"Blessing the Animals". Enjoy!
You know those times when you think you've done something, and actually you did something else? Well, that's what happened with this month's newsletter. Deacon Janis has provided some very interesting information about our Book of Common Prayer. Updates for some of the vestry's activities, important work on the church and other news is in our Senior Warden's column. As part of our celebration of St. Francis, you'll find a lovely poem,
"Blessing the Animals". Enjoy!
A sermon preached in Christ Church, Sheridan, MT, by the Rev. Bruce McNab.
19th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 22, Year C. Oct. 6, 2013. (Text: Luke 17:5-10.)
I’d like to start off this morning by asking how many of you feel as if you have “great faith,” or at least all the faith you need? Not too many? —Well, how many of you feel like you have some faith, even if it’s just a little? Good. —OK. Now, how many of you would really like to have more faith? Great! 100% want more.
The apostles said to Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith!” And he answered them, “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 was a very literal-minded child. Maybe all children are. When I was in the sixth grade I heard this Bible verse at Sunday School, and so I decided to test my faith to see if I had enough. I sat on the edge of my bed and commanded the wastebasket to move across my bedroom —which seemed about the same thing as telling a mulberry tree to plant itself in the ocean, at least as far as I could tell. Nothing happened, so I grew concerned that I didn’t have enough faith. Mom told me I was being silly and that God wasn’t interested in moving wastebaskets around boys’ bedrooms. Of course, I couldn’t see why God would be interested in planting a tree in the ocean either, but I didn’t give my mother a smarty-pants answer.
The apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith. Most of us would like to have more faith, too. Maybe we want more faith because we recognize that—along with our little bit of faith—we also have lots of doubts. A new book about Mother Teresa of Calcutta came out a few years back, containing letters from Mother Teresa to her spiritual advisers over a period of more than sixty years. Those letters show that this amazing humanitarian, a woman revered as holy by millions of Christians and non-Christians alike, a woman who devoted half a century to caring for the sick, orphaned, and dying poor on the streets of Calcutta, who spent hours every day in prayer, was troubled through almost the entire time by spiritual dryness and doubts. After she began her work among people dying on the streets, Mother Teresa seems to have enjoyed only a few weeks of spiritual joy, bracketed by decades of darkness and doubt. —Decades!
But she kept going. She kept serving. And I think Teresa kept going, kept doing the work she felt God had given her, in spite of the heaviness of soul under which she labored, because she believed from the very bottom of her heart that she belonged to God, she was God’s servant—and she meant to embody the fullness of the gospel we just heard: “We have only done what we ought to have done! …We have only done our duty.” How she felt didn’t matter to her. She believed in God and trusted the wisdom of God, so she didn’t keep taking her emotional temperature and worrying—no matter how she felt.
You and I tend to confuse having faith with having warm, positive feelings. We fantasize that people who “really have faith” live out their lives on a spiritual high, enjoying unbroken intimacy with God, inner bliss and mystic insights, shielded by a continuous release of spiritual endorphins from the doubts and anxieties ordinary Christian plodders have to face. But that’s not so. Not at all. Mother Teresa is just the most recent and best known example of people who live lives of faith AND doubt, yet still do something beautiful for God.
Mother Teresa learned to deal with the trials of her faith by converting her frequent feelings of abandonment by God into acts of abandonment to God. She said: “Our calling is not to do great things, but to do small things with great love.” I think what Jesus said to the disciples who begged for him to increase their faith might be put like this: “You don’t need more faith; you just need to use the faith you already have,” faith that might be only the size of a mustard seed.
Mustard seeds are tiny, but I remember driving in April many years ago through fields of blooming mustard outside Dijon, France. (Everybody knows about Dijon mustard, right?) The brilliant yellow reached all the way to the horizon, as far as my eyes could see—each dazzling plant grown from a seed no larger than a grain of sand. A field of mustard plants produces tons of mustard seeds. A church full of people who each have faith that’s only the size of a mustard seed can accomplish God’s will in awesome ways. My little seed of faith, linked to yours, and yours, and yours adds up to a lot of faith!
Faith is what permits us to survive and grow—even thrive—in spite of being pummeled by adversity and the difficulties of life. Faith, just a little bit of faith, is enough to keep us from surrendering to despair, no matter what may go wrong.
The Bible says that “in all things God works for good for those who love him, who are called according to his promises.” If we’re broke, or if we’ve lost our job, or if we’re told that we have an incurable disease, it may not feel as if God is working for our good. We feel scared. Or lonely. Or empty. The circumstances of our lives at such times can conspire to make us imagine that God doesn’t care about us at all. Or maybe that God isn’t even there! Only by faith can we look at an apparently un-redeemable situation and say, “God is going to bring something good out of this. I don’t know what it might be, but I believe it.”
Remember the story about Jesus sleeping in the stern of a disciple’s boat during a bad storm on the Sea of Galilee? The wind was blowing, and the waves were high. The boat was taking on water, and the boys were scared. Things looked bad, and yet Jesus was sleeping like a baby. They woke him up and said, “Master, don’t you even care that we’re all about to die?” He commanded the wind and waves to be still, and suddenly everything turned calm. Then he said to his friends, “Oh, you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
“Why did you doubt?” We know why they doubted. We’d have doubted too. The storm was bad; the boat was leaking; the situation was beyond their control. They had “a little” faith; that’s why they woke Jesus up. Faith... sufficient faith... mustard seed faith... is what we demonstrate at times when we’re in one of the perfect storms that life can kick up, when we’re at our wits end, and we’re scared to death. We don’t know what else to do except say “I’m with Jesus. I do feel very nervous, but I’m with Jesus. And I trust him.”
Mustard seed faith is what we demonstrate when God’s work is hard, the payoff is small, there’s no “spiritual high,” and God seems a million miles away—but we’re able to say to ourselves: “This is the work God has given me to do, and I am going to do it. I am going to do it for Jesus!” That’s what Mother Teresa did. Her perseverance itself, her steadfastness in proclaiming and embodying the love of Christ at times when she felt only emptiness inside, was an awesome act of faith.
Faith is not like a drug-induced euphoria that keeps us from feeling discouraged, doubtful or afraid. Faith is a decision we make. It’s a decision to put our trust in the promises of God. We will put our confidence in the word of God that has been spoken to us --even if we’re scared, or worried, or unsure. And the love God calls us to offer the world in his name is, likewise, not an emotional reflex but a choice, an act of the will. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was this past Friday, walked away from his inherited wealth and decided to trust God for everything. Some people laughed at him. But others imitated him, and the impact the poor little barefoot saint from Assisi still has on people is amazing. Francis didn’t just preach to the birds. That’s only one story about him. Francis loved people, not just animals. He identified with other people’s pains and needs—and gave himself to them.
“Our calling is not to do great things, but to do small things with great love.” Would you like for your faith to grow? Then put it to work! What little faith you have, put it to work. Even if it’s just a tiny seed. Plant it! Water it! Invest it in action, even if the action seems of no great significance right now. Teresa of Calcutta said, “Christ is in the smile we give, and in the smile we receive.” God accomplishes miracles through small things—your smile and mine, your mustard seed and mine.
For a pdf version of this sermon, please click here.
A sermon preached in Christ Church, Sheridan, MT, by the Rev. Bruce McNab.
19th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 21, Year C. September 29, 2013. (Text: Luke 16:19-31)
Once of the nice things about where we live in Bozeman now, as compared to where we used to live in Aspen, is that we’re only one mile from Costco, instead of 75! But there’s always something troubling to me about going to Costco. Or, rather, about coming home from Costco. When we’re on the homeward half of our journey we’re often forced to stop at a traffic light where a homeless person is standing on the corner holding a sign scrawled on a piece of cardboard that reads, “Homeless. No job. Please help. God bless.” It isn’t always the same homeless person. Sometimes it’s a man, other times a woman. Sometimes older, sometimes younger. And the message on the sign varies a little from one needy person to another.
When the red light forces me to stop directly in front of the beggar, I keep my eyes glued to the traffic signal. I never look into the person’s face. I do not meet his or her eyes. I act as if this needy person—this homeless person, this beggar—is not there. I do so because if I looked into that face, into those eyes, if I smiled or made some kind of human contact, I could not stop myself from giving him or her all the cash in my billfold. And, the thing is, I could afford to do that once or twice, but not every time I pass that way. We’re thrifty people, and that’s why we shop at Costco a lot. —However, I could afford to hand over a ten or a twenty every single time I stopped there. We always save at least that much by shopping at Costco! …So why don’t I do that?
It strikes me that there are two opposite movements at work in the world. If we wanted to use New Testament language, we could call these two opposite movements “spiritual powers” that are “at war with one another.” One power is from God and works to bring people together to recognize our essential sameness and discover community with one another, emphasizing a hope that we all might eventually come to share a common vision for life together—not denying our differences, but emphasizing our similarities, our human connectedness as children of God, and our common hope. The other power is “from the dark side,” and it’s the exact opposite: it pushes us apart, towards separation from all who are “different” from us—socially, economically, racially, etc.—looking for a future when we can go about our lives without reference to these “different” people—except when we can make money off them or use them, some way, for our own advantage.
Maybe the world has always been like this. Maybe what I’m noticing is simply a pervasive, age-old phenomenon, nothing new. We see a form of it in the pithy parable Jesus told about the Rich Man and Lazarus, the beggar. “There was a Rich Man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the Rich Man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”
People at the pinnacle of the ancient social order lived in a world of their own, in a bubble of privilege. (Pssst! It’s still the same in 2013, right?) But, outside the Rich Man’s house, outside his “gated community,” was a poor beggar. It’s interesting to note that this beggar is the only character in a parable of Jesus who’s given a proper name: Lazarus, which means “God is my help.” (Keep that meaning in mind!) Lazarus is not only poor, he’s also sick. His skin is covered with ulcers, and the dogs that have been eating the gravy-soaked bread discarded under the Rich Man’s table come out and lick the beggar’s pustulant sores. Lazarus is hungry, and he’d have been delighted to have some of the table scraps that went to the Rich Man’s dogs.
Notice that we’re not told anything about the Rich Man’s “inner life” or his “true values.” We’re not told that he was evil. He was simply living the privileged life of wealth and comfort which he’d inherited. Neither do we learn anything about what people today would call the “spirituality” of poor Lazarus. We don’t hear that he was virtuous or pious. We just have his name: “God is my help.” Maybe that’s all we need.
Both men die, and their ultimate destinies continue to be as different as their earthly lives were. But their fortunes are reversed. The Rich Man ends up in a place very much like hell, while poor Lazarus is borne by angels to be with Abraham, “the friend of God”—which is the best spot heaven could possibly offer. We get a little insight when the Rich Man looks up and sees Abraham far off in heaven and begs him to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”
But Lazarus can’t be sent to help him, because, as Abraham says, “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed.” The social distance that was part of their earthly life is now expressed as a spiritual reality in the age to come. Of course there has always been a “great chasm” between rich men and beggars, between those for whom God alone is their help and those whose real dependency is on something else —like money, fame, or power; or like dogmatic purity, political correctness, and having the “right” friends.
But in Jesus’ story each one knows that the other is there—just on the other side of the gate! The Rich Man even knows the beggar’s name. In fact, he probably saw him every day as his slaves carried him to and fro in his sedan chair—including trips up to the Temple for prayers. Filthy, sickly Lazarus was always lying there at his gate, an unattractive feature in the otherwise pleasant environment of the Rich Man’s world, something to be accepted but otherwise ignored by a very important fellow whose personal concerns were elsewhere. Lazarus lay at the gate of the mansion, begging for alms from the Rich Man and his guests—people whose religion taught that to feed the hungry and help the poor were acts of devotion to God.
At the end of Jesus’ story, the Rich Man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers about the fate they can expect unless they change their lives. This brings us to the main point of the parable. Abraham answers him, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” The tormented Rich Man replies, “Oh, no, Father Abraham! But if someone comes back from the dead, they’ll listen to him.” Abraham knows better. If they won’t listen to the truth from Moses or the prophets, they won’t pay attention even to one who returns from the dead. (Pssst! Hint to Christians here!)
This parable is a warning and a call to repentance, because we are the brothers and sisters of the Rich Man (including those of us who shop at Costco in order to save money to spend elsewhere). We are those the Rich Man wants Lazarus to warn: “Repent, while you still have time!” It’s not merely a matter of reminding us to practice charity for the poor. And it doesn’t tell us that it’s evil to have great wealth, since Abraham himself was one of the richest men of his time. Besides, the Rich Man probably tossed a shekel to Lazarus from time to time. His guests, arriving and departing with their retinues of slaves and flunkies, probably did the same.—After all, no beggar sits every day at a spot where no one ever drops a dollar in his cup.
This story is a warning about the great chasm we so regularly put between ourselves and others. It’s a warning against the dark power that’s at work in our world—and was at work in the world of the Bible, too— a power that pushes us to live in our own, exclusive, upholstered “boxes,” separate from any significant form of community with people who seem to be different from us—whether because they’re poor, diseased, or mentally ill, or because they’re aliens of some kind, members of another race, adherents of another religion, or participants in what we delicately call “an alternative lifestyle.”
Over eighty years ago, George Buttrick, one of the greatest preachers of the last century, said that Jesus’ parable offers no support to the assumption that the Rich Man would have fulfilled his spiritual duty if he had simply dressed Lazarus’ sores and fed his hunger. Buttrick wrote this: “True charity is more than flinging coins to a beggar; it is not spasmodic or superficial. ...Food and medicine are necessary, but there is a more fundamental neighborliness.”
Christ commands his Church to offer the world “fundamental neighborliness,” a loving and compassionate connection with people of every type and condition, a readiness to look the beggar in the eye, to shake his hand, to know and be known by those who, like poor Lazarus, are lying “at our gates”—or standing at corners where traffic lights force us to stop our cars.
Such a passion for neighborliness arises in the hearts of those whose hearts have been shaped by the One who rose from the dead to give us a new Way of Life.
 George A. Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (© 1928), p. 143, quoted in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, Luke-John (©1995), p. 320.
For a pdf version of this sermon, please click here.