Sunday, October 6, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
source for slightly sacrilegious cover image
This is a pretty geeky way to begin a sermon, but here goes: Spiderman is the story of a boy named Peter Parker, a teenager with strange, spider-like powers. Peter was just leading a normal life, growing up with his Uncle Ben and his Aunt May, when of course one day, he is bitten by a radioactive spider and starts developing superpowers. As one does.
Anyway, Uncle Ben and Aunt May start noticing some changes in Peter – he starts pulling away from them, he gets into fights at school, he even joins a fighting ring to make money – and his aunt and uncle start to get worried about him. So one day, Uncle Ben sits Peter down for a little heart-to-heart chat – and what he says to him basically becomes the moral for the whole Spiderman universe. He tells him: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Uncle Ben doesn’t fully understand the changes that Peter is going through, but he does see that his nephew has some kind of gifts – gifts that he could be using to help the weak and vulnerable, but that instead he’s using for his own gain.
With great power comes great responsibility. I kept thinking of those words from Uncle Ben as I was reading through our texts for this week. At least two of our readings speak about the great power that we have been given – the power of faith. Granted, faith doesn’t give us flashy powers like being able to shoot webs out of our hands or leap tall buildings in a single bound – but I’d argue it’s still pretty awesome.
Faith gives us power to participate right now in the eternal life that we have been promised. Faith gives us x-ray vision to look through the distractions of this world to see God’s power at work for the good of all creation. Faith gives us super strength to keep on going and to help others keep on hoping even when we are feeling lost in grief or pain. Faith gives us endurance and persistence to keep on working to build God’s kingdom even when everything in the world seems set against it.
The author of 2 Timothy writes that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power” – “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” And he reminds Timothy that this power is rooted in faith and in the community of the faithful. “I am reminded of your sincere faith,” he writes, “a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Like many of us, Timothy’s spirit of power and love and self-discipline comes through the faith that has been passed down through the generations – from his grandmother to his mother, and finally to him. It’s a power with roots that run deep.
And then of course, our gospel reading for today has one of the most famous quotations in all of scripture about the power of faith. Jesus says to his disciples, “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 mean, I’m not sure what exactly Jesus has against mulberry trees, but you’ve got to admit that that is some pretty powerful faith!
Now, since we’ve already established that this is going to be a geeky sermon, I want to geek out with you just a little bit more. If you dig into the original Greek of this verse a little bit, you’ll find that this translation of Jesus’ words is not entirely accurate. Our translation reads, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” you’d be able to do these amazing things. But in reality, a more literal translation of this verse would read, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed.” It’s just a change in one word, but it really changes the way we hear what Jesus says. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed” sounds like Jesus is berating his disciples for not having enough faith – like their faith is pathetic, smaller than a tiny seed. But when we read it as “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” we realize that Jesus isn’t criticizing his disciples. Instead, he is actually reassuring the disciples about their faith.
At the beginning of this passage, we hear the disciples begging Jesus, “Increase our faith!” The path of discipleship can be challenging to follow, and that was certainly true for Jesus’ earliest followers. They worried that they didn’t have what it takes to truly be a disciple. And in response, Jesus tells them that they already have everything they need. Even if their faith is as small as a tiny mustard seed, God’s power can still work through it.
As someone who tries really hard to be even a halfway decent follower of Jesus, I find this really reassuring. Because, honestly, most days, I don’t feel particularly powerful. I don’t always feel like I have as much faith as I think I should. It helps to be reminded that even when my faith feels as tiny as a mustard seed, God can still do powerful things through me.
And also, as Uncle Ben reminds us, because of that faith and power, there is also responsibility. We have responsibilities. And that’s what the second part of our gospel reading is getting at. It’s hard to parse out the meaning of the illustration Jesus uses here, because it’s so jarring to hear Jesus talking about “worthless slaves.” (That could be a whole other sermon.) But essentially, Jesus is painting us as slaves or servants of God. God has commanded us to do certain things – to love our neighbor, to forgive one another, to welcome the stranger, to remember the sabbath – all kinds of things that humans are, frankly, not very good at. God asks us to do these things as part of our duty as disciples – not because we expect to get a gold star for it, but because it is what God expects of us. And while we know that we can count on God’s grace and mercy when we inevitably fall short, that grace does not mean that we get to stop trying.
Grace gives us the power to start over again each day with a clean slate. But it’s still up to us to step out – with whatever faith we’ve got – and keep on trying to walk the path that Jesus laid out for us. God calls us to do our best and to trust that, however small our faith may feel, God’s power can work incredible things through us.
This is something I think about quite a lot – the amazing things that faith can do when we decide to just buckle down and try. Last year, before you all called me, I know there was a lot of apprehension about whether this congregation could afford a full time pastor. And when you called me, I would imagine that you still weren’t super confident that you could pull it off. Yet you acted on the faith you had. And over a year later, I’m still here! And this congregation’s ministry is growing! It’s growing because you have a full-time person dedicated to helping it grow – but even more importantly, it’s growing because you have the courage to act on your faith, even when it feels small like a mustard seed. Like our second reading says, you have a spirit of courage and power, and not a spirit of cowardice. And that spirit continues to show in the response we’ve had so far to our Fall Harvest fundraiser – look at all those pumpkins up there!
You all understand the great responsibility that comes with great power. And I trust you to keep on doing your best to walk the path of discipleship that God calls us to walk. And I also hope that you find reassurance in Jesus’ words that great power can come through faith, even when that faith maybe isn’t as great. Through faith, God enables us to make truly awesome things happen. And we don’t even have to get bitten by radioactive spiders to do it!