Year C — The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)

Commentary for October 6, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Lamentations 1:1-6
True to its name, this is about as lamentable a passage as there is in Holy Scripture. This is the prophet’s vision of what life is like when God has turned God’s back on God’s people. 

Or, perhaps it is the people who have turned their backs?

Lamentations 3:19-26
And, then — the hope of the gospel (i.e., “good news”) that God has NOT forgotten us. Every morning is a reminder that God has once again been with us through the night. Waiting quietly for the salvation of the LORD is a good thing.

Psalm 137
My heart breaks with those of the exiled as they sit by the rivers of Babylon and weep. There was a time when the city was filled with hope, light, and life — all found in the presence of God. No more.

The quizzical verse 9 seems to me to be a symptom as much as anything of the mindset to be found when in the absolute pit of dark despair. Only then could such an invective make any sense. Not good sense, mind you, but certainly the kind of thoughts that proceed from a mind focused only on grief for too long.

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Habakkuk’s vision is honest, searing, and insightful. It hurts to see violence rule as the law of the land. How long will this kind of perversion of justice last? (Habakkuk could be ripped right out of the headlines from around the globe today, don’t you think?)

And yet…there is still a vision! It is a vision of the faith of the righteous made plainly visible — “our faith shall be sight,” as Horatio Spafford wrote in the classic hymn, It Is Well With My Soul. God’s truth marches on and will surely come; once evident, it will seem as if there was never any delay at all!

Psalm 37:1-9
Hmmm, lots of active waiting verbs here: trust, delight, commit, wait, refrain, inherit. I guess “waiting” for the Lord is not necessarily an empty enterprise.

2 Timothy 1:1-14
Pass It On was the contemporary folk anthem of my youth group years during the 1970’s. I guess I’ve played and sung it a few hundred times — no exaggeration! (Here‘s some nice finger-picking work on a guitar version, if you need to get your youth group jiggy on…:)

Paul’s remembrance of the way Timothy’s faith was handed on to him through his matriarchal lineage is a great reminder of the way all of us have come to faith. Jesus passed the word to a rag-tag group of guys and gals, who passed it on to a few more folks, who then took the message and passed it on, and so on and so forth…and then, one day, someone passed it on to us!

“Stir up the flame…” Paul admonishes Timothy; hey, it only takes a spark!

Luke 17:5-10
“But, Lord, if I only had a little more _____!”

We may tend to come to the Lord with a laundry list of the reasons that we haven’t been more effective in our service to God and the kingdom. Jesus, with the famous faith-as-a-mustard-seed quote, reminds us that it’s not about how much faith, or money, or talent, or anything else we have — it’s about what God can do through us and in us when we are willing. 

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

To understand our Gospel lesson for today, it is necessary to read the first part of chapter 17, particularly verse four.  There Jesus talks about rebuking, repenting, forgiving and what to do when that doesn’t work out as well as the forgiver had hoped.
After advising the disciples to rebuke people who fall into sin, he then tells them that this is so important that they must be willing to do over and over, even if the sinner commits the same offence seven times in one day and asks for forgiveness seven times.
No wonder the disciples say “Increase our faith!”  Who wouldn’t?  That kind of forgiveness feels superhuman, even divine.  What is the saying?  “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
Whenever I got caught doing something bad when I was little, I would hang down my head and say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”  One time my mother had had enough with one of my regular misdemeanors.  She said, “I know you’re sorry.  You’re always sorry.  What I want to know is when you’re going to stop doing it.”
I’m with Mama on this one.  Jesus seems to be asking more of us that is humanly possible.
And he is.  And that is the point of this text. 
When the disciples say “Increase our faith!” they are thinking of faith as something human, something that we do, some intense believing or really positive thinking that results in good things happening.  The disciples are thinking of faith from a very human point of view.
But Jesus is talking about faith from God’s side of the equation.  This is why Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed can uproot a large tree and plant it in the ocean; it is not the faith that does it. It is God who does it.
The disciples are worried about their ability to forgive as much as Jesus demands.  So they ask for an increase in faith, so that they will be able to perform this feat of humility and generosity and compassion. 
They are fretting about their performance as disciples and followers of Jesus.  They desire to look really spiritual and faithful to the Lord.  This is why Jesus takes great pains to remind them that in the life of faith, it is not the faithful who act and receive praise, it is God.
This is the point of the story of the master and the slave.  Though it seems a little harsh to us; Jesus’ point is to remind the disciples of the proper relationship between God and humanity, between creator and creation.
As long as we perform our acts of love and service with an eye to praise from others or a reward from God, we are missing the point.  There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love.  God’s love washes over us all, unbidden, unearned and unstoppable.
Charles B. Cousar of Columbia Presbyterian Seminary in Georgia says, “The story (granted in a sneaky fashion) reminds us of our place and shows how easy it is to exchange roles.  God is God; we are God’s creatures – no more, no less.  But subtly the order can get reversed, as Adam and Eve discovered.  Dominion over the earth is a heady challenge!  Why stop there? The serpent says, “You will be like gods!”  Or we think of Jesus as the one who washes feet, forgives sins, hears prayers, supplies needs.  Pretty soon we come to expect it.  And the old Reformed catechism question slowly but surely gets a skewed answer: Jesus’ chief end is to glorify and serve us forever.”
With this story, Jesus reminds us that the true kingdom, power, and glory belong to God and any wishful thinking on our part that if God would just give us more faith we would be able to do more things for God misses the point entirely.
The reality is we have all the faith we need to do great things for God, or more correctly, to allow God to do great things in, with and through us.  Faith the size of a mustard seed is enough, more than enough, to do all that is needed.
Our calling this day is to humbly ask God to increase not our faith, but our willingness to be used by God, in whatever way God chooses.
Our challenge today is to open up our lives to the leading of God’s spirit, to allow that hole wind to blow us about in God’s world, touching down to serve wherever God wills.

Amen and amen.

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