The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Grace Church, Holland on October 2, 2016 – Proper 22, Year C: 2Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
“Lord, increase our faith,” the disciples said to Jesus.
Now I know that request well because I’ve prayed it, and I’ve heard it prayed by others. Maybe you have been known to pray it once or twice along the way. And the thinking goes something like, “If only I had just a little more then …” Then what? This phase of life would be easier? Or that part would be more bearable? Or what is it that you seek? Increase my faith, Lord so that I can be stronger? Wiser? More hopeful? Depending on the day it can be any or all of those things and more.
And so as people regularly long for more faith I hear them/us wonder aloud about how faith happens. Just how do these increases take place? Often the stories we hear about faith beginning or faith growing lean toward the lightening bolt types of experiences like Paul’s where he was blinded on the road to Damascus by a bright light. And in one day’s time he turned from persecutor of Christians to disciple of Jesus – proclaiming Christ crucified and risen to the entire region of early Christendom. There’s an increase for ya! And so we almost expect that if faith is going to catch and really grow it must happen through the type of divine intervention that stops us on the road, opens our eyes, and puts us on the right path – dramatically, quickly, and preferably without any doubts, questions or contradictions woven in there too. Paul became a person of deep and profound faith in the literal blink of an eye. Faith happened for him and happens for a few others whose stories are apparently worth telling almost instantaneously. And there’s something sort of attractive about that.
But then there were and are people like Timothy. Timothy was one of Paul’s closest companions. They became like family and as they served together as evangelists and missionaries in the early church. Timothy was featured in several Epistles (letters) of the New Testament. Paul wrote letters to Timothy as is the case with the passage we heard today. He also wrote some Epistles with Timothy by his side, letters like 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians. He’s actually venerated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Episcopal churches and commemorated in other traditions such as ELCA and Missouri Synod Lutherans. Timothy was huge in the early church, supporting Paul but also traveling on his own throughout Macedonia, preaching, teaching, sharing the gospel doing faithful sorts of missionary, apostolic sorts of things. So like Paul, Timothy was also a person of deep and profound faith.
And so how did faith happen for him? For Timothy. Bright lights? Major crisis? Road-stopping intervention? Voice of God breaking through the clouds? Maybe a burning bush?
Nope. None of that. Are you ready for this? Timothy “got faith” from his Mother, Eunice and his grandmother, Lois. That’s it. That’s Timothy’s story. Nothing burning or flashing or even very dramatic about it. The stars of the show were a mother and grandmother for heaven’s sakes. Timothy wasn’t a persecutor turned apostle. He was apparently your basic Sunday School kid, maybe an acolyte, perhaps as he got older he read on occasion. Maybe he sang in the choir. Or maybe Timothy sat in the back pews with his arms crossed because he didn’t want to be there but Eunice made him. And Eunice probably wondered if it was worth it at the time. (And just for the record you all need to know that Eunice and Lois made it into the Epistle too. And I love that. They were the seed planters who faithfully, stubbornly, lovingly made sure that Timothy was a part of the community of faith. And it mattered.)
Over the years, Eunice and Lois and their community told Timothy stories from Scripture which for them included the Hebrew Scriptures, Torah and the prophets – and these for them these “new letters” and very early forms of the Christian gospels. They told the stories and so Timothy knew about the goodness of Creation, the liberation and wandering of the Israelites. He knew the promises of Ruth, the comfort of the Shepherd, and the vision of Isaiah. He knew about healing. And every Sunday Timothy heard about resurrection.
Timothy’s faith happened very simply because he was a part of the Church. He knew about the hopes of his people, the prayers of his people, the hurts, the dreams, the losses and graces of his people and the presence of God among them. Over time Timothy learned about breaking and sharing bread. He learned that people break too and also that there is a larger wholeness to which we have been invited. He learned about the needs of the orphans and the widows, about feeding the hungry and sheltering those without homes. Timothy learned the faith, saw, touched, tasted, experienced the faith in ongoing, steady, at times boringly predictable, at times blessedly predictable week after week sorts of ways. Essentially, Timothy got faith by being with others who shared the faith with him.
That’s how faith happened for Timothy and I’m guessing that’s how faith happens for most of us. If you have burning bush stories by all means we want to hear them. And I know and believe they are out there. But it wasn’t so much a light that blinded Timothy on his road. It was simply that there were a whole lot of people on the road with him the whole way. Faith happened because of that older guy who came to church every Sunday not matter what. Timothy knew that that guy whose name he only learned after watching him for years, he knew that guy would be in the pews, or vested up front every Sunday, and there was something wonderfully predictable and comforting about that. Timothy sort of loved the way the guy looked up and said, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” Faith happened because those other kids who robed up with him or giggled with him in class, or sat in the pew next to him singing (and occasionally whispering, giggling more together. Faith increased because of those adults who read Timothy stories even when his head was down or he was coloring and “not listening”, those adults who refused to stop offering their time, their faith even when they could tell that a part of Timothy was nearly desperate for his earphones. Faith happened because of that day when Timothy got up to read, or he showed up to feed, or he walked lots and lots of miles with a pack on his back, a trip that revealed that there was a people and maybe even a God who had his back all the time, no matter what road he was on. It was all of those moments that made faith happen for Timothy.
And so perhaps this is what we need to hear: Faith is something we can give to one another. It’s that simple and I think it’s also that beautiful. And not only that but such faith is often something we give without our even knowing it. Faith is the result of those (rare here at Grace, I’m sure) but those very occasional Sunday morning battles to just everyone get in the car. Faith happens because we are simply here, praying, singing, passing the peace, breaking and sharing the bread because not matter our particular faith-quantity-level- we all need to see, to experience – to touch, to taste, to know that kind of here-ness.
Faith increases because we tell the stories and refuse to stop, making plenty of room for doubts and questions and contradictions that deepen us. We tell the stories about the goodness of Creation, the promise of Ruth, the vision of Isaiah – the setting free of captives, the giving of sight to the blind, the feeding the five thousand, stories about being set free even as we grow in love of our neighbors. Faith happens because we stubbornly, faithfully offer ourselves and proclaim resurrection week after week after week. Because we work hard to receive and embody that for which we hope. We are those people on the road with the Timothys we are. So, thank you Eunices of Grace. Thank you Loises of Grace. Hang in there, Timothys – all it takes is a seed and the seeds have undoubtedly, lovingly been planted among us. Seeds enough to move trees, and perhaps even mountains.