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Proper 22 / Pentecost 17 / Ordinary Time 27

Preaching
Lectionary Preaching Workbook
Series VII, Cycle C
Theme For The Day
Faith is an unfailing source of spiritual power that we can tap into in difficult times.

Old Testament Lesson
Lamentations 1:1-6
The Lonely City
The poems of Lamentations are traditionally attributed to Jeremiah (hence their location in the Bible immediately following this larger prophetic book) -- although most scholars now agree that these poems were written by others. Their historical setting is the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple, following the Babylonian invasion. They are the songs of a defeated and dispirited people, who are trying, against difficult odds, to carry on divine worship. "How lonely sits the city ... how like a widow she has become!" The once free and independent city, the holy city of Yahweh, "has become a vassal" (v. 1). The one who has caused this suffering is Yahweh (v. 5), but the people are clearly responsible -- for it is their apostasy that has led them down the road to misery.

New Testament Lesson
2 Timothy 1:1-14
True And False Teaching
The author of this letter is writing to a church beset with the problem of false teachers. "Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me," he says in verse 13 -- a verse which summarizes the principal concern of the letter. The mention of "the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands" (v. 6) is a reference to ordination -- a concept completely absent from the genuinely Pauline letters, and one which reflects this late document's concern with establishing and maintaining the church's organizational structures. A possible three-point sermon is outlined in verse 7: the Spirit's gifts of power, love, and self-discipline as over against "a spirit of cowardice." The reference to shame in verse 8 reflects the experience of this church in encountering stiff opposition and even persecution: the letter is an exhortation to perseverance through difficult times.

The Gospel
Luke 17:5-10
Teachings On Faith And Obedience
This passage is part of a larger selection of four miscellaneous teachings of Jesus (vv. 1-10) which have little relationship to one another. There are two distinct teachings in today's lectionary selection: verses 5-6, on faith; and verses 7-10, on obedience. Both are mini-parables. Although it can be debated whether or not Jesus himself presented these teachings as a single unit, Luke has chosen to present them in this way. The two earlier teachings (vv. 1-2, on sinning against brothers and sisters; and vv. 3-4, on the need to forgive) demonstrate the difficulty of the Christian life. It is no wonder, therefore, that the disciples plead that the Lord increase their faith (v. 5). Jesus deflects their entreaty, portraying faith as a force so powerful that even the tiniest amount of it is more than sufficient to perform wonders. He is saying that they should not be preoccupied with increasing their faith, because even the tiniest amount of it is more than enough. The particular type of conditional phrase he uses here ("If you had faith ...") implies that the disciples do in fact already possess that faith. In verses 7-10, he puts the disciples in their place, reminding them that they are servants of God, and are expected to perform servant duties. This message is a hard sell in our individualistic, freedom-loving culture, but is worth presenting all the same, since it is a theme repeated often throughout the gospels. The use of the word "apostles" in verse 5 (rather than "disciples") reveals Luke's concern with the church of his own day.

Preaching Possibilities
When the disciples ask Jesus about faith, he often has a way of deflecting their questions -- not avoiding them exactly, but answering them indirectly through the use of parables. One of Jesus' shortest parables is the parable of the mustard seed, but just because it's short doesn't make it easy to understand.

"Increase our faith!" the disciples demand of their master. In response, Jesus says to them, "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" (Luke 17:6). The mustard seed is among the tiniest of seeds. If we were holding one in the palm of the hand, we might miss seeing it, unless it were in the company of others. Yet Jesus says even this tiny morsel of faith is all that's needed to uproot a mighty tree.

There's no reason to think Jesus is scolding the disciples, here; criticizing them for their lack of faith. The original Greek contains no hint of criticism. It's as though he's saying, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed -- and you do -- that faith is more than enough to uproot a mighty tree!" So when the disciples come to their Lord and demand, "Increase our faith!" Jesus' response is, "You've already got all the faith you need -- even a mustard-seed measure is more than enough!"

This image Jesus uses -- emphasizing the power of the small -- is something like nuclear fusion, that holy grail of theoretical physicists. The sort of atomic power unleashed by the atomic bomb -- and that generates electricity in our nuclear power plants today -- is nuclear fission. It costs a fortune to begin that kind of nuclear reaction, and the outcome is inherently unstable and dangerous. A nuclear fusion reaction, by contrast -- if the scientists can ever figure out how to pull it off -- would be safe, stable, and inexpensive. It uses hydrogen atoms (found everywhere), rather than the rare and expensive uranium. It derives its energy from combining sub-atomic particles, rather than splitting them.

In teaching about the power locked inside a mustard-seed measure of faith, Jesus is speaking of a sort of faith fusion. Activate the tiniest fragment of faith, he's saying, and we can accomplish things undreamed of! Faith, for him, is a sort of spiritual power or energy, that's available in abundance. When the disciples ask him to increase their supply of faith, his kidding reply is meant to be comfortable and affirming: "What for?" he asks. "Even that tiny bit of faith you characters carry around with you is more than enough!"

There are times in life when we would eagerly make the same demand of Jesus: "Increase our faith!" There are times in life -- seasons of challenge and suffering -- when we may be tempted to roll our eyes heavenward and sigh aloud, "If only I had more faith!" What Jesus is saying in those situations of trial and challenge, is that it's not more faith we need; we just need to take the faith we've already been given and deploy it more effectively.

When, coming to the Lord's table, we take into our hands a tiny morsel of bread, or drink from the cup of sacramental wine, it may seem like what we're holding in our hands is insignificant and inconsequential. It's ordinary stuff, that bread and wine -- no different in substance from what might sit on our dinner table at home. Yet, like the atom of hydrogen that's transformed by nuclear fusion into a blaze of power, that bread and that cup have the ability to transform our lives in astonishing ways. There is nothing magical about the material stuff of the communion elements. It's all about the power we Christians call the Holy Spirit, that activates them in our lives.

Jesus said to his disciples that a mustard-sized morsel of faith is more than enough to uproot a mighty tree and cast it into the sea. There's no telling what a cube of communion bread or a sip of communion wine can do, for people of faith who come to the Lord's table hungry and searching for what our host has prepared for us.

Prayer For The Day
We know, O Lord,
that we're not supposed to make our faith into a work:
yet time and again, we do exactly that.
Help us, in these sacred moments of worship and prayer,
to relax ...
to let go ...
to simply trust in your remarkable ability to flow into and through our hearts,
inspiring us,
empowering us,
saving us.
For we ask it in the name of Christ,
who bids us come.
Amen.

To Illustrate
A number of years ago, the well-known preacher Henry Drummond preached a classic sermon titled "The Greatest Thing in the World." Drummond concluded his sermon with a bit of a school-science-project illustration. If you place a piece of iron, he said, in the presence of an electrified field, that piece of iron itself will become electrified. In the presence of that electrical field, it's changed into a magnet. As long as it remains in contact with that field of electromagnetic power, it will attract other pieces of iron to itself.

Many of us can remember how to make electromagnets, from elementary-school science class. You take an old iron nail, wrap a piece of wire around it, and attach both ends of the wire to the terminals of a dry-cell battery. In no time at all, that electrified nail is attracting all manner of paper clips, thumbtacks, and iron filings.

Is the nail itself changed? Not one bit. It's the power flowing through it that makes the difference.

That's the way it is with faith. We all have it; but every so often, we doubt that we have it. We get all introspective, and ask ourselves, "Where's the faith? Do I still have it? Did I lose it? If so, can I find it again?"

Is it even possible to "lose" faith? It seems doubtful. Faith isn't a possession of ours in the first place. It's a spiritual power that originates with God and comes to us as a gift. What we must do, in a season of doubt, is to hook ourselves up to God's battery terminals, so the surge of spiritual energy will flow into us -- and, through us, to others.

***

Not a single one of the new powers discovered by [humanity] possesses any redeeming force. Neither fire, nor steam, nor explosives, nor electricity, nor atomic energy can change [human] nature. The greatest force ever bestowed on [the human race] streamed forth in blood and sweat and tears and death on Calvary ... when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on the cross. It was a power so great that it shattered the last fortress -- death. It was a power so great that it made atonement for all the sin of all the world. It was a power so great that it provided for those who would accept it the ability to live victoriously like children of God, in fellowship with him who made the world and the sun, the moon and the stars. It was power that would enable believers to do the mighty works of Christ, and to experience, flowing in and through their own lives, the energy of God. Here is a power so tremendous that with it nothing is impossible; and without it, nothing we do has any eternal value or significance.
-- Peter Marshall, in a sermon written not long after the discovery of nuclear power

***

In the Christian vision, one Greek word has consistently characterized the Holy Spirit: dynamis from which we get our word dynamite. The Spirit is Power, the Spirit is dynamite.
-- Walter J. Burghardt

***

Power can be used in at least two ways: it can be unleashed, or it can be harnessed. The energy in ten gallons of gasoline, for instance, can be released explosively by dropping a lighted match into the can. Or it can be channeled through the engine of a Honda in a controlled burn and used to transport a person 350 miles. Explosions are spectacular, but controlled burns have lasting effect, staying power. The Holy Spirit works both ways.

At Pentecost, he exploded on the scene; his presence was like "tongues of fire" (Acts 2:3). Thousands were affected by one burst of God's power. But he also works through the church -- the institution God began to tap the Holy Spirit's power for the long haul. Through worship, fellowship, and service, Christians are provided with staying power.
-- Anonymous

***

A seeker challenged Imam Sadiq, "Convince me of the existence of God."

Knowing that the man had traveled the seas, the Imam asked him, "Have you ever been caught in a fierce storm in the middle of a voyage, your rudder gone, your sails torn, your vessel in danger of capsizing, and no land in sight?"

The man replied, "Yes."

The Imam then asked him, "Yet was not there always, despite your black despair, a glimmer of hope in your heart that someone, somewhere -- some unnamed and unknown power -- could still save you?"

"Yes," the man answered again.

To which the Imam replied, "That power is God."
-- Beliefnet.com

***

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
-- C. S. Lewis
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For January 29, 2023:

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“Nice sign,” Kevin said from beside her. “Where did they come up with those sayings?”

She turned to him. “They’re words of Jesus from the Bible called the Beatitudes.”

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The Village Shepherd

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Call to Worship:
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the people how they could be blessed by God and experience God's kingdom. In our worship today let us explore the Sermon on the Mount.

Invitation to Confession:
Jesus, sometimes I'm full of pride instead of being poor in spirit.
Lord, have mercy.
Jesus, sometimes I'm overbearing and pushy, instead of being meek.
Christ, have mercy.
Jesus, sometimes I'm not exactly pure in heart.
Lord, have mercy.

Reading:

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Who may dwell on your holy hill?
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