Wednesday, October 3, 2007

How Much Is Enough?

World Communion Sunday is coming this week for many. Here is a meditation for this day.

How Much Is Enough?
Living by a Faith That’s Incomplete
A Meditation for World Communion Sunday
by Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Luke 17:5-10
27th Sunday in Ordinary time: October 7, 2007

Through stunning words of judgment and a tiny concluding glimpse of distant hope, the prophecy of Amos seemed to set before the people of Israel an impossible task. From the perspective of centuries of wrongdoing and shortcomings, in the depths of a society which had come to celebrate ruthless materialism above their covenants with God, Amos declared the certainty of destruction and devastation unless the people did one thing: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live.” I think the people of Amos’ time, like the people of our time, upon receiving such a singular word as their only avenue of hope, might have been tempted to throw up their hands and say, “What chance is there in our rapacious society — in which the rich are devouring the poor — that all the people who profit so from injustice will suddenly return to an ethic of fairness?” The likelihood that this might happen must have seemed as distant to them as it sometimes does to us in our own time.

Almost 800 years later, the disciples heard about the rigorous ethics of the kingdom Jesus was proclaiming and pleaded with him,“Increase our faith!” They were worried about the quantity of their faith, as though such a thing could be measured. They looked at their faith balance and believed they were about to overdraw their account. “Please, Lord, give us another deposit!”

Jesus’ reply redefined the way they — and we — thought about faith. From what he says, faith isn’t so much a quantity as it is a quality of existence. Think of the very next thing Jesus said: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed...” As long as they were going to go around worrying about the relative quantity of their faith, Jesus picked about the smallest thing he could think of. Today, some might say, “If you had faith the size of a fragment of an atom...” Well, what if they did? What then? He went on...

If you had even such a tiny quantity of faith, you could do things that look impossible otherwise, like planting trees in the middle of the ocean. You could make mountains dance, you could fly to Tel Aviv and back in an hour.

Here is the important part about measuring faith this way. In the language Luke used in this gospel, Jesus was using the word “if” in a special way. Even in our language we have two ways of saying “if,” though only one word for it. For instance, were I to say, “If I were King of England,” it’s as though I were adding “...though of course I’m not.” It is a use of the word “if” that asks you to set aside what you know to be true, to accept a false premise, in order to consider another option. “If I were you, and we both know I’m not, but if I were you, I would do such and such.” That is the first way we use “if,” when it expresses a condition that we know to be contrary to the facts.

The second way we use “if,” though, arises from just the opposite condition. This happens when we begin a statement with a conditional phrase such as, “If the Bible is worthy of study...” This expresses a condition according to fact, as though we were saying, “If the Bible is worthy of study, and it is...” It is the second type of conditional clause that Jesus used.

He said, in effect, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, (which you do), you could harvest mulberries from ocean orchards.” In others words, the disciples already had an ample supply of the very resource they were seeking. If we believe in Jesus we already have all the faith we need. Working harder at it might be commendable, but it won’t make us more worthy. How much faith is enough? The amount that brought you here today is enough to make a new person out of you and transform the world in the process.

Tom Long of Princeton Seminary once told a story about a conversation he shared with a man on an airplane flight:
“[The man] told me that he and his wife were the parents of a son, now in his thirties, who was confined to a nursing-care condition for a number of years because of an injury to his brain. ‘We had stopped loving him,’ said my companion. ‘It’s a hard thing to admit, but we had stopped loving him. It’s hard to love someone who never responds. We visited him often, but our feeling for him as a son had begun to die. Until one day we happened to visit our son and discovered a visitor, a stranger, in his room. He turned out to be the pastor of a nearby church whose custom it was to visit all the patients in the nursing home. When we arrived we found him talking to our son — as if our son could understand. Then he read Scripture to our son — as if our son could hear it. Finally he had prayer with our son — as if our son could know that he was praying. My first impulse was to say, ‘You fool, don’t you know about our son?’ But then it dawned on me that, of course he did know. He knew all along. He cared for our son as if our son were whole, because he saw him through the eyes of faith, and he saw him already healed. That pastor renewed in us the capacity to love our son.”
The capacity to love their son hadn’t abandoned them. It still lived in them, tiny as a mustard seed, but it was there.

Mustard seed faith is the faith we already have, which has all the power needed to carry us to this table where Jesus receives and blesses us and empowers us to accomplish great things in his name. Don’t pray for more faith. Pray for the strength to live by the faith you have already been given.

Copyright © 2007 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
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