I feel a bit nervous about putting this sermon online – I had just read an article (here, but behind a paywall) about a report recommending legalizing euthanasia in Victoria (the state in Australia where I live), and I was very aerated about it. Perhaps the ideas in the sermon don’t fit together quite as neatly as they might. But, still, they give you a pulpit in order to preach, and if the church can’t speak out about the state killing people, then really what can it speak out about?
“Lord, increase our faith,” say the Apostles to Jesus, and who among us will not resonate with that? We live in a world so seemingly hostile to faith that our faith can feel very small, negligible, irrelevant. We feel as though we have lost our place to stand, and our right to speak. We are very much against the spirit of the age, and it can be an isolating place. The image in my mind is of a lonely shingle strand, the waves crashing in, the wind whipping my hair, a pair of gulls circling overhead calling mournfully. The tide of faith, it feels, is withdrawing and we have only the dubious comfort of liberal humanism, with its sad, joyless, risk-minimizing approach to life.
This is particularly in my mind tonight, given the Victorian Parliament’s report on euthanasia “Inquiry into End of Life Choices.” I’m not going spend any time on it, but it spells out with clarity what the life-denying ideology which lies behind it really means. Which is the cultural despair which is the direct, inevitable, and entirely predictable result of our nation’s rejection of God. As I said, I’m not going to dwell on it, but it is the cultural horizon under which we live, and it throws what Jesus has to say into even sharper relief than usual.
Lord, increase our faith, the Apostles say, and us with them.
It’s striking that it’s the Apostles who are saying this – not the crowds who follow Jesus around, nor even the disciples, but the inner circle. The ones who have been closest to Jesus, who have seen amazing things – people healed, food in the wilderness, demons cast out, storms stilled. If they feel their faith is lacking, then what hope for any of us? It’s a bit depressing.
But, from another perspective, it is anything but depressing. The Apostles feel as though they lack faith, even though they have seen all these amazing deeds of power – it’s not surprising that we, two thousand years down the track, struggle. Yes, ours are times which seem hostile to faith – or at least to our faith, the faith of the Christian church. But I suspect it has always been a hard gig. Either the World hates us, as it hated Jesus first, and that causes problems great and small. Or else the World decides to get on board, which inevitably ends up co-opting the Church for distinctly non-Christian ends.
The Apostles felt that they lacked faith – which is, in a way, permission for us to admit to our own lack of faith.
Jesus’ response is, as always, interesting. Surprising. Not what you would expect.
He doesn’t say something reassuring. Rather, he challenges them.
He does this by telling them two stories: A short one, and a longer one.
The first story is this: “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.”
Let us pause there for a moment. There are something like 2.2 billion Christians in the world. That’s a lot of mulberry trees flying through the air. Great flights of them hammering overhead like enormous migrating birds, a danger to aircraft, clogging up navigable waterways, making life difficult for surfers. Not to mention the impact on the fruit and silk industries.
There is something appealing about it though – because if we could just see the miraculous happening, then, we think, it would be easy to have faith – to feel confident.
In fact, surely it would be a world without doubt. A world in which anyone stupid enough to doubt would be immediately silenced, given an adequate supply of mulberry trees.
It would be, in fact, a world without faith, because it would be a world of certainty. In fact, a world in which we no longer had to have faith in God, because of our own preternatural abilities to work tree-related miracles in His name. Because faith is only possible when doubt is a serious option.
As the early twentieth century writer and Christian apologist G K Chesterton said
To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.
Faith is only possible when doubt is an option. Faith is only a virtue when doubt is easy.
Given the lack of salty mulberry trees washing up on beaches, it appears that God is not, in fact, particularly interested in the sort of faith that miracles on demand would lead to.
If you have even a tiny amount of faith, Jesus says, you will be able to do remarkable things.
It’s striking that the emphasis is on action here. Part of the problem with our hunger for deeds of power is that it directs our faith not towards God, but toward some other thing, a feeling of confidence in something other than God. Given this extrinsic confidence, it doesn’t demand much of us. We can call upon fruit trees to do various things and then get on with our day.
However, what Jesus is offering here is the opportunity to be part of what God is doing in the world. Faith, here, means a whole of life commitment towards collaborating with God. It is, in short, a call to mission, and an encouragement that, in co-operating with God, surprising things are possible. For instance, for the first time in Human history, Christian abolitionists, our ancestors in the faith, managed to make slavery illegal.
You may not feel very capable. You may feel beaten down by life, powerless to affect the world. Jesus calls you, and tells you: it is not how much faith you think you have. Rather, it is what you do with it. You don’t need much. And, perhaps, the way to grow you faith is to be part of the mission. It is action, after all, that Jesus is recommending.
Jesus, then, calls us to mission.
Next, Jesus compares the Apostles, and us of course, to slaves who, when the master gets home, are expected to wait on him, rather than being rewarded by being served themselves. They are, after all, only slaves, who are just doing what it is expected of them.
This is, at first sight, a hard teaching. To begin with, the slavery language itself is problematic for us. What a different world Jesus seems to inhabit!
But, even if we get beyond the language, the feeling is grim. It paints a picture of a hard, unforgiving God, who demands perfection, and gives only, at best, grudging encouragement at the end of the day. The unloving, judgemental, buzz-kill God, in fact, of the popular imagination.
However, we know from other sayings of Jesus that he doesn’t in any way see God as an ungracious master. For instance we might contrast Luke chapter 12 verse 37, where he tells a similar story about a master and his slaves, where he says “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. “
And, of course, I could suggest a lot of similar examples where Jesus speaks of God’s gracious love and acceptance of all of us. But I think this is enough to make the point – that he does not intend to describe God as ungracious.
So what is his point precisely?
I think that, at one level, it is a warning against the sort of religious self-importance displayed by the Scribes and Pharisees in New Testament times – and by many religious people of all stripes ever since.
In fact, I feel quite convicted by it. Do I, at some level, feel that, because of my service to God I am entitled to special treatment by God? Or by other people? Do I do my stuff ostentatiously, in order to win approval from others? Probably, at least some of the time.
This moves us into contact with the idea of call within the mulberry tree story. In the first story, Jesus calls us to mission, to co-operation with God. In the second, he tells us about the conditions. Which are, basically, that the mission has to be its own reward. We are not to have tickets on ourselves, are not to look for fringe benefits. The work has to be its own reward.
The specific call will be, I think, different for each of us in how it is lived out. We live in a complex world, and each of us has particular ways in which we desire God, which will result in different ways in which we collaborate with God. For some, material help for the poorest in our society, and our planet, will be their contribution. For others, the helping of souls. Or in working out what your Christian faith means for you as an accountant, a manager, a worker, and as a human being, a parent, grandparent, child, or friend, living in this complex society which needs so many different things doing.
It isn’t easy to have faith. It wasn’t easy for the Apostles, who saw all that they saw, and it certainly isn’t easy for us. But it is nonetheless vital.
We see this echoed in the other reading, where Paul is exhorting his friend Timothy to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you.”
The gift of God which Paul is talking about, is not an easy, cost free issuing of instructions to fruit trees. Rather, it is a calling. He reinforces the point that Jesus is making in the parable – the gift of God is to be part of God’s action – but it is not through our own worthiness. We aren’t chosen by God because we are especially holy. Rather, God calls us all, “according to his own purpose and grace.”
Part of how Paul thinks this rekindling is to work is to “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” This sounds a bit dull, to say the least. But it turns out to be important.
To see why, let us return to that parliamentary report I mentioned earlier, the “Inquiry into End of Life Choices”, we see here what happens when a culture walks away from faith, when it fails to hold to the sound teaching that Paul referred to.
The basic problem the document is wrestling with is this: What is life worth when there is no God? What is life worth when I am not successful? We strive to keep people fed and housed and healthy, but, as this report shows, the basic problem remains. In the words of American poet Wendell Berry: What are people for?
If the sole criterion of value in life is to not suffer, then you are inevitably led to the situation faced in Belgium where a lethal injection can be described as an “act of unconditional love.” Not just for the painfully and terminally ill, but for those who are “tired of life,” and even, astonishingly, for children.
In a world in which life has no meaning then, inevitably, suffering can have no meaning. The only answer the humanist state has to the question of suffering is to end it – and if that includes ending an unwanted life, then so be it.
There is a technical, theological, name for this position: Despair. The complete abandonment of hope. The sin of choosing to believe that God cannot reach us, of turning aside from our basic “yes” to life, turning in on ourselves so that God cannot reach us.
Don’t misunderstand me: the desire to relieve suffering is a noble one. We should do our best to relieve suffering wherever we can. But, as all religious traditions have noticed, suffering is an inevitable fact of our life. We can never be free of it entirely. The question then is: can we find suffering meaningful? Or does that make as much sense as keeping an old dog alive when it has nothing to left to experience beyond pain?
To turn your back on God is, ultimately, to turn your back on the possibility of a meaningful universe. A meaningful life. And as we move into a post-Christian culture we will see that more and more clearly.
Compare that with the Apostle Paul’s situation: he suffers, yes, but he finds suffering meaningful, because it is for the sake of the Gospel. He is part of the long tradition that sees life as not the sum of its painful experiences, but as a gift from God. Choose life, God commands through the writer of Deuteronomy, and Paul agrees.
This is the trusting faith which lies behind Jesus’ two stories. Live and walk in faith, choose life, collaborate with God in God’s mission to the world. Life has a meaning and a purpose, no matter what suffering it throws at us, because we are God’s good, but broken, creation. Jesus calls us to take up our place in God’s redemptive purposes for life.
This is the answer to the meaningless banality of modern life – to choose to live as God’s child – the recipient of his gracious, all-embracing, all-forgiving, all-encompassing love for us. The love which we experience when we walk hand in hand with God, and with each other, through a life of both prayer and action. With one another, and for one another. Not the slave of God, but, Jesus tells us, God’s friend.
So let us step out as Jesus has commanded us, and put our tiny amounts of faith to work, trusting in Jesus’ promise that good, life-giving, Jesus-shaped things will happen.