Proper 22C Sermon (2010)

Proper 22 (October 2-8)
Texts: Luke 17:3-10;
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4


“Increase our faith!” cry out the disciples. What do we think they were asking for? What do we think of when we hear the word faith? Do we think they’re asking to believe harder? That faith is mostly about believing a certain way? In our age of science, believing is a lesser form of knowing. We pose faith against scientific knowing in such a way that faith seems to be losing out. “Increase our faith!” cry out the disciples. And we say, “Yea, us, too!”

“Increase our faithfulness!” cry out the disciples. “Faithfulness” is a better translation than “faith” of the original biblical word. “Increase our faithfulness!” cry out the disciples. And now what are we talking about? We’re talking about human relationships, aren’t we? We’re talking about a relationship kind of knowing instead of a scientific knowing. I know Jesus, and Jesus knows me. Increase my faithfulness in that kind of knowing, the kind of knowing that our world needs a lot more of, for husbands and wives and children to be more faithful to each other — for employees and employers to be more faithful, business people and clients, neighbors, fellow citizens, children of God in this global village. We don’t need more faith, which in the terms of today’s scientific knowledge, seems like a lacking of that knowledge. We need more faithfulness to each other as human beings that we might live together in peace. “Increase our faithfulness!” cry out the disciples. And we say, “Yea, us, too!”

Have you ever realized that faithfulness in a relationship brings its own kind of knowing? Scientific knowing has almost garnered a monopoly on knowing, since it does so well in helping us to control our environment in the material world. But control won’t do in the relationship kind of knowing. When I endeavor to know other people, it is not to seek to control them — at least not in the relationship kind of knowing called love. We seek to know our spouses not to control them but to support them as we go through life together, that we may both flourish together.

So we might ask: is scientific knowledge really the superior kind of knowledge as it seeks to control the material world? Where has that gotten us in terms of our relationship to the environment? Or does scientific knowledge need more of that relationship kind of knowledge? In other words, love? How would that change the scientist’s the work if he or she truly loves that which they are seeking to know?

And we haven’t even gotten to the greatest benefit of the relationship kind of knowing, namely, that you and I may be known by someone who loves us. At the end of his great love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul is talking about the loving kind of knowledge at the end times. “Now I know only in part,” he says; “then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The truest grace in life is to have someone know you by loving you.

One of my favorite lines in a movie is in one Ellen and I like to watch together, titled Shall We Dance? (Since I usually answer that question, “Shall we dance?” with a “no,” Ellen at least gets me to watch the movie.) Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere play a married couple, and Sarandon’s character says of marriage,

We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.’

To be loved is to be known by someone, to have your life witnessed. It’s not just spouses that do that for each other, or parents for children. But God loves us in a complete way so that we are fully known. That’s what God promises little Hudson in baptism this morning, and as we sing “Borning Cry”: “I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old.”

“Increase our faithfulness!” cry out the disciples. We have talked about this faith in terms of relationships instead of believing, a love-kind of knowing instead of a scientific kind of knowing. But there is a more specific context that we should attend to. The disciples cry out for increased faithfulness right after Jesus has given them a challenging picture of forgiveness. Let’s say a family member keeps wounding you with hurtful words. But they also keep apologizing. You need to keep forgiving them, says Jesus. Now we can see why the disciples ask Jesus for greater faithfulness. It takes great faithfulness to keep forgiving someone who keeps hurting you!

Actually, Jesus doesn’t just say that the other person keeps apologizing. He says the other person repeatedly repents — which doesn’t really make sense. Repent typically means that you turn your behavior around. You stop doing the offending behavior. So how can a person repent and keep doing something? It doesn’t make complete sense.

But we are familiar with addictive behaviors, where a person truly wants to repent, to change their behavior. They seek to do so. But they keep relapsing. I suppose Jesus could have something like that in mind. But that makes the forgiveness at issue a very complicated business. How often does a spouse forgive a continuously relapsing addict? Or worse, an abuser? At some point we counsel a partner to separate, or even divorce, and to remove one’s self from harm’s way. But then what might forgiveness mean in that kind of situation? That you still love the person and wish them well, even if you now lead more separate lives? Yes, forgiveness is a very complicated business! And these few words from Jesus about forgiveness evoke the disciples’ response for Jesus to help us with our faithfulness. We need his power of faithfulness to even begin to forgive others as he forgives us.

In fact, our ways of trying to sort through the complexities of forgiveness are meaningless for Jesus himself. He doesn’t just forgive us every time we repent. He forgives us before we repent. He forgives us so that we can repent. At the early service this morning, we began with the Order for Confession and Forgiveness as we often do, except I reversed it. We heard the promise of forgiveness first and then confessed our sin as the first step of repentance. At the late service we began by baptizing little Hudson Reidinger, hearing and witnessing God’s cleansing bath of forgiveness before Hudson is really old enough to sin. Some traditions of Christians say that you have to repent before you receive that baptismal promise of forgiveness. We make clear the fact that in Jesus God loves us and forgives us before we ever have the chance to repent and begin loving God back. It’s God’s unconditional grace which empowers us to repent and love. On the cross, Jesus forgives those who kill him while they continue to do it.

Yes, forgiveness for us can often be a very complicated and difficult business — in some most difficult cases, when we’re deeply betrayed and wounded, forgiveness can be a lifelong journey. And if we are to continue to seek to be instruments of God’s peace through forgiving others, the grace for our journey is that our being able to forgive others at all, always begins with the fact and the promise that we are forgiven first. “Increase our faithfulness” means being able to forgive others and ourselves. That’s true grace for our journey. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, October 3, 2010

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