Faith in being small and unsuccessful

Luke 17:5-10

A sermon delivered in Holy Cross Church, Mark, October 2nd 2016.

You may have already heard this one, and you may have heard it a bit differently. It is most likely apocryphal, and it may well be apocryphally set in a different place at a different time to the versions I share here. But this is the one I want to use, so there… bear with me…

At a meeting of the United Nations in 1953, as people were trying to bring about the end of the Korean War, a French journalist asked Chou En Lai, China’s foreign secretary, what he thought of the French Revolution, which in case you’ve forgotten, happened in 1789. Chou En Lai answered, “Oh, it’s still too early to tell”.

A lovely story. I do hope it’s true in some way because our response to it reveals so much about our own attitudes to the passage of time, and to how we view our own lives within the setting of world history. And I expect you’re thinking, "Too early? Silly man. It was years ago! Keep up!"

I wonder though, what about Holy Cross Church? This church is about a thousand years old, and it has seen a huge amount of history, from the emergence of the England as a nation, through the reformation, the civil war, the industrial revolution, two world wars… S0, what do you think of Holy Cross Church? I think it’s still too early to tell. We are very small parts in it, and our places in history are all but irrelevant. But not to God.

The mustard seed resonates with me as well, in a similar way when reading today’s Gospel. It raises questions about how insignificant and yet profound small things can be, and how Jesus is encouraging his disciples to be good servants in small ways. It strikes me as a very humble statement to make. And a very wise one. Because, indeed, when is it all done and dusted? From our small beginnings, where do we go, and what difference do we make, and by when? What is it about the passage of time, does everything have to have a moment of success or failure, for example? Are we always to be seen to be responsible for making sure things happen? Or should we, in faith, just live as best we can?

Many of us (and I put myself in this group) are so fond of trying to get things done that we forget just who we are here for. We can be so fond of being out there in the world, making a difference, that we forget that being with others is not a race, not a market place for Good People, not a matter of perfection and of success, but a matter of love, grace and mercy for everyone we meet, of seeing God in others and of revealing God with others.

And it is good to be contemplating the passage of time like this as we, as a church, reflect on the Janus thinking that is going on: look back, and look forward… what do we see?

This reading from Luke’s gospel comes just after Jesus has told the parable of the rich man who ends up in hell, while the poor man at his gate goes to heaven (Luke 16:19-31). The message there is all about valuing what we have when we have it, and for the right reason: because it is given to us by God. Then, this next part, when Jesus encourages his disciples to be good servants, and to accept what we have, is kind of the mirror image of the rich man’s predicament. Jesus knows that his disciples (and that includes us) are frail, liable to seek out the best things for ourselves, and easily be led astray from being good disciples because we want to be the top dog, the best, the celebrity, even.

Society almost demands it. We are obsessed with leadership, and strong leadership at that. But the world described by Jesus is one of servanthood and not of leadership. It is one not of always struggling to be new, but of seeking out fellowship and mercy in others. It is about being comfortable with who we are and where we are, and of understanding where our lives are in the grand sweep of history. Strong, celebrity leadership is such a short term desire, whereas what matters is the longer term, the things that we might never fully understand, but which… with faith… we can sit with, be alongside and do for the love of God and for the love of others.

In doing so, that can mean being comfortable that not everything goes as planned, nor as desired. Jesus says that, with faith even as small as a mustard seed, we could uproot trees. With faith like that, we can rest assured that whoever we are, whatever we do, God loves us. There is no real need to rush headlong into things, wanting the glory or the celebrity, or even success. After all, just because you’re taking longer than others doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Keep going. Have faith.

A very good friend I used to work with once remarked that it is amazing what can be achieved if nobody really cares who gets the credit. We were putting together a conference I recall, and it was all about economic justice and how the global economy was hiding the needs of the poor. all very grand and significant stuff. But we were all wanting to make sure we were noticed for doing our bit. On reflection, not because we wanted to have a successful conference, but because we wanted to be seen to have held a successful conference, each one of us. It was the right conference, but the wrong motivation. I think churches and church communities can be just the same. I think all kinds of gatherings of people can be just the same. The struggle to be successful can mask the need to be caring and merciful with others. In other places in the Gospels, Jesus chastises the disciples for wanting to be seen to be more important than other disciples (James and John, in particular, Matthew 20:20-28).

Such ‘demands’ get in the way of being disciples. For following Jesus is not about ensuring glory: that happens any way. It is not about celebrity status. God loves us all. It is not even about being perfect before God. Again: God loves us no matter what. The real challenge to following Jesus is to give ourselves up and to seek to disappear from view. It is about finding out what is happening and joining in. It is even about getting out of the way, if you can: that way we can be good servants of God, and sometimes that can even mean not being involved at all. It can mean saying to others: no, you go ahead and do that, because I can see that that is what matters for God. That is what matters for us all.

So, returning to Chou En Lai, for a moment: it may well be still too early to decide what we think abut the french revolution. It may even be too early still to decide what to think about the work of Holy Cross Church in Mark. After all, we’ve only been here for ha thousand years. The universe is pretty much older than that. It may well be (and I personally belief this to be the case) that we may never know, in this life, just how ‘successful’ the church is. But I do know that that is not important. What is important is that in doing the work of the church we sit down as much as we can to be with others, to share in the love of God and to not worry at all about whether we are doing enough. If something needs up rooting, or pruning or changing: we need to pray, and be sure that, with our faith strong, we can do it for the Kingdom of God.