“Do this in remembrance of me.”
Luke 17:1-10, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
The daily newspapers may change their layout and editorial content, but what remains constant are all the numbers reported to help us keep track of our lives. Sports scores. Weather temps. Financial markets. We want to keep score. Measure. Count. They whet our thirst to know where we are relative to each other and relative to points in time.
The financial services industry does a good job of arousing our awareness of the need for accounting, particularly in retirement planning. We may, or given this past week of governmental shenanigans may not be, in a national economic recovery. But, given our recent past, it is natural to ask about personal savings and the size of your 401k, “how much do I have and do I have enough.” We ask, wanting to know what to expect, potentially take action to remedy any shortfalls, or maybe relax. Just good stewardship of our lives to want to measure how we stack up.
In some ways, this is similar to the disciples who are following Jesus, headed from Galilee toward Jerusalem, and who are on a faith journey. I know a number of you who attend Bible Study and listened to prior sermons have heard me repeat, this portion of the Gospel of Luke is a travel narrative, Jesus is taking us from one understanding of faith towards a renewed understanding of God’s love for us and teaching us faithful living.
For the group of disciples and each individual, to leave behind one’s understanding of faith and pick up another must have created a crisis. Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ healings and all his parables challenged religious customs and norms. What had been the right practices, giving enough alms, observing the laws, ritual sacrifices were not valued for salvation. Jesus repeats, all they need is faith in God. So how much?
In times of crisis, you want to account for your resources as you set a new goal, a new standard by which to live. The disciples just need to have enough faith, but how much is enough? They never ask, “how much,” only, “Give me more.” But, it seems good stewardship of one’s eternal life to possess more and more faith.
After walking so many dusty miles on this journey, telling so many stories, having the disciples witness so much healing, Jesus does not waste time. He radically upset their notion of faith by essentially saying no. “You don’t need more; all you need is faith the size of a mustard seed.” Crazy. If you consider a tiny mustard seed, you would not want to risk your next meal on it, let alone your life.
Jesus then completes this parable by describing the relationship between slave and master to show them what this faith means. Please, set aside your shock at how slavery seems to be condoned. We need to look deeper. The faith Jesus prescribes is like the relationship of the slave devoted to the master. The slave serves as requested, without expecting a “thank you,” or tit-for-tat exchange of service and then reward, just wholly devoted service.
He is describing the life of faith as one of serving without scorekeeping and measuring. It actually relieves them of wondering are the “thank you’s” frequent enough. To just serve and be devoted to God, frees you from measuring the number of rewards you think you have earned or worrying if you have done enough.
In the realm of faith and salvation, faith is not something to possess or hoard, it is something to fuel your life with one another. Faith is trust and relational. Just as the smallest grain is able to create abundant new life, a speck of faith is sufficient to animate your ability to live in such ways that the impossible become possible, if you are willing to use your faith, not worry about preserving it.
As we gaze at the table, I am reminded of a story I’ll perhaps never forget.
Now in November, a 1934 novel by Josephine Johnson, is the story of a white, middle-class, Midwestern family who become dirt-poor farmers during the dust bowl of the 1930’s and Great Depression. Written from the perspective of the youngest daughter, she watches her family unravel under the stress of not knowing how they will live day-upon-day without rain, with consistent loss of livelihood and life, and increasing burden of debt. Despite the ever-present need to work to survive, the mother takes her children to visit the church on the one Sunday a month in which the circuit-riding minister appears to preach.
The daughter recounts a finger-wagging sermon by the preacher who drones on about the problem of evil without offering a word of hope, but she hangs on since the table is set for communion and her mother came to feed their faith.
“…And then I watched Mother sitting there, listening quiet, but more as though she were having some inner communion of her own, feeding and watering some faith of which the organ and church and minister were only the symbol and surroundings…I wanted to believe as she did, quietly, very steadfast, without reasoning or beyond reason, with a faith that seemed as much a part of her as her hands or face…But, I never could. It was as though faith were a thing one was born with, like color or eyes or arms, and wouldn’t be otherwise obtained…When it came time for communion…Mother’s face had a rapt and luminous light about it, a sort of mystic anticipation as though she were worlds away. Before the taking began, we saw the deacon creep down the aisle toward Mother and everyone’s head turned around…He leaned over and whispered “you’ll have to get out…you don’t belong to this church (140).” They left.
Takes my breath away. I can only wonder if the preacher at this church and the deacon had fallen into the trap of hoarding for a select few; some measure of faith, as if faith were as scarce as the crops. They were caught up in keeping score of others to determine who was in, who was out, narrowing their lives. I can only wonder how God’s heart was broken by the way this family was treated, who came seeking relationship with others, who came to be a part of God’s community. Jesus tells us, no one is to cast walls around God’s grace.
The young daughter later reflected, “remembering that Sunday, I wanted to know the reasons. And, more than that, (I) wanted something outside of myself…a faith that would fit life, not just hide it (142).” The author italicized the word fit for emphasis.
She wanted a faith that fit life, not a faith that denied how difficult life can be or a faith that hid from the broader world in which we live by reconstructing it to suit a particular purpose. In my mind, I can imagine she wanted a faith that would include her and her family as they struggled to stay alive and offer the hope so sorely missing that morning.
Her mother’s desire to join in community, amidst starvation and a drought, is exactly why and how we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we uphold a tradition handed down through the ages, beginning with an invitation to the table. At Kenilworth Union, and so many other churches, this table is not the church’s table, confined to a select few. This table is open to all whom Christ invites into his church and to receive at his table.
Our first reading was from the apostle Paul. He reminded the people of the early church in Corinth of Jesus’ instructions during the meal he shared on his last night. These “words of institution” had been handed down by followers since that night and are repeated at table by Christian churches throughout the world.
Next is the Prayer of Thanksgiving, a prayer we can trace back to the 3rd century, to remember with thanks, the story of what God has done since the beginning of human memory. The common framework of this prayer begins with God’s creation, offering laws for just and merciful living, and sending prophets time and time again to call us to live faithfully with each other and God. When we failed, God took on human flesh to live and minister among us, to redeem us at the cross. This meal, our prayer is to remember God’s story.
Here is where I risk offending. (No one ever promised us faith is to make us comfortable, often the contrary) The story in this prayer is not to make God and the meal relevant to us and our lives. Contrary to the “all about me” society in which we live, the words and actions are not to help us take something out of the act of communion.
In the Prayer, we are reminded of God’s hand present in the dark valleys and new births. We remember our shared history, revealing, God working to guide us, God ever faithful to us, even when we are so focused on ourselves we ignore each other and God.
Our world expects so much from us and seems to keep score. So often we are our own worst judges. So when we feel overwhelmed by too many demands and wondering if we will ever have enough to get by, if we have enough love to restore severed relationships, we are confronted with a story that is much bigger than we are.
The grand narrative scoops us up, along with our ordinary story, including each of us in God’s covenant with Abraham and this new covenant in Christ. The story invites us to realize no part of our individual story, however mundane, broken or isolated is ever excluded from God’s grace. Jesus invites us to remember this is God’s world and in the end, God’s story is better than any story we can create or measure. God’s faith endures.
Then we share. Just as a tiny, common, mustard seed offers abundant life, the simple taste of the bread and cup is to remind us of God’s presence in our lives. We share the bread and cup for a range of reasons; to heal broken relationships with each other and God, to be restored for faithful service, to feel the courage to begin again, to give thanks we are never alone.
The entirety of scripture bears witness to a kind of faith that is at the same time deeply personal and deeply integrated. We don’t do this alone. We don’t need to separate ourselves from one another; we need the diversity of this World Communion to be stronger. Faith in Christ informs how we interact with others. The cloth on our table is from the Impact’s recent mission trip to Panama, reminding us of the people with whom we share a common experience as God’s created and loved people.
Jesus’ answer to the disciples who ask for more faith is to keep being faithful. Put another way, “You get more faith not by closing your eyes, trying real hard to feel or to believe something. More faith comes through faithful living. Just do it; your faith will be increased, not as a personal achievement, but as a gift of God.” Being a Christian is not simply believing a set of ideas; it’s taking up a way of life as we remember who we are and whose we are. Amen.