Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Dr. Matthew PottsThe Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity. File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

The beginning of the lesson that Ashlyn just read for us, the lesson from the Gospel of Luke, the disciples come to Jesus with what seems to be a reasonable, even an admirable request, "Give us more faith." And Jesus responds with, let's say, a challenging answer, maybe even an unwelcome answer. I mean, just at first glance, it's sort of impatient and abrupt. They say, "Increase our faith." And he says, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, imagine what you could do. You could tell the mulberry tree to go uproot itself." It's so forth. Could you imagine if one of you came to me in my office and said, "Matt, I want more faith. How do I have more faith?" And I said, "Yeah, you're right. You have like none. If you had just a little bit more, think of how things would be going for you?" It's not a great response, honestly.

And then it gets worse. I mean, first the mulberry tree example, "If you had enough faith, you could tell this mulberry tree to go uproot itself." I know too many people, you know too many people who have prayed fervently and faithfully, and have not had their prayers answered. For that to be the whole definition of what faith is, as if it's a magic trick, a way to control the natural world. And then it gets worse. He goes into this parable about the slaves who think they ought to eat first, but they ought not to eat first. We are worthless slaves. This language just off putting at least, offensive even to our ears. The word here translated as, "worthless," is probably better translated as unworthy. It doesn't really help.

And the word which is translated here as slave doulos in Greek, it's different than chattel slavery, the kind of slavery that this country was guilty of in its original founding upon which it was built. Doulos was a bond servant. Once their debt was paid, they could be free, but they were not free. And so that distinction doesn't really matter either. So when the response to Jesus gives, this impatient response, this challenging response, we have two forms of faith that I think are problematic, faith as magic and faith as abject, subservience. And both of these forms of faith have been used by powerful people to cause harm in Christian history.

And we need to name that as Christians. So what do we do with this? What is Jesus saying here? What is the faith that Jesus is describing? So, try to get our arms around that. Let me put the disciples' request, "Increase our faith," in a little bit of context. As has been true since we returned to worship together at the end of August, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. And as he goes, he's telling stories, and telling parables, and getting into arguments, and sometimes getting impatient. And he keeps telling these stories over and over and he's going to Jerusalem, we know, he's going to Good Friday. He's going to his death. He's told the disciples this. They don't believe him. They think they're going for triumph. They think that he's going to take over the whole show. And in the next chapter or the couple chapters from now, they start arguing with each other about who will be stuck in command after Jesus takes over.

And also they're not... I mean this mulberry tree thing, that would be impressive, but they've seen feats of power. Whatever our relationship to these miracles, within the context of this story, these people have seen feats of power. In fact, in chapter nine, Jesus gave them power to go out and also heal people. So they have seen feats of power. So what are they asking for when they come to Jesus and say, "Increase our faith?" They're not asking, "Make us powerful enough to heal." They've had that already. They're not saying, "Help us overthrow." They already believe in that.

So, what are they worried about? What are they asking for? So we start at first five in this lesson. That's the passage that has been assigned to us, but it's worth looking at versus one through four. I'll tell you about what happens in verses one through four. Jesus turns these disciples who have all the wrong ideas and expectations, who are traveling with him to Jerusalem. And he tells them that challenges, and stumbling blocks, and obstacles to faith are unavoidable. He says, "It will be hard this life for living. It will be hard, sometimes. Hard for you and hard for others." And then he says, "That's okay. Just keep going."

And he also says, "Because it is hard, take care of each other. And when others falter in the faith, which they will, forgive them. And you will falter in the faith," He says, "And they will forgive you." And then he says, "Even if someone sins against you seven times a day, if every day that person comes back and truly repents, forgive them every day." And then the disciple say, "Wait a minute, increase our faith." This is the moment when the disciples decide they don't have enough faith. Sight for the blind, they believe in that. Overthrow Caesar's army, they're planning on that. Sit at the right hand of Jesus when he rules over Judea as king, they're counting on that. But offer forgiveness to your repentant friend when that friend comes asking, that is beyond belief to them. That is more miracle than they can muster. I think this is why Jesus is frustrated in this moment and why he tells them this troubling parable. This admittedly troubling parable about a master eating before the slaves.

But the thing is, that example doesn't come out of nowhere. Jesus just doesn't come up with this thing. This is actually a callback to an earlier telling, an earlier teaching. In chapter 12, Jesus says to his disciples, "When the master comes to you, he will feed you first. You, who are servants, will be fed by the one who comes to you." And in a few chapters from now, in chapter 22, he's going to say to them, "I am the master who has come to serve you, and I will serve you at table. I will feed you first." What he is telling these disciples is, "You have already been fed. You have already been forgiven. But when you're repentant friend comes seeking grace from you, the grace you have already receive, you falter. You want all the power and magic," Jesus says. "But what you don't want is the difficult work of the gospel. What you don't want or are afraid you cannot do, is share the grace you have already received." But it is difficult work. I'm with the disciples, Lord, increase our faith.

In 2006, in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, a man named Charles Robert IV, walked into an Amish schoolhouse. Some of you remember this terrible story. He walked into an Amish schoolhouse and he shot 10 girls, killed five, wounded the others. Some he disabled permanently. These sorts of events are all too common in our country. What makes this one especially memorable, all deserve our memory. There are so many, it's hard to keep track. But what makes this event especially memorable is in the immediate wake of this terror, this awful thing, the Amish survivors, surviving families of the children who had been killed forgave Charles Roberts and his family. The Amish community surrounded his grave while his wife attended his funeral, so the media could not see them. And this was the big story, Amish grace, Amish forgiveness. But it wasn't the end of the story.

The mother of Charles Roberts was a woman named Terry Roberts. And in the aftermath of this awful event, she got to know one of the girls that her son shot, a girl named Rosanna King, who was permanently disabled by the shooting. And Terry started going to her home every week to help care for her. And that's not the end of the story either. About seven years ago, Terry was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and one of the girls that her son shot, came to her home and helped care for her. And that's not the end of the story either, because in an interview about all this in the Washington Post in 2016, the father of Rosanna King, he talked about how much this meant to him, how much Terry meant to him. But he also said, "I'm angry every day. I despair every day." And then he said, "We have a lot of hard work to be what the people brag about us being."

This looks like a miracle to me, and it may be the most miraculous thing. Doesn't look like a magic trick. It looks like something like this, like the courage to face what we cannot wish away. It looks like caring for one another when we're at a loss and we can't fix what's broken. This Amish example is especially terrible and especially singular, but we see it in our own lives, in our own world, in my ministry, as a pastor. These last I guess 13 years, I've seen spouses caring for each other when one of them has a terminal diagnosis, like Terry Roberts. Caring when there is no cure, loving with the time they have left. I've seen friends who have come to one another in repentance who have decided to forego retaliation for the sake of their love and for their friendship, with great courage and great difficulty, but also with great patience and great grace.

There are times in our lives when despair and vengeance can feel as necessary as gravity, as fixed as the roots of a tree in the ground. Yet, we also see these moments of grace in each of our lives, moments more miraculous than a moveable mulberry tree. And this I think is what faith is, and what Jesus is calling us towards as he walks toward Jerusalem. We might better call it faithfulness. This persistence and this grace in the face of hardship. This courage to care with the time that we have left against all odds for the sake of love. Jesus knows, and he's trying to tell us, and he's trying to tell his disciples, Jesus knows love, His hard work like laboring in a field. Love is daily work like tending a planted seed. But love is our work, our miraculous work as followers of the one who came to pardon and to serve.