Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Grocery Bags and the God Who Gives

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.

"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'

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My mom did the shopping in our family growing up.  We didn’t argue.  She’d disappear on a given Saturday afternoon and two or three hours later, there she was, with a honk of the horn and a car full of groceries.  But if it was understood that Momma did the shopping, it was equally established that her job ended there.  We, my brothers and I, were the designated pack mules who brought the bounty in, from the car into the kitchen.  Regardless of where we were in our play, our studies, or our gentle, brotherly, disagreements, we knew that when the car pulled up, we came out, and began the tedious process of unpacking. 

Well, before too long I realized that, if I didn’t mind the half-inch stripes pressed deep into my skin, I could balance no fewer that four bags on each arm.  That’s eight bags a trip!  Two quick treks to the car and back, and my job would be done.

So I would strap on the bags and begin my journey.  And as I staggered toward the door, completely over-matched, I’d begin to realize the flaws in my plan.  Minor details that my mind had overlooked.  The door would be locked.  At least one bag would begin to tear.  My arms began to tremble.  And about the time that all of these thoughts collided into the inevitable moment of collapse, my mom would miraculously beat me to the door, catch the falling bags (or at least help me pick them up), and bring the haul inside. 

How did you know I wouldn’t make it? I’d ask her.
Some things, she’d say, you can just see coming.

And it occurs to me, as I stand here today, that the same thing might be said of sermons.   Some things you can just see coming.  That is, you hear the first words of the gospel and immediately think about the sermon-to-be, “Not that again.”  “The prodigal son?” the parishioner says, eyes rolling a bit, that’s easy, she says, “The preacher asks me which character I think I am in the story and tells me to embrace the love of God.”  The Good Samaritan?  *yawn*  Expect a lecture on the needs of those around us.  As you listened to the gospel of the mustard seed of faith this morning, having been warned already that this is a season of stewardship, I wonder if you’ve figure you’ve heard this sermon too. 

I know I have.  It goes a little something like this:

“If you believed, had even a single ounce of faith, mulberry trees would be dancing on the ocean waves by now.  That is, you would be living lives of miracles.  Demons would depart at your whisper.  Disease of all kinds would vanish at your word.”

The preacher continues, sensing that he’s on a roll, “Do you wonder why God seems slow in coming to you?  He is waiting for your faith.

“After all, surely you know that the plights about which you you so faithlessly fret, sin and suffering, disease, death, and war, all of these are just a little “umph” of faith away from ending.  Where is your faith?”

The preacher gets more personal still:

“Your child’s illness?  Only believe.  Pray--really pray--for her healing. 

“Your family’s emotional pain?  Pray and act in the certainty that God has already answered your prayer.

“And giving?  Giving is your chance to quantify your faith.  To show how much you trust and put your faith in God.

“After all, the people of God live by faith.

The preacher concludes, “Let’s be honest.  The problem in this whole salvation circus is YOU, loser.  You, with not even a tablespoon of faith.  If you only had more faith, if you were only up to snuff, what a wonderful world this could be!  O you of so little faith.  Shame on you.  And God help us all.”

Have you heard that one before?  Or something like it?

I know I have, and time and time again I have left the church dejected, confused, and not unlike a little like a boy who can’t quite make it to the door. 

So what do we do, then, today, with these hard, confusing, and challenging words of Jesus?  How do they do more than torment us with a standard that’s forever just beyond us? 

Let’s look at these words again.

Notably, Jesus doesn’t start this conversation on faith.  The disciples do.  “Lord, increase our faith.”  Next, Jesus doesn’t tell them, “Aha, now that I see that you take your faith seriously, now I will grow your faith into mountains.”  Instead, he tells them that a mustard seed is enough.

But it is at precisely this point that countless teachers and preachers have traditionally interrupted, “See!,” they cry.  “See!  The disciples don’t have even that much--not even a seed.  Let’s have them show their faith out loud.”  Enter the sermon on the no good and faithless wanderer.  Exit hope.  Stage right, despair.

The only real problem with that reading of this gospel is that Jesus hasn’t stopped speaking.
The exhortation to build up one’s faith cuts Jesus off down right in his mid-sentence.

We listen as Jesus goes on, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?  Instead, wouldn’t you say, ‘Prepare supper for me, serve me while I eat, and you can eat later.’  Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.’”

The disciples cry out, “Lord, give us more faith.”
Jesus’ reply is profoundly ordinary, “Give me yourself.  You can’t impress me with your service.  You won’t win me with your faith.  Whatever good you do is only what you ought to have done.  But learn the heart of faith:

“I am enough.” 

At this point I can picture the disciples thinking back on their short time with Jesus.  The disciples, after all, knew that Jesus was enough.  The disciples knew that Jesus was enough when he fed five thousands people with five loaves and two fish.  The disciples learned again that Jesus was enough when they saw him calm the raging seas.  They remembered that Jesus was enough when he straightened the back of a woman left crippled--for more than 18 years.  But now, now something sinister has happened.  Somewhere on the road to the cross, on the road to believing that Jesus is enough, the disciples get distracted by the very thing that draws them to Jesus: their faith.

Strangely they see faith itself as a thing to hoard, to build up, as a thing to control and believe in; faith itself becomes the goal, the work, the very enemy of empty hands ready to receive the fullness of Jesus. 

“Lord,” they cry out, “give us more faith.”
Jesus cries back, “I am enough.”

Are we ever the same?  Are there times in which we seek to hoard the life of faith?  To pile faith up like mountains?  We can hardly be blamed, I think, for wanting more faith, like the disciples.  A quick survey of the pain of the world tells us that we need all the help we can get.  The tedium, the monotony of a world that seems obsessed with being obsessed, with little promise of change, this mindless buzz can be too much.  It can leave us feeling inept and unprepared for the challenge of true healing. 

But to look into the eyes of Jesus as the world’s ways grow thin, to take seriously Jesus’ promise to us, this is our charge.  Jesus calls out to you and to me, “I am enough.  My child, rest in me.”

Jesus goes on, “I am enough.  Because I am enough; you--you are enough.  Give me yourself, and then we’ll be in business.”

The truth is that faith has never been about having it all together, having our pockets full, being 100% ready for anything.  But faith has always been about abundance in the midst of lacking.  It is about the surprising feast in the midst of famine.  The strange, rich fullness of fasting.  This is the mysterious, hard, path of faith: To have no faith to hold up, but only faith to hold on--to cling to and grasp the fullness of Jesus for us. 

To hold fast to our Lord--this is the first instinct of faith.  To grab hold with both hands to Jesus.  Jesus, who uproots his tree, the cross, from the power of death.  Jesus, who through the waters of baptism, invites us to die, to follow him into the ocean of his death.  Jesus, who yearns to pull the hard soil from our roots, who longs to plant us on the banks of his eternal stream.

Do you see it now?

Faith cannot be stored up within us, because the strength of faith is beyond us.  The power of faith rests in the person and faith of Jesus. 

Resist the temptation to make faith your possession.  To polish it.  To frame and hang it on your wall.  To keep it tidy. 

The Good News of the Gospel is that we have a ridiculously untidy God.

Like any lost beyond hope lover, God is well passed self-respect.  He doesn’t ask, “how much.”  Instead, he says, “Come nearer.  Child, come nearer.  You who are far off, know the heart of mercy, learn the depths of true forgiveness.  You who are near, please don’t think yourself too close.  My love is steadfast and eternal.  Child, wherever you are, whether close by or far off, take that next step nearer to me that is faith.” 

And realize that the measuring sticks and rulers have all been put away.

So give, give mightily, give joyfully, give with all your heart and all you are--not because you have to--but precisely because you don’t.  You are God’s child already.  You are his.  You and I can give him nothing that isn’t already his.  The pretense of impressibility has long been swept away.  The clutter of pride was lost forever when a troupe of angels pointed to a baby and said, “This child is God.”  The simplicity of faith forever holds, forever cradles, this gift of God, knowing well that payment in return has never been the point.  But God gives himself as a child, a slave, in order that we would know our service to God as the fullness of joy. 

My mind returns to the image of an awkward eight year old boy weighed down with plastic grocery bags, stumbling his way toward the door.  I tend to think about faith like that.  How many bags can I carry--how many burdens can I bear to prove my faith to God, how great it is.  Surely, when he sees it, he will look at his servant with mercy and favor. 

But it seems to me that the true test of faith is not the number of bags that we can carry; it is our willingness to put them down.  To let them go.  To rest in the arms of the one who calls us his own.


[Sermon preached at St Helena's Episcopal Church, October 7, 2007.]

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