Let us pray: God of all hopefulness, come to the aid of Your people. We cry: “Increase our faith!” We do not know how You will answer our prayers. But we do believe You will answer them. Give us faith, strength, hope and love enough to do Your will and walk in Your ways, to the glory of Your holy name. Amen.
I met Blake my second summer as a counselor at Carol Joy Holling Camp in Ashland, Nebraska. Blake was an Omaha kid, with a chip on his shoulder as big as Chimney Rock. Every week the staff paid attention to see which of our kids were going to be the ones with what we called the “too cool for camp blues;” Blake had those blues and then some. He came to camp wearing black boots, black shorts and a black t-shirt from a major heavy metal band’s latest tour. He had long hair that flopped into his eyes, which never, ever met yours directly unless he was challenging your authority. I didn’t do a lot with Blake when he first arrived at camp because he wasn’t assigned to my bunkhouse. But later that first afternoon, he was assigned to my village, and so I spent the better part of that first day of camp herding Blake into the activities and games we used to help our villages get to know each other better. It was a sign of things to come for the week.
Blake was a challenge, maybe the greatest challenge I ever had as a camp counselor. If I said something was blue, he said it was red. During our Bible study hour, it was next to impossible to get Blake to pay attention and participate with the rest of the group; he was often goofing around with whatever he could find or busily tormenting whoever sat next to him while I was working with other campers. But during a nature hike or canoeing or arts & crafts, where Blake’s natural curiosity could have been indulged, he often sulked, sitting with his arms crossed and his head down in a sullen glare.
However, what made Blake a truly exasperating camper was his intelligence and his unusually mature perception of the church and the people around him. When Blake could be corralled into Bible study, he asked questions and suggested interpretations of the stories we were studying that went far beyond the average 13 year-old’s understanding. He took Bible stories and interpreted his home congregation in light of them, especially when he could use the faith of Jesus or Old Testament figures like David or Abraham to show the emptiness and pettiness that ran rampant in his home congregation. He wouldn’t sing in worship, but he told counselors that he wished his home church had half as much passion and energy in its own worship services. One day, he bluntly asked me what I would do if I discovered that everything I had been convinced was true about the faith turned out to be false. He was provocative, cheeky, sullen, rebellious and infuriating, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when my week with Blake was over on Friday afternoon. I felt like I’d been doing more sparring than counseling during my week with Blake, and even though I thought that maybe I’d done some good work with him, I was anxious to return to working with campers who would be a bit less demanding and a bit more receptive to our ministry.
The next summer I spent another week with Blake, who by now had another year’s worth of ammunition stored up and ready for when he came back to camp. It was more of the same, and the only difference was that Blake was taller, smarter and even more confident. His questions were more probing, more antagonistic to the faith, and even more disrespectful of his church, his fellow campers and his counselors. I and the other counselors at our campsite spent a week alternating between holding our tempers in check and being amazed at the insight Blake had into the faith he was so brilliantly rejecting. By Friday afternoon, I felt again as though I’d been sparring far longer than I should, and though I had grown to like Blake in spite of his behavior, I was happy to call it a week, too.
As I sat in our staff meeting after all the campers had gone home, I thought that at the very least someone ought to give me a pat on the back for what was now two weeks of Blake in the past two summers. After all, I was the one who had kept him from completely disrupting the program over those two weeks. I was the one who had danced with his questions, allowing his curiosity to be encouraged while refusing to be baited into speaking ill of the church, his pastor or his family. I had been strong enough to let Blake question my faith without being insulted, and I thought that on the whole I had been a good role model to Blake, a Christian who admitted the faults of the church yet upheld the goodness of God. I felt, honestly, like it was time for some recognition. But none came. Our program director never mentioned the great work I’d done. No counselor ever came up to me and said, “Hey, man, nice job.” And Blake himself? I never heard a word of thanks from him. He didn’t say goodbye either of the summers I was his counselor, and a year later, when I was a site manager and Blake came back to a different site, he only said “Hey,” when I ran into him while talking with his counselor. It was as if the work I’d done just fell off the face of the earth.
This is, I believe, the darker side of the life of a Christian. Our history as a church is filled with the heroic tales of those who’ve done great deeds of faith throughout the years. The apostles gave their lives for the sake of the faith, and we read about their great faith in our Holy Scriptures. The early church had great theologians like Justin Martyr, XX and XXX. St. Augustine’s writings inspire us several thousand years after he is dead and gone. In our church, Martin Luther resides just beneath Christ himself, sometimes a little too close, to be perfectly honest. But how many Christians over the years have done great deeds of faith that have gone completely unrecognized? The vast majority of the great deeds of faith never once get recognized – and the lives of great saints never receive the honor they might receive, because no one really knows what God can and has accomplished through them.
In our reading today, Jesus instructed his followers to forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive, with no thought of reward or consequence. He told his followers to never, ever give another Christian an opportunity to fall away from the faith, that indulging our desire for revenge and pettiness carry with them a heavy consequence if another Christian falls into sin because of our actions. Finally, when Jesus’ followers couldn’t see how they could be those kind of people, they cried out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” And Jesus told them that they had little faith to begin with if they had to ask for it in that way.
You know, no one ever told me it would be hard to be a Christian. That was a notion of which I had to be disabused, and very rudely, through my experiences in the church and in the world. No one ever told me that sometimes no one would thank me for my work – because it’s what is expected of me if I’m a follower of Jesus. No one ever told me that forgiveness was going to be hard. No one ever told me that when I feel more like staying angry with someone, I was still expected to forgive if I was going to call myself a Christian. No one ever told me that the results of my good works would be so hard to discern. No one ever told me that recognition for being a follower of Jesus would often be nonexistent. Do you ever feel the same way? Do you ever feel like all the work of honestly following Jesus isn’t worth the reward you get from your neighbors? Of course you do – because it’s what happens. Following Jesus is a hard, narrow road. As Paul said in our reading from 1st Timothy last week, faith is a good fight – it doesn’t come easy.
When you read the letters of Paul, you learn to look for the rhetorical devices Paul uses to make his point – they’re often the opposite of what Paul is saying. So when Paul tells Timothy “I am grateful to God – whom I worship with a clear conscience…” Paul is accusing Timothy of ungratefulness and a clouded conscience in his worship. For what reason? We don’t know just yet, but Paul is getting to it. Paul says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” We should read that as, “Timothy, you’ve been raised for better faith than you’re displaying now – where is the faith that should live in your love and actions?” Paul: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” We read: “Timothy, you’re afraid, weak, unloving and self-pitying: get a grip!”
Sometimes, as Paul said, we suffer for the gospel. This isn’t suffering that comes from looking for people to antagonize; genuine suffering for the gospel comes from living the truth Jesus has taught us. Suffering for the gospel comes from forgiving sins when we don’t feel like forgiving sins. Suffering for the gospel comes from being a patient teacher and role model to kids (and adults!) who just don’t seem to care, much less understand what you’re teaching. Suffering sometimes means surviving in thankless situations – caring enough to do what God has commanded simply because, as Bonhoeffer put it, “only the obedient believe, and only those who believe obey.”
So, what is it that Jesus is saying in today’s gospel reading. Is Jesus saying that recognition doesn’t matter? Is Jesus saying that living for recognition will leave us hollow in the end? Is Jesus saying that the life of discipleship is not a life for the faint-hearted or the weak? Yes, I think Jesus is saying all of those things; but Jesus also says that there IS a goal, that there IS a point to the life of discipleship. Recognition is not the goal – FAITH is the goal, the means by which everything else, good and bad, can be endured. Faith is its own reward – we live right when we live in faith, regardless of recognition or not. We are God’s slaves, and as we take on the duties of a slave, God creates in us the desire to do what is commanded simply because it is commanded, not out of our desire to be recognized for what we do. When Jesus commands us to forgive, He does so because forgiveness is the way of life for the followers of Christ, the way in which faith can become genuine and real, both for the one who forgives and for the one who is forgiven. “Increase our faith!,” the disciples cry, and Jesus responds: “Forgive, even when it is a thankless task, and you will find your faith strengthened beyond what you thought was possible.”
There is one who does watch, who does see our struggle and our hardship and knows what it means to suffer for the faith. God knows. God watches. God sees us struggle. God bears the burden with us. Two weeks of Blake taught me, years later, that when God and I know the truth of what has happened, the world’s recognition matters little. Do I hope that Blake feels the same way I do about our time together? Of course I do. Do I hope even more that I gave Blake an opportunity to grow in faith and love and become a follower of Jesus in his own way? Of course I do. But is that up to me? No – it’s up to God and Blake. My concern now is what it means to God and me to live in this moment, in this place, with a whole new day’s worth of sins to forgive and life to cherish. Will anyone say, “Thank you,” for what you do in service to the world in God’s name? Maybe not. But will God see what you do? Definitely.
Mustard bushes are notorious for taking root in places no one thought they could. Their seeds are small and they are more a weed than anything else – they work into cracks and dry ground and take root tenaciously before they grow. Is this the faith to which Jesus is inviting us – a thankless, tenacious, dry-ground faith that goes unrecognized? Possibly. But God sees. God knows. Hold on to that dry ground in which you’re planted, even if it’s a thankless task, and rest assured that your work is not in vain. Let us pray:
Help us to slow down, O God, so that the seeds of our faith may take in the nourishment you offer and grow into the fullness of the grace you provide. Bless us on this special day and hover in our midst as we join hands with all your children in this place and around the world - to remember you, to break the bread, to share the cup, to give thanks.
May your Spirit be with us, this day and every day. Amen.
 My brothers and I, having a mother named Eunice, hear this verse loud and clear – because our mom is a woman of deep, abiding faith, and we’re very grateful for the faith she and our dad have instilled in us. Love you, Mom!