Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 27), October 6, 2013
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:1-10
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen
Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus said “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” And the disciples said, “Lord, increase our faith!” Who hasn’t said that, at one time or another, when faced by something that seems impossible? Who hasn’t heard the call of God and said to themselves, “God can’t really mean that … and if he does, there’s no way I can do it!” Or sometimes—and this is the one I struggle with—“Wow, God, I really don’t want to do that. If you’re serious, you’re going to have to give me more faith.”
The most recent occasion I thought that was when I was interviewing for this call as your pastor. I’d just spent several years in Pennsylvania for seminary training and work, and I was really looking forward to being closer to home. I dreamed of being called to a church in the mid-Willamette Valley in Oregon, even though I knew how unlikely it was. I’d been assigned to the Midwest, and had been searching for a call here for almost a year at that point, and I was really hoping that meant I wouldn’t find a call in the Midwest and could possibly find one in Oregon or Washington instead. And then I interviewed here, and I could feel it. This was where God was calling me to be. Underwood North Dakota, not the Pacific Northwest. There was something about the people I met here that I could feel a connection to, a call. It was something I hadn’t felt at the other interviews I had done. “Lord,” I prayed, “please, please, please, call me to Oregon. But if that’s not your will, strengthen my faith to help me live away from home.” I didn’t want to do what God was calling me to do! I wanted to go home! And I thought, if God would just give me more faith, that would make it easier to do what God wanted me to do.
The disciples were in much the same spot. God was telling them something they didn’t want to hear. Jesus had just spent a lot of time telling a series of parables, some of them confusing ones. Jesus then turned his attention to the disciples, and lectured them on forgiveness. Now, forgiveness can be one of the most difficult things Christians are called to do. It can be relatively easy to forgive people we like, people we think deserve to be forgiven. It’s a lot harder to forgive people we don’t like, people who don’t deserve to be forgiven. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “forgive them, and if they lapse back into that same sin you’re off the hook.” No, Jesus says to forgive them as many times as they need forgiving. I have to tell you, there have been many times in my life that I didn’t want to forgive! So I can sympathize with the disciples. “Lord,” they say, “increase our faith!” Yes, forgiveness is hard, and we don’t really want to do it. We know we can’t do it on our own; we need your help. So if you’ll just increase our faith, that’ll make it so much easier for us and we’ll be more likely to actually do it.
Wouldn’t that be nice? If our faith was so strong, so robust, that even doing things we didn’t want to do became easy? Wouldn’t it be nice if our faith was so strong that we never had to struggle to do what God asks us to do? Wouldn’t it be nice if we never wonder why things look bad? If even the disciples struggle—if even the disciples felt they needed more faith—what hope have we? It seems like being a faithful follower of God would result in an easy life; it seems like being a faithful follower of God should mean it would be easy to do what God wants. If only. The disciples asked for stronger faith. So do we.
But Jesus doesn’t give them faith. He says, “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.” Now, it’s not as clear in English as it is in Greek, but this is not a harsh rebuke. Jesus isn’t saying the disciples don’t have faith—he’s saying they do. There are two basic kinds of “if” statements. Some aren’t true, for example: “If I were president, I would make Congress come to some sort of reasonable compromise and pass a budget!” Now, I’m not and never will be President, so that is not a true statement. Then there are “if” statements that are true, for example, a sports commentator beginning a prediction with “if I know these two teams …” The commentator, of course, does know the teams—that’s what he’s basing his prediction on. In English, it’s hard to tell the two kinds of “if” statements apart. But in Greek, they’re actually not phrased the same. Jesus isn’t saying “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed” to imply that they don’t have faith; he’s implying that they do have enough faith already! A lack of faith is not the problem. The problem is, they’re not using the faith they have. And they have a funny idea of what faith is.
Then Jesus goes on to talk about the role of a slave. And the role of the slave is to do what the master tells him to. It doesn’t require superhuman strength, or superhuman trust in the master. All a slave has to do is keep plodding on and following orders. The slave doesn’t have to like those orders; the slave doesn’t even have to understand them—the slave just has to keep on keeping on. That’s what the disciples aren’t getting. We are not the master; we don’t decide what the tasks are, or what should happen. We don’t even get to choose what our reward will be. We just have to keep following our master’s voice even when it’s leading us to do things we don’t want to do—like forgive people we don’t like, or move away from home.
Sometimes, faith means trusting that God is at work in the world even when it doesn’t feel like it. That was Habakkuk’s problem, in our first lesson. Habakkuk was a faithful man who could see injustice and violence all around him. He could see all the evil things in the world, and he wanted to know why God allowed it. He wanted to know why bad things happened to good people. But God reassured him: even in the midst of all the darkness and trouble, God was there. The world’s evils would not have free reign forever. God is still present, even when things look bleakest. And the evils of the world will not have the final say.
I can understand why Habakkuk wondered about God; there are evils today, too. There is injustice today, too, and you don’t have to look very far to see examples of it. There is violence and murder; there is exploitation and callousness. There is senseless feuding that shuts down the possibility of meaningful discussion and resolution. Yet now as in Habakkuk’s day, God is present with us. Faith means living in this world full of conflict and violence and injustice, and trusting that God is at work. Faith means acknowledging reality while hoping for a better tomorrow, and it means participating in God’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation even when we would rather hold on to our resentment and hurt and suspicion. Faith means never forgetting whose we are and whose vision we follow.
Faith is not a magical cure-all, and it doesn’t make life’s problems vanish. Faith, sometimes, is putting one foot in front of the other and trusting that God will not steer you wrong. Faith is trusting that God will give you what you need, even if that’s not what you want or would have chosen. I would not have chosen rural North Dakota, if it were up to me; but now that I’ve been here for almost a year I have to admit that God knew what he was doing when he brought me here to be your pastor. This has been a good place for me to learn and grow, and I hope it will continue to be for some time to come. I hope I am a good pastor to you and I hope I have helped you all learn and grow in your faith, as well. I have found that all the time I was praying for more faith, God had already given me what I needed. And many of the gifts God gave me weren’t anything about me at all—your faith and love have been part of what allows me to make a home here, and do ministry here. I didn’t need more faith; I just needed to get on with putting that faith into action and trust that God would be present.
We live by faith. It isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t always take us where we want to go. Sometimes, it feels like we just don’t have enough. Yet God is always with us; and even when we feel we don’t have enough faith, we have more than we think.