Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture Readings

In the first part of our first reading this morning, the prophet Habakkuk describes his experience in terms that we might use in our own time, and raises questions that we might be asking. He sees wrong-doing and trouble, destruction and violence, strife and contention. The law is too often slack, with justice not prevailing and judgement coming forth perverted. It all sounds quite familiar. Why are we made to see these things? How long do we need to cry for help before we are saved?

The prophet’s response is to stand and watch and wait. His observation is that the spirit of the proud is not right in them. There is something wrong inside all of us that needs to be put right, but the righteous live by their faith.

As if in continuation of Habakkuk’s writing, the first words out of the mouths of the apostles in our Gospel reading are: “Increase our faith!” This seems a reasonable request: if the righteous live by their faith and the world is in a mess, presumably what we need is more faith so that there can be more righteousness. The only problem is that Jesus doesn’t seem to agree, and provides a metaphorical response followed by an analogy that don’t seem immediately helpful.

cat in field of mustard
In a field of mustard

He says that just a small amount of faith is enough to get trees to uproot themselves, and yet this is not a common occurrence. He compares discipleship to the oppressive drudgery of slavery, which is not all that attractive an idea. Perhaps Jesus is talking about a particular kind of faith, or maybe a particular way of living faith.

Some commentators suggest that the key to understanding Jesus here is found in an earlier section of this part of Luke’s Gospel. There, Jesus warns the disciples in the strongest terms to watch themselves so that they do not bring harm to any of the weaker members of the community. He goes on to say that they are responsible for rebuking erring members out of concern for their wellbeing, and for forgiving them if they repent, even if this cycle repeats several times a day.

I don’t know whether I find rebuking or forgiving difficult characters more challenging. Jesus is clearly serious about the quality of our relationships with one another, and knows how difficult it is for us to get them right. Perhaps this is what uprooting the mulberry tree is all about: the faith needed to remove the obstacles in our own lives that prevent us from living well with one another.

mulberry tree in israel
A mulberry tree in Israel

Jesus’ reference to the mustard seed of faith reminds me of his comparison elsewhere of the kingdom of God with a mustard seed. Maybe the faith he talks about is the attitude which is required to live well within the kingdom of God, the God who in the words of the Psalmist supports all those who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.

We tend to stumble over the master-slave stories that Jesus tells, as those aren’t relationships that we encourage anymore. Perhaps we can reframe it in terms of our devotion to a loving God who wants us to come to more of life as we learn to live in obedience to his instruction. Then maybe Jesus is saying that those who live in relationships of radical mutual care are just living the life which is considered normal in God’s realm, and so in that way are like slaves who are owed nothing for doing what they are expected to do.

The prophet Habakkuk spoke about the spirit of the proud that is not right in them. In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul spoke about a different spirit, a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline, a spirit from God that is not timid or fearful. This power is not that by which we get our own way, but instead it is the power to uproot our self-centred pride and act in humble love towards those around us, no matter what it might cost us to do so.

vision of faith
A vision of faith

The spirit that enables us to live in this way is described by Paul as a good treasure which has been entrusted to us, a spark from God to be fanned into flame by our faith. There is a struggle involved, but it is a struggle that ultimately leads to fullness of life for all as we come to know the One in whom we have put our trust.

Audrey West describes faith as persistence in reaching out to Jesus. Francisco Garcia says that faith enacted in a lived struggle for greater justice and compassion in the world is an expression of hope in the God of Jesus who calls us all to be subjects in God’s presence.

There is still a vision for the appointed time, we are assured by the prophet Habakkuk; it speaks of the end and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come …

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