Updated: Jan 4
Good morning, Grace Honesdale! This is the day that the Lord has made. It’s a day of new beginnings, of singing and praying together, and a day when we have several of the most troubling readings in our Lectionary grouped together on the first Sunday I’ve been asked to preach to you. And they’re troubling for different reasons. Both halves of our Gospel this morning, the stories of the mustard seed and the master and the slave, have been misinterpreted and weaponized in some pretty awful ways.
When it comes to the mustard seed, many of us grew up thinking that if we just had enough faith—even a little tiny bit, we’d be able to have anything we wanted, from great material wealth to a life free of suffering. Or, even more damaging, that if suffering—even great suffering came upon us—it was because we didn’t have enough faith. None of these ideas are supported anywhere in scripture, or our own experience. God never extolled wealth as the product of having faith—we know there are many wealthy people with little faith, and many faithful people with little money. And God never said we wouldn’t suffer, only that God would be with us in our suffering.
As for the master and slave, this is a story that has been used to justify all manner of evil, including human slavery. We won’t go too far into this passage today, but I will briefly mention that many Biblical scholars now suggest that the best interpretation of “master and slave,” at least in this case, is actually “employer and employee.”
And then we have the Psalm appointed for today, Psalm 137, which ends with some truly disturbing imagery, maybe so disturbing that you had a hard time saying it aloud during our responsive reading. And yet, as always, Grace Church, there is Good News to be found in all of today’s readings. We just have to dig a little deeper than we might be used to.
Before diving into the Gospel for this morning, I wanted to make a suggestion you’ll hear me make a lot as we get to know each other. When you’re reading a specific Bible passage, especially the Gospels, always try to read the few verses or even the whole chapter that comes before that passage. It’s kind of like when you’re bingeing a Netflix show and you get that “Previously on” part? Where it jumps back over the last few episodes to remind you what’s been going on?
So . . . previously on the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has been getting more and more specific, difficult, and even revolutionary with his teachings. He’s getting closer to the time of Judas’s betrayal and his execution at the hands of the state, so he’s really digging in. And, like I say, it’s often difficult. In this stretch of Luke, Jesus’s followers have been listening to him talk about some pretty radical stuff: forsaking their family to follow him, and not just loving their neighbors, but their enemies. He has healed on the Sabbath, not as a way of ridiculing of the Pharisees, but of expanding their idea of what the boundaries of God’s love are—that is to say, that that God’s love has no boundaries.
And, just before what he says about the mustard seed, Jesus gets into some fairly practical directions for how the disciples might live together as his followers. First, we have the instruction not to cause “the little ones” to stumble, which is sometimes preached as referring to children, but the phrase can actually be translated as “disciple.” Read this way, Jesus is instructing his disciples not to cause each other to stumble. This is followed immediately by Jesus telling the disciples that they must hold each other accountable, pointing out when they do stumble, and, when they repent, they must forgive each other. Lastly, that they must forgive each other again and again and again, seven times in a single day if necessary. All of these instructions are given over the course of four verses, and I think it’s fair to say that most of us read over them pretty quickly.
You know what, though? It’s a lot to ask. They are to not only refrain from causing each other to stumble, but hold each other accountable when they do stumble, and then forgive each other when they do? It’s not just a lot to ask; to the disciples’ minds, it might be impossible, too much. It’s a way of thinking, and of loving, that Jesus is literally introducing for the first time to this culture and this people.
And this impossible way of living together, is what they’ve just heard when they cry out, “increase our faith!” Not so that they can become rich, or avoid suffering, but because they think the only way they can possibly live together the way Jesus wants them to is if they have more. Like all of us tend to do, they have turned faith into a commodity, something that, if they only had enough of, they could do this impossible thing—live together as forgiving followers of Jesus who are helping each other by not causing each other to stumble.
Now before we claim the Good News found in this Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, I want to point out something very important that happens at this point in our reading. You might not catch it if you read it too quickly, but the disciples are now named apostles. Just moments before, they were called disciples, and now they are called apostles. Remember, the author of the Gospel of Luke is also the author of the Acts of the Apostles, and the two are often considered together to be a single book with two parts. Together, they tell the story of the disciples of Christ, learning to live with each other, becoming the apostles of Christ, sharing this way of living with the world.
And so, we finally come to the Good News . . . when Jesus says, “if you had the faith of a mustard seed,” he’s not scolding them for not having enough faith. He’s telling them they already have enough faith, and that this small amount of faith, as small as a mustard seed, is exactly what they need to learn to live together as Christians. What they need is here. Each other, with Jesus in the midst of them. They have exactly what they need to make the journey from disciples to apostles.
In talking about the mustard seed, Jesus is proclaiming they already have the faith to do the impossible, love each other in such a new, revolutionary way that that’s almost as crazy and absurd as making a mulberry tree uproot itself and fly itself into the sea. They already have the faith to build a Beloved Community unlike any seen before, where the love and trust they model for each other can be a light to the world. A community where their deepest vulnerabilities and strengths can be shared, where even their greatest sins and most embarrassing thoughts can be revealed to each other, to be held in love and forgiveness.
Which brings us back to that kind of agonizing Psalm from this morning. It’s a Psalm that only appears in a lectionary once every three years. Furthermore, the preacher is offered an alternate Psalm to read instead. So, it’s rarely preached on. It’s a Psalm of oppression, the lament of an enslaved people who have been made to perform their songs of worship as mirthful entertainment to their captors. It’s a song of suffering, and a song of revenge, and a song of anger. That last line, where they take delight in seeing the little ones—in some translations, babies—dashed against the rock, is a line that’s on the one hand horrifying, but on the other hand a natural, human response to situation they find themselves in.
And the fact is, there are many of us who feel that anger, even those fantasies of revenge. Our brothers and sisters of color crying out against the systemic oppression they have faced feel that anger. Our LGBTQ+ siblings who have been recently shunned by the greater Anglican Communion feel that anger. And I want to say right here, this morning, no matter what the “Anglican Communion” says about our queer siblings, the American Episcopal Church and Grace Church in particular will always welcome you.
Those of us who have been passed over for a job we thought we deserved feel that anger. Those of us who have been left abruptly by someone we thought loved us feel that anger. Those of us who have lost loved ones to Covid—I lost my father almost two years ago to Covid—feel that anger. I’ve imagined that if Covid were a person, I would take absolute delight in dashing its head against the rocks. In our most private thoughts, we harbor angry, violent thoughts we are too embarrassed to admit.
The Good News here is that such Psalms of lament were sung specifically for this reason, to let us cry out these thoughts without acting upon them. Psalmic scholar Dr. Clint McCann puts it this way: “There is no evidence the Psalmist acts out this expressed desire for revenge. Rather, it is offered to God, and apparently left with God. The cycle of violence is actually broken by the Psalmist’s brutally honest prayer.” Grace Church, when we speak our anger, our lament, to God, God takes them on for us. God is big enough to handle them, and God is big enough to heal them.
Grace Church, on our journey from being disciples to apostles, we will not avoid suffering, and we will not ask God to prevent the suffering that God never said wouldn’t come. Instead, we will learn to turn to each other in that suffering and be the hands of Jesus to each other when we suffer.
On our journey from being disciples to becoming apostles, we will learn to do things just as miraculous, just as unexpected, as making a mulberry tree fly through the air. We will learn, often imperfectly, how to live lives that do not cause each other to stumble. We will do this for each other so we can turn around and do it for a world that struggles not to stumble every day. We will show the world how to forgive seven times a day, not because we’re pushovers but because this is how we build hearts big enough to channel the love of Jesus.
On our journey from being disciples to becoming apostles, we will learn that it’s okay to be angry, even to be angry with God. That God gave us the gift of lament, of crying out our darkest, most difficult thoughts so we don’t have to act out on them. We will do it with each other so we can turn around and lament in solidarity with the poor, and the oppressed, and those who are still being treated hatefully for the color of their skin or because they love differently.
On our journey from being disciples to becoming apostles, we will gather in this beautiful, historic church, and we will worship, and we will pray. Not for God to increase our faith, but for God to remind us that we already have the faith, even the faith of a mustard seed, to build God’s Beloved Community, starting right here in Honesdale. We will do it with each other so we can turn around and invite everyone into that Beloved Community, even if they’ve been told they don’t belong here.
Grace Church, on our journey from being disciples to becoming apostles, all we need is here.
Let us pray.
Living God, we thank you for bringing us, your disciples, together this morning. We celebrate this new beginning, and we forgive each other, and we lament. Be with us on our journey from being disciples in your church to apostles in the world. In the name of your miraculous, loving, and revolutionary son Jesus, Amen.