Proper 22 (27), Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
6 October 2019
2 Timothy 1:1-14
In high school a classmate insisted that through his mind he could control external events. He was not speaking of using his mind in order to understand the world. Rather, he said he believed that he could stand in the middle of a train track and make the train stop before it got to him. I don’t think he ever tried this. There are a lot of trains where I grew up.
After high school he planned to study philosophy. Maybe metaphysics would have been more appropriate, if it were offered in universities.
I thought of him when I read today’s Gospel.
“Increase our faith,” the disciples say to Jesus. And Jesus answers that had they faith as small as a mustard seed they could do the impossible.
The impossible would be to stand on a train track and make the train stop, and not only because the engineer saw you and managed to stop the train;
The impossible may be to do well in the exam we didn’t study for.
or to get our finances under control without changing our spending habits;
or for a dysfunctional relationship to become wholesome, without either party’s willingness to change;
or for poverty to end without economic changes;
or for the climate crisis to be solved without having to change the way we live.
You can make your own list, perhaps you are more creative than I am.
All this reminds me of Norman Vincent Peale, whose name I know but whose books I have not read. Peale was the head pastor at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. The Trump family attended there during those days. And some say that that explains a few things.1
Peale’s claim to fame is his book, The Power of Positive Thinking. It would be fair to say that his thought was the product of the optimistic fifties and sixties when we thought cars would soon fly and there was no limit to our possibilities. But it was also a little like story-hour, anything can happen, and if it did not happen you must have been too negative. The power of positive thinking never took into account the circumstances you found yourself in, whether it was a depressed economic situation, discrimination, or a dysfunctional family. The Power of Positive Thinking is white middle class thinking which is why it worked so well for Robert Schuller2 whose Crystal Cathedral was to be a monument to mountain-moving faith,3 expressed also in Crystal Cathedral’s version of the Lord’s Prayer: And whatever you ask, believing in, you will receive, and nothing will be impossible for you.4 You may have heard that the Schullers had succession issues, there were bankruptcy proceedings, and Crystal Cathedral was sold to the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
But the Crystal Cathedral version of the Lord’s Prayer brings us back to my classmate, and to the Mulberry Tree.
But, are the disciples really asking for a greater quantity of faith so that they can do impossible things? And if that’s what the disciples are asking, and if this is how they understand prayer, is this prayer then more than an incantation, and the god they pray to more than a genie-in-a-bottle? (Of course, genie-in-a-bottle may be less demanding than the living God.)
“Increase our faith!” the disciples say. They don’t say that they don’t have any, and this is important. Because Jesus’ answer presupposes that they have faith. He says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” which is as much as, “You have faith the size of a mustard seed, that will do, it is enough, use it. Don’t despair.”
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that we waste a great deal of time and energy looking for the ‘key to the treasure box of More.’ All we lack, she argues, “is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”
And G.K Chesterton suggests that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
That reminds me of another friend from high school who said to me that she wished she could believe. I think she already did but, like many of us, was reluctant to take the next step.
It is helpful for us to consider why the disciples asked for the Lord to increase their faith. Was it about possibility thinking? Was it about believing in material blessings so those could finally be received?
No, immediately before the disciples’ request for more faith is a word about stumbling blocks and woe to those who provide them. It is a word about life in community and regard for others, and instructions about reproach, repentance and forgiveness. And forgiveness is to be given seven times a day for the same darn thing.
It is at the command to forgive that the disciples say, “Lord, increase our faith.”
But the Lord only says, you already have faith. Celebrate it, use it, forgive your brother and your sister.
And so it’s, of course, not about a Mulberry tree, it’s not about mountains, it’s not about possibility thinking, unless that possibility was the forgiving of my brother and sisters.
A few years ago Lillian Daniels wrote a column, Spiritual but not Religious? Please Stop Boring me!,5 in which she talks about the conversations she has on airplanes. ‘You are a minister, really? You know, I am spiritual but not religious.’
She says, “Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and … did I mention the beach at sunset yet?”
And then she says, “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”
Perhaps you read her column.
Perhaps, she is a bit harsh on the spiritual but not religious crowd. But I do think she is onto something, and I think it’s the same thing Jesus is talking about. Faith is always embodied. It happens in the real world. Sometimes people drive you crazy. But you have faith, and faith the size of a mustard seed is enough. So, don’t give up. But live your faith, and give thanks.