The Presiding Bishop Preaches at Trinity Church, Shepherdstown, WV
Proper 22, Year C
On Friday we spent most of the day at Christ Church, Fairmont. It's a bustling place, and the hospitality was pretty amazing. A group had been organized to serve lunch to the 60 or so diocesan clergy who were gathered there, and while we were at Eucharist, the parish hall was transformed into a banquet hall, with white tablecloths, each table set with autumn flowers and the elegant parish china and silver. We didn't stand in line to get our food - it was served to each of us as we sat at tables, by three or four senior waitresses. Other workers bustled about in the kitchen, producing the food, serving the plates, and washing the dishes afterward.
During the meal brightly colored paper stars were passed out and we were invited to write notes to their rector, who is facing cancer surgery tomorrow. She turned 29 yesterday, and the congregation has seen her only once since she became ill in May. I was repeatedly told that the people of Christ Church insisted on hosting the clergy day, as well as Evening Prayer and a conversation with other members of the diocese, because they wanted to offer that as a gift to their rector. At some point in the middle of that conversation a parishioner stood up and offered lament. Underneath her request for prayers was the keening of the whole parish: why is this vibrant young woman so terribly sick? Why has our shepherd been taken away? What will become of us?
Questions like those haunt all of us at some time or other. That lament is universal. Why can't we fix it? Oh - God - why? - help! Human beings want relief from suffering, and we seem to be hard-wired to keep worrying over "why."
Did you hear how strange that conversation is in the gospel this morning? It comes right after Jesus warns his disciples not to cause others to go astray, and then he tells them they have to forgive anybody who asks, even if it's seven times a day. They react by asking for greater faith to do those hard things. Then, in the part we heard, Jesus makes the startling rejoinder that if they had even a little faith they could order trees to take up root in inhospitable places - mulberries in sea water, indeed! And then Jesus follows up with a story about the servant's proper role and expectation.
The story about the master and the servant seems to be a way of saying that doing one's duty doesn't get any unusual reward. But it's also a way of saying that faith comes from living faithfully. Faith is not the result of whiz-bang encounters with the holy - it's much more like the production of coal, through the long, slow accumulation of dead organisms, slowly covered with rock, and then millennia of pressure. Faith comes through the accumulation of life's challenges, maybe like the pressure of being stuck with work or people you wouldn't have chosen, and still finding something life-giving, some grace and blessing, in the midst of it.
The disciples already have faith, but they haven't recognized it. The people of Christ Church may not realize how much faith they really have, but they showed their visitors the results of their faith, even in the midst of their grief.
So, how does faith increase? Can you drive into this God-station and say "check the faith level and fill up the spirit"? "And while you're at it, would you please clean all those nasty spots off the windshield?" Or better yet, how do we check the faith-meter?
Yesterday we heard quite amazing stories about the work of St. Luke's on Wheeling Island. That island was a playground for the wealthy residents of Wheeling a century ago, and today it's a mix of very poor housing, a casino, many of the social ills that accompany poverty, and a few mansions being restored to their former glory. St. Luke's hosts a meal for all comers on Sundays, and in the summer they feed children who don't have access to the regular meals they enjoy during the school year. They do it on a shoestring - can you imagine providing 3000 meals for 1000 bucks? Who can feed three people a meal for a dollar? When I asked about the funding for their work, they talked about building relationships - because when people begin to see the sacrificial work going on, they respond with donations of food, materials, and cash, or their own labor. One fellow turns up every year just before Christmas with a significant check, and he keeps coming as long as no one discloses his name. They live in faith, and they see the results all the time. The mulberry tree is thriving in that salty place.
Faithful living is mostly about faithful relationships, built and nurtured over the long haul. Congregations will continue to transform lives in new generations when they pay attention to what's important: hospitality, the nurture of children and adults, and radical welcome to all who come seeking God. Faith is fundamentally about relationship - and staying connected and working at those relationships when the going gets hard.
The disciplines of our faith are tools for building and maintaining those relationships. Having and working at a regular prayer and worship life is about showing up and being available, being open to transformation in our relationship with God. Anybody who's been at it for a while has experienced periods of dryness and even prayer that feels pretty empty, yet faithfulness means you keep showing up. That kind of faith has its roots in experiences of God that have come unbidden and unexpected, surprising us in the midst of silence or distraction. We know it's possible, so we keep showing up.
That's what the parable is trying to say. The servants who come in from the field and fix dinner are simply doing it because it's part of their faithful service. Thanks aren't expected or necessary - but gratitude is nice when it comes.
All relationships work in the same way. Faithful marriage relationships are about showing up in spite of anger, annoyance, illness, poverty, or simple boredom - because we have experience and expectation that more is possible. Communities like Trinity, and St. Luke's, and Christ Church are laboratories of faith - and factories of faith. When one of us feels lost, there are others to remind us of the way home. When one is in pain, others offer comfort, reassurance, and hope. You may not see much change in a person from day to day or even year to year, but after a good long time of faithful living, everybody in that community will have been changed.
In the midst of that lamenting congregation in Fairmont, someone else asked about how to support relatives who seemed to have gone off the rails, in figuring out where to find hope in the midst of despair. We talked about the places where we have had our hope answered, where we've seen God's hand at work. That's what keeps us hoping and insisting that God will prevail.
Faith and faithfulness have mostly to do with persistence and endurance, mixed with hope. We keep on keeping on because we know God is still at work, even in the midst of suffering, boredom, or emptiness.
Where and how is your faith challenged? What ways of faithful living have brought amazing possibilities to life around here? Will you let the pressure of daily life crush the life out of you, or will you invite that pressure to change you - into coal, or graphite, or diamond? All of those forms of carbon are exceedingly useful, but for different tasks. Even a tiny bit of faith, formed in that crucible, is enough to do remarkable things, whether it's planting fruit trees in the ocean or walking with a friend through the valley of the shadow of death.
[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]