith. The fifty-cent theological terms for that are “self-righteousness” and “holier than thou.” The fact is that when people, speaking from genuine humility, say that their own faith is weak or insignificant or whatever, they have the right attitude, but quite the wrong understanding.

Jesus explains the right attitude in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-14), which we’re going to read in a few weeks. Spoiler alert: The self-righteous Pharisee stood proudly before the Lord, looking up and giving thanks that he wasn’t like other people, including tax collectors. Meanwhile, the deeply penitent tax collector kept his head down and begged the Lord for mercy. The humility of the tax collector is the right attitude to have when we examine ourselves and when we approach God. As for the right understanding about faith, Jesus makes it pretty clear in today’s gospel that the tiniest bit can make great things happen, faith the size of a mustard seed, he says. A single mustard seed is barely visible. Yet with faith as small as that, you can do huge things. You can uproot a mulberry tree, Jesus says, which has a huge root system, and plant it in the sea.

My question, then, to the holier-than-thou Pharisees of the world is, Who licensed you to judge the depth or the sincerity of anyone else’s faith? Only God can do that; and he gives the definitive measure in today’s gospel. Only God can see deep into the hearts of his creatures. And what he finds there, no matter how small or great, he can do great things with it. So don’t have any doubts about your faith. Instead, pray like the apostles did: “Lord, increase our faith!”

In today’s second lesson, St Paul talks about the source of faith, where we get it from. We may tend to think that it’s a private matter between God and the individual, but it’s not. There’s very little about the Christian life that’s private. It begins in community, the community of faith. You can’t baptize yourself after all, although I did meet a guy not too long ago who told me that he did. But since he’d already been baptized as a baby, what he really did the second time around was just to give himself a bath. Somebody else has to do the baptizing, and it usually happens in the presence of witnesses. And it’s nurtured in community by believers who share their faith, and in the worshipping community where the Author of faith gives himself to us in word and sacrament. Faith is something that’s imparted to us, and nurtured in us, by others. I love Tom T. Hall, but when he sang “Me and Jesus got our own thing goin’,” he got it wrong.

Paul begins this second letter to Timothy by referring to him as “my beloved child.” In his first letter to Timothy, Paul calls him “my true-born child by faith” (1Tim 1:2). Paul is Timothy’s father in the faith because he’s the one who took him under his wing, discipled him, and then ordained him as a bishop in the Church. But Paul is not the one who sowed the initial seeds of faith in Timothy. It was his grandmother and his mother. He was already a Christian when Paul met him. Paul lays that all out in today’s reading when he says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Paul talks about a living faith, and that’s exactly what it is. It’s a living thing that God first nurtured in Abraham and Sarah, and in which they raised their children down through the generations. And when their descendants in Egypt had all but forgotten it, God led them out into the desert to rekindle it, and to give them the means of exercising it and expressing it so that it wouldn’t be forgotten again. And in due course, God sent his own Son into the world to crown the faith of his people, and to present it to the rest of the world, so that all people would have the opportunity to become children of Abraham by faith, as well as children of God himself by being joined to his Son through baptism. And that’s the profession of faith that opens the gate of salvation.

Paul speaks of receiving his own faith from his ancestors as well. It was the Jewish faith, to be sure, but as Paul indicates further on, it’s the same faith. The only thing new and different about it is that Jesus is the fulfilment of it. He is, as the letter to the Hebrews says, “the founder/source and perfecter of our faith,” (12:2). He perfected what hadn’t yet been revealed until he died and rose again, and then sent his Spirit into his people to reveal this truth about himself (cf Jn 16:13). That’s what Paul means when he says, “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began [i.e. before the foundation of the world], but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus.” The Christian faith is the faith of Abraham and Sarah, the only difference being that we have seen what they were only able to hope for (cf Heb 11-12). It’s only recently been revealed, but it’s eternally given.

For this reason, Paul says to Timothy, “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” He’s urging Timothy to rekindle not only the gift of faith which he initially received through his grandmother and his mother, and which had been further nurtured by Paul, his spiritual father, but also the gifts that were given by the Holy Spirit through ordination, “the laying on of [Paul’s] hands.” Those are the gifts which empower the Church’s ministers in the context of this teaching, but certainly to the whole Church as well, to reach out in love to one another, and to the people to whom God sends them, to proclaim his Gospel, and to lay a firm foundation of faith. That’s the specific vocation of every ordained person and, by extension, of every baptized person.

How that faith takes root and grows in each person is between them and God. Paul speaks to that as well. In 1 Corinthians he talks about how he and all other ministers of the Gospel sow the seeds of faith and do whatever else they can to help them along, but it’s God who causes faith to grow in each person. “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters,” neither the one who sows the seeds of faith nor the one who baptizes, Paul says, “is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (3:6-7). And it makes no difference to God how great or how small a person’s faith is. Size only matters to us sinful humans with our very limited comprehension of the deep things of God, who is far more generous and extravagant with his love than we give him credit for. Because he who created everything out of nothing can do the biggest things with the smallest of resources. He’ll use faith the size of a mustard seed to uproot a tree with vast roots, or as Jesus said on another occasion, to pick up a mountain and throw it into the sea.

So don’t ever discount the faith that you have, or that anybody else has, or think it too insignificant to catch God’s attention. You are his children, and he loves each one as much as his only-begotten Son who died for us, and rose again, and has presented us all as his precious offering to the Father. We just need to take what God has given us and ask him to make it greater, and to empower us to do great things with it: “Lord, increase our faith!” In the Name of…

a.m.d.g. :  Ian C. Wetmore+

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