Originally preached at First Trinity Lutheran in Bridgeport on 10/06/19.
Good morning, it is so good to be here with you all at First Trinity Lutheran Church in Bridgeport. I have heard so many stories about you and your faithfulness from my friends and colleagues in ministry. And that is what we will be talking about. Faith and faithfulness.
“Increase our faith!” the apostles said to Jesus in our Gospel reading for today.
But what exactly were they asking? What were the apostles and Jesus talking about? What even is faith? In our modern, western culture, faith has this connotation of being something that happens inside of us, inside of our minds. We typically think of faith as the choice or ability to intellectually assent to particular creeds or doctrine. We think of faith as mentally agreeing to a list of beliefs. It is no wonder, then, why in our own time, so many people often talk about how their faith is something “private.” Because if faith is an abstracted, cerebral exercise, a sure answer to particular questions that live inside our personal, singular brains, then this heady view of faith is something very very individualized.
Another way we as a culture sometimes talk about faith is by defining it up and against doubt, as if doubt were the opposite of faith. But our reading from Habakkuk today shows us that faith is not necessarily in opposition to questions or doubts. The prophet Habakkuk in these verses is lamenting the violence in his community, the death and destruction all around him. He is crying out to God and demanding, “How long!? How long, God, will we cry out to you before you save us?” Habakkuk has questions, many of the same questions we all do. How long, God, will, our schools go underfunded? How long will we cry out for investment in our communities? How long, God, will there be violence in our streets, and violence by the state? How long will we ignore the effects of the impending global climate catastrophe, which are already affecting people of color and the global south in ways that have caused so many human and nonhuman creatures to suffer? “How long?” the prophet asks, and we all ask. “How long?” But these questions don’t make Habakkuk – or us- in any way unfaithful. In fact, this push and pull with God, the desire for justice, the appeal to God to live into God’s promises are signs of faith.
The people of Jesus’ time had a different view of faith than what we hear with our modern ears when we hear that word. Faith wasn’t about a lack of questioning or doubts. And faith wasn’t some individualized philosophical activity. The Greek word for faith, pistis, can just as accurately be translated as “faithfulness.” The faith that Jesus is talking about, the faith of the Bible, isn’t some internal process, but an active, external response. And because it is an active, external thing, faith or faithfulness, is something that inevitably drastically affects our relationships with one another. Faith, in the culture of the Bible, is by nature something communal, affecting the public sphere, affecting the way that we order our lives together. It was faith when St. Francis, whose feast day we celebrate with our pet blessings today, left his life of luxury and joined in deeper community with the poor and with creation. And in our own time, we are doing the work of faith when we fight for accessible, high quality healthcare for all, when we work for environmental justice for creation, when we struggle to put an end to the systems of money bond that imprison people just because they are poor. It is faith that moves us toward community and faith that moves us into action. You might even say that this view of faith is inherently political.
Jesus uses a political story here to underscore the implications of a radical faith like this. But before we talk about this story Jesus shared, I have to confess, how much I struggle with the times Jesus uses images of slavery in his parables or illustrations. We can say that slavery in Biblical times was different than the chattel slavery in our own US history, and it was. But to me? That doesn’t make it right. And knowing how often slave masters in our country used scripture to defend slavery, I really wish that Jesus would have said something clearly condemning it here, like, “Slavery is wrong. Full stop.”
He doesn’t do that in this story, not exactly. But Jesus in his own clever way, does subvert power if we are paying attention. Many Biblical scholars believe that the author of the Gospel of Luke was writing primarily to Romans, people of wealth and privilege. You can see hints of that here when Jesus says to the disciples in verse 7, “Who among you would say to your slave…..?” Jesus, as told by the author of Luke in this story, is assuming that the listeners are the sorts of powerful people who would’ve owned slaves. Who among you would say to your slave…..?” And then, typical of how Jesus behaves, particularly in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus goes on to tell these powerful people, these wealthy slave owners, that they themselves are “worthless slaves.” Jesus is subverting our understanding of power, knocking down the wealthy slave owners from their pedestals, and putting people of all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds on a more level playing field. The way we order and re-order society in order to be more just – that is faithfulness.
Jesus knows the cost of the faithfulness of inverting and subverting power, because he lived it when he limited his power and became a human…not just any human, but an oppressed person in an occupied land under the rule of the ruthless Roman Empire that would eventually execute him as an enemy of the state. God could have chosen to remain in the glamour and glory of Heaven, but instead, the almighty God became mortal, knowing by disarming themself that they would be killed by the Empire and still, choosing to come and to serve humans. God chose to put on an apron and feed us dinner [motion to altar/communion rail] with their own Body and Blood.
Jesus’ great acts of faithfulness and the call to discipleship can be overwhelming. When I look around at the way the Empire of today continues to fortify itself against systemic change, thinking of re-ordering society so that slave masters aren’t worth any more than those they have enslaved seems daunting. But Jesus reminds us today that a little bit of faithful action goes a pretty long way. The systems of this world want us to believe that we are helpless, that we can’t change or challenge the status quo. They tell us what we are up against is too big, that the problems we face are too entrenched, that nothing can ever be better. But Jesus reminds us that God uses the ordinary stuff of everyday faithfulness to build God’s kingdom. We can tell our stories to one another, we can band together, we can act in solidarity on behalf of our neighbor, we can do these mustard-seed-sized things out loud and in public. And God can take our little bit of ordinary, every day, faithful action and use it to uproot unjust systems, and throw them into the sea.
Thanks be to God.