Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
October 2, 2016
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 22C
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Almost twenty years ago during the first of my twelve subsequent visits to the Land of the Holy One, I was very eager to collect anything that I might share with the students in my Heirs of Abraham course to make the Bible come alive for them. So, when we came upon a field of blooming mustard plants, I took some of their almost microscopic seeds to show my students. Unfortunately, there was no way for me take home a mulberry tree because such trees grow to a very large and bushy height in Galilee. Besides, I would never have made it through US Customs hauling a mulberry tree along with my luggage. While Jesus’ disciples would have immediately caught this morning’s contrasting images drawn from their familiar world, we must rely upon the flora and fauna more common to us in these parts. So, in your mind’s eye this morning, picture a pumpkin seed beside a giant oak in full bloom for comparison.
Today, however, we face three much more serious obstacles to grasping the full impact and meaning of Jesus’ admonitions to his disciples in our Gospel. First, Jesus’ comments about faith and a sense of entitlement are not made in a vacuum. In the verses just prior to this morning’s lection from the Gospel according to Saint Luke, Jesus has just told his disciples that it would be better for them to be cast into the sea with a heavy millstone around their necks than to become an occasion of sin or disloyalty to God for his “anawim,” his “little ones.” He has also emphasized once more the mandate to forgive the repentant sinner, telling them that “you must forgive them” even if it is the seventh time around. In short, in the verses preceding today’s reading, Jesus has just reminded his followers of the Gospel’s central mandate for compassion and forgiveness, together with the dire consequences of failure in these key virtues.
A second serious obstacle to grasping the weight and intention of Jesus’ key words in this morning’s Gospel is our thoroughly modern translation. In the original Greek, the word translated as “faith” is the word for “loyalty” or “faithfulness.” So, the now terrified disciples are not asking Jesus to increase their “faith”—as if faith were a commodity to which you might add or subtract—but the quality of loyalty, trust, and faithfulness to God and the demands of the “kingdom of God.” The word translated as “worthless” to describe the servant at the end of the passage is the word meaning “to be owed nothing” in the original Greek. So, Jesus is not commenting on the inherent and equal personal dignity of the servant in his example story. He is warning against a sense of entitlement to a reward for fulfilling the demands of the “kingdom of God.” Jesus knows that self-congratulation and self-righteousness are among the chief temptations for the religiously observant. When we have fulfilled the requirements of Torah piety, Jesus warns, we are not entitled to a proud sense of accomplishment or—God forbid—an expectation of reward. Rather, we should say, “We are servants who are ‘owed nothing’; we have done only what we ought to have done.” Now I won’t speak for you, but I need to remind myself of this truism all of the time because self-congratulation and self-righteousness are occupational hazards for all serious disciples—most especially the clergy.
Finally, the most serious impediment to grasping the full weight of Jesus’ teaching this morning is the tendency to think about faith as the assent to a set of beliefs rather than as a quality of heart and spirit. Five hundred years after the Reformation’s false “faith versus works” controversy, there is still the lingering sense among some Christians that only adherence to orthodox beliefs or a specific formulation of a faith-statement are necessary for salvation from the grip of sin and the fear of death. In other words, if we just get our thinking right, they say, we might somehow will the giant mulberry tree of this morning’s Gospel into the ocean. But this is not what Jesus is teaching us at all. It’s faith-in-action, faith expressed as loyalty and faithfulness to the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; and our “Abba” that changes the world in unprecedented and unforeseen ways that we mis-characterize as “miracles.” God has endowed us with freedom and made us co-creators with God in an as yet unfinished creation. It’s the exercise of our ordered freedom grounded in love and the truth—the freedom for rather than freedom from—that can move mountains and change the world. Loyalty and faithfulness—these qualities of heart and spirit—are the decisive factors for the “kingdom of God,” and they are true gifts of God, not commodities to which we can add or subtract. So Jesus doesn’t comply with his disciples’ urgent plea to “Increase our faith” in this morning’s Gospel because he can’t! Only they can do that by responding to God’s redeeming grace through lives as faithful missionary disciples and evangelists of the “kingdom of God.” God has already planted the “mustard seed” of faith in their hearts, as God does with every human being. Now, they must give it the growth as “doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” (Jas 1:22) I know that I have said this before—and I will likely say it again: The most difficult step that anyone can take in the spiritual journey is just that one, tiny step out of ourselves and into God. And yet, it is the most difficult step of all. Once we have done that and are willing to abide there, however, God will do the rest!
On Tuesday, the Church universal will celebrate the feast of one of its most beloved saints: Saint Francis of Assisi. And we will mark the occasion here with the Blessing of the Animals next Sunday. We do this each year as a sign of God’s love for all creation and our summons to be good and loyal stewards of that marvelous creation after the example of Saint Francis, whose love for all God’s creatures, at every stage of their lives, was unsurpassed. The Church designates people as saints because they have in some extraordinary way been reflections of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. The saints do this through lives, not of perfection, but of heroic virtue. Saint Francis is especially revered for his gentleness, compassion, and humility, the very virtues scorned in our times—especially by the false humanisms of the twentieth century—as signs of cowardice and weakness. Francis was so faithful to and so identified with the suffering love of Christ that he is reputed at his death to have borne in his own body the very wounds of Jesus Christ, also known as the “stigmata” in Church lore. If ever there was a saint who reflected the steadfast love and compassion of his risen Lord Jesus Christ for all God’s creatures, great and small, it was Saint Francis.
On Mount Tabor, the mountain of the Transfiguration in the Land of the Holy One, there is an arresting icon of Francis’ loyalty and faithfulness to God in Christ in a garden adjacent to the beautiful Church at that holy site. In a life-sized statue, the crucified Christ reaches down from the Cross with his right arm to gather Francis, who is standing at the foot of that Cross, to himself at this supreme moment of God’s suffering love for humankind. Because Francis was known in his lifetime as “Il Poverello,” the “little poor one,” I can easily hear him saying to his crucified and risen Lord—with all of the unconditional and equal dignity of every human person—“I am a servant who is owed nothing. I have done only what I ought to have done.” So, as the whole Church of Jesus Christ celebrates the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi this week, let us pray today for the loyalty, faithfulness, and humility that lead to such a transfigured life in Christ. For, as Saint Francis wrote in his Rule, “Start by doing what is necessary; then, what is possible; and, suddenly, you will be doing the impossible.”