A homily for Proper 22 Year C
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4. Psalm 37:1-9. 2 Timothy 1:1-14. Luke 17:5-10
In Greek the word in today’s New Testament readings that’s translated as faith is pistis. Faith often linked with hope and charity, in Greek pistis, elpis agape; in Latin, fides, spes, caritas.
You might think that linking Faith, Hope and Charity was the inspired invention of St Paul. Not so. It’s much older that that: he: stole it from Greek culture. Faith, Hope and Charity were three minor goddesses, personifications of different aspects of human “good behaviour” – good in the sense of helping you to live a life that contributes to the wellbeing of the community, bringing honesty and harmony among people.
When we study Scripture, therefore, we should think of faith, pistis, not as we have come to use the word, but in terms of what it would have meant two thousand years ago to the people of the eastern Mediterranean – to Paul, to Luke, to Jesus.
For many of us, faith has been presented almost as a state of anxiety – the more you have, the more likely you are to earn nectar points for a better cabin on the after-life cruise ship. If you have lots of faith, God grants your requests, but if not, hard cheese – it’s your fault and you deserve to suffer. So the longer you’re on your knees, or the more Hail Marys you knock out, or the more masses you attend, or the more you say you adore Christ – whatever that means – the better it’ll be for you on board. You’d better do as the priests tell you.
This is pernicious rubbish.
Faith is about what you believe in, they say. But what does believe mean? North Koreans believe that Kim Jong-il was born in a cave on a mountainside and that a bright star appeared in the sky to mark the event. They believe that because they’re brainwashed. When we say I believe in God the Father Almighty … is it because that’s what we were taught, and that if we don’t affirm it we’ll get a terrible deal in an afterlife? If so, we’re allowing ourselves to be brainwashed like North Koreans.
Another problem with the word believe is that it often implies an element of doubt. When you repy to a question with “I believe so” you’re often adding “but I could be wrong”. And of course the word believe has been utterly devalued by its use by politicians and other creatures of the night who say they believe in things that quite patently they do not.
What a quandary! But fret not. Another translation of pistis comes to our aid. Instead of I believe, think I trust. Trust is much better and I suggest that every time you come across the word believe you replace it with trust. It works for me.
Now look at today’s gospel. It’s a pity that it begins at verse 5 for verses 1-4 set the scene. Jesus is saying “look guys, there are bad times just around the corner so be ready for them. Don’t be swayed by them. Stick to your guns.“ The disciples want more faith but Jesus says “you don’t need more, you just need to trust what you’ve already got, and great things will happen. Persist.”
Persist is another idea that pistis incorporates. At school in what was then Cumberland our exercise books had the county crest on the front with the Latin motto Perfero. Being an inquisitive child I had to find out what that meant. It was Latin – whatever that was – for I bear, I carry through, I complete, I persist, I endure. All aspects of pistis. This is what Jesus tells the disciples. I’ve always known there was something truly Divine about us Cumbrians.
Habbakuk warns people not to be distracted by the ways of the world but push on with what’s right. Psalm 37 in the Coverdale translation (the proper one) begins “fret not thyself because of the ungodly, ignore them and let them stew in their own juice” (I paraphrase slightly).
Athletes in training know that the most pernicious enemies of achievement are doubts: thoughts that they are not good enough, thoughts that lead to loss of confidence. These are some of “the ungodly” of the psalmist, the distractions that Habbakuk and Jesus urge us to ignore. “Push on – just do it” they must tell themselves. The sports clothing brand Nike knows Greek. Nike is the goddess of victory, The firm’s motto, “just do it”, is none other than our friend pistis.
Just do it is a pretty good motto. Perfero. Stop shilly shallying and allowing yourself to be distracted. Be resolute, determined and fearless. When you believe in something you don’t just sit in a chair and think fine thoughts about it – you act. Get off your backside and just do it.
Faith is not about what you believe; faith is about what you do and how you do it. Faith is action.
This is all very well, but I look into my heart and ask myself “what has it to do with church?” and answer came there “next to nothing”. As a priest I should have been just doing it following the example set by Himself of feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, comforting the oppressed, fighting injustice, and so on. Maybe I did a little bit of that but I regret to say that most of my time was spent providing life support to a dying patient – the institutional church – titillating and pandering to the prejudices of the reasonably affluent that make up church congregations. I look at my colleagues and see that they too are trapped in this dreadful prison, one that is at odds with the reasons most of them entered pastoral ministry. It so easily leads to despair. I know of some people who do sacrificial work for the poor and needy largely in urban centres here and the third world, but I know personally only one. I used to work with him here in Burton, but now he’s a priest in Stevenage doing what he was ordained for spectacularly well.
So as a church community ask yourselves “what can we do to follow the Master in a realistic and practical way?”.