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The Benediction: A Family of Faith

June 1, 2014

Sermon:  The Benediction: A Family of Faith
Text:  Matthew 13:31-32; Matthew 17:14-20; Mark 9:14-29

When I came to Morningside in June of 1996, I wrote a benediction that I have used almost every Sunday since then. That benediction was based on a small logo of joined hands that I had seen in the Morningside Messenger. The words beneath those hands were “A Family of Faith, Bonded in Love.” I decided to expand that logo into a benediction for this church: “Depart now, and as you go remember: You are a Family of Faith, Living in Hope, Serving in Joy, and Bonded in Love. Go in the Grace and the Peace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” I thought I would entitle the last five sermons I preach at Morningside before I retire The Benediction. We will take one phrase from that benediction each Sunday. Today we are considering “A Family of Faith.”

Jack has talked about and I have read scripture passages about the mustard seed this morning. Mark 9, which contains a version of the story we read in Matthew 17:14-20, goes into more detail. We see some differences between these two versions because the Gospels are not carbon copies of each other. Every Gospel writer tells the story a little differently, offering us an account that is really enriched.

Mark’s version of the story about the boy said to be possessed with an evil spirit begins at Verse 14. The boy is actually an epileptic, and you can see here a classic description of the grand-mal seizure.

14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.
16 “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.
17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

According to Matthew’s story Jesus answers the disciples’ question in Verse 28 with, “Because you have so little faith.” Then he continues by talking about mustard seed faith, which is just a small amount of faith.

Luke 17 offers another reference to mustard seed faith. Jesus has been talking with his disciples about the issue of forgiveness, telling them that they must forgive people, not seven times but seventy times seven. The disciples respond, “Lord, increase our faith!” That request is one that all of us would make. Jesus then adds, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. ’”

This analogy about moving mountains comes from the rabbinical tradition. A rabbi who could lead a doubt-filled disciple to a point of faith and remove the mountain of doubt was said to be a mountain-mover. This expression is not talking about literally moving Hogback Mountain from one location to another. It is talking about removing obstacles to our faith, which are many. Chief among those obstructions is doubt.

The disciples always seem to come up short when discussing faith. We read in Matthew 14 of Jesus’ coming to the disciples during a storm.

Realizing that Jesus was walking on the water, Peter says, “I would like to try that.” He actually steps out of the boat and takes a few steps before looking down to see how he is doing. He then begins sinking and cries out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reaches out his hand, catches him, then scolds, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus then calms the storm with, “Peace! Be still.” The storm at sea and the storm within the disciples’ hearts were calmed. Jesus still speaks that peace into our lives.

In contrast to the disciples, a Roman centurion calls on Jesus to heal an ill servant. “Lord, if you will but speak the word, my slave will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). Jesus says of that Roman centurion, “I have not found such faith in all of Israel!” (Matthew 8:10). On another occasion a woman with an issue of blood approaches Jesus from behind and touches his garment, believing that he can heal her. Jesus comments to her, “Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted” (Matthew 15:28). Jesus heals her that very hour.

Yes, the disciples seem to come up short in their faith. Peter blurts out that remarkable affirmation at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). In the very next breath, however, Jesus must rebuke Peter. When Peter boasts that he will never allow Jesus to travel to Jerusalem where he must suffer and die, Jesus says, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23).

The entire lot of the disciples – Peter; James and John, the Sons of Thunder; Thomas, who had to be shown; and Judas, for heaven’s sake – always seems to come up short when it comes to faith. We, too, come up short.

I cherish this story of this father of an epileptic boy from Mark 9 so much. I can identify with him. His affirmation – “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief” – illustrates where the disciples were so much of the time – somewhere between belief and unbelief. The truth is that most of us are between belief and unbelief. I am there often. My faith vacillates as much as anyone’s. It must be restored from time to time, and I know that yours does, too.

Defining faith is difficult. Webster defines faith as unquestioning belief, complete trust, a confidence, a loyalty. The Bible, however, says that faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” in Hebrews 11:1. That chapter goes on to mention numerous people of the Old Testament who exemplified their faith. Not one of those individuals is perfect. Not one has faith that fits the description of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Their faith falls short, just as the disciples’ faith falls short, and just like our faith falls short.

Consider the story of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham, seventy-five years old at the time, is living comfortably in Ur of the Chaldees when he receives word from God that he is to leave this land he knows well and travel to an unknown place. He follows the Arc of the Fertile Crescent, having no idea of his ultimate destination, and comes to camp beneath some oak trees near Hebron in the Holy Land. Abraham leaves Ur and travels by faith, but his faith is not perfect.

I think about Abraham’s leaving his home at seventy-five and think about what is ahead for me – retirement. I have learned that it is hard to see around a corner or around a bend in the road. A big part of faith is moving without knowing. “We walk by faith and not by sight,” says Paul in II Corinthians 5:7. Hebrew 11:1 says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard called this walk “a leap of faith.”

What is the nature of faith? If we pay attention to Jesus, who was certainly the master teacher and master storyteller, we can learn through one of his concrete examples. He uses the mustard seed when talking about faith. Have you ever thought about your faith as something that is living and growing?

I was sitting here with the children earlier in the service during the Children’s Sermon as Jack talked about mustard seeds and mustard trees. Jonathan had previously mentioned packets of mustard growing on trees. Jonathan, you did not grow up on a farm, did you? Nobody heard this, I guess, but me. One of the kids asked, “Is there such a thing as a ketchup tree?” The answer is yes. It is called a tomato plant.

I want to change the analogy by moving from a mustard seed faith to a tomato seed faith because we are more familiar with tomato seeds. A tomato seed has to be sown, usually in a greenhouse. This stage in tomato seed faith is similar to the basic trust of an infant for a parent. This faith is exemplified when we have a baby dedication. God entrusts a little child to a family. That family, in turn, makes a commitment to nurture that child, as do we. That faith begins to grow, nurtured with bedtime stories, Bible stories, and prayers at bedtime. The prayers of parents and grandparents, which the child often knows nothing about, will nurture that faith.

When our children were very young, I used to go into their rooms at night and put my hand on their head. They never knew that I had a prayer of blessing for each one of them. I do the same now with my grandchildren after they fall asleep. My simple prayer that asks God’s blessing into their lives is a way of nurturing that very beginning, growing faith.

Faith develops in conversations like the one Scott recently had with Ben. Ben said, “Dada, is this your church?”

Scott answered, “No, this is not my church.”

Ben asked, “Whose church is it?”

Scott, on staff at First Presbyterian, replied, “The church really belongs to all the members, but Ben, whose church is this?”

Ben said, “It’s God’s church.”

Scott said, “Yes, that is right.”

Ben thought for a minute and asked, “Dada, why does God have so many fire alarms?”

You can see a sermon there in his questions. The growth of a child’s faith happens right beneath our nose.

Next in our analogy comes a green sprout. Parents come to me and say, “My child wants to talk with you about accepting Jesus.” It might be that the child has already accepted Jesus, but we sit down and have a conversation to determine if the child is ready to make a profession of faith.

When I made my profession of faith when I was seven years old, did I know everything about the Christian faith? No. Did I know about the lordship of Christ? No. I did know, however, that Jesus loves me and that I love him. I wanted Jesus to come into my heart.

With the next stage, the tender stage, that young plant is ready to be transplanted into the garden. The tomato seed has become a plant, but it is still a long way from maturity. It requires growth, nurturing, good soil, plenty of water, and adequate sunshine. It requires protection from worms, hornworms, hail damage, and drought. It requires staking.

Children, as they grow in faith, certainly require nurturing. They require protection and guidance. Our faith will never be seed-size again. It is important for us to do everything we can to promote that growth, not to discourage it.

Every year L.C. Dillard used to grow thirty-six of the best-looking tomato plants in the world. He used huge concrete-reinforcing wire as cages. His tomatoes were delicious.

I asked him one year, “L.C., what is your secret for having such tasty tomatoes?”

He told me, “Cow manure.”

I teased, “Have you ever tried salt and pepper? That works pretty well.”

That is an old joke, but I pulled it on L.C.

He explained, “I dig a hole about two feet deep, fill it with cow manure, and plant that plant as deep as possible.”

L.C. Dillard had a Ph.D. – a post hole digger – that he used to dig those holes deep. Why? A tomato plant must have deep roots in order to grow well. Every hair on a tomato stem is a potential root. As the plant grows, you can fill in with good dirt, allowing it to develop an even stronger root system.

That small tomato seed first becomes a sprout. Then it is transplanted into the garden. Once it matures, it enters the fruit-bearing stage.

A book in my library entitled The Sixty-four Dollar Tomato tells about a man who wanted to raise tomatoes in his backyard. He did not have an adequate place, so he hired someone to till up his yard. In the process the man cut the main waterline. The plumber that the homeowner hired to reroute the waterline told him, “You will never be able to grow tomatoes in this soil. It has too many rocks.” The man then hired a landscape company to dig out a place for a garden and fill it with topsoil. Only after that long process was he able to plant the garden. At the end of the growing season, the man weighed the tomatoes he had grown that first year against all the expenses he had incurred. He figured his tomatoes were worth $64 apiece.

Nothing is quite as a good as two pieces of bread, slathered with Duke’s mayonnaise, covered with homegrown tomato slices, and seasoned with salt and pepper. The only place to eat the sandwich, of course, is over the sink so that juice can run down your elbows.

At this point we lose our analogy. The tomato plant begins looking pretty scraggly at the end of the season. Once it grows for a season and becomes mature, it quits producing fruit and dies. The exception is a tomato plant in Disney World that has lived for about twenty-five years.

Mature faith has no season. Think of Psalm 1: “He shall be like a tree, planted by rivers of water, that brings forth fruit in his season. His leaf also does not wither…” Mature faith is attractive. Mature faith is resilient. Mature faith grows and grows and grows summer and winter, springtime and harvest. It is ever green.

Our faith does not depend on God’s meeting all of our expectations. Our faith does not depend on things going just right. Mature faith learns to trust. Think of faith as a part of the human body. Like a muscle, it must be exercised. That is why James 2:26 says, “Faith without works is dead.”

Do you want a mature faith? It begins as a seed and grows. I like the analogy of a tomato plant, but you choose whatever comparison you want. God has a purpose for the plant: to bear fruit. Jesus uses another plant to illustrate his message: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in me, I will abide in you. You will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Faith always takes a step beyond what we know we can do. Faith depends not on what we can do but on what God can do. The very hot-house in which faith grows is this family here, the church. When we say that we are a family of faith, we are saying that we have a commitment to nurture this kind of faith in every single person from the very young to the very old. Faith must always grow, always move, toward that purpose of bearing fruit for Christ Jesus.

Tonight right here in this Sanctuary, this congregation will have the privilege of seeing the maturation of faith as Jeremy Gault is ordained to the Christian ministry. You are all invited.

I will never forget the day that Jeremy came to me and said, “Dr. Kirk, I think God is calling me to ministry.” I have watched his and Amanda’s faith grow, which is already bearing fruit. Jeremy is serving in a church. Tonight we will ordain him, which is one step along the way.

When we have baby dedications, we watch children come through our educational program here at the church. We see them develop into young adults and bear fruit. We all need to be aware of and be a part of the business of nurturing that faith.

Do you have that kind of faith? Faith is the path to salvation. “For by grace are you saved through faith.” Faith is the gift of God. We invite you to come and make a decision for Christ.

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2014
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