• Oops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree – Luke 17.5-19

    First: Believe

    Faith begins with trusting that “God’s got this.”

    Anyone knows an ant can't move a rubber tree plant. But if he’s got high hopes, high apple pie, in the sky hopes... before you know it, faith changes things and – oops, there goes another rubber tree plant.

    Jesus said that a big tree could be moved with just a little faith. He was using figurative language. Jesus never performed pointless miracles, only those that healed and taught. He isn’t interested in teaching us underwater tree trimming. He’s just making a point: a little faith goes a very, very long way. A droplet is as good as an ocean. Everyone knows that a normal person can’t move a rooted tree even a fraction of an inch. But a person of faith knows that God can. 

    The apostles make an unusual request: “Increase our faith.” The boys were mistaken about the way faith works. They speak about faith as though it is something that can be counted or quantified, like grain in a storehouse or loose change in your pocket. Or maybe they thought faith could be increased the way the cable company increases your bandwidth. But Jesus doesn’t allow them to continue in that train of thought for very long. 

    In reality, faith is not something you can stockpile or add to. We either have it we don’t. It’s more like a light switch: a little on is all the way on. A little pregnant is all the way pregnant. A little fish and bread can feed thousands. A kernel of faith is enough to move a mountain. 

    How’s that possible? Because having faith simply opens the curtain for God to take the stage and give a command performance. Faith is the key that unlocks the door for God to step into our lives and do what only God can do. 

    There is a story in Mark’s gospel, in chapter nine, of a boy who is possessed by an unclean spirit that convulses him and throws him into the fire. The father of the boy comes to Jesus and makes a request that is almost the same as the apostles when they said, “increase our faith”:

    Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”

    Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9.23-24)

    And the boy is healed. The father experienced a great healing, even with his self-acknowledged smallish faith.

    Oops there goes another rubber tree plant. 

    If you remember that story, you'll note that the disciples came to Jesus afterward and asked, "Why couldn't we drive it out?" In other words, "Why couldn't we move that mountain?"

    Jesus responds by telling them that this kind of mountain can only be moved by prayer and fasting. What are prayer and fasting but applied excercises in self-denial? Praying and fasting are how we get out of God's way so that He can work. The disciples could not heal the boy because they were in the way. Their faith was too self-reliant and not God-reliant enough. If they had gotten out of the way - as prayer and fasting require us to do - they would have seen the boy's healing.

    In today’s reading we have a profound example of the simple, uncomplicated, mustard seed kind of faith God is looking for: the healing of ten lepers were not unusually religious or especially pious people. They plainly understood that Jesus could somehow help them, and so they yelled across the street, “Jesus, Master, Have mercy on us!” 

    Oops there goes another rubber tree plant.

    Simple faith – not elaborate religion or presumptuous spirituality – unlocked the door for Jesus  to change everything. The leper’s uncomplicated faith uprooted his disease and cast it into the sea. He simply trusted and obeyed, and gave loud glory to God. No surplus stockpile of faith or excess inventory required. We need only trust and obey.

    “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18.14)

    Second: Act

    Faith becomes practical when we step out in obedience. (I missed the word “becomes” in the bulletin).

    It is not enough to say we believe and then do nothing about it. That is not faith; it is merely philosophy. Jesus is not a man of words alone, but he is also a man of action. From beginning to end, the Scriptures are clear: God is not satisfied with our belief unless it drives us to action. 

    James asks us: which is real faith? Seeing a starving man on the side of the road and offering him our prayers alone? Or offering prayers and a hot meal? Obviously, prayers are a good start, but they mean nothing if they are not accompanied by action. 

    If we pray without acting, it is as if we, the servants, are telling God, our master, to do the work he has told us to do. Instead of serving Him, we too often demand that He serve us. We ask what our God can do for us, rather than what we can do for our God. 

    What is prayer for, if not to receive direction from God about what we are to do each day? When we intercede, pray for, the needs of others, we must also remember to ask, “Lord, how can I serve you today by serving them?”  

    May we never become so heavenly minded that we do no earthly good.

    “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” (James 2.26)

    Finally: Give God the Glory

    Faith is fulfilled  in worship.

    The Samaritan returned to give praise to Jesus with loud and perhaps embarrassingly boisterous praise. It was in all likelihood socially awkward for the man, but he did not care, because God had healed him. How can any of us keep silent when God does something so wonderful in our lives? We ask ourselves, “What will people think when they hear tat I’m a Jesus freak? What will people do when they find out it’s true?”  When it comes to giving credit to God for the great things he has done, we must completely forget about the opinions others might have about us. To deny God the glory for the work he has done out of fear that we might be considered a Jesus freak is to give of our worship to the world and the dirty devil instead, and they have done nothing for us but attempt to steal, kill, and destroy our lives. Lord, open our lips that we might speak forth thy praise, not just here in this small sanctuary, but in the entire sanctuary of your creation, at work, at school, and in the public square. If we refuse to tell of what he has done, dumb rocks and mindless trees will enter His courts ahead of us. We must not stand silent. We do not stand alone. 

    “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
        you have loosed my sackcloth
        and clothed me with gladness,
    that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
        O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!”
    (Psalm 30.11-12)

    No More Ooze

    It is pure speculation, and perhaps dangerous to think this, but I wonder if the basically unqualified, largely uneducated -- and certainly unrefined -- Apostles were feeling self-conscious in the presence of the mighty Pharisees. After all, they were just a short time before this ragtag fishermen, outlaws, and tax cheats. Maybe when they said, “increase our faith”, what they really meant was, “We want to ooze spirituality like the Pharisees do.”

    Oozy spirituality piles on rituals and recitations, calendars of ordinary time and special times, pilgrimages and prescribed prayers. These may be helpful in the way that a pattern is helpful when making a dress or blueprints are helpful when building a house. But patterns are not dresses, and blueprints are not houses, and ritualized religion is not faith.

    I should point out that prescribed prayers and seasonal reflections can be very helpful in developing our faith. I only mean to say that we must be careful not to mistake the pattern for faith itself.

    Faith cannot be added to, as the apostles assume, it can only be demonstrated moment by moment. We get no faith “extra credit” today for obeying yesterday. We cannot rest on our laurels. The faith we exercised by obeying God yesterday when all was smooth sailing is not the faith we must exercise today, when the tide is rising against us.

    Each day, each moment is an opportunity to trust and obey and to glorify God. There is no storehouse to increase or surplus to rely on. Faith has no leftovers. Faith only exists as we act now. The unworthy servant does it reflexively. The outcast leper doesn’t muddy the water with a bunch of questions: he just does what Jesus says, and finds healing.

    Faith is something special, but nothing fancy or complicated. It is not pretentious or flashy. It simply believes and acts. Do you need to uncomplicate your faith? You have but to trust and obey, and always remember to give God all the glory.

     
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