Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 2, 2016. Lamentations 1:1-6, Psalm 137, II Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10.
St. Thomas friend Isiah Harper is a wise and astute observer of the human condition. He teaches theater at Northside High School. When his students or others respond with ignorance instead of wisdom, or when something maddening happens in the world, or when he becomes aware of his own growing edges, he often says this phrase:
Fix it, Jesus. It comes from a song from the Black Church tradition – Fix it, Jesus, fix it like you said you would.
His friends heard him say this enough they ordered t-shirts. The shirts show Isiah’s face with the phrase below. Fix it, Jesus. They are available in a variety of sizes and colors. $15. You can see him after church.
I think the disciples could have bought the t-shirt. When they begged Jesus, Lord, increase our faith, in a way they were saying, “Fix it, Jesus.”
What in particular were they wanting Jesus to fix? Here are a couple of possibilities.
Jesus had just talked about forgiveness. It’s a shame the lectionary left out verses 1-4, the conversation before their demand for more faith. Jesus had just said, Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And 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.”. Maybe they were recognizing how hard it can be to live in reconciliation with one another. Maybe they needed help to reach out across lines of division. Maybe they realized they didn’t really want to forgive at all. So they said Lord, increase our faith. Fix it, Jesus.
Here’s another possibility. Before this conversation, Jesus told several stories about the challenges of wealth. We heard about the rich man and Lazarus last week. Earlier we heard about the dishonest manager and the rich fool who built bigger barns. Maybe the disciples heard these stories and wanted to be rid of their own anxiety about money. Maybe they wanted to learn to rely more on God and less on themselves. Maybe they wanted a world with more sharing and less poverty and had a hard time believing that was possible. Lord, increase our faith. Fix it, Jesus.
Here’s another possibility. Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus had already told them two times he would be killed. Now the time of his suffering was drawing near. Maybe they felt the impending doom and did not want to go there. Maybe they had a hard time believing that God’s purposes would triumph even from the cross. Maybe they wanted to avoid that pain altogether. Lord, increase our faith. Fix it, Jesus.
The disciples did what human beings often do. In times of anxiety or fear, we want someone else to fix it. We look to God, Jesus, spouses, government, priests, friends to solve our problems. The disciples were no different. They were anxious about something, so they asked Jesus to give them more faith. Fix it, Jesus.
Now, in fairness to Isiah, his expression is probably more akin to “Bless your heart” or “Lord, have mercy.” I don’t think he expects Jesus to fix it alone. The phrase is a way to acknowledge that here is an issue that needs to be address. And likewise, when the disciples said, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus turned it back to them. Jesus said, then and now, “You don’t need to wait for more faith. You have everything you need. Faith the size of a mustard seed is enough.” In other words, Jesus said, “You got this.”
There’s an argument among Bible translators about how to deal with the verb in Jesus’s response. Some translations read “If you had faith,” and some say, “If you have faith.” But either way, the implication is that they did not need much, especially not extra faith from outside sources. Jesus said they just needed to be obedient to the faith already in them. All the hope and possibility of the kingdom of God were already at work in them. They just needed to recognize and honor that. 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!’” You got this.
The phrase “worthless slaves” sits harshly on our ears today, and it should. It calls to mind proud and strong human beings brought to this country against their wills and held in captivity and oppression, all because some thought of them as worthless slaves. We are still struggling in our world to recognize that no one is worthless, that every human being is precious in God’s sight. To hear these words from the lips of Jesus shocks our ears.
But two thousand years ago, the crowds would have heard them differently. The word for slave here was more like household worker, hardworking people who had a job to do and did it. Many followers of Jesus probably did that work for a living. Jesus lifted up their dignity and said that’s what all followers of Jesus are to be. We don’t need to wait for more faith to be obedient. We just need to do what we’ve already agreed to do. Be obedient to the faith that is already in us. You got this.
I’ve become convinced that the things that bug us most, the places where we are most likely to throw up our hands and cry for Jesus to fix it, are precisely the places to which God calls us. We are all called to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. But some are called to do this work in particular ways. Some people are troubled in their souls by the needs of children. Some have a deep concern for people in poverty. Some get really mad when they see others wasting resources and polluting the earth. Some feel pain when elderly people are abandoned. Pay attention to the things you want others to fix. God may be calling you precisely to that need in the world. You got this.
What is this faith that can move a mulberry tree?
Faith is a deep and abiding confidence in God’s goodness. It is the hope that God is working God’s purpose out in us and in spite of us. It is a trust in God’s justice and the willingness to stand on the side of justice in the present time. Just a tiny mustard seed of this faith can move a mighty tree to the sea and make it thrive even there.
It has happened over and over again in the history of the church. St. Francis is a good example. We will remember him this afternoon when we bless the animals. As a young man, while praying in a dilapidated chapel, he heard God say, “Rebuild my church.” And he knew God was not talking just about the chapel. He had a mustard seed of faith. So he gathered helpers and began preaching the way of Jesus and the way of love and soon the church was rebuilt in his time. You God this.
So, yes, like the disciples we worry about conflict and division in our world. And yes, like the disciples, we struggle with issues of wealth and poverty. And yes, like the disciples, we see the cross. We see suffering in the world and in us. We want a way out. Lord, increase our faith. Fix it Jesus!
And Jesus says to us, You got this. God has given you everything you need. A tiny mustard seed of confidence in God’s goodness will see you through. Just be obedient to that.
So a word about an initiative of the church that I mentioned in an email this week. Forward Movement, the people who publish Forward Day by Day, is inviting the Episcopal Church to a season of prayer in advance of the November 8 election. It begins next Sunday, October 9 and lasts for thirty days. You can sign up for emails and follow on Facebook. Our prayer book states that prayers of the people always include prayer for the nation and world and its leaders, so this is nothing new. But the folks at Forward Movement recognize this as a time of deep division in our country. They are inviting the Episcopal Church to pray.
In praying for the election, we are not throwing up our hands and saying Fix it Jesus. That’s not what we mean by prayer. Prayer is itself a form of confidence in God’s goodness. As we pray, we align ourselves with the loving purposes of God. We align our wills with God’s will as we understand it and trust the world and all our lives into God’s care. As we pray for our election process or for those who are in trouble or for any other situation in our world, we pray with faith in God’s goodness. Even a tiny mustard seed amount is enough.
But then we also act. We live out our prayer by being obedient to the hope that is in us.
Pope Francis, named for St. Francis, has said this – “Pray for the hungry, then go feed them. That’s how prayer works.” In other words, be obedient to the faith that is in you.
So pray for the election, then vote. Pray for your enemies, then try to be reconciled. Pray for an end to poverty, and then try to help it happen. Pray for creation, and then care for it.
And as you pray, hear Jesus say, You have everything you need. You got this.
©The Rev. Dr. Grace Burton-Edwards
Image: The Mulberry Tree by Vincent van Gogh, by Razimantv at Malayalam Wikipedia – Transferred from ml.wikipedia to Commons by Sreejithk2000 using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12071653