2 October 2022 – Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Sermon preached by SPEAKER
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Jesus, increase our faith!” Today’s gospel selection begins abruptly with this cry. “Jesus, increase our faith!”
So, let’s rewind a little bit to remember where we are in the larger text. You’ll remember that Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem. He spends the traveling time trying to pass on as much as he can to his followers before his death. In chapter 15 they learn they’re not supposed to lose any of God’s sheep or any of God’s coins. In Chapter 16, as we heard last week, they watch Jesus rebuke the religious leaders and the wealthy for neglecting the poor. And in Chapter 17, lest the disciples become too self-satisfied with Jesus’ chastising of the wealthy, Jesus turns to offer counsel to them.
“Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause any of these little ones to stumble…” (17:1-2).
This is the point at which we arrive at today’s reading – the apostles’ response to the teaching Jesus’ has just given: “How can we possibly do what you’re asking?” they might have exclaimed. “Sheep and coins and the poor and not being stumbling blocks…and millstones around our neck if we mess up! How could we possibly do everything that you’re asking? Jesus, increase our faith!!”
To which Jesus responds: “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.” And he means it. He means it.
If we look at the Greek for this statement – it’s a conditional statement: “if you had faith…then…” But there’s more than one form of conditional statement in Greek. Jesus is using a form that might be better translated as – not “if you had faith…you could…” – but “Because you have faith…you can // you are capable.” His message to his disciples is this: you have everything you need. I have given you everything you need.
That is, at the same time, tremendously comforting and more than a little daunting. How do we grow into that kind of faith? How do we grow into the kind of faith that can say to a mulberry tree, ‘move to the sea,’ and it does?
I find a little bit of a clue about growing in faith in today’s collect. As we prayed earlier: “God is always more ready to hear than we are to pray, God is always more ready to give than we desire or deserve” (paraphrased, BCP, p. 234). As a possible response to this question, “how do we grow in faith?” then, I might paraphrase our collect this way: Just show up! Just show up!
That sounds easy. But what does it mean to show up? Where are we showing up? How are we showing up? I want to move Mulberry bushes. What do I do?
Well, we all know there is no one answer to that question, right? Each of us is unique, we experience God in our world in different ways.
- Perhaps you are someone who is drawn to a meditative practice – centering prayer or meditation, praying with beads, or praying the daily office, for example.
- Or maybe participating in a caring or hospitality ministry is part of your spiritual practice.
- Perhaps you are drawn to art or music as a way to open yourself to God’s presence, to work through your challenges and struggles, or to express your joy and gratitude.
- Maybe you have more of an intellectual practice like reading, or focused study, or writing, or journaling.
- You might have a movement practice such as walking, or running, or yoga.
- Or maybe you find God in nature.
We could go on and on with the potential ways we can ‘just show up,’ because each of us is unique, each of us is drawn to different aspects of this creation we are part of. No matter our path, God is always ready to hear us, to find us. So whatever you choose – whatever your spiritual practices – choose something that is life-giving for you and just keep showing up. [See Source for a discussion of the range of spiritual practices.]
A second nutshell I will offer. As Jack described in his remarks, “a lifelong faith journey isn’t a solo trip.” Along with just showing up to God, just show up in community. Life can be lonely. Some individual spiritual practices can be isolating, perhaps even disorienting at times. And, a core tenet of our belief as Christians is that when we are together, the Spirit of God can be present in a way that doesn’t happen alone – where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, there God will be, too. So, just show up…and show up in community.
Sometimes, though, just showing up can be hard. And sometimes even when we do show up, we can’t sense God, we can’t feel God, we can’t find God. Grief and loss, fear, loneliness and isolation, or busy-ness and distraction…many things can get in the way of us showing up or, even when we do show up, they can get in the way of us knowing God’s presence.
The first two readings today help express that sentiment. From Lamentations we hear:
- “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!”
- “She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks.”
- “All her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.”
- “She finds no resting place.”
Or from our psalm this morning these evocative words:
- “By the Rivers of Babylon where we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.”
- “Our oppressors called for mirth [and song, but] How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil.”
Hebrew scripture – in lamentations, in the psalms, in books like Job and some of the prophetic literature – Hebrew scripture preserves and expresses the full range of human emotion.
We also find language to express this range of emotional states in Ignatian spirituality. Ignatius speaks of the concepts of consolation and desolation. Sometimes in our spiritual lives we are given the gift of what Ignatius would call consolation. Spiritual consolation, to quote one author, “is an experience of being so on fire with God’s love…[it] facilitates a deep sense of gratitude for God’s faithfulness. In consolation, we feel more alive and connected to others” [Source].
Spiritual desolation, in contrast, (again, quoting) “is an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil. We are assaulted by all sorts of doubts…temptations…self-preoccupations. We are excessively restless and anxious and feel cut off from others” [Source].
I don’t offer these terms to say that consolation is always good, or that desolation is always bad. Sometimes, sadness or loneliness can be a time of spiritual growth and deepening of relationships – with God and with those around us. Suffering can bring with it experiences of God’s grace. And at the same time, the peace and happiness that can be associated with consolation may be deceptive. The sense of well-being may paper over issues that we need to confront.
So, I don’t offer these terms to say that one is good and the other is bad, but to acknowledge that in our spiritual lives we can find ourselves in very different emotional states. And no matter what state we’re in, God is “always more ready to hear than we are to pray.”
So when, like the disciples, we feel overwhelmed by the world around us, by the things we are called to do…when we cry out, “God, increase our faith!”, we may not be transporting mulberry trees by voice command – I can’t even make Siri work! – but just as Jesus’ assured his disciples, we can be assured that we have what we need to grow in faith.
And look – Here you are! You are showing up! You are singing in community, you are serving MANNA or B-READY or the Brookline Food Pantry in community. You are teaching children. You are reading, and knitting, and praying in community.
There is no single path, no magic combination of spiritual practices that lead to an increase in faith. But there is this: Just show up. And show up in community. And trust God to do the rest.