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Sermon - 17 Pentecost

In the Name...

Once there was a very devout woman who would stand on her front porch and shout her prayers aloud. This annoyed her atheist neighbour who would shout back, "Knock it off. There is no God.” One day the woman shouted out, "Praise you Lord, but I'm low on groceries. Please send me some. Amen." Later in the day, she found a big bag of groceries on her porch. "Praise the Lord.” she shouted, "My prayer is answered." "Got you.” her neighbour called out, "I bought those and put them there. I told you there is no God." "Praise the Lord.” the woman replied, "He sent me groceries and even made the Devil pay for them."

"Increase our faith", the disciples asked in today's Gospel and this sounds like a very reasonable and pious request, doesn't it? I'm sure that at some time or other each of us has made this a personal prayer. Give me more faith, Lord, as I face the sickness or death of a loved one, a loss of job, or getting a new job, having to move, any sort of life crisis. It's natural to turn to God for extra strength at these moments.

So, isn't what Jesus says to his disciples incredibly strange, then, "Well, if you had any faith, you could move a tree with a word."

That, my friends, is a rebuke. A slap across the face. "If you had faith"? What's with the "if"? If there were anybody who must have had faith, and more than a little, it had to be the disciples. They'd given up their homes, livelihoods, families, friends, everything to follow this wandering preacher. So why, when they make a simple request, does he insult them? Because that's what the famous challenge about throwing a tree into the sea really is - an insult. It's meant to shame them. But what did they say that was so offensive? Well, part of the problem is what they meant by the word "increase" - what they meant by the word "increase."

Even in an English dictionary, the word "increase" has different definitions and in Greek there are many different words to represent these different meanings. In today's case, the word the disciples used was "prostithemi" which can mean "to increase by an honour or reward.” We don't use that phrase so much these days but a couple of hundred years ago, when a soldier or an athlete was given a medal or a prize, it was said that person was "increased" or “enlarged”, that they were more than the average person - and that's the meaning of "prostithemi.”

The disciples are asking Jesus to reward them, to give them something for their obedience, for their leaving all to follow him. And that's why he snaps at them and says, "When you've done everything you're supposed to do, you're still worthless slaves.”

Showing that we have faith in God is as simple as living our lives in obedience to God and Jesus would say that if we live our lives in obedience to God, we'll find that we're already honoured and increased. If we are truly living in faith, in obedience, then we won't be trying to draw attention to ourselves by performing silly tricks, like moving trees. We'll be making miracles which are really hard and amazingly spectacular - like forgiving our enemies.

This, by the way, is what Jesus had just been talking about when the disciples asked their question. He had just told them that everybody does wrong things and someone might even be offensive to them seven times a day, but they, his followers, were to forgive, as hard as that might be to do.

Now, that may not sound very exciting. It might even sound dull and ordinary, but as far as God is concerned, one act of forgiveness does more to prove to the world that we are his disciples than if we made a whole forest go for a swim.

In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”, there's a scene where a young student talks about seeking justice "eye for eye, and tooth for tooth", to which the philosophic milkman Tevye replies, "Yes, and if we all lived like that the world would be blind and toothless.” Well, that's the message of the parable. Without forgiveness there is no life to enjoy.

That's why Jesus said the disciples should be like shepherds and farmers who produce clothing and food. Ordinary, routine, unglamorous work but to paraphrase Tevye, without shepherds and farmers, we'd all be naked and hungry.

The disciples wanted a reward for following God. They wanted to be treated as special for their good works, for all their sacrifices, for staying loyal when others fell away. "Hey, what do we get out of this disciple business?" It's natural, it's human to expect some sign of approval, some distinction to set one apart.

This hankering for religious certainty led some people to come up with the idea that if you were rich that was a sign of God's approval and if you were poor that was a sign of God's displeasure. The Pharisees believed that which is why they objected when Jesus reached out to the poor and treated them as equals.

And some Christians have taken this morning's passage about the mustard seed and tried to use it to find this same sort of certainty, especially in the matter of healings. You may have heard this from some TV preachers. If you're healed of something, it's because you believed you could be and if you're not healed it's because you didn't believe enough. The problem with that approach, though, is that God is either irrelevant - it's all about what I can do by my own will power - or God's forced to do what I want Him to do because I'm such a good boy.

No. God's power is active in our lives. God is present to us. God gives us more than we deserve. God sustains our very existence. But God does all this, not because of what we do, but because of who He is - our Father who wants the best for us.

In other parables, Jesus tells us of the Father's joy in us and the great rewards to be had by following His words, but they're not the sort of rewards we can measure on this earth. The greatest reward we can have here is to know that we are part of God's family. Knowing that by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus we have been given the key to Heaven. All God expects of us while we live in this world, is that we work at the shepherding and ploughing jobs which may seem ordinary but which provide our world with the clothing of righteousness and the bread of eternal life.

And that faithfulness, that dedication to his service, even if it is as small as the tiniest mustard seed, is what increases us. For God, working through us, can do, and does, more than we can ever ask or imagine. So, it's not, "Increase us for our faith", but "Be increased, by your faith.”

And, that's something to shout about.

In the Name…

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