Sunday 6 October 2019, 16th Sunday after Trinity
Morning Prayer 10.30 am
Faith and faithfulness
Someone was saying to me a while ago what they wanted from a sermon, what they needed a sermon to do for them how it might help. They wanted a sermon to give them some encouragement in how to live the Christian life from day to day, how to cope with the issues, large and small, which crop up. “I don’t want slabs of theology” they said, “clever debating points or learned arguments, just how to get through everyday life”. A very good point. We don’t all aspire to be Regius Professors of Divinity. We just need to get through life as best we can.
Well, I couldn’t if I tried offer slabs of theology about the prophet Habakkuk. When I looked him up in my Bible commentary, I found that nothing is known about him, neither his father’s name nor even his likely date of birth. Without any setting in time, the first part of our reading this morning is hard to interpret – there are more questions than answers. But suddenly, in the second part of the reading, it became clear that his meaning is all about faithfulness. Living the life of faith. Habakkuk sees himself as a watchman looking out for the arrival of good news and he is commanded to write down something which will encourage faithfulness in others. And he writes “the righteous will live by their faith”. (2:4). Or “the righteous will live by being faithful”. This is a beautiful way of expressing the importance of faithfulness in our lives. Faithfulness to God becomes a way of living and gives us a course of action for the present, for the day to day and here and now. Faithfulness also gives us hope for the future. And that hope is that God will save us so that we will live. The people for whom Habakkuk wrote did not know what form God’s salvation would take, but they held on to their faith. We of course know that our salvation has come through Jesus, God’s son. Nevertheless Habakkuk’s words of encouragement are meant for us too “the righteous will live by their faith”.
The extract from letter to Timothy, which was our second reading this morning, continues the theme of faith and faithfulness. And it speaks of the importance of the family in encouraging faithfulness. Timothy was not a first generation convert to Christianity. He came from a Christian family and his “sincere faith” as Paul calls it was handed down to Timothy from one generation to another, from his grandmother Lois to his mother Eunice and on to Timothy. It might be worth pondering, when you have a moment waiting at the bus stop or walking the dog, who it was who encouraged you in your faith. It could have been a teacher, a friend, or your parish priest, but more often than not, faith is handed down through the generations. Christian families are the bedrock of the Christian Church, passing on their knowledge and understanding of the faith and its observance and encouraging one another in their faith by holding to the word of God and living out their faith in all the decisions and doings of everyday life.
But there is a slightly ticklish issue attached to the idea of the handing down of faith from one generation to another. Does faithfulness mean conservatism (with a small c I hasten to say) is the watchword, and that change and development have to be curtailed? In the field of theology it was thought for centuries that God could not suffer because he was God. Now it is thought that God does suffer and so enters into the suffering of humanity. Or the thorny issue of what words we use in our public prayers to God – the language of the 16th century or of the present day, or both. Does the Church flourish by standing still or moving on? We have great need of our faithfulness, lit by the teaching of Jesus, as we work through such issues.
So then we come to the teaching of Jesus in our gospel reading which explains more about faith. First of all the disciples say to Jesus “Increase our faith”. Jesus’ response tells us that quantity of faith is irrelevant. It is the quality of faith which matters. We might think it would take masses of faith to move a mulberry tree and root it in the sea. Jesus says if you had only a little faith, the size of a grain of mustard, you could still move the tree. In other words it’s the presence of faith which matters. Faith is not quantifiable.
The story of the master and the slave which comes next reminds me of something my mother said to me years ago. I’d just done the washing up after tea and was feeling very virtuous. I said to mother “I’ve done the washing up for you”, expecting praise and gratitude. Mother said “Well, not really for me. I only used one plate and one cup and saucer, the same as you.” In other words, I was expected to share in the running of the household, not to help as a favour and in the expectation of some kind of reward. Jesus is reminding his disciples here that faithfulness is part of being a disciple of his, just as it is the part of a slave to carry out his master’s bidding. The slave should not expect any favourable treatment for doing what he is ordered to do. Similarly our faithfulness to God doesn’t mean that God owes us something in return for our good behaviour, as though we had done him a favour. It is God who is gracious and generous to us. It Is he who invites us to share his banquet and his heavenly kingdom. In the end , it is as Habakkuk says: “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith” (Habakkuk 2: 3-4).
To put it in a nutshell, all we need is faith and faithfulness to see us through today, and tomorrow and the next day.