20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 6, 2013
Luke 17: 5-10
“Increase our faith.”
Sometimes you don’t even know what to pray for because the world seems so crazy. Politically the world is in torment: rebellion, tyranny, religious war, refugee camps, terrorist attacks. The natural world is no better: earthquakes, melting ice sheets, carbonization of our oceans, tropical storms. And then there are the more personal wars and storms that catapult our lives into chaos: chronic illness, cancer, injury and sickness, mental breakdowns, family dysfunction.
I’ve been talking to a lot of people since I came back from vacation, catching up on what’s going on in people’s lives, especially those lives that are under siege. One of the best parts of being a pastor is that you get to see how people’s faith sustains them, and you get to be part of the community that holds onto them in prayer and hugs and encouragement. But all of us can identify with “Increase our faith,” because sometimes it feels as if we are just hanging on by a thread, and we’re terrified that our faith will not stand up to test we are going through.
“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea and it would obey you.” Says Jesus. Has anyone here ever said that to a tree? Me either. There have been times in my life when it felt as if my faith was maybe even smaller than that.
My marriage fell apart after 17 years. There were days when the only thing I remember was being able to keep my public face in place. How could I have failed to keep my promise to everyone, including God and my family? What would happen to my children? How could I make a new life from the ruins of the one I had failed at so miserably?
My mother ended up in the Neurology unit at UCLA on a respirator after a spinal cord injury. She was in her prime at 81 years old, the caregiver for my Dad as she had been the caregiver for his older sister for 10 years before. My mother was a force of nature, until this stopped her. She went from full-race mode to stillness on a respirator. For 5 months we watched her regain only minimum movement and live with a tracheostomy. It was her worst nightmare, and it happened. Would she ever get off the ventilator? Who would take care of Dad? How could we manage their affairs from distant parts of the country? How could we make the life and death decisions that seemed to be our new responsibility?
Lord, increase our faith. I know you have your own stories, your own testimonies of how you managed to walk through the times that turned your world upside down and everything you counted on seemed to shift under your feet.
I found that faith is not a set of doctrines or beliefs that I agreed to. It was trust. It was willingness to trust that God was still at work in the darkest of times, and that God’s creative work is never done. It was clinging to the memory that Jesus went all the way to death to show us that God has power beyond the life and death struggles that make us realize that we have no control in our lives. God brings life from death in ways we can never imagine until we live through them. But the resurrection of Jesus tells us that we can trust God’s promise to never leave us, to always love us, to heal and to save even when that healing looks different than what we imagined.
And don’t forget the power of the faith of your community. That’s the beauty of being part of the Body of Christ. When you are not sure that your faith will stand up to the fear and the failure, you are surrounded by the faith of others who carry you. At all the times in my life that truly tested my trust in God, the faith of others held me up. We felt the faith of my parent’s and our own communities while we were holding our breath, waiting for the final outcome of my mother’s life. They carried us for five months, day in and day out in prayer. I never felt anything like it. But it made it possible to keep making decisions, keep waiting for her recovery or her decision to quit. In the end, she decided that healing meant surrendering to God’s loving arms of healing in heaven and leaving us behind.
It’s what we do as believers. We pray for strength, for ourselves and for each other. We trust Jesus’ promise that the faith we have is all we need, and that we can trust that God is at work to accomplish something loving and powerful among us. We understand that each time we pray through a crisis that our faith gets stronger, as we learn that we can trust God and our community to hold us close and keep us safe.
The story Jesus tells as an illustration is that of a servant. The servant doesn’t expect that when the master comes home, he will wait on the servant, who’s had a long hard day. No way, says Jesus. The servant waits on the Master no matter what. It’s his job and he wants to do it well. So with us. We trust. We pray. We depend on that shred of faith to sustain us through thick and thin. We’re just doing our job as God’s people; holding on to God’s promises for ourselves and for each other. Amen.