A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
3 October 2010
Text:  Luke 17:5,6
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The sun rose first today over Mt. Hakepa, highest point on the tiny Chatham Islands in the South Pacific.   Christians gathered there to sing and pray and break loaves of roti to remember Jesus Christ.  Before many hours had passed, over three million South Korean Presbyterians were lifting up their hearts and voices and loaves of rice flour bread.  Members of the newly-reopened Christian Community of North Korea—one of only three Christian churches worshiping publicly in that country—offered the Great Thanksgiving:  Holy Holy Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory, hosanna in the highest.  Some Christian churches in India distributed uneaten communion bread to children begging on the streets.  Sudanese Christians gathered secretly in homes amid threats of persecution in that civil-war-torn land.  The congregation served by Chaplain Ron Eastes were camouflage-clad US soldiers still in Iraq, and in Afghanistan the usual prohibition against shared communion was ignored as chaplains offered the bread and the cup to both Catholic and Protestant.   Across Asia and Africa, in Europe and Scandanavia, New York City, Port-au-Prince and Rio de Janero.   In Havana and Hartford and later this morning in St. Louis and Los Angeles and Honolulu.  At this very hour at Olivet Baptist and Trinity Cathedral and Parkside and next door at St. Paul’s:  the cup is lifted and the bread is broken and we are invited to feast on the bread of life, the cup of the covenant that both binds and liberates us all.   A continual celebration of the Lord’s Supper encircling the globe.  Amid scenes of violence, recovery from natural disaster, in poverty and wealth, the Church eats the bread of life and drinks the cup of salvation, giving visible expression to God’s kingdom where people will come from east and west and north and south and commune together. 

Jesus’ earthly ministry challenged barriers and divisions between people and never is this made more explicit than at the table.  Jesus was criticized by religious leaders for breaking bread (and thus for breaking the law) with those outside the faith.  He welcomed rich and poor, men and women, and engaged the deeply religious and the morally suspect.  His healing powers were extraordinary; but so was the sense of authority by which he preached and taught.  The disciples witnessed this and not unlike followers in every time and place, asked their Teacher for a measure of his greatness.  Listen for God Word to the Church in the reading form the seventeenth chapter of Luke, at the fifth verse:   [LUKE 17:5-6]

Increase our faith!   It’s the prayer of the faithful in every time and place, but also the longing—sometimes not even verbalized—of the doubter and the wandering.  Apparently it should also be the prayer of the Americans who performed dismally on a brief survey about religion conducted recently by the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Participants were asked basic questions about Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life, and on average, answered only 50% correctly.  Atheists and agnostics did best, followed by Jews and Mormons, with Protestants near the bottom of the scale.  Well. 

Increase our faith!  Was the request of Jesus’ disciples born out of a sense of inadequacy, recognition that they didn’t have the answers?   Was it an acknowledgement that they knew they lacked what they had seen and experienced in their Teacher—qualities that resulted in a vibrant, effective ministry? 

Jesus’ response sounds at first like he agrees with that assessment.  Yeah, if you only had more faith, you would work wonders and perform miracles.  You could Make Things Happen!  I picture this scenario in my mind’s eye, and I see the disciples react by hanging their heads in shame and turning away:  we don’t have nearly enough!  We can’t even transplant a mulberry tree!   But something about that exchange doesn’t square with what we know from Jesus about faith.

It’s not a “thing.”  Faith is not a commodity we somehow have to acquire but a gift that God loves to give us.  Jesus’ response is not a confirmation of their need, but a gentle prod to exercise what they already have. You see, it’s not faith that needs increasing (because even faith the size of a mustard seed is transformative), but the disciples’ practice of it.

Jesus seemed to think that the disciples already possessed enough faith.  They had enough to do what they needed to do, enough to do what Jesus called them to do.  Faith is a funny gift, a powerful gift, which increases through use.

So often we think we don’t have enough.  We think we need more, always more.  More money! More people!  More faith! More, more more!!!!      Imagine instead the Church putting faith into action. If even a grain-sized bit can cultivate the chaos of the ocean, just marvel at the garden we could make of this earth with the seeds of a global community praising God, seeking Jesus’ way, and loving one another as we have been so deeply and life-givingly loved!

Friends, think of the communion table as the place where we touch and taste that reality.  Here a little chunk of bread and a swallow of grape juice are connected to so much; to all, in fact, that we need.    Here we partake with sisters and brothers, the beloved ones of this congregation, but also with disciples we do not know and may well never meet in every part of the world God has so loved.  Here we are joined in ministry and mission with all of them.  Here we become “companions”—the word literally means “the ones who eat bread together.”  Here we are united with the living but also with departed saints held closely in the everlasting arms of God.   Here is the truth of faith: when practiced, it becomes as large as the great spinning world and as transformational as the smallest seed of hope.  Thanks be to God!

We celebrate world communion today, and I invite us now to symbolize that universal scope, by praying for the life of the world.  Please rise in body OR in spirit, and face each of the four directions in turn.  This is a prayer I’ve adapted from the opening worship service of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church meeting this past summer, which drew upon Native American tradition.   When I indicate, please pray aloud, “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”

[standing as able]

Come, Holy Spirit, come.  We turn to face EAST, greeting the morning star and rising sun.  Thank you for your creation, and for welcoming your people. We pray for your spirit of illumination and far-sighted vision.  We pray for the one community in the East that we bring to mind.   Help us to love you and one another with all our heart, mind, and soul, as we pray together:

All: Come, Holy Spirit, come.

We turn to face SOUTH.  Thank you for your creation, and for welcoming your people.  We pray for your spirit of innocence, trust, and love. We pray for the one community in the South that we bring to mind.     Help us to open our eyes to the sacredness of every living thing and to be good stewards of the abundance you have made, as we pray together:

All: Come, Holy Spirit, come.

We turn to face WEST:  Thank you for your creation, and for welcoming your people.  We pray for your spirit of  introspection, for seeing within and discerning your way.  We pray for the one community in the West that we bring to mind.    Give us your strength and the courage to persevere and practice what we have seen in Jesus Christ, as we pray together:

All: Come, Holy Spirit, come.

We turn to face NORTH. We thank you for your creation and for welcoming your people.  We pray for the one community in the North that we bring to mind.         We pray for brothers and sisters everywhere and for your spirit of wisdom and grace to become peacemakers and bridgebuilders and reconcilers one with another.  For world communion we pray together:

All: Come, Holy Spirit, come.

We turn to complete the circle and to look up:

To God who cleanses the earth with snow, wind, and rain. To Jesus Christ who fills us with the wideness of mercy and embraces us all, and to the Holy Spirit who breathes life into us.  We pray together:       All: Come, Holy Spirit, Come.  AMEN!