Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
A Little Bit Pregnant
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Luke 17:1-6
Here is today’s theological riddle: What do Krazy Glue, pregnancy and faith have in common? Hold that thought.
The first 6 verses of Luke 17 offer a strange mix of images. There’s a mulberry tree being planted in the sea. I’m not sure why anyone would do that. Perhaps it just serves as an image of something inconceivable or impossible. Perhaps it is a suggestion that things don’t have to remain as they are – in another world, maybe mulberry trees thrive in the sea. Faith the size of a mustard seed can create a new reality.
There’s also an image of a millstone. Millstones were used to grind grain. They were commonly made of volcanic rock and might be 3-4 feet across. Tying one around a person’s neck as a means of drowning them is a very graphic and effective picture.
Between these two images is a condensed and somewhat cryptic instruction about forgiveness and faith.
Forgiveness is such a big concept. I like Frederick Beuchner’s description of it. He says, “To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, ‘You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you've done, and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.’”
Jesus has just told his disciples that they must do this, that they must forgive the unspeakable, even if someone requires it seven times in the same day. This last instruction seems to push them over the edge. Things have been getting intense for them ever since Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem back in chapter 9.
He has taught them to pray, sent out 70 disciples, been rejected by some hostile Samaritans and then, in spite of that, told a story about a Samaritan who loved his neighbor. He has had strong words for the religious leaders and the rich. He even said “anyone who does not carry the cross cannot be my disciple”. Before that he told them not to be anxious, not to worry. If they weren’t anxious before he mentioned carrying a cross, they probably were afterwards.
And now on top of all that, Jesus says, “It would be better to have a heavy stone tied around your neck than for you to cause someone to stumble.” The word translated “stumble” in this context means anything that causes another person to abandon faith, to turn away from allegiance to Jesus and his teachings. The stumbling block here is not the sin, not the seemingly unpardonable offense. The stumbling block comes from not forgiving that unforgivable behavior. So, if we put all this together, it seems that Jesus is saying something like this: “Practice repentance and forgiveness. Even when you are the one being wronged. Because other people’s lives are at stake. What you do or fail to do matters. A lot.”
The disciples are dumbfounded. How can they do all that he is asking? If they thought they were taking Discipleship 101, this just became a graduate level course. “Lord, increase our faith” they say.
Which is when Jesus says something about faith the size of a mustard seed. In our English translations, it sounds like it might be a put-down, like he is mocking them for the smallness of their faith. But he is not.
Today’s grammar lesson: In Greek there is something called a future conditional clause. The sentence could read "If you were to have the faith of a mustard seed ..." -- implying that you don't have that faith now. In Greek, there is also an "according to present reality conditional clause", in which case the sentence would read "If you have the faith of a mustard seed (and you do) . . .” In this passage, Jesus uses the present conditional reality clause. Jesus is saying that they already have enough faith to do what they need to do. They already have enough faith to do what seems inconceivable or improbable. Faith as small as a mustard seed has the power to create a new reality.
So let’s return to today’s theological riddle. What do Krazy Glue, pregnancy and faith have in common?
The Catholic priest and popular novelist Andrew Greeley once said that talking about having a little faith is like saying you’re a little pregnant. What Krazy Glue, pregnancy and faith have in common is that just a little bit does the job.
Today we observe World Communion Sunday. Christians in every time zone have gathered or will gather for worship. At table together we break bread and remember Jesus and his life-giving love. Together we anticipate that time when a great multitude, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages will stand before the Lamb and share in a heavenly banquet.
But also today, we observe the world. The world with its great divisions among tribes and peoples and nations. The world with its suffering and violence and hunger and war. We think of the work of reconciliation, of healing, of peace-making that Jesus has called us to. We think of how improbable it is that our efforts can succeed. The idea that you and I could significantly change the current reality of racism or terrorism or domestic violence seems ridiculous and we plead “O Lord, increase our faith.”
And gently, confidently Jesus says, “You already have enough faith. Put it into practice. If you had faith as small as a mustard seed, and you do, you could change reality. You do have the faith; you just have to exercise it.”
Some of you, like me, are continuing to follow the work against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. That story started last April, when LaDonna Brave Bull Allard gathered about 20 people to pray. LaDonna is a tribal historian for the Standing Rock Sioux. She has known since 2014 that the pipeline route would cut through her property, near her water well and a family members’ grave. So in April, her small group of 20 people began to camp on her property, which is called Sacred Stone Camp, to pray that others would join them and that together they would stop the pipeline. That small action started an international movement.
Now there are thousands of people camping and praying together in North Dakota; indigenous people across the world are standing in solidarity; and non-Natives have allied themselves with Native peoples. Members of the Crow nation haven’t been welcome guests in Sioux territory since 1876, when they allegedly scouted for Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. That’s 140 years of enmity. But in August, Crow Nation representatives bearing peace pipes and hundreds of pounds of buffalo meat arrived at the camp gates and were met formally by Standing Rock leaders. A murmur went through the crowd — peace was breaking out. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard found herself at lunch with a member of the Crow and a member of the Pawnee, a meeting that was perhaps as inconceivable as a mulberry tree planted in the sea.
* * *
Six years ago, many of you met my friend Vince Amlin when he preached at my installation. Since then, Vince has become father to Nola Grace whom you prayed for when she was born prematurely. You might remember that even after she left the NICU, she needed oxygen.
I’m happy to say that in this picture taken earlier this week, not only is the oxygen tube gone, but Nola is able to scream at full strength! Thanks be to God.
This picture is taken near her new home in Chicago, where her family has just moved because Vince will be co-pastoring a new church start. Vince and his co-pastor Rebecca have been given a vision of a progressive, inclusive, creative community of Christian faith. The church is named Gilead after a Biblical place of healing. They say, "we are open and affirming, anti-racist, local, organic, slow-church, just peace, free range, real butter Christians." 
Chicago already has thousands of churches, and many close out their ministry every year. Who would imagine starting a new church there? Those who have a mustard seed of faith and are willing to put it into practice.
* * *
One last story of someone willing to use the faith they already have. It happened near Memphis, Tennessee at a time when some churches were burning the Koran and many Christians were actively opposing the construction of mosques, one church did something different. (Find the story here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYembGqZF94)
This church’s action is controversial for some. One internet blogger said that Heartsong threw Jesus under the bus by sharing their space with Muslim people. There are also well-reasoned, less reactive arguments about why this might not have been good stewardship. But what is evident is that a congregation of Christians and a congregation of Muslims are friends, working together for the common good – a new reality that none of them anticipated. And the Heartsong Christians say it happened because they read their Bibles and prayed.
You have all the faith you need, Jesus says. Just act on it.
There is a prayer related to the text that I find helpful. It says, "O God, I don't pray for enough faith to move mountains or mulberry trees. I can get enough dynamite and bulldozers to do that. What I need and ask for is enough faith to move me."
May we have faith the size of a mustard seed, and by the grace of God may we know that it is enough. Amen.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, (New York: Harper & Row, 1973)
 Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 321.