Last week we spoke about fear and how fear keeps one from fully realizing their faith and without a full realization of faith, how hard it is to live out God’s call to us. This week the story continues as Jesus comes back across the sea and encounters a large crowd. Unlike last, where we learned the debilitating nature of fear and doubt, this week we see the power and freedom that comes with faith.
There are two examples this week of faith that leads to healing: first is a woman who touches the cloak and is healed and the second is a man looking for help for his dying daughter. The link in both stories is an unquestioned faith which both individuals have that the power of Christ is so strong that he can set things right. Now many skeptics will make a point that the Bible makes it clear that both of these people are at their most desperate. A father about to lose his adolescent daughter and a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years! You cannot get more desperate than when one looks directly into mortality and here, both were.
Yet, in context with the story from last week, it is obvious something more is going on, maybe a clue as to how we are really called to live as the people of Christ. I think one of the things Christ really wants, but never really gets from his disciples is faith. Well, at least while he is in his mortal body.
They often come close to having faith, but the lingering doubt is very much there. It is seen in their response to when the hemorrhaging woman touches his cloak. Their response was that of the human mind: they are walking through a crowd; of course people would touch or bump into him. What they did not realize was that through the faith Christ could feel the healing and know that this touch was something more, something only He could know. Here is where if the disciples really had faith they would have understood why Christ would ask the question and recognize the miracle that happened.
In the same way the story of the dying girl reflects the same doubt. Though Jesus did not take all of the disciples to the place of the dying girl, from the story, when they got there the disciples remained in the background as they were brought in to see the miracle happen. As the girl, thought to be dead, rose “they were overcome with amazement.” A sign that even these three, known to be the closest saw something totally unexpected again exposed that lack.
The thing that is really important is that even in their lack of faith, Christ never abandons his disciples. Over and over we see that he is trying to teach them, often holding their hands as they try, but it is not until his earthly story is complete that they really believe. But in both of these stories, no matter the motivation, or desperation, each person just believes and is willing to hand over their trust into Christ. From that trust, they are made full, and can truly live.
We all know the famous Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This was a great quote at a very fearful time in American history. Both in economic insecurity and global unrest there was a lot to be fearful of, so the speech was to rally people around a truism that terror and fear is debilitating while hope frees us to live and overcome our difficulties. However, within the context of the speech FDR intimates that the power of fear is only the power we give it.
Later, Martin Luther King Jr. nuanced the quote to say, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Some say that this is misquoted from Roosevelt’s quote above. It may very well be, but I think it was a cunning change that brings in a stronger Christian understanding of fear. For as believers we know that fear is both real and powerful, yet we conquered it not by ignoring it or rationalizing it away; we conquer fear through our faith, knowing that the only thing we have to fear is God. Thus, if we look at fear from a biblical viewpoint, we recognize that fear is a tool that is used by those who wish to undermine the role of God and ultimately of faith.
The Book of Deuteronomy is one of the more interesting books which in its own definition is a second telling of the Law. Tradition states that Moses himself wrote it, but we know that is highly unlikely, both because of the timing and some internal clues. But that tradition plays into the importance, as one of the primary goals of the book is to recount the journey from Egypt to Israel (Canaan) but most importantly, Moses is giving the Law, a structure of the society which affirms both their covenant relationship with God and their ordered and civil reality.
Within this new society many fears would be revealed, mostly those fears of the unknown. Early in his first sermon in the book of Deuteronomy Moses addresses the very real fear the Hebrew people had:
"Have no dread or fear of them. 30 The LORD your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, 31 and in the wilderness, where you saw how the LORD your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you traveled until you reached this place. 32 But in spite of this, you have no trust in the LORD your God, 33 who goes before you on the way to seek out a place for you to camp, in fire by night, and in the cloud by day, to show you the route you should take." (Deuteronomy 1:29-33 NRS)
As a foundation to the sermon the issue that faces the people is fear, fear of the unknown, fear of the past, fear of each other. But as Moses will continue, fear and being afraid of the things that are in this world are fairly immaterial to the reality that the only thing we need to really be fearful of is God. This is shown through many of the following teachings.
For most of the Hebrew testament there is a constant affirmation that when we give into the fear of this world that fear drives us to destruction. Yet, the Hebrew testament is not without fear, since it calls all believers to fear God. Now for Christians we take this fear thing to another level in that our fear of God is coupled with our faith in Christ who is our advocate. This means that our fear of God only goes as far as our faith allows. In other words, we really have nothing to fear because if the only thing there is to fear is God and God has given us Christ who will advocate and give us grace, what is left for us to really fear? So we are left this Sunday asking the question of how our lives change when we live fear-free?
Ahh, the mustard seed! We have come to the reading about the mustard seed, a unique seed in its simplicity, perfection, and size. As one of the smallest seeds people regularly work with, the Mustard seed has become a natural example of how something so small can grow to be so big. The Mustard plant can get quite large; in fact, in time it will grow to resemble a tree. The mustard seed, though small, also has the ability to multiply over and over so that the seed by itself can produce an uncountable number of offspring.
Jesus uses this well-known imagery as a basis for a few teachings in the Gospels. Specifically this week we look at two of these Parables; the growing seed and the mustard seed plant. Both of these teachings use this imagery to talk about the power of God. While God may seem small and remote, the reality is the opposite.
Take the first Parable this week, the Growing seed. This may not seem relevant since we know scientifically the process of how a seed turns into a plant. But even with all our knowledge, most professional and amateur horticulturalists still maintain an awe as they watch the process of a seed growing into a plant and then to seed again. Even with all the knowledge of how this happens, we can still marvel at this process and be thankful to God for the bounty. Moreover, we can recognize that God needs us to sow the seeds, care for the plants, but when the harvest comes, God will provide.
The second parable is like the first. Here the Mustard seed is planted, and grows and grows. The seed itself is forgotten about as the plant grows and eventually becomes a home to birds where they can nest and reproduce themselves. This means that the seed no longer is about just propagating itself, but now has a dual role of growing with, but also being a catalyst for growth in another species.
As you can see there are a lot of implications for the church. All congregations start small, with a vision or seed. Those who join nurture the seed, care for it, and help it along its path. If we are faithful, it grows and at times it will produce its own offspring. But the church is also not only about itself because it has a role in the community to help be a catalyst for its growth and health. While the church may not benefit and at times it may even cause some damage, because of who we are, our home is expected to be a home for all who need it.
Personally, these parables have a lot to say about our faith as well. Many people struggle with faith. Let’s face it, from the beginning of faith, logical and reasoned arguments have been made which discount it. Often we are stuck in places where our faith feels small and seemingly remote. But if we find that seed and nurture it we can watch it grow and develop. We can get to the point where our faith has matured to the point where we share it with others, and that becomes the start of faith in their lives.
So as you think this week of your faith, think about that mustard seed faith in your life, or in our congregation. Where is it? Are you nurturing it? Does it need replanting?
It would be hard to highlight a bad experience on my trip to Israel, but if I were forced I would have to admit that the trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem might have been close. For me, a loud and dark place jam-packed with people is not my perspective of fun. But beyond the people, as we walked in the church you could hear the tour guides telling the interesting story not of the crucifixion, but of the historic fight over territory inside the cathedral by various Christian sects. It was interesting to see a place that was set to commemorate a gracious gift of faith and life turned into a model for the dysfunction of Christendom.
While there are some parts of the Bible that support the idea of a person who is charged with wreaking havoc on the world (Satan), I reject that for an understanding that recognizes that there is a real presence of evil in this world. Unlike the boogey man that is trying to tempt you, this real presence of evil is insidious and moves more like a cancer. It is also something that we cannot separate ourselves from except through the grace and redemption through Christ.
In this week’s passage we see something very interesting; Jesus is called Satan. Know here is the interesting thing. Through logic Jesus comes back and refutes the accusation saying “How can Satan cast out Satan?” For Jesus, while there may be a Satan (depending on the gospels we get differing interpretations) that person is no where as bad as our personal decisions. In his strong rebuke at the end of the parable (Mark 3:29b) he says “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”.
It changes the line from what we can blame on someone else vs. what we are actually doing. I don’t hear the line all that much today, but when I was a kid I used to hear people all the time say, often with a smirk, “oh, the devil made me do it” when they did something naughty. But the reality is that we make choices, and we can control the evil within if we recognize and commit to following Christ.
And this is where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre comes in, because it is an example of what happens when we allow the evil inside to take over. Instead of creating a space to further the message of Christ, it has become a testament of dysfunction, fighting, and our very human fights over power and control. In fact, one could say that what is happening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a direct witness to how evil can separate people not just from each other, but also from the Word of God.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen