October 6, 2019

Pentecost 17C

Living by Faith or Living by Excuses



The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “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.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”  Luke 17:5-10 



In the scene that immediately precedes the beginning of this morning’s gospel, Jesus says to the disciples,  If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.  Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

In response to this teaching the disciples say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” In demanding that Jesus increase their faith, the disciples seem to be saying, “We do not have enough faith to forgive like that!”  

They assume that they are not already in a position to do what seems remarkable and even impossible.   To forgive, repeatedly, someone who is brutal to them, perhaps apologizes, then does it again, would, after all, be as far fetched as telling a mulberry tree to, ”Be uprooted and planted in the sea” and this actually happening.

Jesus responds, “Don’t let yourselves off the hook! You have plenty of faith to accomplish all I ask.”  His words, “O, you, of little faith!” are too frequently misinterpreted as being a put-down of the disciples by Jesus for their not even having the faith of a tiny seed.  

On the contrary, it is the disciples who are suggesting that their faith is inadequate. Jesus tells them “You have plenty of faith already, so stop making excuses for yourselves.  For even faith as tiny as yours, as tiny as a mustard seed is more than enough.”

Jesus unmasks the alibis of his disciples, then and now, who grasp for reasons to avoid what He sees as surmountable challenges. I would forgive so-and-so if I had more faith. I will be more generous when I have a little more money.  I could work for social change and the advance of justice, if I had “x” position or “y” degree.  

Is it not true, that in a very real sense, whatever the challenge perceived as insurmountable, that challenge is already surmounted in the heart that has grown and has been transformed by the passionate desire itself to rise to the challenge? 

The Chinese government certainly presents itself as an insurmountable challenge, but the millions who these days occupy the streets of Hong Kong bear witness to millions of hearts that have already grown such that they will not submit to oppression even as they face repression.   

Dorothy Day, an extraordinarily faithful woman, who served, and who convened a community to serve, the poorest of the poor in the Bowery, on the lower East side of Manhattan, was often approached by people who said things like, “You are a saint,” “You are so special – a true gift of God as a person.” Dorothy hated that!  She’d say, “No, I’m not!  I’m no different from you. If you value what I do, go do it yourself. You could, you know.” 

Any language that set her apart from others, she saw as a cop-out, a way for people to rationalize why they were not more responsive to easing the suffering of the poorest. 

The disciples were this way – they saw before them what faithfulness would require and declared that they didn’t have enough faith to effect such choices.  Jesus tells them, “Sure you do.” 

A favorite method of excusing ourselves from forgiving, in particular, or from more faithful living, in general, has long been to play the doubt card.  I am not all that certain that I believe in God. I am not sure what I believe or what is to be believed.  Doubt becomes a convenient alibi – a hiding place.  

Of course we doubt.  Faith itself is no easy thing.  Doubts prove that we are in touch with reality.  Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but an integral element of faith.  

Teresa of Calcutta was a woman who apparently lived with profound doubts, throughout her adult life.  She doubted, yet continued her ministry to some of the earth’s most destitute people. How important it is for all Christians to know the story of someone whose commitment to God’s beloved never wavered, even if her belief in God did. 

The prophets lived with many challenges to their faith.  God did not always answer their cries for help. 

We live in a society marinated in deceit and violence of every kind. We keep praying and it only gets worse.  People who cheat rack up fortunes and honors. Politicians who are not doing the job they are being paid to do and who are violating the oaths that they have sworn, retain their tenure.  Preachers who twist the word of God to serve the interests of money and power get away with it and grow mega-churches.  

In the midst of all this, God is ever assuring us that justice will come; in the meantime, the righteous live by their faith.

Of faith, Jesus says, we have enough – whatever times we live in, whatever the circumstances of our lives, whatever form our faith may take – it is sufficient for whatever He has given us to do.

That mustard seed is not the symbol of the shameful inadequacy of our faith, but a symbol of its earth shattering, rock-crunching, tree-lifting, life-changing, world-moving possibilities. Faith to sustain us in any trial, the faith that gives us the ability to forgive someone who is abusive, says I’m sorry, then does it again. 

Seeds are meant to be planted so that things can grow. When we plant the seeds of our faith they cause more faith to grow, and cause those acts of faith – God’s love, justice, and mercy, – to multiply. 

Thus we bring the love of God to the unloved and the unloving. We bring God’s mercy to the merciless and to those who’ve known no mercy in their lives. We make God’s justice to grow in places rife with cruelty and violence, and in the hearts of those who are unjust. We cause faith itself to grow in the sprits of those who have never had faith, or who lost their faith long ago to tragedy or inattention. 

And in our planting and cultivating the seeds of faith we find that our faith grows.  Tasks like forgiving repeatedly anyone who repents become things we do with ease and grace like any other part of our lives to which we have devoted much practice. Our faith is sufficient. We have the where with all to do and to be all that God needs and wants us to be and do.

I was ordained a priest in 1971 by Bishop James Edward Walsh. In 1970 James Edward was released after having spent 20 years in a Chinese prison. I am sure that, while in prison for his faith, he must have known many a dark night of the soul.  I was at table with him in Seattle when he was questioned about his ordeal by someone who would have magnified him for what he suffered. Bishop Walsh simply replied , “I only did what I ought to have done.”  I believe that each of us has enough faith to do no less than what we have been given to do.  I ask you to believe the very same.


The Rev. Frank J. Alagna

October 6, 2019