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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

It's a Small, Small Faith

Luke 17:5-10 “It’s a Small, Small Faith”

James McTyre

Worldwide Communion Sunday

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

You saw the title of today’s sermon, “It’s a Small, Small Faith,” and what did it remind you of? Walt Disney’s song and ride, “It’s a Small World.” Some people have called it “the most annoying song ever written.” No, no. The most annoying song ever written was the closing hymn a couple of Sundays ago. Man, did I get an earful as you were going out the door. Sorry. My bad. But in its native Norwegian, it’s a real toe-tapper. I don’t know if “It’s a Small World” is really as annoying as people say it is, but I do know it’s going to be in your heads now, like a virus. All I had to do was mention the title and today at lunch, you’re going to be hearing it in your mind, over, and over. And over. It just sticks.

Walt Disney built a place called the Magic Kingdom. He called it “the happiest place on earth.” It’s undeniably one of the best-run, happy places ever built. Especially if you’ve got kids, it’s the place where dreams come true. It’s a kingdom filled with magic.

Sometimes we confuse faith with magic. We confuse the power of faith with the power to work magic, the power to make our own little magic kingdoms out of the world. And then, when the magic doesn’t happen, when we’re not the happiest people on earth, when our dreams don’t come true – we figure there must be something wrong with faith… or with us. Jesus said that with even the tiniest seeds of faith, we can work miracles. You can work miracles, with whatever amount of faith you have, large or small. Leave the magic to Disney. Celebrate your small, small faith.


Jesus said, “If you had faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree to pull itself up, roots and all, and to plant itself in the ocean. And it would!”

That’s Luke’s version of the story. The Apostle Matthew’s version is like Luke on steroids. In Matthew’s telling, Jesus says, “If you told this MOUNTAIN to move, it would.”

This is one of those scriptures that just “sticks” in peoples’ heads. It’s part of our culture. You hear people, religious or not, talking about “moving mountains.” (Sorry, Luke, but nobody but gardeners talk about moving mulberry trees. Not such a universal image.)

This is one of those things I wish Jesus had said another way. I think he meant it to be encouraging. I think he meant it to say, “You don’t need me to increase your faith, you just need to use what you’ve got.” That’s encouraging, and that’s how I think Jesus meant his saying to be taken. But in my experience as a pastor, that’s not what sticks in peoples’ minds. What I’ve found sticks in peoples’ minds are a couple of annoying ideas. (Not annoying to me; but annoying to people who have this verse running over and over in their heads.)

First, the idea that if you have faith, you can do magic. The idea that if you have even the tiniest faith, you can perform amazing feats of superhuman strength. The idea that if you believe in Jesus you have supernatural powers not available to everyone else.

I wonder if one of the disciples hung around after Jesus and everyone else left. I wonder if the disciple stood there staring at the mulberry tree – or the mountain – saying, “Move!” Just to test what Jesus had said. And I wonder what that disciple thought the next time Jesus said anything. “Jesus was wrong about the mulberry tree. And now he thinks loving your enemies is going to work, too?” I know people who have either given up on faith, or are annoyed by faith, because they heard something about moving mountains and their faith hasn’t given them the promised ability to create their own magic kingdoms.

The other thing that annoys people about this saying is that they take it as proof that they don’t have even a mustard seed’s worth of faith. They think they believe, they think they have faith in the power of Christ, they pray – maybe a little, maybe a lot – and nothing changes. If all you know about faith is that if you have even a tiny pinch of it you can move trees and mountains, then the fact that your prayers didn’t cure someone’s disease, didn’t get you what you wanted, didn’t move a mountain, a tree, or a shrub – is proof that your faith must not be very good. When God was handing out faith, you got the defective packet. Your prayers weren’t poetic enough. You THOUGHT you had faith, but apparently, you didn’t really, truly believe with you whole heart and mind and soul. You let doubt creep into your mind, and because of your own weakness, your faith won’t work.

I think both of those interpretations of this scripture are wrong. That faith is like magic, and that failures of faith are your own darn fault – I think both of those are about as far away from Jesus’ message of encouragement as you can get. If you get either or both of these ideas stuck in your head, your faith is discouraged. Discouraging faith was NEVER what Jesus meant to do.

I think what Jesus was trying to get across to us is that if you have even small, small faith – and if you let that small, small faith roll around, over and over and over in your head (and in your heart), that faith – not you and your powers, necessarily – but that faith is enough. That small, small faith can do great things. Just the tiniest bit of inspiration can work miracles. Just the tiniest bit of faith can work miracles on you.


If faith isn’t magic, and if it doesn’t depend on your skill or your confidence, how does faith work? Is there some secret formula to faith that some people just “get” and some people don’t?

If you put this saying about faith moving mulberry trees back in its context, I think what Jesus is saying comes clearer. I think Jesus is saying faith is not a tool. Faith is not a possession. Faith is not something you can measure. Instead, faith is an attitude. Faith is an attitude.

Jesus doesn’t just walk along one day and see a mulberry tree and tell his disciples, “If faith the size of a mustard seed you had, move that mulberry tree, you could.” Reminds me of Master Yoda levitating Luke’s fighter. Faith is not The Force. Jesus is not a Jedi. No, the context for this saying is Jesus telling his disciples that they have to forgive people who sin against them. He tells them, “If someone mistreats you, or sins against you, seven times in one day, and then comes and asks forgiveness, you have to forgive them.” And they say, “Lord, increase our faith!” Wrong answer. It reads like their response really annoys the heck out of Jesus. It reads as if he’s spitting back at them, saying, “What? You think forgiving is hard? If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” And then he goes on with the rest of the passage, “When the servant comes in from plowing… [and] when you’ve done all you should, say, ‘We are merely servants. We have merely done our duty.’” Jesus is shaming the disciples for thinking their faith isn’t enough.

It doesn’t matter how strong your faith is. It doesn’t matter if your faith makes you the happiest person on earth. It doesn’t matter if you like following the commands of Jesus. Show a little faith in God’s faith in you. Celebrate the tiny bit you’ve got instead of wishing you had more. Faith isn’t measured by achievement or acclaim or respect. Faith is an attitude. Faith is an attitude that says, “Here I am, send me.” Faith doesn’t say, “Oh, gee, Lord. Could you wait until I get in shape? Until I lose ten pounds and read my Bible a little more?” Faith says, “I may not be much, but if God wants to use me, I’ll go.”

I wish we could get out of our heads the virus of an idea that with faith, we’re supposed to perform miracles. The word of emphasis there is, perform. As if faith, or miracles, are some sort of performance, done to make people or God say, “Ooh, ahh.” I think it’s truer to Jesus’ teaching to say, with faith we can participate IN miracles. We don’t perform them, we work with them. I think it’s truer to Jesus to say, with faith we can see miracles as miracles. In faith we can see miracles as miracles of God, not just coincidence or dumb luck. In faith we see miracles as God’s gifts, not our accomplishment. Because they aren’t our miracles. They’re God’s. And praise be to God we were awake enough, we had attitude enough, to be present, to see them for what they are.

Moving trees and mountains? That’s a parlor trick. Forgiving someone who sins against you seven times in one day? That’s a miracle. Being thankful, being grateful for the little miracles that no one else sees, seeing these miracles as proof of God’s love and kindness – that’s a miracle. And anyone, ANYONE, with just a little faith can do that. No matter how much or how little faith you have, you have enough faith to see miracles. No matter how strong your faith, you have enough to take part in miracles. Even the weakest faith is still faith. Instead of wishing your small, small faith could build magic kingdoms, celebrate that you have any faith at all. Work on an attitude of obedience to that faith, and by faith you will see – you may even be – a miracle.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

1 Timothy 6:6-19

“Akaloo! Following Jesus When You Want to Follow Your Own Wishes”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

This Sunday is the last in our series called, “Akaloo!” (a word that means “Follow”) and today we’re talking about following Jesus when we want to chase our own wishes. Notice, I didn’t say, “Dreams.” There’s a big difference between “wishes” and “dreams.” Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. When you blow out the candles on your birthday cake - that’s a wish. Today, we’re talking about following Jesus when we want to follow our wishes. Following Jesus when some urge is pulling us the other way. Following Jesus when we see something – or someone – dangling some really tempting prize in front of us. Following Jesus when some thing or some one promises instant gratification. Following Jesus when the cost of that gratification is getting chipped away in our minds. “Attention good-time shoppers: Today’s Blue Light Special is now reduced on Aisle 4.”

The Apostle Paul, writing his letter to his protégé, a young pastor named Timothy, warns him – and commands Timothy to warn his congregation – against chasing wishes. Paul warns them against following urges instead of following Jesus. Paul talks in very real-world terms. Real for his world, and real for ours, too. Paul is blunt. He says, “Warn people!” Warn people about the damage they can do. Warn people about the damage they can do to other people. Warn people about the damage they can do to themselves. Warn people about the damage they can do when they chase after gratification – instead of following God. And remember, Paul’s not telling Timothy to warn the pagan unbelievers; Paul’s telling Timothy to warn his faithful, Christian congregation – and – telling Timothy to warn himself. Do you ever need someone to warn you? Do you ever wish the stuff that pulls you the wrong way had warning lights and buzzers? “Danger, danger, Will Robinson.” Here are a few lights, courtesy of the Bible.

To “akaloo” – to really, truly follow Jesus – you’ve got to be on guard all the time. Maybe that sounds kind of paranoid. You think, No, religion is supposed to make me peaceful. Isn’t Jesus supposed to be our sword and shield against temptation? Isn’t faith in God – if you do it right – supposed to be like an inoculation against sin? There may be preachers who tell you so. And if that’s how faith works for them, and if that’s how faith works for you, congratulations. You’re the first people since Jesus to be immune to sin. Paul doesn’t preach immunity. Paul may be an Apostle bound for heaven, but his feet are on the ground. And on ground level, when you’re living, and working, and going to school, and married to, and divorced from, and wishing for – human beings, you’ve got to on your guard. Paul doesn’t preach immunity; he preaches resistance. God gave us the ability to have grand dreams. But grand dreams are hard. Grand dreams can give you energy, but they can also wear you out. And when you get worn out following the dreams of heaven – not if, but when you get worn out following dreams of heaven (because it happens to even the greatest Apostles) – when you get worn out following dreams of heaven, it’s really, really tempting to trade those priceless dreams for cheap wishes. So, Paul says, warn your church. Warn yourself. Don’t let your own wishes yank you off-course from following Jesus.


So, where does the area with the yellow warning tape start? In the paragraph before what we read in worship, Paul is going off on some unnamed group of wicked, evil, disgusting false teachers. Why are they wicked, evil, and disgusting? Is it because they have horns growing out the top of their heads? No.

The lead-in to the passage starts by saying…

[There are people who] think religion is supposed to make you rich.

These wicked, evil, disgusting false teachers may have other faults – they might be ugly, too – might have bad breath – but at the bottom line, they’re wicked, evil and disgusting because they think religion is supposed to make you rich. The warning starts with money.

“Oh, gee, Rev. Paul. You done quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’. Hide your wallet, Ethel. The preacher’s talking about money.” Relax. It’s not that kind of sermon. Here’s the genius of this letter. Paul doesn’t argue with the wicked teachers. Instead he turns the idea of being rich in a different direction. He goes on…

And religion does make your life rich, by making you content with what you have. We didn't bring anything into this world, and we won't take anything with us when we leave. So we should be satisfied just to have food and clothes. People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain.

There’s a bumper sticker that says, “If money is the root of all evil, why is the church always asking for it?” (Because we don’t want you to be evil.) Big surprise, but the bumper sticker didn’t get the Bible right. They didn’t have room for the whole verse, or chose not to put it all on there, because they’re not giving away these bumper stickers. What the Bible really says is, “The LOVE of money is the root of all evil.” Or, as the version we just heard says, “The love of money causes all kinds of trouble.” When it comes to money, love hurts.

Why? Why does the love of money cause us all kinds of trouble? I’m testing an idea here. Tell me if I’m on track by nodding yes or no. It seems to me that people who have money can get into more kinds of trouble than people who don’t have money. When you have money, you have more opportunities, right? You have more opportunities for good stuff, to do good stuff. But when you have money you also have more opportunities to get into trouble. Is that true? When you were young and you made your bookshelves out of cinderblocks and boards from the dumpster, when you didn’t have any money, you were limited in the kinds of trouble you could get yourself into. Am I right? So you work hard, you save some money, you buy a house, you get a couple of cars, you have some kids, you get a boat, you get a vacation condo so you can get away from all your stuff. About – when was it? – age 35, you found yourself relaxed and peaceful, spending all your days swinging in a hammock and being brought drinks with umbrellas. Right? You wish. Yeah, precisely. We wish. You thought money would solve your problems. And it may have. But having money also brought you new problems. More problems. As the Bible says, “all kinds of trouble.” “But,” you say, “I don’t LOVE money. I don’t love the car or the house or the boat.” (OK, well, maybe the boat.) So why don’t you feel peaceful? Why are the top-selling medicines the ones that ease our anxiety and help us get to sleep? Why do you have more wishes when you have money than when you didn’t?

Paul never says money is evil. He never says having money is evil. In fact, he says having money is good because of the good works you can do with your money. But Paul warns us. Paul warns us about the death spiral of wanting more, wanting more, wanting more. I’ll bet you something. OK, bad choice of words. I’ll challenge you. I’ll challenge you that if you were to stand outside of the mall and ask the people coming out with shopping bags full of stuff, “Are you now completely satisfied? With these purchases do you now have everything you’ll ever want and you’ll never go shopping again? With these purchases, are your wishes fulfilled?” I’ll challenge you that if you stood outside the mall and asked people that, you’d be pepper sprayed in five minutes or less.

It’s not the money that’s the root of all evil. The root of all evil is the deep dissatisfaction with the power of money. The root of all evil is the deep disappointment with the power of money to grant our wishes and make us contented. In that regard, money is weak. So if the point of your religion is to make you rich, if your life is built around the worship of money you don’t yet have enough of, your religion will never satisfy. Your religion is based on wishes, that are based on last year’s wishes, that are based on the prior year’s wishes. Before you know what’s happened, Paul says, you’ll have given up on your faith. You’ll have traded your faith for wishes.


Paul turns the idea of being rich in a different direction. He says,

“And religion does make your life rich, by making you content with what you have.”

That sounds so sweet and so simple. Paris Hilton used to have a TV show called, “The Simple Life,” where she’d go around and visit simple people like you and me, and they’d film her visiting the simple Wal-Mart for the first time, or going to a simple office to – get this – work. Apparently the experiences simply didn’t teach her much. Being content with what we have sounds simple. If you go to the book store, you can buy a huge stack of books and magazines to teach you how to live a more contented, simple life. If you buy enough of them, eventually you simply have to build a simple addition on your simple house to hold all your books about living simply.

In a way, what Paul is saying – that religion makes your life rich by making you content – sounds like complacency. And if you read this one book of the Bible too much, or if you read too much into it, you could think God wants you not just to lead a simple life, but also to be simple, to be simple-minded, complacent. “Don’t worry about the government. Don’t try to get a raise or a promotion. Don’t clean your house or take a bath, or let women cut their hair or speak in church. Because Jesus will make you happy just the way you are.” I’m guessing Paul would gag if he thought people took his letter that way. Just as there’s a difference between dreams and wishes, there’s also a difference between contentment and complacency.

The same Jesus who taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” also teaches us, in the same prayer, to say, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth.” A lack of dreams is just as bad as an addiction to wishes. Nowhere in the Bible does it teach us to sit around and twiddle our thumbs until God makes everything right. The Bible never says, Sit on your thumbs and whistle a happy tune until Jesus comes back.

If you have wealth, you can’t afford to be complacent. If you’re rich, you have responsibilities. If you have faith in a heavenly God, you’re going to see contradictions on earth. Paul warns us not to dismiss the contradictions. Paul warns us not to erase the disparity between heaven and earth. He says, tell people who have achieved some of their earthly dreams and have a little money to show for it, to follow the dream of Jesus and make earth more like heaven.

True religion doesn’t make you content with less. That might be a side-effect. You might realize it’s OK to have two cars instead of three, or a smaller house instead of a bigger one. The more aware you are of the disparity between heaven and earth, between rich and poor, the more aware you’ll be that you don’t need half the stuff you got by chasing wishes. But the Bible doesn’t say religion makes you content with less. The Bible says, if you read it carefully, religion will make your life rich by making you content – not with less – but will make you content with what you have.

True religion will make you content with what you have. What does that mean? Well, to get the meaning you have to ask yourself, what do you have? What do you really have? What is really, really yours? Not co-owned by the bank. Not given to you by your parents. Not an inheritance of your social status, or your neighborhood, or the country you were lucky enough to be born in. If religion makes your life rich by making you content with what you have, if you want your life to be rich, you’ve got to know what it is you really have. If the stock market crashed, if inflation went wild, if our nation switched to the Euro, the Yen or the Peso – what would you really, really have that couldn’t be taken away from you?

Let me put it another way – if you gave away all the stuff that you had ever wished for, if you gave away all the stuff you thought would make you content and happy, but really left you wishing for something more a week later – if you gave away all the residue of your empty wishes – what would you have left?

The Bible can’t answer that question for you. But it gives us a clue. And it sounds like this.

Warn the rich people of this world not to be proud or to trust in wealth that is easily lost. Tell them to have faith in God, who is rich and blesses us with everything we need to enjoy life. Instruct them to do as many good deeds as they can and to help everyone. Remind the rich to be generous and share what they have. This will lay a solid foundation for the future, so that they will know what true life is like.