Monday, July 18, 2011

Can Faith Really Move Mountains?

Once upon a time, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20).
Was Jesus being serious? Can my faith or your faith really move mountains? Or heal people, as in "faith healing?" Or help me become wealthy? If I have more faith, is it more likely that God will grant me what I ask for?
I don't think so.
Actually, few texts in the Bible have been so misunderstood as Jesus' words about faith moving mountains. This mostly stems from the fact the people try to read the Bible "literally" instead of as literature. The two words are similar, but they don't mean the same thing. You read the Bible as literature when you try to understand it in its own ancient literary context. But reading it "literally" means that your fallback position is to read the Bible as if it is as direct and easy to understand as a contemporary newspaper report. I don't recommend the latter.
At one level, we understand this. For example, few of us mistake biblical parables for straight reporting. Parables are fanciful stories that teach profound spiritual lessons, much like Aesop's fables teach moral lessons. The Psalms are a songbook. While the music might be lost, we understand that the words are what we would call lyrics--and that the words of the Psalms often make their point in lyrical, figurative ways.
On the other hand we don't always recognize what kind of literature or literary devices we are reading in scripture. And then we compound the problem by trying to interpret these "difficult" passages literally. This is a common problem especially when it comes to creation and flood stories in Genesis and the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.
Jesus' suggestion that if we had faith as large as a mustard seed we could move mountains is a good example. I did an internet search and found several articles that suggested that we could actually move mountains if we had enough faith; or (more likely) that we could heal ourselves or others if we had enough faith. Other articles were "how to" articles about building a faith to mustard-seed sized proportions. Of course these approaches suggest that when mountains stay put, or when healing doesn't come, the problem is that we didn't have enough faith.
But that literalistic approach is all wrong. Jesus was actually using a literary device called hyperbole. That is, in this statement he used outrageous exaggeration to make an important point.
No one has ever had faith large enough--that is, at least as large as a tiny mustard seed--to throw a mountain in the sea. Such faith is the domain of Jesus alone. In this passage Jesus is actually pointing out that humans always limp along, faith-wise. That, in fact, is one of the reasons he must die, the topic he next turns to in Matthew.
The apostle Paul plays on this statement of Jesus when he says that even if (and Paul knew that this was impossible) he had the faith to move mountains, but did not have love, he would be nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2). More hyperbole, but with a lovely twist. The focus of scripture is not what faith is good for, but how love is everything.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Not By Careful Observation of the Law

This past Sunday I preached on how we need less rules, tradition, and law in our churches, and more flexibility when it comes to embracing people who have different views than the majority on such things.

I got started by noticing that the thing that kept the nine lepers in Luke 17 from showing their gratitude to Jesus was their observance of the law. Jesus may have sent them to the priest, but he wasn't that impressed that they didn't turn back, like the Samaritan leper did. I also noticed that in the next passage, Luke 17:20, Jesus says (my translation) "The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that comes through careful observation of the law." Most (all?) translations usually have only "observation," but given the context and the specialized meaning of the Greek word there, I think my translation is better. It is certainly a lesson that the nine lepers would have benefited from.

Unfortunately churches have a long history of demanding of people that they do things that the church in its wisdom later decided it shouldn't have ever demanded. We've been told not to play cards, dance, go to movies, ride bikes on Sundays, or marry Canadians or Catholics or even Baptists. The church has insisted that women not preach, that communion not be served to divorced people or children, and that we should not welcome (at various stages in our history) Catholics, or those who live together outside of traditional marriage, alchoholics, or people of different races.

The truth is, the more churches demand that people obey the rules, written or not, the more likely that those churches are missing the main point of their existence--putting gratitude to Jesus first so that we can love our neighbors better. Even more ironically, the more churches demand that people obey rules, the more likely they are to suffer loss, or even schism, too. I'm reminded of what Kenneth Burke once said, " . . . nothing can more effectively set people at odds than the demand that they think alike.”

Of course, churches need rules. But healthy church communities also need lots of loving flexibility. Will this flexibility undermine Christian self-discipline? The apostle Paul is aware of this danger in Romans 6, when he asks, "Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?" His answer is "by no means." So, instead of making the fine print of the law our guide, Paul suggests Christians should instead "obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance." And that pattern is a life of deep gratitude for our redemption, gratitude made evident in love of God and neighbor.

How such freedom in Christ works in particular situations can be a great mystery and even a difficult responsibility. All this freedom from the law--even some of the laws we get from Paul, later in the New Testament--can make some of us feel insecure and uncertain when it comes to rules and traditions. But the Holy Spirit, our counselor and comforter who helps us understand scripture was sent to us by Jesus for just that reason--and to help us make decisions that are truly in line with the pattern of teaching that has now claimed our allegiance. Following that internal heart pattern is what Jesus is referring to, in verse 20 and 21, when he says that kingdom of God comes not by careful observation of the law, but rather, it is already in our midst.

Besides being a mystery, this freedom in Christ is also our great adventure, our way of living large and joyously. This freedom in Christ is not a guarantee that we'll always get it right; but it is freedom rooted in the assurance that when we do mess up, we are forgiven. This freedom in Christ and from the law always lands us at his feet in gratitude rather than in fear for having misunderstood some tradition or Bible passage.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Small Churches

Although the crowds at Cobourg's Waterfront Festival might make you forget it for a day or two, Cobourg is actually a small town. In fact, every town or village in Northumberland County is small. Like the church I pastor.

Most of us are not impressed with small, unless it's our cell phones we're talking about. If we had a choice, we're rather shop at Yorkdale or even the Oshawa Centre than Northumberland Mall. A 3,000 square foot house on ten acres seems more impressive than a 1200 square foot house on a city-sized lot. And, unfortunately for the earth, most of us prefer to drive trucks or SUVs than Chevy Cruzes or Honda Civics.

My church is small. I think this is frustrating, sometimes, for Grace Church's members. I hear things like, "if Grace was big we could have a bunch of more programs, a renovated sanctuary, a real pipe organ, and a parsonage on the lake for the pastor." Sometimes it is frustrating for me, too--and I'm not even thinking of that parsonage. I'd love to have a full-time youth leader instead of a half-time leader, a full-time professional musician and a second pastor on staff, and plenty of people to do drama and volunteer and play different instruments every Sunday.

From God's perspective, though, size isn't everything. In fact, God has a soft spot for small. God runs his kingdom on a "little David and big Goliath" economy. His heroes are people of little courage, like Jonah; foreigners of little account, like Ruth; and just plain little people like Zacchaeus. God chose Israel to tell the world about his grace--a people about as small and insignificant as you could find in the ancient world. Jesus made do with just twelve disciples. The parable of the mustard seed teaches us that God's kingdom is like the smallest seed, which will nevertheless grow--not into a huge tree--but at least a large bush. Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt 5:5). And while the apostle Paul wasn't immune to the drawing power of big cities like Rome and Ephesus, he spent most of his time working with little churches in middling towns with funny names like Lystra, Derbe and Berea; Philippi, Perga and Iconium. Several times he even greets churches so small that they meet in homes.

Small can be frustrating. But if you go to one of the small churches in Northumberland County, your likely to find a group of people who keep track of each others' birthdays and anniversaries, who care for each other's children, and who continue visiting each other even if when move into a nursing home or hospital. Youth groups in small churches are for making life-long friends, and music in small churches is sung with fervor rather than played by a band as entertainment. Small churches are communities where, even if you can't quite remember everyone's name, you know everyone loves you, and keeps an eye out for you.

In fact, in a lot of ways, small churches are like Cobourg or Port Hope or Brighton. It's nice to know that a big city is just down the road for those times you just can't do without the symphony or the Blue Jays, or even Yorkdale, I guess. But do you really want to live there?

And that's why I'd rather go to a small church too. After all, Jesus also said that, "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." And if he is there, when it comes to church, you know the main thing has already happened.