Small Seeds, Signs, and Wonders

The Mulberry Tree by Vincent van Gogh

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Luke 17:5-10

So often it seems that Jesus was not really listening. He seems not to have listened to what people asked him or said to him, or maybe it is just that his responses were so unexpected.

His disciples, some of them, maybe all of them, however many there were at this moment—nothing here mentions a number—ask Jesus to increase their faith. It’s unclear what they expect. Maybe they thought he would touch them, or wave his hand over them, or speak a few words like a prayer, and they would have enough faith to work miracles.

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh
Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Signs and wonders. That is what they wanted to work, signs and wonders, and that is why they asked for more faith. And who could blame them? They had grown up hearing about floating axeheads, of poison made harmless with a little salt, of bears and of drought and of rain and of fire falling from heaven. Never mind Moses, the Hebrew superhero of the ancient world.

Instead, Jesus tells them that it doesn’t take much faith, not really. It’s the famous mustard seed line—if you had faith as a grain or seed of mustard, you could command mulberry trees to leap into the sea. (What did he have against mulberry trees?)

Maybe he meant that a tiny amount of faith was enough. It isn’t about the size of one’s faith, but of God’s power. That sounds ok, doesn’t it? After all, if we go around trying to measure faith, trying to determine how much is enough, enough to be thought faithful, enough to be thought good, enough faith to be thought a child of God, then where would it end and how much would be enough?

Jesus went on to remind them all that they were no better than slaves, that the work they did was only what was expected. So what if they managed enough faith to order trees around, or to work miracles, it was only what was expected.

There are problems with that line of thinking, of course. We don’t go ordering trees around, and if we do, they do not listen. It was never about hurling mulberry trees into the sea anyway.

Almond Blossom by Vincent van Gogh
Almond Blossom by Vincent van Gogh

It is an appealing thought, this notion of having command over nature, ordering trees and rocks to do as we see fit. It’s wizard stuff. All in the service of God, of course—if one ordered a tree to jump into the ocean, it would be in the service of God, wouldn’t it?

Only how does that work? Why would God empower us to command trees? To impress unbelievers? That would probably work wonders on church attendance, though God could come up with more impressive displays. It is an odd image, suicidal trees, like wooden lemmings leaping from a cliff’s edge.

Why would Jesus offer such a thing instead of, say, telling us we could heal the sick, or raise the dead? Wouldn’t healing the sick be at least as impressive as bullying trees, and be of direct benefit to the sick?

No, it was never about the trees. And a tiny amount of faith is enough, he says, to work astonishing miracles, at least the ones that matter.

Maybe that is it.

Jesus is not only ascribing a size to our imagined faith, but taking the air out of our self aggrandizing miracle balloon. Our tiny faith would be sufficient, since God is sufficient. On the other hand, God isn’t asking for anyone to work flashy miracles. God asks for day to day things: plowing a field, tending sheep, serving a meal, all of which are miraculous in an everyday way, when you think about them. Planting a field of grain and watching it grow is astonishing. Working wool into a blanket is miraculous, especially in the winter. To serve a meal is to sustain both life and civilization, embodied in a single simple act.

Maybe we could paraphrase Jesus.

“If you had any real faith, the tiniest bit, you’d already be working signs and wonders. You’d be growing things, growing one another, tending to one another. Feeding people, meeting their needs. Those are signs, and wonders, enough for anyone. And you wouldn’t go around expecting thanks either. You’d do it because you ought to do it, because what you are doing becomes who you are. You’d do it because that’s what God’s people do. You’d do it because that’s what God does.”

There.

Still, a little of that commanding mulberry trees kind of stuff would be useful. Or fire from heaven.

The Mulberry Tree by Vincent van Gogh
The Mulberry Tree by Vincent van Gogh

On Good Authority

X-Rays streaming from the sun

Luke 7:1-10 | Second Sunday after Pentecost

On Good Authority

For a Roman centurion to take an interest in local religious observances was not strange. Rome worshiped many gods, a pantheon, and Roman soldiers came from all over the empire. We don’t know this man’s place of origin. It is possible that he was already familiar with the Jews before he ever became a soldier.

Whatever gods Roman had given him, he also recognized the God of the Jews, either instead of the gods of Rome or in addition to them. Luke’s Gospel does not make the claim that the centurion was Jewish. More likely he fit the category of ‘God-fearer’, a gentile who acknowledged the Jewish God and followed some manner of observance of Jewish custom. He was an outsider looking into the faith community.

Stars - Hubble image
Stars – Hubble image

The story has echoes of another one, an older one from 2 Kings 5:1-19, of Naaman, the Syrian, who came to Elisha, the Jewish prophet, to be healed. In a reversal of roles from Luke’s story, Naaman, who is also a military commander, is the one who is sick and a slave urges him to trust the power of the prophet Elisha in Israel. In another reversal, Naaman, himself a man with authority, does not recognize the power in the prophet’s instruction but expects a more magical approach.

There is also an echo of the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32-33. As Jacob’s powerful brother drew near, Jacob sent servants and gifts ahead of him to smooth the way. As Jesus is approaching this centurion’s home, the man sends groups of friends to do the same. Jacob meets his brother and receives a blessing, but the centurion (like his servant) receives a blessing before even meeting Jesus.

Any fool can come to obey authority. It takes wisdom to recognize true power.

Of course, authority has often been the trouble with religion. Jesus welcomed everyone at his table. He healed outsiders, touched people who were despised, preached forgiveness and inclusion. We who claim to follow Jesus often condemn and exclude, despise those who leave blemishes on our clean pews, and send the outsiders away. Of the few we invite to our table, many feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and judged. Not that Christians are alone. Followers of every religion in the world have given outsiders plenty of reason not to come in, and given plenty of insiders reasons to leave.

We should beg forgiveness. All of that is only the imposition of authority, and it has nothing at all to do with true power. Most authority is exercised by those who fear losing it, while real power comes from love.

Spiral Galaxy - Hubble image
Spiral Galaxy – Hubble image

When he sees that his slave is sick, the centurion sends a message to Jesus, who happens to be in town. (The plainest reading of the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one written, tells us that Jesus had a home in Capernaum.) Perhaps this Roman had heard stories about Jesus, or perhaps he had witnessed a miracle himself. We do not know. It is possible that they had met, though Luke does not tell us so. We are told that this centurion had servants and means. He is credited with having built the local synagogue and with having grateful friends among the Jewish elders.

Like any good soldier, he has a plan. He does three things that taken separately are straightforward but that taken together are remarkable. He recognizes his opportunity — Jesus entering the town at his moment of need — and he seizes it. Second, he bases his action on his faith, whereas most of us use faith like toppings on ice cream — something sprinkled on top at the end. Third, he shows that he understands the difference between magic and true power — that the authority Jesus possesses comes from who he is, not from any ritual that needs to be performed, and that true power has a long reach.

A Roman soldier would have appreciated the long reach of power. In other gospel stories, people beg Jesus to come to them, to touch them, to perform some manner of ritual to cure them. Nearness and touch are part of their religious understanding — it is a faith of small distances, a near field understanding of power. The centurion suggests that true power is more like gravity — pervasive, continuous, unseen, but always touching everything.

We are often touched by things that come from far away: light from the sun, the words of a poet who died centuries before we were born, the gravity of memory. Open a drawer to find an object belonging to a loved one long gone — his glasses, her locket — and we are touched once again by the ones we have loved. Modern science posits the possibility that quantum particles may be connected over vast distances. Poets and theologians have known something of the same sort for thousands of years.

After all, what is distance to God?

X-Rays streaming from the sun
X-Rays Streaming from the Sun

What We Were Told

Cave Painting of Lions - Chauvet

Seventh Sunday of Easter | John 17:20-26

What We Were Told

It sounds like a fairy tale, if you listen to it as though for the first time. A hero comes along, we are told, born like anyone else, but we hear that he is sent by God. More, we hear that he is himself God. It is a classic second birth story, like the duckling becoming a swan, or a girl becoming a princess, or a boy learning that he is a wizard. Then, just as our man becomes the hero we know him to be, he is killed by evil rulers, but as in any good fairy tale, he comes back to life—another second birth narrative.

So why should anyone believe that this particular fairy tale is true? Should we believe Jesus was God incarnate because people told us so?

A fair number of people do believe the gospel story simply because they were told to believe it. From the time they were children, their parents or family or friends told them it was true, and so they came to believe the gospel stories the same way they might have embraced Hindu gods or Muslim teachings had they been born into a different family or culture.

The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David
Marriage at Cana by Gerard David

Many people do not accept any religious ideas. Some of them grew up being told a religion was true, but they deconstructed their belief system as they grew older and cast it aside, disillusioned either with crude theology or with the hypocrisy of older so-called believers. Some of them were never taught any religion at all, or were taught that it is all just hocus pocus.

To put it another way, if we only believe in God because someone told us we should, is that faith? Does faith require something more than accepting what we’ve been told as though it is, well, gospel?

Of course, there is the opposite problem, recorded by the apostle Paul: “And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14) The entire history of religions is one of passing knowledge, thoughts, understanding from one person and one generation to another. “For I handed on to you…what I in turn had received….” (1 Cor 15:3)

If no one tells us the story, how can we believe it? And yet, just because someone tells us a story, is that any reason to believe it?

And what does it mean if we say we believe this gospel tale? Does it mean we insist on every detail? Do we argue over how to make the story John tells match up with the different one Mark gives us? Where is the truth in knowing what Jesus did, and where, and when?

Or is the truth that sets men free something different than a factual biography of Jesus? There are plenty of things in a gospel—narratives, quotations, prayers—but the gospels are not biographies any more than Genesis is a science text.

Hands Painted on Cave Wall, Argentina
Cave of the Hands, Argentina

The first miracle Jesus performs in John’s Gospel, the sign that marks the beginning of our hero’s quest, is turning water into wine. (This is not part of the other gospels. Mark and the other two synoptic gospels have different truths to tell.) In the story as told in John, the miracle is a simple thing, an act of grace performed at his mother’s request at the wedding of friends of the family. In John’s symbology, the wine that was water is huge, a theological symbol flowing throughout the Gospel.

Changing belief into faith is like changing water into wine. We start with a story as simple and clear as water, but when we take it in, the story changes. Any great story changes those who hear it, and when they pass it on, something of everyone who has heard it and retold it is passed along as well.

We hear about cave people living thousands of years ago, their animal skin clothing and stone tools, and it is an interesting story. Stand in one of their caves, look at the beautiful simplicity of the art they have left behind, and suddenly the story changes. Hearing about it, we believe the truth of what the archaeologists and anthropologists tell us. Standing in a cave, seeing a painted antelope or human handprint made with colorful clay on the cave wall, our belief changes to something like faith in humanity reaching back through the centuries.

We may believe that lions exist, but it took faith to create paintings like the ones on the walls of Chauvet Cave. Whoever left those images for us, we know with certainty that their lives were changed by the lions they encountered. We may believe that God exists, but we begin to have faith when our lives are changed by our encounters, even if all we see of God is like firelight on the walls of a cave.

Cave Painting of Lions - Chauvet
Painting of Lions, Chauvet Cave, France

Would You Want to See?

Child Raising Pirate Patch for Better Look

Fourth Sunday of Easter | John 10:22-42

Would You Want to See?

Religious folk are seldom happy and almost never satisfied. You might argue the point, but in the gospels the religious folk are the only ones who cannot see what Jesus is doing.

The blind see. The lame get up and walk away. Even dead people get up and walk away. Everyone sees it happening, everyone that is except the religious folk. You’d think they would be on the lookout for such signs and wonders, but no. Even when they notice a miracle, they complain that it was done on the wrong day, the Sabbath, or that Jesus had no clear license to perform such miracles—who gave him permission?

Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell
Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell

Seeing is not believing, not for the religious folk, not for the religious leaders, not in any of the gospels, not in the Gospel of John. In the gospel accounts, religious people look at the world through the lenses of their belief system, and the shades they wear block out more than sunlight. They’re not just wearing spiritual Ray-Bans. These people are peering at the world through welding helmets.

The faithful, well, they are a different story. Plenty of them see the signs, read them just fine, and come to the conclusion that Jesus comes from God. It is plain to them. This odd bunch of fisherman and tax collectors and prostitutes, teachers and workmen and shepherds, they get it. Maybe they have the advantage of not being blinded by belief, and so they are better able to see with eyes of faith.

We’re not that different from the people in John’s Gospel. Instead of believing what we see, we see what we believe.

If God had a face, what would it look like?We look at cars and clothes, and we believe certain brands are better. Sometimes we are right. Often, we go on buying the more expensive brand just because we believe it is better, not because we see any difference. It may even be that we trick ourselves into seeing a difference because we believe there is one.

We look at people, and most of us see what we think they are. It happens all the time. It is true of the rich and famous and powerful, but it is more true of the weak, the failed, the different. The more radically different people might be, the more likely we are to see only what we already think about them. That’s how minorities—by color or creed or any other measure—are treated as lesser people. That’s how the homeless become a ‘problem’ instead of people.

Maybe that is why so many marginal people were drawn to Jesus. He saw them—them, not some idea about them, and they knew the difference. Maybe that is why so many people who are different become marginalized. We look at them and see what we think they are—not them, but some idea about them, and they know the difference.

Belief is an intellectual thing, a choice, a trick of the mind. Faith? “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”¹ Faith requires thought, of course, but it is made of something else, something more. Belief speaks of what we think, but faith speaks of who we are.

There are things our bones and our hearts know long before our minds assent.

__________

¹ Hebrews 1:1, a famous verse, and much better to focus upon than the “an eye for an eye” that some people favor.

Child Raising Pirate Patch for Better Look

Faith, Religion, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night

Van Gogh - Starry Night

Reign of Christ | John 18:33-37

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Faith, Religion, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night

Pilate was sick of religion. We can also tell, just from his portrayal in John’s Gospel, that Pilate was still bound by it.

“What is truth?” That is what he said when Jesus claimed to be the voice of truth. At least, that is the story that we have from the Gospel. We are not told who else was in the room, who might have reported the conversation. The Gospel claims that one of the disciples, not named, was known to the household of the high priest, that he got Peter and himself inside; perhaps that disciple or someone else was also known within the household of Pilate.

We do not know. Perhaps Pilate himself told the story of what happened between him and Jesus, thinking to absolve himself.

Van Gogh - Starry Night Over the RhoneWhat is truth? It might be the answer of a man who knew the arguments of philosophers and theologians. It might also be the answer of a jaded politician, tired of the lies that surround anyone in power. Likely, it is both.

One of the most interesting points in John’s account is further down, in v.19:8 — Pilate is afraid when he hears accusations that Jesus claimed to be a son of God. It is an interesting response from a man with so much power. The Jewish leaders are angered by implications that Jesus is of God; Pilate is afraid. The Roman pantheon included many gods and many children of the gods. No doubt Pilate had heard the stories from an early age, and even this philosopher who could disparage the concept of truth still clung to his fear of gods.

Was that a sign of faith from Pilate? Or was it only the trappings of a faith that had degraded into mere religion and superstition?

How much of what we do is faith, and how much is just religion — habit, ritual, upbringing, superstition, magical thinking? It would be so much simpler to embrace atheism, just to rid ourselves of the entanglements of religion. The logic would be cleaner. Our role in the universe would be clearer. Imagine there’s no heaven, as the song goes.

The world would also be simpler without poets and story-tellers, without painters who transform our world into something new, something it is not, giving us some new way of seeing what we have overlooked or never realized.Van Gogh Starry Night (Drawing)

Lay aside, for the moment, the question of who is right, of which faith group has the proper understanding of God, of whether there is a right understanding to be had among us. Even if our search for God is wrong, even if the vision of our faith is dim, hampered by blinders, are we better off without it?

Life is simpler without faith, but is it better?

Consider Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. The painting isn’t very realistic. One may argue with perfect logic that gazing at the image might distort one’s apprehension of the true appearance of stars. Were we to burn van Gogh’s Starry Night, would our appreciation of the night sky improve?

The stars are more than I can see with my eyes. The energy riding in waves through this universe slips by unnoticed. I do not know what Van Gogh understood of such things, but his painting reminds me that life is more than what I see, more than I understand.

Bumper stickers tell us to Keep It Simple. Whatever life is, it is not simple. It is layered, complex, nuanced. It is beautiful. It is infinite.

Religion can be wrong, is often wrong. It can limit our thoughts, trap us in a too small cage built by rules and by closed-mindedness. The rote practice of religion is only the ossification of faith, a thought experiment turned into prison walls. A failed experiment is no reason to stop trying.

Rote religion is what happens when we think we already have all the answers. When we keep looking for truth, that is the expression of faith.

Van Gogh - Starry Night