A sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson on Sunday, October 2nd 2022
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
In 2018, while on sabbatical, I had the privilege to visit and stay at the Umri Christian Hospital deep in the rural heart of India. The hospital is a piece of my family history, a part of my story that I had wanted to see and touch and know in person, which is why I had come all that way. As many of you know, India is where my mother was born and grew up, along with her 5 siblings, in this barely known, poor, and underserved community. They and the hospital were there because of my grandparents, the late Dr. Paul Yardy, and Mrs. Jessie Yardy, still living today at the age of 101. Paul and Jessie moved to Umri in 1951 at a time when the clinic was barely more than four walls and dirt floors with no discernible medical technology. Over the decades, what they planted and grew there, by faith, blossomed from a small clinic into a hospital, two schools, an outpatient clinic, and a host of supportive services that today I can say have, without embellishment or exaggeration, saved literally tens of thousands of lives. I say it grew by faith, because, as our family tells the story, faith stands at the center of why Paul and Jessie went to India. They both held a deep faith that God had called them to a purpose and a place, to heal hurting lives and to proclaim God’s liberating good news among the poorest of the poor. I’ll be the first to admit, that my faith and that of my grandparents does not align on every point, that were we ever to sit down to a theological discussion, we might likely find more we disagree about, than that upon which we might agree. But, standing one morning in the Umri Christian Hospital’s records office, none of that seemed to matter as the administrator pulled open an old metal file cabinet dating to the1950s, handing me a medical file for a patient. And, there was his thin scrawling handwriting on the page, detailing her ongoing treatment, and documenting her care, a record of his faithfulness, his life here in this place, so many decades ago. It was a moving experience to hold that piece of my family’s legacy.
While I’m sure it violated innumerable HIPPA codes to show me patient records, I couldn’t help thinking about how much faith Grandpa Yardy must have needed to come to that place, to care for and love a people, and how much I yearned for a faith as great as his seemed to be, to accomplish the kinds of things he did in his lifetime. Yet, I was also aware, in the strange and unpredictable currents of life how, unasked for and unchosen, that faith had been passed forward to my mother, and then given to me – how some small piece of it lived in me, not by my own doing, not as a possession, but as a thread of connection to the communities and peoples who raised me up. I thought of all of this as I read the Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy in today’s lesson. He writes, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you…Guard the good treasure entrusted to you”.
I was reminded of all this then and again today, of the treasure I have been given in the faith planted by my grandparents, how that faith shaped so many lives and how it comes to me now as a part of my life and ministry. But, what is faith? Is it something that can be measured or held? Is it a set of beliefs or ideas? The disciples today imply that it might be quantifiable as they implore Jesus to give them more, saying to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” And, Jesus responds with words that are familiar to all three of the synoptic gospels, alluding to the power of faith to do great things, even were it as small as something like a mustard seed, the tiniest of all seeds. In Matthew and Mark, the more familiar and perhaps less troubling versions of this saying, Jesus assures us that were we to have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move mountains. That’ll preach! If that was our text, the sermon might well be to implore us to imagine the great things we could do, like Grandpa and Grandma Yardy, with even the smallest modicum of faith. But, that is not what today’s texts seem to imply.
Here, Jesus seems to imply the disciples don’t have any faith at all. If you had faith, he says, if you had it, you’d likely do something absurd, like tell a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you. One interpretation of this passage argues that Jesus is implying that should the disciples actually possess faith, real faith, even in the smallest dose, they’d likely abuse it, turn it into a magic trick, just to show off their power and importance. Certainly we know of places in our culture and our world where faith has been manipulated into a weapon to be wielded by the powerful, to draw deeper lines between who is in and who is out, to carve out a winning position or shame or control or further marginalize our opponents. But is that kind of faith really faith? On a recent edition of her beautiful podcast, Everything Happens, historian Kate Bowler has a conversation with the Rev’d Dr. Randall Balmer, one of America’s preeminent historians of American Christianity. They talk about the powerful ways that American Evangelicalism shaped their own lives for good and for ill, the gifts it gave, but also the wounds it left them with and why they ultimately could not stay in that faith any longer. At the end of the podcast, Kate speaks directly to her listeners who may have had a similar experience not only in Evangelicalism, but any faith that has wounded or harmed. And, she offers them and us a “Blessing for when faith breaks your heart”.
Blessed are you standing among the ruins of a faith
that once felt so sturdy,
now turned to dust under your feet.
The certainty you once had, gone.
The community you loved, dissipated.
The hope you held dear, hard to find.
Instead, what’s taken up residence
is the very stuff that seems counter
to what you imagined:
Disappointment. Doubt. Disillusionment. Despair.
Faith, it would seem, can hurt as much as it can help. How do we address that truth while still still guarding it as a treasure entrusted to us? Theologians argue that we can gain a lot of insight into this short little passage of gospel about faith by the two verses preceding it, which were not included in today’s lesson. In these verses we hear about the need to be careful in our faith, that we never cause, as Jesus says “one of these little ones to stumble”. Which is to say that faith is about care and special attention for those on the margins, those who have been hurt, pushed out, forgotten, or left behind, the very people Kate’s beautiful blessing is for. These, of all others, should be held in special intention through the eyes of faith. And, then, Jesus says, on the other side, in the midst of our life of faith, in our interactions with other disciples, we are bound to have hurts, conflicts, and we are bound to transgress against one another. When this happens, faith compels us to forgive each other, every single day, as many as seven times a day, should it come to that. All of which is to say, the life we are called to as followers of Jesus, is rigorous and challenging, both about being careful not to wound, and offering forgiveness when others wound us – and it is all seemingly complicated and at times impossible. Of course the disciples wanted more faith. How else can any of this be doable?
But, faith isn’t really quantifiable. It isn’t an idea to which we give ascent, and it is not a set of propositions to be defended. It is not a tool and should never be a weapon. It is not the power to accomplish. Faith is, as the call to care for “these little ones” demonstrates, and as the demand to forgive implies, it is about our connection and relationships with each other and with God. As Grandpa Yardy would undoubtedly attest, the monumental work of that hospital was not about what one or two heroic faiths could accomplish, but about what the faithfulness of a whole community could do across time among a people. You see, faith comes to us through our life in a community and it is in the midst of this people, the body, that we are entrusted to carry it forward, serving and loving and healing the world. And, what’s more, none of this is possible without our connection to Jesus or by the power of the Spirit. As our bishop Craig Loya is constantly reminding us, the work of faith that we tend and steward, the treasure passed to us from previous generations, should be about sparking a “deeper intimacy with Jesus and a livelier experience of the Holy Spirit in our lives.” Faith should always point to the reality that we belong to each other and to the God we know as love in the flesh who has come to us and claimed us as his own. Faith may seem impossible, but if the disciples get anything right this morning in the gospel, it is that none of this can be done alone, after all they do ask Jesus “increase our faith.”
So, as Bowler’s blessing continues,
may you practice the courage to find the others
who make space for your questions without easy answers,
who celebrate doubt when it makes room for more faith,
who search high and low for a defiant hope born amidst despair.
Bless you, dear one.
Faith is not about what we believe in our individual hearts but about what we hold in our collective hands, in community and connection. Practice the courage to find the others, who will wrestle with faith alongside you, pray, serve, and love alongside you. It is only together, with God’s help, that our faith can increase, that the world can heal, and we with it.