27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 6, 2019
Last week we heard and reflected upon the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the poor beggar at the gate. An extraordinary lesson that concludes the 16th chapter in Luke’s gospel.
Turn the page in your Bible, and you’ll see that the 17th chapter begins with four important lessons that form sort of a portrait of the ideal Christian. Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Want to follow me? You must embrace these four things. And none is easy.” Oddly, however, our Gospel reading allows us to hear only lessons #3 and #4. It’s like we tuned in to the latest episode of our favorite podcast half-way through.
What are the four points?
One: Don’t be a fake believer. Don’t show off. Be real. Be truly authentic in your journey of faith . . . or you’re better off cast into the sea with a millstone around your neck.
Two: Forgive one another constantly, time after time, day after day, at least seven times a day. A crazy notion in a social order built on revenge and retaliation as the accepted way.
So, at this point, the disciples throw up their hands in exasperation, and exclaim . . . and this is where our Gospel reading begins . . . “O my God, Lord, you have to increase our faith if you expect us to do these things.”
Three: Plant the tiny seed of faith deeply and securely in your heart and then you transform the world.
Jesus’ disciples want a quick fix, “Lord, increase our faith.” Jesus response: you already have enough faith to transform what seems utterly immovable and insurmountable.
A few years ago, I dug up a shrub that was planted next to our front steps. It was a bear to get out. I had to dig very deep, and had to cut a lot of roots that I couldn’t just pull out. Well, I didn’t do a good enough job, as still we get shoots from that shrub coming up in the yard, in the cracks of the sidewalk, and even in the steps themselves.
The shrub was not a mulberry tree, but perhaps a relative. A mulberry tree has a deep and extensive root system and is extremely difficult to uproot and transplant. An apt image for deep-rooted systems of injustice and violence, both then and now.
By contrast, a mustard seed is tiny, but spreads voraciously and is nearly impossible to eradicate. So, the analogy is not: tiny seed planted becomes a big tree. A tiny bit of faith planted in me leads me to become an amazing, holy person. No.
Rather, tiny seed planted, grows like wildfire and can’t be stopped. We may feel puny in the face of massive systems of injustice, but we really do have all we need to effect change and transform the world, especially together.
This focus on faith permeates all our readings today.
In our first reading, the prophet Habakkuk is just barely hanging on by a thread, “How long, O LORD, must I cry for help and you do not listen?” He laments the threatening times, the distressing violence, and God’s seeming silence. Still, he envisions faith in God as the only possibility for life. And, in time, the Lord answers his cry for help.
In our Psalm response, we are implored “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.”
In our second reading Paul implores Timothy, from prison: Stir into flame the gift of God. God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather power, love, and self-control.
Interesting note: the verse just prior to our reading, Paul wrote to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now I’m sure lives in you” (2 Tim 1.5). Authentic faith is pass along generation to generation. Another way to say that is: we hand on the faith we live . . . for good or ill.
What then is faith? Not a simple question, but I know this much.
Side note: did you know that our lectionary – the chosen readings from the Bible that are proclaimed each Sunday—were selected based on the assumption that each one of us is familiar with the Bible and regularly reads the Bible. So, on days like today, when we have readings that seemingly left off some really good bits, it’s okay because they presume that you have been reading along on your own.
A suggested practice for how to do that: read the full chapter. Read the full chapter around each of the three readings that are proclaimed on Sunday. And read the full Psalm. Do that before you come to mass on Sunday and you’ll be amazed at how much more you hear and learn. BTW: you’ll find references to the readings in the Sunday bulletin and on the parish web site.
Okay, let’s get back to the main thing here. What’s the fourth lesson?
Four: Commit yourself to service. Giving of yourself to others, engaging in works of mercy and acts of justice, doing works of charity, and sacrificing your needs for the sake of others is all part of the deal. It’s not extraordinary or special or optional. It’s normal and required of us as disciples of Jesus, who himself came to serve rather than be served.
To review, Jesus’ four lessons today:
It seems appropriate to close with a classic story by Jack Shea, a micro story, really, of just four lines, called “God’s Fruit Stand” and it goes like this:
A woman went into the marketplace, looked around and saw a booth with a sign that read, “God’s Fruit Stand.”
Thank goodness, she thought to herself. It’s about time.
She walked up to the booth and said, “I would like a perfect apple, a perfect strawberry, a perfect peach, and a perfect cantaloupe.”
God, who was behind the counter, shrugged and said, “I’m sorry, I sell only seeds.”
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