Whether the Psalm is spoken or sung or whispered behind closed doors, there is no softening that last line, with its vicious dreams of vengeance. We might be tempted to ask what it’s doing in our Bible, or at least in our lectionary; language like this with its yearning for atrocity. But here’s the thing: if we were to hide our history of bitterness and anger, of envy and regret; if we were to cleanse our collective spiritual autobiography of oppression and violent revolt, we would be tempted to deny that such things could ever take hold of us again. Whereas we see in Syria children gassed to pay back their parents for their disobedience and dissidence; we see in our cities gang violence: a life for a life, an atrocity for an atrocity; we see in the online comments section of the local papers vitriol and vindictive language, cruel intent. We are not immune to the despair that afflicted the Judeans carried off by the Chaldeans, weeping by the rivers of Babylon; and we are not immune to poisonous and paralysing anger. We shudder at such uncivilized language, but we live in a less civilized world than we might wish to hope.
We know that we need to do better. Whether they really meant it or were simply venting, it is to our credit that we turn away from such violent images as those we say in some of the Psalms. It is a right and a good thing to reject revenge and vilify abuse and atrocity. We are on the right path when we long for peace: peace between nations, peace amongst enemies, peace within our hearts and our families.
So what are we to do about it?
“Lord, increase our faith.”
That was the apostles’ response to the dilemma: Fix it for us. Fix us. Make it right; make us right. Make us strong and faithful and good and wise and loving and true and godly. Increase our faith.
They had been listening to Jesus. He had told stories of rich men and poor people and placing God above all worldly wealth; he had, when the disciples make this request for more faith, just been staking out the responsibilities of leadership, of helping others out of sin, not putting stumbling blocks in their way, but helping them over temptation, breaking old patterns of sinful desire, leading them in right pathways. He had been talking about forgiveness, about forgiving over and over again, until the old hard habits of vengeance finally died. He was speaking to them, these simple fisher folk from Galilee and their friends, as leaders of the new church that was to come, with great and awesome responsibilities, and they were afraid.
“Lord, increase our faith.”
Otherwise, how can we do it? How can we avoid leading others into temptation? How can we deliver them from evil, even the evil of their own hearts? How can we forgive others as God forgives? Unless you increase our faith, like it’s some sort of superpower, we are toast. Our ancestors, as wonderful and wise as they were, broke down and wept by the rivers of Babylon, and made wild noises about atrocities they had seen, which they would pay back, and sometimes, even now, seeing the Romans within the gates of the holy city, seeing their cruel ways, even now, seeing the death that oppression and depression and despair can deal, even now, we see red, and sometimes we know how our ancestors felt, as though they were well beyond deliverance from evil.
“Lord, increase our faith.”
At first, Jesus’ response might seem like a brush-off, even a rebuke. “Faith? What faith? If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…”
But look again. When Jesus tells the story of the unthanked servant, he might as well be telling the disciples, “I may not say it every day, that you are working well, that you are doing just what you are meant to be doing, serving the kingdom of God, but that doesn’t mean that you are not on the right track, doing just what you are meant to be doing, no more but certainly no less; and you are vital to the household of God.” When the disciples take Jesus to task for demanding so much discipleship in a few chapters’ time, citing what they had left for him, with never a backward glance, Jesus will affirm their faith, and their sacrifice: “I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29-30)
When Jesus says to them, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” he is speaking to people who already have faith, who have more faith than a mustard seed could measure. What he is telling them is that they already have enough. What he is telling them is that with great responsibility comes great power.
Do we really think that he would send them out with nothing: no purse or sandals or spare tunic, and no faith (see Luke 10:1-24, 22:35)? They already have within them what it takes to do exactly what it is they are called to do: to spread the gospel, cast out demons, raise up people of hope in a land of despair.
The second letter to Timothy makes exactly that point: “I am reminded of your sincere faith …I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you …; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
Whatever it is we think that we lack, personally, by way of things like faith and fortitude, or corporately, worrying about numbers of people in the pews, children in the Sunday School, contact with the community, tithes of treasure and time and talent – whatever deficiency we think is holding us back from doing the work that we are called as disciples of Jesus to do has already been made good by God’s reaching out to us in Jesus Christ, by God’s call on us to become disciples. With that great responsibility comes great power.
The anointing that we received at baptism, the anointing of the Holy Spirit each and every Pentecost, each and every time, in fact, we ask for it: these things carry great power. What we need, more than a fresh injection of faith, is the courage to use it. What we need, more than to supersize our order of prayer, is to wield it. What we need, we already have. What we need is to remember to use it at all times and in all places for the good of the kingdom of God.
October marks the month of our annual stewardship campaign, and most of you should have received letters this week; if you didn’t, and you think you should have, please let me know or call the office. Today we launch our stewardship campaign, and yet the scriptures tell us, rather than asking for more, that we already have everything that we need to do the work that has been entrusted to us as the church of God, to proclaim good news to the poor and freedom to the captives, peace among all people. All that remains is to use it faithfully.
We have everything we need to uproot an oak tree and plant it in the middle of Lake Erie. More usefully, we have everything we need to carry the kingdom of God into the heart of Euclid, and plant it there. We have Jesus. We have God’s own Christ, God’s own Spirit. We have all that we need to sing, all that we need to heal, all that we need to grow. We have all that we need to make a difference.
Thanks be to God.