Growing up in Salt Lake City, the child of Mormon pioneers, faith was the bedrock of my life. Some of my family members were active practicing Mormons, my paternal grandfather was a high priest in the church and my uncles went on missionary trips. They practiced, among other teachings of the church, that our bodies are temples. As temples, our bodies are a gift from God and are to be treated with utmost dignity and respect. Therefore they never drank alcohol or any caffeinated beverage, and never smoked cigarettes.
Other family members stopped practicing their faith. These members drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, and drank alcohol, frequently in excess.
One side my family taught me the rules of our faith, which guaranteed my salvation. The other side of my family taught me that faith was irrelevant. Many aspects of my childhood were confusing and sad, so perhaps for this reason I developed my own sense of faith and a prayer life that lead me to feel close to God.
One teaching of the church that stuck with me was the parable of the mustard seed. The Gospel of Luke, which we heard this morning, tells us that a tiny bit of faith could uproot a mulberry tree and plant it elsewhere. I remember the version of this parable from the Gospel of Matthew which says if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can move mountains.
In Salt Lake City I lived on the side of a mountain and in a valley surrounded by mountains. The parable took on a literal sense for me. As a child I actually tried to imagine what that kind of faith would be like, so strong it could lift up a mountain and relocate it.
My childhood understanding of the parable of the mustard seed asked, “How much faith is enough?”
The thing is, if you really read the parable you hear that Jesus actually frames if differently. It is not, “How much faith is enough?” Rather, Jesus asks, “What is faith for?” Jesus asks the disciples, and us, to consider how we are living as people of faith?
Luke uses a common analogy for his era, that of a slave being obedient to the master, as an example of how one lives one’s faith - fully dependent on God, who is master of all.
Given the history of slavery and racism in this country, and the rise of violent racism, I am terribly uncomfortable with metaphors about slaves and masters. The Vestry and I are reading Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.” Her thesis is that racism, manifesting now through the war on drugs and mass incarceration, is an intentional effort to undermine people of color in this country. Statistics tell us that people of color are penalized at a more severe rate than white people and most of the people in our prison system are people of color. Alexander writes: “Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal.” Accordingly, our prison system is not designed to rehabilitate people and bring forth reconciliation. Rather, it is intended to punish and forever demonize non-violent felons, many of them African American men, as if they were the same as a worst violent offender.
Then on Wednesday of this week I attended a diocesan sponsored presentation by Stephanie Spellers, who has been appointed by Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, as the Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation. Spellers spoke about the Grace of Race, Celebrating the Presence of God in the Presence of Difference. Stephanie reminded us that the mission of the Episcopal Church, stated clearly in The Book of Common Prayer, is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
So how does one reconcile the mission of the Episcopal Church to restore unity in the context of today’s reading wherein Jesus uses the first century institution of slavery as an example of our being in a faithful relationship with God?
I struggle with the idea that being faithful means I am to be a slave to God. I struggle to unpack this metaphor in the context of our mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. I understand restoration and unity as relationships of mutuality - each accountable to the other and to the self - in love, respect, and dignity. That is not what slavery is about.
However, elsewhere in scripture Jesus reminds us that our responsibility as people of faith is two-fold: we are to love and we are to forgive.
So is it a paradox that Jesus uses this word, “slave,” so aligned with abuse and oppression, in this parable, to point toward love, forgiveness, and reconciliation? And if so, how are we supposed to transpose slavery from the baggage it carries in the world today?
Today’s reading pushes me to consider what faith really means and how, in faith, I am dependent upon God. Not like a submissive slave to one’s master, but as a maturing Christian who is willing to be held accountable and responsible for relationships of love.
As an adult I have come to understand that the rules for living a faith life are much more basic than my family understood them. I do not think that Jesus cares about WHAT we eat or drink. Jesus cares about WHO we eat and drink WITH. Jesus cares that all are treated equally with dignity and respect. Jesus cares that we work to reconcile our differences. Jesus cares that we seek to forgive and be forgiven, that we strive to mend broken relationships, and that we love one another and work for a just society.
Jesus teaches us that we are to work to reconcile the ordinary misunderstandings of every-day life. Jesus also intends for us to work toward reconciling the mountains of broken places in the world- lives broken from war, poverty, famine, racism, sexism, genderism, human slave and sex trafficking, and genocide - just to name a few. I think he means that we really have no choice in this matter, and in that regard we are like slaves to our faith - we must do the hard work of growing up and becoming mature Christians who do the very difficult work of restoring all people to unity with God and one another. Thus, a faith life centered on this kind of relationship building, transforms the geography of our lives.
That’s what faith is for and perhaps, when lived this way, it is just like moving mountains.
a reflection on Proper 22C: Luke 17:5-10