Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost–Sermon
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are certain things that for us Christians it is sometimes dangerous to pray for. I know that seems contrary to everything that we’ve been told, because we can indeed take everything and anything to our Lord in prayer. I’m sure we’ve even sung that a time or two with specific burdens in our heart that we do indeed take to our Friend Jesus, who promises to listen and to answer. However that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be mindful of what it is actually we are praying for. What do we intend with our prayers? For instance and what I would call the classic example of one of these types of prayers is the prayers for patience. Normally the prayer for patience takes the form of the joke, “Lord grant me patience, AND GIVE IT TO ME NOW!!” Yet I have found it in my own life that that prayer is rarely effective. I cannot recall after such a prayer that I have ever been flooded with an outpouring of patience in the midst of a situation and trials. What more than likely happens is that after prayers for patience, God likes to give me more opportunities to practice my own ability to be patient.
Patience I imagine is not unlike the request from the apostles to our Lord which we overhear this morning, “INCREASE OUR FAITH!” In the context of this morning’s gospel lesson, we hear this in what almost may be a boast. Increase our faith, Lord, so that we may be even better than we already our. There is a not so subtle arrogance that the disciples have been known to bandy about from time to time. Is this akin to James and John begging of the Lord, let me sit at your right and your left when you come into your kingdom! Does it resonate with Peter’s ability to at the most opportune time to sick foot in mouth and swallow. But is it a cry of arrogance? Is it a request to be even just a bit more holy or have a smidgin more faith than the other disciples? INCREASE OUR FAITH, Lord Jesus. Well to answer that we must back up and put this request from the disciples, complete with exclamation point, in its Gospel context.
Preceding our reading this morning we hear from St. Luke, And Jesus said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of his little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, “I repent’, you must forgive him.” The apostles said to the Lord, “INCREASE OUR FAITH!”
It’s not a boast, a brag or a demand, but rather a cry and plead for mercy and strength! Seven times forgive. Once is easy, twice is annoying, three times aggravating, but seven? According to the nature of the flesh such a request, such a command from our Lord can only bring the disciples to the ultimate conclusion that they lack what is needed to heed their Lord’s words. A little dose of faith can handle offering a word of forgiveness for a minor offense, but what is needed for great and repeated ones? That will require much more. It will take the faith of a Mustard Seed. One to uproot the knotted and tangled web of roots buried deep below the earth and be planted in the sea. That entangled mess of the past and present, which without faith is so easy to keep under the cover of the darkness of the ground. But with faith brings out and exposes to the light. It will take the faith that can move mountains or rather our stony rock-hard hearts calcified in bitterness, animosity, pain, resentment and an unwillingness to forgive, especially when we think we’re right. The disciples know this to be true and that is why they petition the Lord, because they know only such faith can come from him. Knowing ourselves do we not share that same lament, cry, and prayer, “Lord increase our faith!”
If we take our Lord’s words seriously, which we as Christians should be in the habit of doing, then it is exactly faith that we will need. For what is it to forgive, but to lay down one’s life one’s claim of righteousness for the sake of a repentant friend, brother, or even enemy. It will likely mean that forgiveness comes in the shape of our own forgiveness, the cross. The death to our selfishness for the upbuilding and betterment of the body of Christ, the Church, and for our fellow brothers and sisters. And that takes faith, supernatural faith, faith that can only come from where the disciples themselves seek it: from the Lord. For in human wisdom and strength there is only weakness and failing, but in the Lord, from whom flows our own life-giving grace, mercy and forgiveness we receive our faith. True, abiding, and everlasting faith given to us by the Holy Spirit through the means of His grace. Saving faith which casts off sin and grasps the promises of Christ to us, My body given for you. My blood shed for you. My life, death, and resurrection for you. In this gospel lesson today the disciples as well as you and I play out the words of the catechism, “by my own reason or strength I can not believe.” By myself and of my own self I have no faith, therefore Lord, increase it. Give to me, give to us such faith as that of a pickling spice.
After the disciples petition then of course St. Luke goes on to describe how at that very moment they were all filled with a double dose of faith, and rainbows and unicorns appeared in the sky and they all felt warm and fuzzy. No? No, indeed. Peter would still deny. Judas would still betray. James and John would still be arrogant. And when the shepherd is stricken, the sheep will scatter. Though the download of the ability to forgive seven times, or seven times seven, or seventy times seven, would have been easy and convenient, it would not have been real. For it is in the midst of trial that we learn patience as St. Paul tells us in Romans. And it is in the need of forgiveness that our Lord teaches us and gives us faith to forgive. It is there that the true work of our Lord is being done in us and in those times when an increase of faith is given. Because such forgiveness offered, if it be true forgiveness, is born from the breath and power of God. For the forgiveness we proclaim and share is not ours, it’s God’s. And as we know with man nothing is possible, but with God everything is possible, because where His Word of grace is proclaimed the power of God is set loose among us to remove deeply rooted trees, obstinate mountains, and baptize them in the sea—in the water of life where you and I return time and again to be replanted and replenished in the true faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.