The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22c): October 6, 2013
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Before I launch into a look at this morning’s gospel, a few words are in order about Psalm 137. This psalm has nine verses, but you will note that we sang only eight of them this morning. Let me read you the last verse and you will understand why. Beginning with verse 8:
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock!
Needless to say, that last verse is a little shocking—a bit more graphic than we would prefer on a Sunday morning! This psalm is a lament over the Babylonian Exile. In 587 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and carried the smartest and strongest of the Judeans into captivity. This song of remembrance recalls the pain of that exile, where those captive could no longer sing their songs, and were filled with fury toward their captors.
One commentator has said that memory is the theological theme of this text—memory that creates three different responses. Verses 1-4 recount the anguish of living in captivity upon an alien soil. Verses 5-6 refer to the responsibility that those captive have to keep alive the memory of better times and better places. And verses 7-9 show the anger—some might say rage—of the oppressed.
In this last section, the psalmist exhorts God to remember the actions of the Babylonians and the Edomites in this oppression, and pleads that they might also be made to suffer. It concludes with that disturbing fantasy of violence toward the children of Babylon. One scholar comments that, “the psalmist honestly announces how violence enacted upon his community incites a violent impulse in him,” and notes that this is not an uncommon reaction among the oppressed.[i]
This commentary goes on to say that, “the danger of fantasies of revenge is that they can so quickly become obsessions that drive persons to the very violence they hate.” I can certainly understand how violence perpetrated against one’s people can incite fantasies of revenge, and can sometimes boil over into violent acts. As Christians, we are called to help each other to express and process the wrongs perpetrated against us, and also to respond to our brothers and sisters who are hurt and angry with a healing response.
This psalm reminds us not only of the natural human impulses of rage, but also of our responsibility to help others deal honestly and productively with the strong emotions that come from being a victim of violence.
And speaking of emotions, they certainly have been running high in our country this week. To put it simply, our government is broken, and that has most of us in high torque. The events of the last week certainly challenge all of our preconceived notions of the superiority of our political system. Perhaps you’ve seen this week’s Time magazine cover, which shows the nation’s capitol under a heavy bank of storm clouds with the superimposed words “Majority Rule” furiously scratched out. When it comes to our government these days, it’s hard to know who to believe, or what to believe in. And perhaps many of us find ourselves more frustrated with government than ever before, unable to see any light at the end of this seemingly endless tiff that now characterizes Washington, D.C., and ready to walk away in sheer disgust.
In some ways, this is similar to the place that the disciples find themselves in today’s gospel reading from Luke. In the verses before the ones we heard this morning, Jesus has challenged the disciples to never give up on those who ask forgiveness for their wrongdoings. Chapter 7, verse 4 reads, “if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
The disciples respond to this admonition with the plea that begins our gospel lesson: “Lord, increase our faith!”
It seems that they don’t believe they have enough patience or fortitude to be as forgiving as Jesus commands them to be. Or perhaps, like some of us, they have become jaded about the people whom they are asked to forgive.
And Jesus responds with a characteristically rhetorical flourish: “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.”
I have always read this passage as a slam against the disciples. I imagined that Jesus was telling them that their faith was so small as to be microscopic. But in study this week, I came to consider that Jesus may in fact be telling the disciples (and, by extension, us) that they—that we— are, in fact, underestimating ourselves.
I find it really easy to identify with the disciples in their frustration. Often I feel overwhelmed by the demands of being a good Christian.
There is so much need in the world, and so many people ready to take advantage of me, that much of the time I feel like I am not really up to the task. Like the disciples, my prayer is often one that asks Jesus to make me better equipped, or to increase my desire to do the right thing. And all of that seems wrapped up in faith.
What exactly is faith? Theologian Nancy Rockwell says this:
What is faith? It defies definition. Is it a feeling, and therefore rooted in the heart? Is it a bedrock of doctrine, and therefore rooted in the mind? Is it about the known world, or the unknown? Is it a mystery or a wisdom? At times it is hope, yet not always. At times, trust, but in a devious time faith can be fundamental suspicion. At times, faith is serenity, courage, peace – or rage. But faith is not unshakable confidence, the thing most often prayed for as the opposite of doubt and fear.[ii]
Another commentator, David Lose, says, “Faith isn’t an idea, it’s a muscle. And the more we use that muscle, the stronger it gets.”[iii] He goes on to explain that isn’t really church attendance, or even good works that are evidence of our faith. Rather it is the simple things we do, done with good intentions that build our faith. Things like being a good friend; working to put food on the table; paying our taxes and voting for good people to spend those taxes; all of these ordinary things are the building blocks of faith.
They are good deeds that may seem ordinary, but, when taken all together and blessed by God, become extraordinary.
Another commentator, Will Willimon, builds on this idea by saying, “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.”[iv]
We undertake the ritual of worship, and repeat the words of the faith, in order to build a kind of muscle memory. We come forward week after week to take communion to build the habit of faith. Not to fight off our unbelief, but to continually transform ourselves into the faithful people we long to be.
And what about those times when our doubt, or our fear overtakes us? Perhaps you’ve heard the story of a weary and frustrated parishioner who came to his priest and said, “I find it difficult to believe some of the statements in the Creed, How can I stand and affirm what I don’t really believe?”
The priest answered, “Just keep saying it. Eventually, it may come to you. Until then, the church will keep believing for you until you are ready to believe it yourself.”[v]
We are here as a faith COMMUNITY. An important part of what we do is to stand with each other in faith. We undertake the faithful work of the church for all of our sakes. And perhaps most importantly we are companions for each other on the road of faith.
And as we walk that road, the good news that comes to us from Jesus is that no matter how small we may think our faith, it’s enough!
[i] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=10, accessed 10/02/2013.
[ii] Rockwell, Nancy. http://biteintheapple.com/faith-an-unslaked-thirst/. accessed 10/02/2013.
[iii] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2773, accessed 10/02/2013.
[iv] Willimon, Will. http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/doing-faith-until-you-have-it/, accessed 10/02/2013.