Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig on II Timothy 1:1-14 and Luke 17:5-10
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Faith as a Seed
Who among us has the faith necessary to raise a child, chart an ethical course for a company, endure a personal hardship or work for justice and peace in a world on fire? Few of us feel sufficient of ourselves for these tasks, yet we're called to these and many other challenges. And while we may have some faith, is it enough? When the apostles say, "increase our faith!" I hear CMCers who are in high school and wondering whether faith matters as they approach adulthood.
Increase our faith! I hear senior adults facing transitions as they age and wondering whether they are becoming wiser and more faithful or just older.
Increase our faith! I hear middle aged adults wondering how to have a fresh vision of vocation or parenting in a new stage of life.
Increase our faith! I hear CMCers across the generations who want to have hope in a world whose climate is changing.
Increase our faith! I hear the children of our congregation eager for conversation and relationships that will set them on a course for faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
When the apostles say, "increase our faith!" instead of giving them some spiritual exercises, Jesus claims they already have enough faith for what they are called to do. It's mustard seed faith–that small, but potent measure within, where God's spirit and our spirit connect. We may not even be able to wrap words around this faith. While the apostles would love for their faith to be in full bloom, what they have is enough. Jesus says: 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 don't have any interest in uprooting trees, but like you I want to live with faith and some days I'm not at all up to it. It's possible to understand Jesus to be saying–if you had a shred of faith, you'd be relocating forests, but you don't even have that much. But in context, it seems more likely that Jesus is helping these apostles claim the faith they already have as a valuable asset for their lives and ministry.
Mustard seed faith. We all know that when they access soil nutrients, water and light seeds grow. Apparently, whenever we exercise the seed of faith we already have, faith roots, increases, expands and grows. Jesus offers good news for any of us who feel inadequate when it comes to faith.
Faith as an Inheritance
Jesus helps us picture faith as a mustard seed. And mature faith as simply doing what we're called to do. The New Testament letter we call Second Timothy includes another picture of faith: faith as an inheritance passed from one generation to another. The writer of this letter encourages Timothy by rehearsing his maternal lineage. Faithful grandmother Lois, raised her daughter Eunice in the faith, who in turn blessed Timothy with an inheritance of faith. Some of us who grew up in the church might have a similar story. Beyond these family-oriented faith formation experiences, Timothy also participated in a ritual, a laying on of hands. This was likely a way in which the early church recognized Timothy as a leader. Maybe he was commissioned or blessed for ministry when he first decided to join Paul on a missionary journey. Some of us here have been commissioned for particular ministries or ordained for a life of church leadership. In terms of Timothy's faith formation, we see a pattern of family influence of a grandmother and mother and other members of the church, including an older mentor. Loise, Eunice, Paul, Timothy.
That reminds me of the people who influenced my faith as a child and teenager. If I started with the women as in Second Timothy, I'd have to name: Laurel–my mother, Marian & Evie two Sunday School teachers, Penny the Pastor at church camp, Anne & Sandy who led Bible School and Joy, my junior high youth pastor. Whose names would you include if you traced your faith inheritance? Who are the individuals, communities and traditions which have influenced you and helped you become the person you are today? Do you see yourself in this heritage passing on faith to others? Taking time to remember and give thanks for the people, rituals and institutions that have blessed us with faith is good preparation as we share the Lord's supper. Often when I receive the bread and cup I say: I remember. It's a way of acknowledging my ancestors in faith and remembering Jesus. Afterall, this meal of remembrance was established by Jesus for our faith formation.
Faith as a Gift
Our passage from Second Timothy also states clearly that faith is a gift from God. This verse sometimes brings me consolation and sometimes consternation. It seems like faith as a gift is good news, but I struggle with this as a pastor. Why is faith easier for some folks to receive and hard-won or never realized for others? One person believes that God's good plan for their lives and the whole world is unfolding even in the midst of personal pain and hardship. Another person struggles to believe that God is, that God's cares, that God loves. My pastoral responses don't usually resolve matters for those who struggle the most with faith, but as we learned in our church retreat regarding the ecology of faith formation, it's often more important to share the struggle and notice the opportunities for exercising mustard seeed faith.
CMC–Increase our Faith!
Community Mennonite Church has more than 560 mustard seeds. That's right, more than 560 people are currently relating to our congregation. To form faith for living in a world like ours and to live as a congregation requires calling people into church leadership. The CMC Leadership Task Force is recommending that we proceed in hiring a full-time associate pastor who would share pastoral responsibilities with Pastor Jason and me. Additionally, the Leadership Task Force is recommending that we hire a half-time Director of Children's Faith Formation to provide program leadership for children and junior high youth. This new position would support ministries like Sunday School, Bible School, Kids Club and also help us connect these to the rest of congregational life and worship, strengthening CMC's eco-system for faith formation. You'll be receiving a very brief survey, which we hope you'll complete in the next few days, so that Council will have your responses by their Thu meeting. We'll be asking whether you support this staffing direction. We'll also ask whether there are persons you want to nominate for particular leadership roles, especially a pastoral elder to begin in January and pastoral search committee members.
Power, Love and Self-Discipline
Listen to how the gift of faith is described in Second Timothy: God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power, and of love and of self-discipline. A spirit of power, love and self-discipline. Here is a mature faith to which we aspire. Jesus was a person of power, love and self-discipline. And the world needs to communities and churches of power, love and self-discipline.
Even if you're extremely cautious about the term, we need power. Certainly there are individuals and even streams within the church that have abused power. Yet, in this meal, we revisit the power of laying down one's life in order to bless others. In this meal we experience the power of forgiveness and are empowered to forgive others. At this table remembering how Jesus died on a cross, the false powers of political oppression and violence are exposed, so that we are liberated and can walk a path of peace. At this table we receive power to be a church–a new political community in Jesus' name. And at this table we are empowered to simply do the ordinary and extraordinary things we're called to do.
Second, true Christian faith is a spirit of love. Jesus considered the heart of Israel's law to be love–love of God and love of neighbor. Yesterday at the VA Mennonite Relief Sale we raised funds for relief, peace and development for neighbors we don't know and we connected with neighbors who share our faith in a spirit of love. As we call forth and seek out additional leaders for our congregation we do so with a spirit of love. The meal we share today was a gathering of leaders–some of whom would betray or deny Jesus–yet he loved them all. Broke bread and shared the cup with all in order to demonstrate his abiding love for us when we have failed to exercise or faith or have been afflicted with a spirit of cowardice or fear. As you eat and drink today, remember that you are loved.
Finally, the seed of faith, the inheritance of faith, the gift of faith is a spirit of self-discipline. In other words, we have some responsibility for exercising faith in our daily lives. A take it or leave it attitude with regard to faith, does not lead to maturity or wise and faithful leadership for the church. Participating in the life of the church, exercising our faith in the actual circumstances of our lives, doing what we're called to do takes self-discipline. Jesus broke bread with his friends dozens of times, but I imagine his last meal required some self-discipline. Now he knew their hearts–their plans to betray, their capacity to deny, their misguided aspirations and their basic fears. Jesus disciplined himself to share this meal and his very life with those who had mustard seed faith. Jesus knows us too. As we eat and drink together today Jesus is our faithful master who sends us to do ordinary and extraordinary things as church with a spirit of power, love and self-discipline.
Lord Jesus, we do want you to increase our faith. Though we feel inadequate at times, we want opportunities to exercise the mustard seed faith. Give us a spirit of power, love and self-discipline, so that we become your body united with all who draw near to you. We pray for the children and youth among us who are exploring faith, for adults who are new to the church or re-engaging their faith after a long dormant season. For each person here and for those not here this morning, but part of our congregation, we pray that Community Mennonite Church will be faithful in forming faith in your way, so that we can celebrate with the church around the world–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one living God. AMEN.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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