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Pentecost 17  Proper 22C October 6, 2019

Lamentations 1:1-6
Lamentations 3:19-26
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

In our opening reading from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the worst has happened. Jerusalem has been conquered. Most of her people have been deported to Babylon.  The holy city is portrayed as a mother whose children have been taken away. This was one of the most devastating events in the history of God’s people.

Psalm 137 expresses the deep sorrow of God’s people during this tragic time: “By the waters of  Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.”

During the Exile, some people were assimilated into the surrounding population, but some of God’s people kept the faith, re-examined the scriptures, remained faithful in prayer, built a strong spiritual community, and looked forward to the time when they could return home and rebuild. The other passage from Lamentations which we are using as our psalm today describes their hope and faith. Out of that time of exile they emerged stronger and more resilient than ever. “The Lord is my portion,”says my soul,“therefore I will hope in him.”

Our gospel for today is challenging. Why are the disciples asking our Lord to increase their faith? Between last Sunday’s gospel and our text for today, there is a short passage which has been left out of our readings. In that passage, Jesus is telling us that we have to be careful that we do not cause our brothers and sisters to stumble. He says it would be better if a millstone were tied around our necks and we were thrown into the sea than if we caused someone to falter in their faith. In that same brief passage, Jesus tells us that we have to confront a brother or sister if he or she sins, and that we must forgive our brother or sister if he or she sins. He says that if a member of our faith community sins seven times a day and asks us forgiveness seven times, we have to forgive that person seven times a day.

Now we can see why the disciples are asking our Lord to increase their faith. He is calling us not to put stumbling blocks in each others’ way, to confront those who sin, and to forgive those who sin. We might summarize this by saying that, in a healthy Christian community, we support each other, we confront folks when they sin, and we forgive others when they sin. This is a demanding set of expectations.

No wonder the disciples asked for more faith. But then our Lord says that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea. In Matthew, he says we could take a mountain and throw it into the sea. As daunting as his call is to support each other and confront each other and forgive each other, he is telling us that our faith is sufficient to meet this demand.

Then he tells this parable. He begins by asking which one of us would look at our servant who has just come in from plowing or tending the sheep and ask that servant to come in and sit at the table and be served dinner. But then our Lord points out that we would not invite the servant to supper. Rather, we would ask the servant to prepare and serve the supper. But then suddenly there is another one of those reversals and we are the servants. We are only doing what God has asked us to do—support each other, guide and confront each other, and forgive each other. We are the servants of God.

This is a very tall order. We can understand why the disciples asked our Lord for more faith. Yet Jesus is telling us we have all the gifts we need and all the faith we need to be a healthy Christian community.

At this point, we can turn to our passage from the First Letter to Timothy and get some good, solid help. Scholars tell us that Timothy had survived some kind of adversity. We do not know exactly what the challenge was, but scholars tell us that Paul or one of his disciples was writing to encourage his young disciple and protegé. If this was written by Paul, it was toward the end of his ministry and he was in prison. Paul was someone who had faced all kinds of challenges—shipwrecks, beatings, ridicule, prison, on and on. If there was anyone who had been through adversity, it was Paul.

In this letter, Paul reminds Timothy of his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, who nurtured him in the faith. How much we depend on our ancestors in the faith, that great cloud of witnesses who cheer us on.

And then Paul writes something that will stand the test of all time and every challenge: “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” The King James translation reads, “For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

God has given us a spirit of power, not to put obstacles in peoples’ way, but to welcome others and share God’s love with them. God has given us a spirit of love to encourage each other and to confront each other if we see each other going astray. God has given us a spirit of discipline, a sound mind to discern what thoughts and actions are in harmony with God’s will and what thoughts and actions are contrary to what God is calling us to do and be. In short, God has given us everything we need to be God’s loving community.  Amen.

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