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Homily: Act As If

Homily preached at 7:45 a.m. at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA October 2, 2016.
20 Pentecost; Year C (RCL): Lamentations 1:1-5; Ps. 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10      

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
         
          “If I just had more faith ...” I think most of us have struggled with that at some point in our lives. If I just had more faith … I wouldn’t have so many questions or doubts. If I just had more faith … God would answer my prayers the way I want them answered. If I just had more faith … they wouldn’t have died. If I just had more faith … I would be more involved in the church. (Wait! Do we really hear or think that in this place?) If I just had more faith … I would be a better person, a better parent, a better spouse. If I just had more faith … I would know what to do, I would handle things better.  If I just had more faith, life would be different.
           On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus is teaching his followers about the power of faith and the duties of discipleship. He tells his disciples that their faith, however small, can work wonders, and calls them to adopt the attitude of servants whose actions are responses to their identity rather than works that seek reward.
This is an approach to faith at least as old as the apostles’ own faith. It is the approach they have taken in today’s gospel. “Increase our faith,” they ask Jesus. Jesus has just warned them not to become stumbling blocks to others and is commanding them to forgive as often as an offender repents, even if it is seven times in one day. That will be difficult. It will be a challenge to live that way. “Increase our faith,” is their response. It seems like a reasonable request. If a little is good, a lot must be so much better. If McDonald’s can supersize our fries and drinks, certainly Jesus can supersize our faith, right?
The request to increase our faith, the belief that if we had more faith, things would be different, reveals, at best, a misunderstanding of faith itself and, at worst, demonstrates our own unfaithfulness. Jesus is very clear that faithfulness is not about size or quantity. It’s not like service bars on our cell phone or the battery-life percentage on our iPads. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he says, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Faith is not given to us in a packet to be spent as currency in our dealings with God. Faith is not measured out according to how difficult the task or work before us might be or seem. Faith is not really even a thing we have or get. Faith is a gift from God, as Paul tells Timothy in today’s epistle. We can describe it as a relationship of trust and love. It means opening ourselves to receive another’s life and giving our life to the other. That other one is Jesus Christ. That one faith-relationship is determinative of who we are and how we live.
Let me offer you a concrete example: When we speak about a married couple’s faithfulness, we do not mean that they believe or agree with each other’s ideas, or even share a particular understanding of marriage (although that HELPS). They are faithful because they have committed themselves to one another in love and trust. They are faithful because they continually give their life to each other and receive the other’s life as their own. They are faithful because they carry with them that one relationship wherever they go, in all that they are, and all that they do. So it is in our faith-relationship with Jesus.
Faith will not, however, change the circumstances of our lives. Instead, it changes us. Ask any one sitting next to you: Living in faith does not shield us from the pain and difficulties of life, it does not undo the past, and it will not guarantee a particular future. Rather, faith is the means by which we face and deal with the circumstances of life – the difficulties and losses, joys and successes, opportunities and possibilities—whatever our circumstances or positions in life.
Some years ago, when Chrissie and I were involved in a diocesan program working with teenagers, we heard a young woman describe her family’s approach to faith: ACT AS IF. Her parents had always told them to “act as if everything Jesus promised is true, whether or not they believed it at any given time.” The parents urged that attitude to get the kids past all the questions and doubts of being teenagers. You know how parents can do that; encourage certain behavior whether or not you FEEL like doing it. Anyway, with this family, ACT AS IF was their motto/mantra/lifeline to hold onto when their own faith seemed very far away.
I, too, have had moments when I feel like crying out, “INCREASE MY FAITH,” when I feel I cannot possibly go on. During one such time, I struggled mightily and felt I needed to completely change my job and my life to shake things up. Fortunately, my wife gave me the kernel of faith to grow with and pointed me to good advisors. One person basically told me, in so many words, to “ACT AS IF.” So I acted as if I was walking the right path, acted as if the doubts and insecurities besetting me could be overcome, acted as if I had the faith of a mustard seed. That very behavior cultivated my faith to uproot the negativity in my head and my heart. I offer this anecdote for those of you who might someday experience the same kind of desolation in your own life.
Faith does not get us a pat on the back, a reward, or a promotion in God’s eyes. It is simply the way in which we live and move and have our being so that, at the end of the day, the faithful ones can say, without pride or shame, “We have done only what we ought to have done!” We have lived in openness to, trust in, and love for, Jesus Christ. We have allowed him to guide our decisions, our words, and our actions. We have been sustained by him in both life and death.
Faith, however, is not lived out in the abstract. When we feel the pain of the world and respond with compassion by feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, comforting the afflicted, and healing the sick; when we speak out for justice; when we experience the brokenness of a relationship and offer forgiveness and mercy; when we see the downtrodden and offer our presence and prayers — in all those instances, we have lived, seen, and acted by faith. And then there are days when we feel powerless, lost, and do not know the way forward. It is by faith then that we sit in silence and wait.
As I noted before, our New Testament lesson is a personal message of encouragement from Paul to Timothy. In the face of hardship and persecution, Timothy is reminded that his faith is a gift of God. He is encouraged to exercise that faith with the help of the Holy Spirit (or …ACT AS IF). Faithfulness means that no matter where we go, no matter what circumstances we face, we do so in relationship with the One who created, loves, sustains, and redeems us, the One who “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
The mustard seed of faith is already planted within us. It is Christ himself. He has withheld nothing from us. We have faith enough already. We are already enough. We do not need more faith. We need more response to the faith, to Jesus Christ, to that mustard seed, to the relationship we already have in God. Jesus does not supersize our faith. It is not necessary. The question is not how much faith we have but, rather, how are we living the faith we do have. How is our faith, our relationship with Jesus, changing our lives, our relationships, and the lives of others? If it is not, more of the same will surely make no difference.
So a little faith can go a long way. That is the point made by Jesus in today’s Gospel. A mustard seed’s-worth has miraculous potential. The patience, tenacity, and endurance required for the life of faith are the blessings we received first through water, Word, and Holy Spirit at our Baptism. Those blessings are sustained through joining for a holy thanksgiving meal of bread and wine at this table, representing the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, in our Eucharist. And there is the Word read, heard, and proclaimed in each assembly, be it our gatherings for Morning Prayer here in Zabriskie Chapel weekdays at 9:30 a.m., or through our regular Sunday worship. All these gifts feed our life in Christ and our faith in God, given measure upon measure. We should anticipate these gifts and we should receive them with great thanksgiving. ACT AS IF.
When Jesus' original disciples asked him to increase their faith and Jesus gave them a surprising answer— "You already have enough faith," Jesus seems to say, "What you need to do is act on your faith … and to remember that God is God and you are not."
           In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.