“I came to church in a difficult place this morning and now I am leaving changed.”
“I don’t ever take notes during church, but I couldn’t stop writing.”
“Your sermon was pretty.”
Above are three of the comments I received after preaching my first field education sermon this past Sunday at St. Anne’s. I think the lessons I learned this summer preaching two, let’s face it, not so hot sermons at home was: listen to my own inner voice. I spent so much time stressing about what others would want me to say that I lost my voice this summer. Sunday, I think I took a little of that back. Thanks be to God. My sermon below is based on the lectionary texts from this past Sunday:
2 Timothy 1:1-14 and Luke 17:5-10.
Why is it that the Gospels are constantly calling on us to do hard things? I am waiting for the gospel lesson that says, “Jesus told them they were doing a great job and that they should keep up the good work.” But I don’t think that one is coming anytime soon. Last week we heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man. As Fr. Jim pointed out, this was an excellent lesson to start our stewardship kick off, but a difficult lesson nonetheless. The Lazarus story calls on us to share our material wealth while this week we are called upon to share our faith. At first glance this gospel lesson looks a little less challenging. Jesus is telling the disciples to use the faith that they have. It may seem less challenging, however, immediately before this section of the gospel text, Jesus says to the disciples, “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.” He goes on to explain that even if the same person sins against them 7 times a day, they must continue to forgive that person if they repent. When I consider how I feel when someone has done wrong by me I recognize how difficult a challenge this charge can be. Sometimes it feels like it will be impossible. And then, when I look at the claim that Jesus is making I am even more confused. Jesus tells the disciples that if they had even a little faith, they could tell a tree to plant itself in the ocean and it would obey. In the gospel parallels of this verse Jesus tells them they could tell a mountain to move aside and it would. Forgiving those who wrong them, not leading others into sin, and moving obstacles the size of mountains or trees… that sounds like a lot to ask of one person. So that brings me to the question on my heart: How am I to move the mulberry tree in my life?
We all have those things which seem impossible to bear –those obstacles which are too tall to even consider scaling. For the disciples, their challenge was following Jesus’ directive to forgive those who sinned against them and to keep from leading others away from the true path. It can be hard enough to keep one’s self on the right track, but for Jesus to tell the disciples that they must also consider how their words and actions will affect others seems a tall order. And after all that, there is still the mulberry tree in our way. Even if we are able to forgive and to guide others on the path there is still more to do.
One of the things that attracted me to St. Anne’s when I was looking for a field education parish was the amazing involvement of parishioners in the many ministries that are offered here: Christian formation classes, youth group, Koinonia small groups, a 20s/30s ministry, programs aimed at feeding the homeless, a partnership with ministry teams in Liberia, a thriving lay reader and lay Eucharistic minister ministry, successful music programs… the announcements go on and on! This church has its hands extended out to the world. That means there are numerous opportunities to plug in; and I imagine that sometimes it can feel overwhelming. Juggling soccer schedules, client meetings, family obligations, and all of the other things that pull on us from many directions it can feel like any one of them has become your mulberry tree.
In a society so caught up in what more we can do, this passage is actually asking us to do less. Less holding of grudges, less desiring of those things which we think we lack, less perseveration on the difficulty of the task ahead: this passage is inviting us to let go and to trust that God has given us all we need and that the bit of faith we have is strong enough to get us through. What Jesus is instructing in the example of the mustard seed of faith is that contained within that one, tiny seed is the possibility of so much more. The fact that so much possibility can be contained in such a tiny seed seems impossible. Jesus is asking the disciples to stop doubting that what they have is enough and to start trusting that God can and will work through the gifts they already possess. He is asking them to let go. If they hold tight to the seed for fear that it is too small to amount to anything they will never have the opportunity to experience what it could become when planted and cared for.
Less fear makes room for more faith. When we let go of a grudge we make room for more love. Less desire for things we lack means more gratitude for the blessings we enjoy. Less fear of the journey ahead means more curiosity about where the path will lead. Less obligation to the task at hand means more joy in the act of charity contained therein. It is only when we loosen our desire to control the outcome that we are able to cooperate with God who is already working through us.
If we look to the reading from Timothy we see a faith that has been passed along through the generations by the Holy Spirit. It is described as a “sincere” faith and the author is encouraging Timothy to “rekindle the gift of God that is within [him]… [because] God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” The gift of God that is within him. It is already there, Timothy is being invited to use his mustard seed of faith. The spirit of power, love, and self-discipline is all contained within that tiny seed. Timothy is being encouraged, along with all of us here this morning to let our light shine from within rather than doing more to force the light out. The ministry opportunities at St. Anne’s do not require us to stand before Christ and to ask for more faith or more gifts; the ministry opportunities invite us to spend less time worrying about the skills we think we lack, which will in turn give God the space God needs to work through us with an authenticity of our faith. When we hear members of St. Anne’s standing up for the stewardship drive in the coming weeks asking for our offering of time, talent, and treasure it is a chance to search within ourselves to ask what is the “more” we are doing that could be getting in the way of what God would like to do through us. Which mulberry tree is Jesus asking you to send out to the ocean?
When discussing the passages for this week with a friend I was introduced to an image from Julian of Norwich that has remained in my prayers ever since. Julian writes,
—> (hold up hand with an acorn between my thumb and forefinger.)
“In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought “What may this be?” And it was generally answered thus: “It is all that is made.” I marveled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.”
What a gentle, lovely image. Everything in all of creation contained within a single ball the size of a hazel nut. All that has been and all that will be contained within something so small she has fear of losing it. (put acorn away) But there needn’t be any fear because, “It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.” Less fear, more love.
Before coming to seminary I worked as a Child Life Specialist, helping pediatric patients to cope with their illnesses and injuries. About seven years ago I had the privilege to work with a 17 year old girl named, Jessica. Jess was a senior in high school. She was beautiful and smart and talented. One September morning while driving herself to school, Jess was traveling up a hill and as she came to the crest of the hill the sun momentarily blinded her. When her eyes adjusted to the light it was just a moment too late. A school bus was stopped right in front of her. She slammed on the brakes but her car continued forward and ended up underneath the school bus. She was paralyzed from the neck down. Jessica came to the hospital for months of inpatient treatment and rehabilitation. She had to learn how to do everything differently. She would never regain any movement in her limbs. She had to learn to operate a wheelchair using a straw she blew air into. She had to learn about her medications and about complications she might experience. This beautiful, 17 year old girl who had just gained so much freedom and was applying to colleges had to learn how to rely upon her parents for everything from getting dressed to washing her face to feeding herself. Jess’s life seemed to be crowded with Mulberry trees. But there was something very special about Jessica: her smile. Jessica was always smiling. She would sit at the nurses’ station telling them stories and singing songs. She asked me to give her voice lessons because her injury affected her diaphragm and she wanted to regain breath support so she could sing in her church choir. Jess told everyone who would listen that God had a plan for her. She didn’t yet know what that plan was, but it was her intention to continue to sing God’s praises everyday trusting that eventually it would be clear. Jessica chose the road of less: less anger, more joy; less blame, more curiosity; less complaining, more singing. Jess chose to take the mustard seed that was given to her and to see what God would do with it if she let him.
Jessica has a lesson to teach us all: we don’t have control over what is given to us, we only have control over what we allow God to do through us with that which we have been given. A few minutes ago we baptized five new members into the body of Christ. Five new people were reborn into the possibility of everlasting life. But when it came time to collectively join in the baptismal covenant we did not promise to persevere in resisting evil, strive for justice and peace, or seek and serve Christ in all persons all by our selves: we promised to do those things with God’s help. Jesus didn’t tell the disciples that they had to move the mulberry tree all by themselves: Jesus told the disciples that if they had but a mustard seed of faith, they would know to trust God working through them to accomplish great things.
I was lying out in the oak grove at school last weekend reading a book. A great wind stirred up and a shower of acorns clamored to the ground. What if each of those acorns was a mustard seed of faith, or, like Julian of Norwich describes, a little container of all that has been made… imagine the possibility contained in the acorn allowing itself to fall with the gravity rather than struggling to remain on the branch… at the beginning of my sermon I said that I was waiting for the gospel lesson that says, “Jesus told them they were doing a great job and that they should keep up the good work.” I think that is the opportunity presented to us today. Let’s write that gospel lesson together: with less fear and more faith God will be able to do more through us because God loves us and has already given us all that we need. Remember, “I will, with God’s help.”