by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, October 6, 2013:
First Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4;2:1-4
First Reading (Semi-cont.): Lamentations 1:1-6
Psalm: Psalm 37:1-10 (Psalm 37:1-9 NRSV)
Psalm (Semi-cont.): Lamentations 3:19-26
Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 137 (Psalm 137 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)
Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:1-14
Gospel: Luke 17:5-10
Perhaps the Gospels of past weeks and months have left you feeling depressed. You have begun to realize that you will never succeed at this Christianity thing. You can't even remember to make a donation, much less tithe regularly. You'd like to invite the poor to your dinner table, if you ever had time to eat dinner yourself, and you wonder if you still get Christianity Points if you invite the poor to dinner, but pick up that dinner from the deli. You'd like to look out for widows and orphans, but happily, you don't know of any. And frankly, most of the week, you don't have a spare moment to even ponder these things at all.
This week's Gospel offers encouraging news. It reminds us that belief has the power of a seed. As fewer of us plant anything, we may lose the power of that metaphor. But think of how inert a seed seems. It's hard to believe that anything can come from that little pod. And then we plunk it into the earth, where it seems even more dead--no sun, no light, no air.
But the dark earth is what it needs, along with water, maybe some fertilizer if the soil is poor, and time. And you don't even need much time. In the photo above, you see how mustard seeds can sprout with just moisture and 4 days.
With some luck, and more time, eventually we might all enjoy a tree. And not only us, but generations after us--that tree will outlive us all.
Christ reminds us that faith is like that seed. And the good news is that we don't have to have faith in abundance. A tiny seed's worth can create a world of wonders. And it's good to remember that we don't have to have consistent faith. We live in a world that encourages us to think that we'll eventually arrive at a place of perfect behavior: we'll exercise an hour a day, we'll forsake all beverages but water, we'll pray every hour, we'll never eat sugar or white flour again, we'll cook meals at home and observe regular mealtimes. We want lives of perfect balance, and we feel deep disappointment with ourselves when we can't achieve that, even when we admit that we'd need ten extra hours in the day to achieve that.
Jesus reminds us to avoid that trap of perfectionist expectations. People who have gone before us on this Christian path remind us of that too. Think of Mother Theresa. Her letters reveal that she spent most of her life feeling an absence of God. But that emotion didn't change her behavior. She tried to reveal the light of Christ to the most poor and outcast, and was largely successful. She didn't feel like she was successful, but she didn't get bogged down in those feelings of self-recrimination. And even when she did, she kept doing what she knew God wanted her to do.
Many of us might have seen Mother Theresa as a spiritual giant. We might feel dismayed to realize that she spent much of her life having a dark night of the soul kind of experience.
On the contrary, we should feel comforted. Maybe these letters show that she wasn't a spiritual giant. And look at what she was able to do.
Or maybe we should revise our definition of a spiritual giant. If you read the journals, letters, and private papers of many twentieth-century people who have been seen as spiritual giants (Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Madeleine L'Engle, Dorothy Day), you'll see that feelings of spiritual desolation are quite common. The fact that we have these feelings--does that mean that God has abandoned us?
Of course not. Those of us who have lived long enough have come to realize that our feelings and emotions are often not good indicators of the reality of a situation. Our feelings and emotions are often rooted in the fact that we haven't had enough sleep or the right kind of food.
The people who have gone before us remind us of the importance of continuing onward, even when we feel despair. Christ reminds us that we just need a tiny kernel of belief. All sorts of disciplines remind us that the world changes in tiny increments; huge changes can be traced back to small movements. Your belief, and the actions that come from your belief, can bear witness in ways you can scarcely imagine. Perfection is not required--just a consistent plodding down the path.