Sunday, October 07, 2007
A Mustard Seed of Faith
“Increase our faith!” Luke 17:5-10
XIX Pentecost – Proper 12
October 7, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton,
rector and pastor
I hope you noticed the poster I hung up on the glass door of the sanctuary as you came into church this morning. Apparently, it has caused a great stir in the communities in and around Portland, Oregon. In fact, it is so controversial that community organizers have demanded that the posters in nearby malls be taken down immediately. And, they were. Removed. Immediately.
What is so controversial? The poster depicts seven of the world’s leaders, including George W. Bush and Koffee Annan, all having their feet washed by Jesus, and asks, “Do we know the God who would was the feet of His friends . . .and his enemies?” The poster is an advertisement for a conference on Christianity entitled “The Good News Tour” that is to take place in Portland November 2 – 3.
So far, so good, right? Well, if you look at the seven leaders, you will notice, sitting right in between the President of the Free World and the leader of the United Nations, is none other than Osama Bin Laden. Ah, now you get it, right? But, wait a minute! What’s wrong with this picture? Are we seriously surprised by this picture of Jesus washing Bin Laden’s feet? If you are surprised, then I have another question for you: Really? I mean, have you not been listening to anything Jesus has said?
Well, don’t feel foolish. The disciples who had been with Jesus for three years apparently hadn’t been listening closely to him, either. Today’s gospel opens with the words, “Increase our faith!” – a response the apostles were making to something Jesus had just said about forgiveness. Jesus said, and I quote: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins you must rebuke the offender and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
To which the apostles respond, “Increase our faith!” And, who could blame them? In my own personal spiritual journey, forgiveness is one of those spiritual disciplines which I find one of the most difficult. It’s hard enough to forgive someone once. Forgiving them seven times in the same day is quite another thing. After the second time, I’m starting to raise serious suspicions about the sincerity of the apology. After the third time, the rule in baseball starts to make sense: three strikes and you throw the bum out! But seven times? Get out of the ball park! All the way out!
As you leave the sanctuary today, take another good look at that picture of Jesus washing the feet of the world leaders. Think again about what Jesus has said. Are you really surprised to see Bin Laden sitting there, either having just had his feet washed or waiting for his turn? No. Perhaps not. Would you have thought the poster so controversial as to insist that it be removed? Hmmmm . . .
The conference organizer, Brad Cole, said that politics had nothing to do with it. The purpose of the conference is to discuss the character of God, according to Cole. “People opposed to this picture feel that God isn't that kind. We believe that he is,” Cole said, adding, “No one is Judas in the picture, but the meaning is that Jesus would stoop to wash the feet of his enemies. The meaning is that in that painting of powerful world leaders – and one powerful terrorist – the one with all the power is ultimately Jesus.”
“Increase our faith!” said the apostles. Jesus tells them they don’t need any more faith. All they need is faith ‘the size of a mustard seed.’ It’s a very, very small seed with great power. That’s the point Jesus was making to his apostles. That’s the point of the controversial poster. Know what I think? I think we know this – that, in and among all the powerful world leaders and one powerful terrorist, the one with all the power is ultimately Jesus. I think we know it and it is more disturbing than party politics and the idea of forgiveness.
Somewhere within us, we know that to look our enemies in the eye is to look deep into what it is that we fear the most. That, before we can forgive them, we must forgive ourselves the potential to do the exact thing our enemies have done to us. We must understand our own appetite for power, our own need to be in control and understand our own potential to abuse it before we can forgive it in others. Jesus understood this, which is why he knew it would take a long time – seven times in one day.
What we do not want to admit about our faith is that it gets stronger in the face of our own vulnerability and powerlessness. That’s the nature of faith. I think that’s what Jesus meant when he talks about the behavior and response of the slaves. I think Jesus is saying that when we understand our slavery to vulnerability and powerlessness, that is precisely when our faith becomes strong enough too move mountains, or to ask mulberry trees to uproot themselves and be planted in the sea.
Some of you have heard me tell this story about my first night at Ground Zero in NYC. I had been volunteering at The Seamen’s Church Institute, which had been set up as a respite center for the firemen, police, and rescue workers. We provided a place to shower and get fresh clothing. Perhaps, change your socks and boots whose soles were melting in the intense heat of burning concrete. Maybe grab a burger and something to drink and then take a wee bit of a lie down and nap a half hour or so.
That’s where I met ‘Frank’, one of the captains of one of the fire stations in that part of town. He was clearly exhausted but every bit as stubborn as the Irish stereotypes report them to be. No way was he ever going to admit his exhausted state. No way was he ever going to stop until every single person who was buried under the rubble of what had once been the World Trade Center was found.
I wanted to help. The man clearly needed help. Not only did I have no idea how to help, I was suddenly, painfully aware that there was absolutely nothing I could do to help. I felt weak and stupid and completely incompetent. After more than 15 years (at that time) of experience, I had absolutely no idea what I might possibly do or say that might make a difference. He was clearly Irish Roman Catholic. Should I ask him if he wanted to make a confession and offer absolution? Nah! He wouldn’t have accepted that from a Protestant, much less a woman, anyway. Neither would he be likely to accept the Eucharist from my hands. I still knew how to say the Rosary, but I hadn’t brought mine with me. Should I ask him if he wanted to say the Rosary, anyway?
All of these questions and doubts were swirling around in my head as I tried to listen to him talk. He seemed to like that – indeed, want it more than anything else I could offer – so that’s what I did. Suddenly, we found ourselves upstairs and in front of the serving line where our Ms. Conroy was preparing and serving the hamburgers that had come in from the barbeque that had been set up on the roof. The serving line was a hastily built affair of pool tables covered with plywood and bed sheets.
I introduced Ms. Conroy to ‘Frank’, and they shared that twinkle-eyed smile of recognition I’ve come to see when one Irishman meets another. “What can I get for ya?’ she asked him. “Jeeze,” he said, “I didn’t realize how hungry I am. This looks so good! Man, I’d love a cheeseburger.” “Well, said Ms. Conroy, “I’m sorry. We don’t have any cheese, but I can give you the best hamburger available tonight in this part of town.”
Her blarney didn’t penetrate his exhaustion. Having weakened just a bit and admitting to a human need like hunger, he had inadvertently uncovered a growing sense of his real weakness and vulnerability. “But, I wanted a cheeseburger,” he said, suddenly sounding like a deeply disappointed six year old boy. It was as if one more disappointment was one disappointment too many and it was going to absolutely break his heart to not have any cheese on his burger.
Ms. Conroy looked deep into his eyes and then reached for a burger, put it on a bun, closed her eyes for a few seconds and then put the cover on the bun. She then placed the burger in his hands, held his hands in hers, then enclosed them around the bun for a moment, and gave them both a very short but important squeeze. She then looked up and deep into his eyes and as her Irish eyes smiled their best Irish smile, she said, “Forgive me. There’s no cheese. Here, Frank. Here’s your cheeseburger.”
Frank looked down at the burger and then back into her eyes. Suddenly, his head began to nod ‘yes’ and the shiny rays of the best Irish smile came from his Irish eyes and poured all over his Irish face. He bit into the burger and said, with just a wee bit of a whisper of a brogue, “And, you’d be right, Ms. Conroy. This is the best damn cheeseburger in this part of town tonight. Go ahead and make me another. And put some of that potato salad on me plate, too. And, don’t you be stingy with the baked beans and potato chips, neither.”
Jesus said all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed. What I learned that night is that faith comes in other sizes as well. All you need is faith the size of the distance between the words of a conversation between two strangers who have become intimate with death and destruction. All you need is faith the size of a burger on a bun. All you need is faith the size of Irish eyes smiling an Irish smile which have looked into and beyond their own raw fear and naked vulnerability.
If you have faith that size, you can transform a plain hamburger into a cheeseburger. If you have faith that size, you can turn a converted pool table into a place of sacramental grace. If you have faith that size, you can turn exhaustion in to renewal of energy to do an impossible task. If you have faith that size, you can even perform the miracle of temporarily mending a broken heart.
That’s the power of faith whose power increases in the face of human weakness and vulnerability. Some of us can not stand to look into this face. It is too beautiful a thing for us to take in. It is too challenging a thing for us to consider taking on as a possibility for ourselves. So we see what we want to see. Politics. Controversy. Betrayal. We’d rather see nothing than to see the power of faith whose power increases in the face of mercy and kindness.
Jesus give us this promise: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.”
I think there are three words that contain that mustard seed of faith. And those three words are these: “I am sorry.” And these three are like unto them, “I forgive you.”