Proper 22C Pentecost Episcopal Church at Yale Andrew Mertz , ES ’20 October 6, 2019
Embracing our Humility
I speak to you today as a sinner to sinners,
As the beloved of God to God’s beloved,
As one called to bear witness, to those called to bear witness. Amen.
On my first read through of today’s Gospel, one thought struck me above all others, one that personally, I could really relate to: “Man, it sounds like Jesus has had a long week!” His words strike directly, in a manner that I personally wasn’t used to in scripture. We have recently heard the readings surrounding this one, where Jesus outlines the requirements of following him: distancing oneself from family, and giving up all material possessions, among others. I sympathize with the apostles in this instance, when confronted with these tall requests, wouldn’t it only be natural to fill in the empty voids in one’s life: money, possessions, family, any familiar feelings of life thus far, with faith? And who better to supply it than the son of God himself?
But Jesus responds disdainfully, suggesting that the apostles lack faith even the size of a mustard seed. But this seemingly schoolyard diss is not that at all, but a deeper interpretation of what it means to believe.
We live in a culture of optimization. Turn on the TV, go on your phone, open up Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, or crack open a catalogue. Everything is about more, better, cheaper, surface level appearances. The polar opposite of a mustard seed. The mustard seed analogy arises a lot in the Bible, and for good reason. Matthew, Mark, and Luke in their respective writings all use the parable to describe the Kingdom of God: a lowly, small seed, which requires careful attentiveness and nurturing to grow into a tree, such that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.
The mustard seed represents a simple, yet profound concept: faith cannot be measured in quantity. As Pastor Steven J. Cole simply puts it, better than I ever could, true faith exalts God, not man. Someone who claims he possesses “a great amount of faith” is not someone who has drawn himself closer to God, but someone who is attempting to distinguish himself among his fellow people. The miniscule mustard seed sized faith which Jesus describes is a faith that represents the hidden treasures of the kingdom of God, treasures that are not visible at first glance. With God’s help, not our own, it grows to surround us and provide us with all that God has to offer. We, coupled by the mere existence of our faith, not the quantity, can accomplish impossible things, as Jesus says in the Gospel.
OK, that passage seems reasonable enough to understand, but Jesus’s chastising continues. In the ladder portion of the reading, I found my mind flocking back to my first job, a crew member of a movie theater in the upper-class suburbs of Michigan. I worked Friday nights and Sundays for minimum wage by serving popcorn, cleaning theaters, working behind the bar, cooking pizzas and soft pretzels among other fine delicacies, and generally doing any other task my manager asked of me. Although it may have taken a different form, I’m sure many of you can relate to that first job experience.
On a particularly brutal Friday night, I had just finished scrubbing vomit out of the carpet, where one of our guests didn’t quite make it to the trash can. I finished, peeled my gloves off, and washed my hands. I showed my boss, and politely (of course) asked him for a 30 minute break so I could eat my dinner. Although I had just turned 18, and the law no longer required me to take a break during a shift longer than five hours, I expected a pat on the back, and some kudos, at least.
Instead, I was met with: “Nice Andrew, step behind the concession stand. We have a long line.” Although it pains me to say this, my boss acted as Jesus would to an apostle, me in this analogy.
Jesus almost sarcastically pokes fun at his apostles, who think they are making a grand undertaking by following in his ways. And this may be one of the hardest lessons for our culture to swallow: faith isn’t about us. In the same way, me working at the movie theater wasn’t about me, but serving whoever came through that door. Following God isn’t about us, no matter what our individualistic ideals say, and it’s in this difficulty that the path towards true discipleship arises.
I like to think that I am a relatively humble guy; it’s hard to stand in front of a group of people and say you scrubbed puke out of a carpet for $8.50 an hour without a little bit of humility. But even that sentence is inherently flawed; appreciating our own humility is an egotistical act.
It’s a difficult idea for modern Christians to grasp due to its bluntness: we are the lowliest of the low to God, unworthy of his blessings and care. In Jesus’s words, we are “worthless slaves,” and all our earthly accomplishments and marks of status are meaningless. But the miracle of God and faith is built on this. God doesn’t owe us anything, but gives us everything. Everything around us exists only by the mercy and grace and compassion of God, and to truly recognize this benevolence, we need to fully embrace our humble role in this world.
Today’s Gospel serves as a reality check. Although candid, Jesus corrects his followers, and us in turn, and in three short verses, fully outlines our entire role as believers. Although daunting, as many of God’s requests seem, I encourage you to remember the wandering nature of faith. Our quest toward being the humble, obedient followers we should aspire to be is not an overnight change, but a journey that we should be actively working on each day, in each decision we make, and even each thought we have.