Wednesday, December 18, at 7:30 pm
We are all carrying something that feels heavy. Even in a festive season like the time leading up to Christmas, we carry the weight of grief or worry or fear. Join us for a special worship service the week before Christmas that will provide a space of hope and healing for anyone who is grieving the death of a loved one, trying to make sense of a difficult relationship, or struggling to stay spiritually grounded in our crazy world. The service will include prayers, time for reflection, and music, including portions of the beautiful Holden Evening Prayer setting. There will be an optional opportunity for individual prayer and anointing with Pastor Christa at the end of the service.
5:00 pm – Worship with Youth Ensemble and Kids’ Choir
10:00 pm – Candlelight Service with Adult Choir and Violin
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” Luke 17:5
Maybe you’ve found yourself awake in the deepest, darkest part of the night because you are so worried about someone you love. They’re facing a health crisis, perhaps, or struggling with an addiction, and you have no idea how to make things better. You wish you had more faith so you could feel sure everything will be OK.
Maybe you’ve found yourself caught in the middle of a really contentious disagreement with a family member or a friend. The whole thing drains you of energy and you can’t figure out how to repair the relationship. You wish you had more faith so you could fix things with this person.
Maybe you’ve found yourself feeling anxious because of the news. Violence everywhere. You’re worried about where the next mass shooting might break out. Or you wish politics weren’t such an ugly business these days. You wish you had more faith so you would feel less scared and less angry.
All of us at one time or another can relate to the words of the prophet Habbakuk that we heard in our First Reading: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” It’s the desperate plea of someone who has seen terrible things and longs for God to make it all stop.
So we understand why some of Jesus’ followers come to him with their own desperate plea: “Increase our faith!” We want a faith that is strong enough to stand up to all that life throws at us, and sometimes it feels like whatever we have just isn’t enough.
But here’s the challenge. Faith is not really quantifiable. How would we even measure it? I don’t have some sort of scale for you to stand on that will tell me how much faith you have so I can write it in your spiritual chart and compare this year’s number to next year’s when you come for your annual check-up. I’m not going to give you a faith report card, where we divide faith out into different categories and assess how you measure up. That’s not how it works.
Jesus responds to this request in a few ways that may not seem helpful. First he tells his followers that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could toss trees into the ocean. It’s a confusing image, but remember that mustard seeds are among the tiniest of seeds, and yet the bush that grows from them is big and bushy and grows in all directions. It looks more like a tree. His point might simply be to remind us that what feels like a little bit of faith, what feels like “not enough,” can actually do more than we realize.
Jesus then uses another comparison that is more difficult to hear with our modern sensibilities. He compares having faith to being a slave. We of course don’t understand Jesus to be endorsing slavery here; but keep in mind how widespread slavery was in the ancient world. Many of the people listening in on this conversation might have been slaves. Jesus is telling us not to turn the commitment to living our faith into a calculus problem. You know what faith involves, he says. You know the role. Just do it. Set the table. Get to work.
In verse 10, the last verse of today’s gospel passage, Jesus imagines these servant followers saying, “’We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Let me offer another translation that I think works better. “Worthless slaves” can also be translated as “unworthy slaves.”[i] That helps me change my thinking about living my faith. Being “unworthy” seems more truthful than being worthless. I know that I don’t really deserve what Jesus has done for me. If there were a way to quantify what Jesus has done (which there isn’t), I could never pay it back. So why not just live in gratitude for his sacrificial love, for his gift of life that does not demand that I am worthy in order to receive it? Why not just do the things that he invites me to do – be present with God, care for my neighbor, pray, worship, serve, forgive, love?
I think the disciples got something right with their request. They say: “Increase OUR faith…” I like the use of the plural pronoun “our.” Increase our faith. Faith is something that we practice in community. So, when we come together in worship, one person might be struggling to hold on to hope, but the rest of us can sing on that person’s behalf. Another person might find it hard right now to summon the words to pray, but the rest of can pray with and for that person. Our shared faith is stronger than any one individual’s could ever be.
I’m also reminded of that shared faith by part of our second reading. The author of this letter writes to Timothy: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” This speaks of a faith that is shared, passed down from one generation to another. It makes me think of the people in my life who shared their faith with me and helped me live my own faith. These words invite us to renew our commitment to sharing the faith with the youngest generations in our community. Just as they share their faith with us.
You have a bulletin insert that I really want you to take home and try using. Over the next several weeks the Weekly Word and the bulletin will include ideas for living our faith. In this first month we’ll focus on prayer. So by the end of October you’ll have four ways of praying to try as a household. Today’s, for example, outlines a simple way to share highs and lows as a family and then to incorporate those highs and lows into a prayer. If you live alone like I do, you can reflect on the ups and downs of the week and offer those to God in an individual prayer.
I know that life is busy. I know these things can sometimes feel a little strange. But I also believe it will make a difference in our lives to take time to talk to each other and talk to God.
So try these things out. See how they go. I hope you’ll discover which practices seem to connect for you or for your family. I hope you’ll let me know how they’re going, and I hope you’ll ask questions along the way.
That letter to Timothy goes on to say: “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
We already have what we need. God has given us what we need – a spirit of power and love. It lives in us. It is more than enough.
Now what will we do with it? Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“[The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4:31-32
I follow a writer named James Breakwell on Twitter.[i] He’s got a sharp sense of humor, but what I love the most are his reports from his family, where he and his wife are raising four daughters, ages 7 and under. He regularly shares snippets of conversations with his kids – like this one in which he asks the five-year-old:
Me: What did you do at school today?
5-year-old: Learned about dragons.
Me: Your class learned about dragons?
5: I learned about dragons. I don’t know what everybody else was doing.
Or this one with his four-year-old:
Me: How did you get so dirty?
4-year-old: We played a game.
Me: What game?
4: Play in the dirt.
Or this one with his six-year-old:
Me: Can you help me?
6-year-old: I’m busy.
Me: You just said you were bored.
6: I’m busy being bored.
In addition to making his readers laugh, James Breakwell also reminds us about one of the basic challenges of parenting. You can teach your children. You can love your children. You can guide your children. You can set an example for your children. Those things are important. But when it all shakes out, there’s a whole lot you can’t control about what your kids will say or do.
Most days we’d prefer a world in which we had more control. We could say, “God, this is exactly how I would like things to be. Heal this sick person. Put our family back together. Stop the horrible things going on in the world.” We could say it, and it would happen. Things would make sense. They would be clear and orderly and line up with what we want.
But that is not the world we live in. Today we hear Jesus tell these two little parables – small illustrations meant to challenge our expectations. In this case he paints some word pictures to tell us about the kingdom of God. As Christians we know that this life gives us only a glimpse of the full reign of God that is to come. So what exactly are we praying for when we pray each week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”?
If we take Jesus seriously, we are praying for something crazy. Keep in mind that the people to whom he’s speaking would have had more experience with agriculture than most of us do, and what Jesus is saying would sound crazy to them too. First there’s the picture of someone who scatters seed on the ground and then does absolutely nothing. This person does not analyze the soil or pull weeds or water the seeds or worry about the amount of sunlight. He just scatters the seeds and gets a good night’s sleep – night after night after night. He has no idea how the seed grows. The earth produces of itself, we hear. The Greek word is automate– from which we get the word “automatic.”
So if we’re looking to dictate the way God’s kingdom grows and expands, we can forget it. Because God’s kingdom grows in mysterious ways, with powers beyond our comprehension or control. That’s the baffling power of God’s grace. It can bring about growth and change in spite of us.
If that weren’t unsettling enough, Jesus then gives his listeners another ridiculous image – the mustard seed.[ii] His listeners would have been amused at the thought that anyone would actually plant mustard seeds. Mustard was more like a weed – common, sturdy, able to grow almost anywhere and certain to spread where you least wanted it. Good luck trying to keep it out of your nicely planned, neatly laid-out garden. If you were silly enough to plant mustard seeds, you’d soon find yourself with a bunch of bushy weeds taking over everywhere, with no regard for any barriers you’d tried to set up between different kinds of plants in different sections of the garden. You might as well plant kudzu or dandelions.
When Jesus says the mustard seed grows into “the greatest of all shrubs,” there’s a good chance someone in the crowd laughed out loud. The greatest of all shrubs? Really? But what makes it the greatest, according to Jesus? It’s those branches. If you Google “mustard bush,” you’ll see a wide variety of pictures, but all of the plants have long, hospitable branches. Just what you’d enjoy if you were a bird looking to build a home. And that’s the image that Jesus leaves us with – The small, insignificant mustard seed grows into something so welcoming that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
Which brings us to another dilemma. Do we really want to attract a bunch of birds to the garden? Don’t they eat fruits and seeds? Won’t they just create chaos in the cornfields?
So the kingdom of God is like this scruffy, stubborn plant with no regard for the boundaries that we try to establish and with the ultimate purpose of providing shelter to a bunch of birds we’re not sure we want there in the first place. Well, that’s not a picture that makes us comfortable.
I couldn’t help but think about these images as I reflected on this week’s awful news about children being separated from their parents along the southern border. As the person who is responsible for guiding how we engage with scripture, it’s important for me to talk about not just what’s happening to these families, but also the misuse of scripture this week by the Attorney General. I’m not talking about this with political motivations. I’m doing it because as people of faith, we need to understand how dangerous it is in any situation to pull one verse out of its context and use it to support an entire policy.
Let’s admit up front that our immigration system is broken. It has been broken for decades. But broken systems cannot be an excuse for inhumane treatment of children and families.
The Attorney General this week quoted the first verse of Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”
First, it’s always crucial to look at a verse in the context of where it appears in scripture. Keep in mind that Paul, the presumed author of the book of Romans, defied the Roman Empire merely by being a Christian, and he was ultimately put to death for it. So he wasn’t advocating blind, unthinking allegiance to a government. He was suggesting that God can be present in and work through all things, including human institutions.
But if we read all of Romans 13, we hear that Paul is ultimately describing how God’s law of love transcends all laws. Paul writes in that same chapter:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)
We have to be especially cautious with verses that have a history of being misused. Romans 13:1 was often used to justify slavery in this country, including the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required citizens to return runaway slaves to their owners.[iii] More recently it has been used to support apartheid in South Africa.
Ultimately as people of faith what we must ask ourselves is this: What are the broader narratives of God’s story as told to us in scripture? In this collection of different books and stories by different writers in different time periods, what common themes can we find?
Here are some of those themes:
Again and again, God calls us to welcome the stranger and the immigrant (often referred to as the foreigner or the resident alien in our midst).
Again and again, God calls us to give shelter to those who are in danger. Think, for example, of the story of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus calls the children to come to him and tells us to do the same. (Matthew 19)
Jesus calls us to care for those most in need – and reminds us that doing so is the same as caring for him. And likewise, to ignore those in need is to ignore him. (Matthew 25)
I don’t have all the answers. I barely understand the questions. But I keep thinking about that mustard bush – the uncontrollable, stubborn, boundary-defying mustard bush that gives shelter to all of those birds. The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says. That gives us somewhere to start. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[ii]I draw extensively from Matt Skinner’s commentary on Working Preacher (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3676) and Debie Thomas’ commentary for Journey with Jesus (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1809)