Sermon – 16th after Trinity 2019

St Mary’s 6/10/19 8am & 10.45am 16th after Trinity
(Habakkuk 1.1-4; 2.1-4) 2 Timothy 1.1-14 Luke 17.5-10

Mark Hart

At St Mary’s we have three offertory plates which live in the three sedilia on the south wall of the sanctuary. Here’s the first one. I call it ‘little faith’. And here’s the second one, called ‘medium faith’. And here’s the third one, used regularly in our services, called ‘great faith’.

Actually, from this weekend we have a new alternative device. It is this contactless donation unit. You set the amount to anything from £3 to £30, tap your card, and the job is done. I call this one ‘smart faith’.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus has been challenging the apostles about all kinds of things including wealth and forgiveness and relationships. And suddenly they all cry out, ‘Increase our faith!’ Give us more faith, smarter faith, firmer faith!

And Jesus replies, ‘If you had faith as small as a mustard seed you could tell this mulberry tree to plant itself in the sea and it would obey you’.

Now, while there are a few trees in the Rectory garden and in the church grounds which I would like to relocate, I’m not sure Jesus is teaching us how to do magic with trees. He’s making the point that it is not the amount of faith which matters. Faith isn’t like a muscle where the more you have of them and the bigger they are, the more work you can get done.

Take the example of air travel. How comfortable are you with it? Some won’t do it. Others travel but very nervously. And many hop aboard without any thought of danger.

To get from A to B, is it going to help if you can remain calm and unworried? Are you more likely to get to the destination if you’re not thinking about the million things that can go wrong? You look out of the window and see just about the most complex machinery that exists, hanging off the wing, running at extremes of stress and temperature. You feel every vibration and buffet. Is your small faith going to be a problem?

The answer is clearly no. All that matters is that you got on the plane. You took a step of faith. How it goes from there is not in your hands. It’s not down to your effort and it doesn’t depend on the strength of your faith.

And so Jesus seems to be saying to his disciples that he’s not there as a personal trainer to build them up into heroes of faith. What matters is that they use what faith they have, that they make commitments of trust to him, to each other, to the people they go and serve – and then things will happen.

Good will come – not because they are experts – but because they have allowed God’s life to come through. They have let go and made themselves that bit vulnerable – and that’s when something fresh and surprising becomes possible. And so, for you and me today, there are always steps which present themselves to us where we have a choice. Stay where I am, feeling safe but going nowhere. Or taking that step, after which, it feels like you’re saying, ‘Lord, I’m really not sure about this. And now it’s largely not in my hands. I believe – but help my unbelief’.

This may help us to understand the puzzling verses which follow. Jesus uses the example of a farmer whose slave has just returned from the fields. The farmer doesn’t wait on the slave at the table. He expects the slave to prepare his supper and serve him. After that, the slave may eat. So with you, said Jesus to his disciples, when you have completed your tasks, all you can say is, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have only done our duty.’

This is harsh stuff, there’s no way round it. All apart from the master / slave culture which it reflects, wouldn’t a little ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ go down well? Where’s the good news here? You say, ‘I thought being a Christian meant that we regard each other and ourselves as having dignity and being worthy of respect?’

At the end of a day when you’ve given your best in your employment, or spent some hours volunteering for a charity, or looked after a relative or neighbour, or served in one of the many roles in the church – is there nothing more that can be said, other than: ‘I’ve only done my duty’? Do you not earn any merit or praise?

Jesus is speaking in a context where many of the religious leaders took great pride in how well they observed the law. And he condemned them for justifying themselves before others. For adding up their achievements and ranking themselves.

Be careful what you ask for if you want to earn merit from all the good things you do. Are you really saying that you want God’s favour to be something you earn? Do you imagine it is possible to put God in your debt by any act of kindness or mercy?

It is a very human failing to imagine that we can negotiate with God. To think there’s some heavenly weighing of our good and bad deeds, and either we owe God, or he owes us. It’s a dreadful trap, and religions have preyed on it time and again to burden people.

It’s much more liberating to hear the harsh words of Jesus. Thank God that you never end a day with any merit. Thank God that your life and any blessings you have ever known are ultimately pure gifts. Nothing you did ever put God under any obligation to you. And nothing that God has given you has ever put you in his debt.

The work we do, the Christian life we try to lead, is neither about earning merit, not paying off a debt. It is only our duty to live the life God has given us. And what is that life? It is to reflect God’s own generosity in our relationships with each other. All our ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ are not because we’re constantly adjusting accounts with each other according to whether we’re earning or paying. It’s a recognition that God’s gift is at the root of all that we are, and gratitude is to be our basic mode of being.

Much of the time when we politely acknowledge each other, we’re acknowledging what is our duty to each other. Sometimes we might reasonably be offended if we’re not offered a cup of tea, but we still say thank you when we are.

And so today as we launch an appeal for people to begin giving regularly to St Mary’s, or to renew their giving, what’s the motivation for our response? It’s certainly not about impressing God, or putting anyone in our debt. There’s a sense in which it is only about doing our duty.

But that duty is a freedom to reflect the generosity of God, with nothing to prove because God’s gift sustains everything. We are free to trust that God is such a giver. We’re free to take a step of faith with some of our money and leave it to God to make it bear fruit.

Do you think St Mary’s is a church through which God can bless you and bless this town? Do you want the building and the ministry and the music and the youth and children’s work to survive – more than that, to develop and flourish?

It’s God who can make that happen, but it needs our steps of faith. Those steps come in many forms, but one essential part is our giving. So please study the leaflet you will receive and consider the challenge we face.

At the start I labelled these different plates according to the amount of faith. We’ve learned that it doesn’t quite work like that. Jesus doesn’t call us to measure our faith. What matters is that you put what faith you have into action.