Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sunday Sermon: The Mustard Seed

I’m quite a fan of the Lectionary: I often imagine erudite and pious men and women thoughtfully matching passages that go well together as a service to us to make sense of the whole word of God. Today, though, perhaps those people overestimated us. The reading from Luke begins with the apostles crying, "Increase our faith!" but we don't know why. Now possibly you could remember what happened in the preceding verses, but I couldn't. What’s the context here?

I read these words and wondered if the disciples were perpetually anxious or pious but that doesn’t sound much like the disciples as Luke generally presents them. Or perhaps they just felt like you could always use more faith so they just asked for it every once in a while. (Well, we could all do with that attitude, couldn’t we?) Or, possibly they felt they were duty bound to ask for more faith. (Again, who couldn’t?)

After I read back in the passage, I discovered the real reason was simpler than these but also harder. Jesus has just asked the disciples to do something they know they cannot do. He tells them, "If a person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive." If we ponder the daily practicalities of that for a moment we should all be horrified: that is indeed a hard road to travel.

In one of the other Gospel versions of this story, Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Or to put it another way, an infinite number of times. Challenging or what?

No wonder the disciples were begging for an increase. Perhaps they could forgive seven times in a lifetime, but seven times a day? Even Mother Teresa couldn't do that. I ceertainly couldn’t.

The disciples are more like us than we are often willing to acknowledge. They are willing to do what is reasonable and even exceptional to follow Jesus. They have left their homes and their jobs and their families to travel with their Master, but now Jesus begins to ask impossible tasks and they don't know how to do them. As a matter of fact, they know they can't do them.

When they come to this brick wall, they want him to wave some magic wand. They want him to give them some superhuman powers to do what they know in their hearts cannot be done. They want some blueprint, some clear manual, that offers seven steps for being a disciple. You may all be too young to remember an American initiative called the Five Spiritual Laws that were doing the rounds in Evangelical circles some years ago, but they wanted something like that. Not that there was anything wrong with the Five Spiritual Laws as such but they weren’t, of course, the simple answer we assumed they would be.

In short, the Disciples wanted to be transformed, but they didn't really believe they could be. Does that ring any bells? They had become so accustomed to seeing their world as it was that they couldn’t imagine the world as God wants it to be. They couldn’t imagine seeing the people who have wronged them as their brothers and sisters instead of villains.

Here we are a few days after the election of the new Labour leader and most of us have known for a long time if we are red or blue or orange – maybe green (you know, when they show the map election night and colour the cocnstituencies according to which party won there). The pundits tell us that our nation has become politically cynical and the voting statistiscs seem to support that. This usually means that those who vote are the really ideologically committed and so the results are skewed and the country seems more starkly divided along ideological grounds than it actually is. So deep is the division that most of the time we cannot even talk to one another much less hear the piece of the truth the other person has to say. American politics seems even more polarised.

My mother is an ardent Tory and I mean ardent. She is only slightly to the left of Atilla the Hun. Once I asked her, "How do you get along with your friends who are vote Labour or Lib Dem?" and she said, "I don't think I have any friends who vote Labour or Lib Dem."

We think the world is red or blue or orange, and we cannot imagine that there is an identity deeper than that. Our world so readily gives us labels and we much too readily accept them. Just ask someone one of those red-line questions: immigration, the E.U., gay marriage, abortion, and immediately when they answer you think that you know who that other person is. Watch a stranger on a bus read a newspaper and, if you can see the name of the paper, you probably know their voting profile and their stance on any number of political and social issues. Our response to them may well be shaped by the perceptions we have just had about them.

Once we have that identity fixed, it's hard to believe anything else. Yet Jesus says if a person repents seven times in one day, seven times we are to see them afresh as a child of God. Jesus calls us to look again at the person who has wronged us and see them as God sees them: not as a villain but as a child of God capable of sin. Forgiveness is not about whitewashing the past; it's about seeing the present in a new light and looking toward a future of redemption. Forgiveness insists that the people are not red, blue, orange or green. Or male and female; black, white, brown or yellow; straight or gay; working class or middle class or any number of the false categories we use to pigeonhole people. Instead we all belong to the flock with Jesus as the shepherd.

No wonder the disciples cried, "Increase our faith." Jesus is calling for them to see their reality in a new way. Since they don't know how to do this, Jesus gives them an answer, but it's not the one they expect. He tells them, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you." The disciples want a diagram for getting from point A to point B, but they don't get one. Faith isn't a game plan for solving our problems, nor is faith understanding why things are the way they are. At the end of the day, faith isn't about answers.

Faith is about the love of God through Jesus Christ. Faith is about being grasped by Jesus so that we know in our heart and bones that our lives and his life and the life of the world are mixed together. Once that happens, we see ourselves and our neighbours and our world in a completely fresh way. Once that happens, we know that the only thing that matters is that love and that the only reality is grace. Once that happens, we can forgive because we are new creations; and, therefore, we see everyone else as a new creation.

The hard truth is that we cannot earn this gift nor can we achieve it. It's a gift. All we have to do is open up a little and God does the rest. We need faith the size of a mustard seed; that is, we need a small crack in our frozen hearts and God will transform us.

When we think about whether we can change the world, we always despair. But let us remember it's not about us, it's about God working through us. We can do little, but is there anything God can’t do? Our task is to pray for faith and to trust in the giver.

And the truth is, it doesn't take much. A word, a touch, a gesture can give us a fresh perspective. It only takes a faith the size of a mustard seed for God to transform us.

Have you ever read "To Kill a Mockingbird"? I was on detention duty last week and some of the kids were doing catch-up reading for their literature. Supervising detention is very boring – one step away from spiritual death - and so I picked up a copy and as I browsed I came to the point where the white men came at night and surround the jail where Tom, the black man, wrongly accused of a crime, was held? The men are a mob. They don’t see Tom; they only see an enemy because of how they have categorised him and they are blinded by rage. Scout, a little girl, (It can only be an American story) watches them. Her father tells her to run away and go home. But Scout doesn't run, and she doesn't fight. Instead she finds the right word that becomes the mustard seed.

Scout looks at one of the men in the mob and says, "Hey Mister Cunningham, don't you remember me? I go to school with Walter. He's your boy, ain't he? We brought him home for dinner one time. Tell your boy 'hey' for me, will you?"

There was a long pause. Then the big man separated himself from the mob, squatted down and took Scout by both her shoulders. "I'll tell him you said 'hey,' little lady." He left and one by one the mob dispersed.
The girl whispered the words of grace. She gave the mustard seed of faith that opened the man's eyes and heart and soul. Instead of a red, blue, orange or green world, it's a world of grace. God whispers those words every day in every place. May we be open enough to receive.
Let us pray.

Gracious God, because we so often lose our way and become blind, open our eyes to see our brothers and sisters as truly our brothers and sisters. We pray for you to open our hearts to your life-giving grace so that we might know more of you and become instruments of your will. We ask these things in the name of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

(With grateful thanks to The Right Rev. Porter Taylor for the ideas as this was a very short notice sermon due to someone else’s illness.)