Fr. Bill Carroll – The Seveneenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 2, 2022
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The righteous shall live by their faith.” These words are written in the book of the prophet Habakkuk. The Apostle Paul appeals to them in his letters, and they became a battle cry in the sixteenth-century Reformation. They were originally preached by a Hebrew prophet at the height of the power of Babylon. Soon, that empire would invade Jerusalem, destroy the Temple, and drive the Jews into exile.
“The righteous shall live by their faith.”
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus gives us another image of faith. His disciples ask him to increase their faith. And Jesus replies with the famous image of the mustard seed: “If you had faith as great as a mustard seed,” he says, “nothing would be impossible for you.”
And so, faith moves mountains and uproots trees. Faith changes things. (I’ve seen it.) But I am also worried about the ways we are tempted to appeal to our faith, in order to evade reality. Magical thinking is the enemy of biblical faith.
Recently, I was reading a book by Tish Harrison Warren called Prayer in the Night. And she tells the story of a congregation she once belonged to, where one of the children died by drowning. At the funeral, her pastor at the time said, “You cannot trust God to keep bad things from happening to you.” It is a hard saying, and one that many would find hard to accept. But, at the end of the day, it is true. Think about what it would imply if it weren’t true. Every time something bad happened to us, we would have to think that something was wrong with our faith.
The problem of evil haunts many of us. Why does the all-good, all-powerful God allow us to suffer? I don’t think there’s a theory out there that will satisfy anyone who has seriously asked that question. We can argue about it in a philosophy class—or maybe a theology class—but our answers (even the very best answers) won’t do us any good. What faith gives us is an almighty, loyal friend and Savior, who loves us and has our back—who will never, ever abandon us. In the end, God’s answer to suffering is Jesus Christ with us in our flesh.
Just think about who he is for a moment. Jesus is a good and righteous man, who is also God-with-us in the flesh. He went about healing people, forgiving sins, and showing us how to love. He proclaimed and embodied the nearness and the mercy of God. He preached about the Kingdom. And, for his trouble, we put him to death. As Paul once put it, “God did not spare his own Son.” But what God did do is to send us Jesus. God joined us here in the muck and the mess of our lives. He humbled himself and “lived and died as one of us.” And then, he rose victorious from the dead, offering us new life and a fresh start—offering eternal life to all who put our trust in him.
In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther glosses the first commandment in a way that has always made sense to me:
You shall have no other gods [before me] (he writes). That is, you shall regard me alone as your God. What does this mean (he asks), and how is it to be understood? What is it to have a god? What is God? A god (he continues) is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said [to you], the trust and faith of the heart alone makes both God and an idol.
And so, whatever we make of Jesus’s teaching on faith and prayer, we need to avoid the magical view. Real faith works by opening us up to the presence of God. Faith means we “trust and believe God with our whole heart.” So that Jesus himself, by the gift of the Spirit, lives in us, fills us with his love, and unites us with his Father.
As I’ve thought and prayed about the Gospel this week, I found myself remembering the time we lived in Sewanee, at the University of the South. It was a difficult time, in a community with many challenges. But one of the joys of living there was getting to know some people who’d been involved in the Civil Rights Movement locally. At the nearby Highlander Folk School, many people in the Movement received training in socially-transformative non-violence, including both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.
And some of the junior faculty at the time—young professors without tenure—got involved in the NAACP lawsuits to integrate the local schools. These white families (some Christians, others Jews) worked side-by-side with Black families struggling for freedom and equality. It was an incredibly brave thing to do.
But, even when they finally won in court, they were told they would have to wait—that there was no room at the school for the new children who were now supposed to go there.
And so what did these families do? Well, they took out second mortgages on their own homes. They were willing to risk financial ruin to fund construction of new school buildings, so that children of all races and backgrounds could live and learn together.
It took great faith for them to do this. But faith didn’t guarantee success. It could have gotten very ugly. People could have been fired (even killed) for their trouble. And yet, these young families, just starting out in life, trusted God and did the right thing.
That is what real faith is like: “The righteous shall live by their faith.”
Many of us—perhaps most of us, if we’ve lived long enough—have encountered suffering. Maybe somebody we love has died. Maybe we’ve lost a job. Maybe we’ve experienced a trauma that we can’t forget—or done something we can’t take back.
In times like these, there are no easy answers. What matters is the friend and Savior, the God who takes our side—and the love and solidarity of the people God puts in our lives. It is the hug or the hand on the shoulder. It is the gift of presence and shared tears. And it is the risks that we are willing to take for each other.
These actions have eternal significance. Like the mustard seed, they are often, though not always, small. And, like Jesus on the Cross, they have a power and a wisdom that our naked eyes sometimes fail to see.
But we walk by faith, not by sight. And “the righteous shall live by their faith.”