Sunday, August 6, 2023

Faith like what?

hand holding tiny mustard seed between finger and thumb

Matthew 17:1-20

 Historically, I have not enjoyed poetry.  Even though I love words and vivid imagery, poems have mostly bored and confused me. But I am starting to like poetry more, and the gateway poem that began it a few years ago was Litany by Billy Collins - which begins with a quote from someone else and riffs off of it to delightful effect.

It goes like this:
By Billy Collins
You are the bread and the knife,
          The crystal goblet and the wine...
                -Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.

Today’s scripture is loaded with similar confusing metaphors and imagery. 
 In what we call “The Transfiguration,” Jesus brings a few disciples onto a mountaintop for an inexplicable experience that feels like a metaphor itself. Dead faith ancestors living and breathing are chatting it up in a private conversation with a dazzlingly dressed Jesus whose face shines like the sun. Peter’s attempt to take control and capture the moment gets mercifully ignored and then interrupted by a proclamation from heaven echoing Jesus’ baptism. 

They fall to the ground in fear like the hillside shepherds, on the way down the mountain, when they in talking about Elijah, they figure out Jesus is actually referring metaphorically to John the Baptist. 
When they return to the valley they meet up with disciples who have just failed at healing a sick child. 
So the disciples get a parallel crash course in the uncontrollability of God.
While on the mountain the power of God cannot be contained in tents of their making, down in the valley the power of God cannot be summoned or commanded by their efforts.
 On the mountain –the voice from the heavens declares, here is my son, the beloved in whom I delight, listen to him.
In the valley – the voice of a heartbroken father declares, here is my beloved son in whom I delight, he is very, very ill, please help him.
And when the two stories come together Jesus heals the child and the disciples wonder why they could not.
Here’s some more wordplay: This version of the bible says the child has epilepsy, a surprisingly modern word in a very ancient story. I got curious and looked at other versions, and saw that indeed, depending on the cultural lens and language of the era, this has read all sorts of things, from the dramatic he is a lunatic and grievously distressed, to the enchanted, he is moonstruck and suffers greatly, to the frank doctor’s note version, he has a bad case of epilepsy, to the supernatural, he has a lunatic demon and is very ill, to the empathic, he has seizures and suffers miserably. My favorite is from 1526, he is frantike and sore vexed, frantic is spelled with a ke.
All that to say, whatever is going on with this child, he loses control of his body, and becomes unable to keep himself from harm.  The father cannot control his son or control the environment around him to keep him safe, and he is terrified for his son and his future.  
And I guess there’s no modern way to medicalize this language, because in every translation, Jesus casts out the demon and the child is healed, which is to say, whatever had the child in its grip vanished at Jesus’s command, just like the violence of the raging storm, and the hemorrhaging woman’s blood, and the young girl’s death, and all the illnesses and injuries we’ve seen him heal in the various mass feeding episodes. Here, the beloved Son heals the beloved son, and the boy is restored to wholeness.  
But the part of this story we moderns get most hung up is Jesus’s epic, metaphor-packed answer to the disciples when they ask why they couldn’t heal the child. If you have faith the size of a mustard seed you will say to this mountain ‘move from here to there’ and it will move.
As small as a mustard seed" was a common phrase in that day meaning the very smallest possible amount.  But we assume the disciples had less than even that and needed to get more faith. They needed to build up their pathetic faith at least to the tiny size of a mustard seed. And since that miniature bit of faith can “move mountains,” clearly nobody in this room has achieved that much faith yet.  

We make this period on a 14-font sentence into a measurement device against which to compare ourselves. We have even less than that much faith!? How can we get more so we can do more? 
And we like to talk about all the potential inside a tiny mustard seed - it can grow into a vast tree, as wide as it is tall, so grow your tiny faith bigger so it can do immense things!
But if that’s what Jesus was after, he surely could have chosen a better metaphor.  He could have used a legit measuring device - you have a gram of faith but you need a pound. He could have encouraged a strong, sturdy, robust faith like a little pig’s house made of stone instead of straw. He could’ve lyricized their rain puddle faith becoming a deep well. But he chose instead the famously smallest, most insignificantly-sized item to describe the kind of faith they should have. 
And that makes me wonder about the metaphors he did not use.
What kind of “little” faith did they have at the moment?
Maybe instead of mustard seed faith they had faith like a battering ram, or faith like a fishing net.
Or—it’s easier for me to put it into today’s imagery—what if the disciples were trying to heal the child with faith like a bulldozer, or faith like a vending machine? Perhaps they had faith like a bus driver’s megaphone on a kindergarten field trip, a clothes washer on spin cycle, or a plane coasting at 30,000 feet on autopilot. 
Jesus used the most tiny, barely visible thing to describe faith. He used a get out of the way and don’t make it about you kind of object. He used a thing that can’t do anything by itself at all. A seed needs sun and water, and to be altered and changed. A mustard seed is crushed and used to for flavor and spice, or is buried in the darkness of the earth’s soil to break open and blossom, and grow very slowly into a vast tree able to host birds and shade animals. None of this can be done on its own volition or by its own strength. It must just be, waiting, ready. That’s how Jesus describes faith that participates in God’s healing.
Mountaintop glimpses of divinity and big-picture, long story, wide vista context, and valley-deep anguish of sickness, despair, and great suffering, none of this can we control.  The disciples were reminded that we don’t make the hope or the healing happen.  We assume the inner stance of least resistance to the hope or healing of God moving through us. 
God is beyond.  Beyond us, beyond our ability to understand, beyond our control.  
I don’t know why sometimes God heals and often God doesn’t. It’s really frustrating not to be able to operate God like an automobile or an ATM machine. 
People don’t have the power to heal illness or cast out demons. Only God can do that.  We can only be willing to ask and be willing to be used by God in the healing. 
My eleven year old nephew is kind and funny and curious. He’s an incredible athlete and a delightfully gifted dancer. He loves nature and loves to draw. And his mental illness can overwhelm him. He suffers greatly and it’s getting worse, and when it’s bad he is at risk of harming himself and others. And then the only recourse for his parents is to hospitalize him. There he feels safe, and the intense structure and oversight and tweaking of meds and therapies help him and he eventually stabilizes. Then he comes home and tries really hard, and does ok for a little while, and then things happen that are out of his control, and he has to go back again. The doctors can’t heal him, meds can’t cure him. 
Only God can heal him, and God may not. 
This family suffers with their son, and next to his suffering is where the Son of God comes. He comes to their beloved child and claims him in love. They control what they can; and the vastly more that they cannot control they can bring to Jesus, who takes all suffering into himself so that nothing can separate us from love, and who lives already inside God’s promise that all will culminate in wholeness and healing, for every person and for this whole earth.
They join their voices with all the faithful, heartbroken parents in scripture and throughout the world that cry, Lord, have mercy on my child.
Foolproof, airtight, high-speed, robust, polished shiny faith does this family no good. Effective and confident faith means nothing to them.  Suffering, honest, longing faith, that’s where they’re at at the moment.  Faith that gets plunged into darkness and broken open. Faith that this part is not the whole story, there’s more to come, and even though we can’t bring it, we can watch for it and ask for it and be ready for it. The God who acts will act.
Our faith is not an outlet mall, a brokerage account, or a crossfit gym. Our faith is a mustard seed, ready and waiting, for the master chef and chief gardener, the world-shaping, mountain-moving God, to turn it into something God uses to bring life. 


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