Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
What is a secret? There was a young mother showing her son how to zip up his coat. She said, “The secret is to get the left part of the zipper to fit in the other side before you try to zip it up.” The boy looked at her quizzically, “Why does it have to be a secret?”
I imagine for most people, a secret is a bit of knowledge which you keep to yourself. Rather like the little girl in the preschool, who told me, that, “A secret is something so special- that you tell only one person- at a time, like my mommy.” This story of the little boy, however, reminds me that we often use the word secret in another way. We use the word secret to describe what is really just an idea, a tip, or a method for doing something. “The secret to better gas mileage is, avoid sudden starts and stops. The secret to a happy marriage is to be considerate and supportive of your spouse.” The secret to a good sermon is, to use somebody else’s material. But what is the secret to greater faith?
I can appreciate the disciples’ request to Jesus to increase their faith. We can all have those days when the burdens are just too great too bear and we have too many questions about God’s love and mercy and will. In the verses we have read over the last few Sundays, Jesus has been asking some fairly extraordinary things of his disciples to give away their possessions, to forgive those who have wronged them …countless times, to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him, and to do more. No wonder they asked for greater faith.
Perhaps you have felt this way as well. After a week like the one we just had with shootings, innocent bystanders killed and injured by reckless driving, political wrangling, a troubling medical visit and an unexpected death, I suspect lots of us feel the same way. You need more faith…just to get through from one day to the next.
My friends, let us consider the greater faith that Jesus has for you. You may be surprised. The secret is closer to you than you might imagine. It all begins with three words. Personal, public and always present.
In her commencement speech at Villanova University, Pulitzer prized winning author, Anna Quindlen told the graduates, “You are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.” She went on to say, “People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a résumé than to craft a spirit. But a résumé is cold comfort on a winter night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you’ve gotten back the chest X ray and it doesn’t look so good, or when the doctor writes ‘prognosis, poor.’”
Whether we recognize it or not, you and I are seekers and we make choices. Greater faith is one of those personal choices. As in all pursuits, however, we must be careful about what we are seeking. The playwright Oscar Wilde once wrote, “In this world there are two tragedies: one is not getting what one wants and the other is getting it.” The same is said of boat owners. The two best days in your life are the day you buy a boat, and then again when you sell it. So what are you seeking? A good family life, a happy marriage, successful employment? There is nothing wrong with such goals alone, but as Anna Quindlen said to the graduate of Villanova, “a résumé is cold comfort on a winter night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely,”
Of course, we all know that joy and peace, satisfaction and contentment aren’t really secrets at all. We know that happiness is found in relationships. We know that inner peace comes from the knowledge that we are doing what we ought to be doing. We know that a fulfilling life is one in which we use our gifts and abilities to serve God. Yes, we know these things, and countless other truths. Unfortunately, we often ignore them. Instead, we pursue tricks or short cuts which do not demand much real work or commitment. Faith is a personal choice of prioritizing life.
Second, faith is a public choice, and it to choose to live with God as your strength for all to see. That is the true nature of discipleship. Jesus invites you to be a visible spiritual anchor for your family and for those for whom you care. Now, you may be wondering: what does it mean to be a spiritual anchor? In tangible ways, Jesus challenges you to make your faith visible and real for others to see. Worship, pray, encourage others to join you and invite them to be with you, develop family rituals throughout the year.
Certainly, faith is a personal matter, but it can never be so private that it is invisible to those who know you. God wants a personal relationship with you; he wants you to be a disciples. But that’s not where it ends. God then wants your “light to shine before others” so that, through your words and actions, others too may come to know of God’s wondrous love and grace. That is the way in which you become a spiritual anchor for others. Live with God as your strength. When your children, colleagues and loved ones, are experiencing rough seas in their journeys, they should be able to look to you as a spiritual anchor.
Finally, faith is to be present at all times. Loved ones and even mere acquaintances can sense whether you truly are involved in their lives simply by your physical presence in “just being there.” A reporter was visiting an elderly couple who had just celebrated their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. He was touched by the way the husband continually spoke to his wife in terms of endearment, always calling her “Sweetheart,” “Honey,” or “Dear.” “It’s so sweet, the way you address your wife in those endearing ways,” the reporter said to the husband. “Well, to tell you the truth,” the old man answered, “I forgot her name about ten years ago.”
My father would routinely go through the entire list of six children in our family when he saw me naming all the others first, but that didn’t dismiss the memory that I had of him always being there and caring. I hope my grandchildren will be as sympathetic.
That is what really at the heart of this personal, public, present faith known as Christian discipleship. Faith is found not in the mighty acts of heaven but in the ordinary and everyday acts of doing what needs to be done, responding to the needs around you and caring for the people who come your way. Faith, as Jesus describes it, is just doing your job, just doing your duty, and not because of any sense of reward. Faith, in other words, is doing what needs to be done- right in front of you- and by doing it, your faith will increase.
Folks who feel daunted by the thought of Christian discipleship may be surprised to hear that sometimes faith can be pretty ordinary. That’s what Jesus meant by saying that if you have the faith even of a mustard seed, you can uproot and move a mulberry tree. It really doesn’t take all that much faith to be, well, faithful.
Faith is always a personal, public, and present choice. If you set your heart and mind and soul to obtain the things which the world values, you will get them- but that is all you will ever get. Think about friends and colleagues that you have known who struggled to be the best in their field, and have strived to accumulate the most, and when they had it all, they sadly pondered, “Is that all there is?” Perhaps, you’ve heard your own voice whispering these thoughts. It is not surprising that words miser and misery are drawn from the same root. The ones who fight and cling to everything for themselves will be miserable. But if you set your heart and mind and soul to be utterly loyal to God and true to Jesus, you may run into all kinds of trouble- but there will be a wonderful consolation prize. By the world’s standards you may look unhappy, but let me assure you, much of your prize is still to come. And it will be joy eternal. You see, God doesn’t promise his followers an easy journey. But there is no doubt which path he knows will bring happiness.
A woman’s four year-old grandson was memorizing John 3:16. He quoted what you normally read from the gospel until he made a slight manuscript change. He said, “Whoever believes in him, should not perish, but shall live happily ever after.” It’s not a bad paraphrase. We may not win in the ways of the world, but we have been offered a wonderful consolation prize- “We shall not perish, but we shall live happily ever after.”
My friends, the challenge and choice of faith is always before you. It is personal, public and always present. Will you be happy in the ways of the world, or in the way of Christ? There is no secret. No shortcut. Do the things that are before you, and your faith will increase and even greater rewards will be yet to come. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.