There is much in our outer world to lament, to fear, to regret. And there is much in our inner world to repent of, to let go of, and to resolve to grow into mature faith. Maybe like Timothy we are being reminded that we were not given a spirit of cowardice but of power, love and self-discipline. (RCL Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10.) This is a time that needs disciples who are ready to serve, to give voice to the unspeakable, to be hopeful in a troubled world.
It is a troubling but powerful gift that our spiritual tradition includes lamentation – the tradition of being able to raise our voices in cries of despair, rage, regret. Indeed, I believe it to be a great gift to us as communities of faith and as a group within the broader community that there is this tradition of saying in the presence of God, of shouting or whimpering to God, what is so often thought of as unspeakable. It is psychologically important that we can speak our terrible truth and hear the heart breaking truth of others. It also adds depth to our faith and relationship with God when we give expression to our horror, our grief, our regret and fears. At this moment in world history and church history there is much to be lamented and we have an ancient and sacred tradition that gives us words and forms for doing this.
And there is much about our faith journey that needs to be grappled with. We expect Jesus to speak gentle words of encouragement and sometimes he does but often Jesus has some fairly pointed words for those who would be disciples and so there is this week in Luke 17:5-10. Chapter 16 seemed to have a theme of critiquing the religious leaders and now chapter 17 seems to be critiquing the disciples. The first verses warn them that they are to do no harm, especially to the young and vulnerable (a very contemporary warning). It is in response to this warning that the disciples cry out “then give us more faith!” to which Jesus effectively responds “You’re asking the wrong question! Faith is not a currency that you need more of (if you had even a grain of faith you could do great works now) but rather it is proper relationship with God.” The image of that relationship being like a slave and their master is very difficult for us to hear or to decipher in ways that it probably would not have been for the first century audience where slave ownership was an economic question not a moral one. Possibly teacher and student, coach and athlete, or master and apprentice, would go some distance toward what was being said. We as disciples have placed ourselves under the wisdom, guidance and authority of the teacher, coach or master and have committed to follow the path as taught to us. The growth of faith is related, at least in part, to following the path given us.
Now we have, rightly, come to place constraints and boundaries of the authority of one human over another in all of these relationships for many reasons including that such relationships have often been the locations of abuse and misuse. But it is to our detriment as disciples when we will not succumb to any greater authority than our current level of understanding or surrender any of our self will. As a good middle aged feminist when I was called to the priesthood one of the hardest things I contemplated was swearing obedience to a bishop. What gave me the self permission to do so was that the phrase ‘so long as it is right and lawful’ was included in the vow and so I could find a way to make the promise without abdicating my responsibility to make sure that demands made of me were lawful and morally and spiritually right. Maybe there is some of this quality that we need to maintain in our faith development.
And it is not only a question of obedience – listening and doing – but of courage and commitment. Paul, or the one who writes in the tradition of Paul, writes to Timothy that we were not “given a spirit of cowardice, but rather a sprit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” It strikes me as very important and wise that the antidote to cowardice or faintheartedness is not a single quality but a state of being that is infused with the power of God, which is surely love, and calls forth our capacity to be self disciplined. Each quality on its own is less than the power, gentleness, and self controlled purposefulness of this image. You may wish to reflect on how you think those qualities add depth and spark to one another while holding it all check. We know what goes wrong when power acts on its own, or how love alone sometimes does not challenge us to grow, or self discipline alone is another form of self will. But those qualities held in balance may just be the way of being we can aspire to and know, at least in moments.
While Jesus is often tender, all forgiving and encouraging with the crowd, he also often turns aside to the disciples and speaks more firmly with less praise and more challenge. This week I think we should read those first few verses and remember that we with all people are to be treated with care and at times as vulnerable ones, most especially any of us who have been mistreated by the church and agencies that should have cared for us. And if we are on the long term haul of becoming true disciples, if we are followers, if we are companions on the way, then we need to hear the more strident words that challenge us to step up, to grow into the role of disciple. I confess I am often faint hearted and would like to rest a while, I grumble to myself that I am now retired, and yet in some ways my discipleship is still so early in its development. Begrudgingly I acknowledge my need of reminding that I need to give myself over again, and again, to the power of God’s love for me and others, to practise self discipline so that I may better serve and grow. And the truth is I don’t want to be any where else, nothing else engages me like this life long commitment to become most fully who I am most truly in God.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come and teach me, encourage me, correct and guide me until I am a living work of your love.