I forgive Jesus. At least that is the subconscious coping mechanism in the recess of my mind that exists when who I believe Jesus is conflicts with the Jesus I confront. The first time I forgave Jesus I was five years old. My mother left to go to the hospital where they had taken my father after his VW Beatle had come into the path of a drunk driver in a semi-truck. The woman at the door who happened to be an eye witness and a member of my father’s congregation said, “It was a miracle I was there.” She meant it enabled her to be at my house within minutes and tell us so my mom could go to the hospital, and she could baby sit. My little brother and I were left at the house. Two thoughts came to me while I waited and prayed. The first was that since it was an accident he was probably going to be in a wheelchair and that would make it hard to see him behind the altar. The second was that our prayers would be heard by God since my father was a faithful priest. My Mom came home a few hours later, gathered all five children upstairs, and told us he died. I had to forgive Jesus. I never doubted that Jesus loved us, but from my childlike faith, I believed that Jesus was magical and could save my father if he had the desire. I wanted to stay faithful, and in order to do that I had to forgive him, or at least change the Jesus I believed in before the accident.
At various crisis points in our lives of faith-- facing the injustices of global problems that cause the suffering of the innocent, experiencing dark nights of our souls, learning the history of the church, coming to terms with our shortcomings and fears, or grieving a beloved-- there is a shifting of faith. What we once believed has to change because we change. Faith has to change so it can grow. As we pray, act, study, and live, changes allow us to love more fully and grow a faith worthy of our Lord.
Lissa Smith was ordained a priest last month in Connecticut. She has begun a journey filled with events that will grow and change her faith. One consequence of the life of a collar is that as she engages in public discourse she is a representative of the church, and for some folks a symbol of Christ in the world. She has begun to experience the act of meeting people who upon learning you are a priest say, “Here is my problem with religion…" or, "Here is the issue I have with faith…” The issues generally stem from experiences where people are estranged from a community or their faith didn’t match their experience, and they left a practicing faith community. She said last week while she was at the playground with her two sons a mom started talking. After learning she was a priest, the mom told Lissa why she was angry at the church and why she missed it. She asked Lissa if she knew of a service of reconciliation. Lissa told her about our rite of reconciliation in the prayer book where a person can come to the church to confess to a priest and receive absolution. “No," the woman said, “I want to forgive the church.” We are the church, and we have to forgive each other the history and pain the church has caused. We have to forgive ourselves that we are part of a faith that has been too small, unwilling to change, that has underserved a hurting world, and that has a history of silencing voices. We have denied civil rights under the cover of church doctrine. Our Lord is underserved when our small faith is dismissive, condemning, or disassociated.
In this Gospel Jesus is speaking to a crowd who has gathered by the lake. We can imagine them, because we are them. They are coming in search of, in spite of, and in hope of. He stands by the Lake with a faith that is big enough to hold them all and without judging, defending, or telling them they shouldn’t be dissatisfied, tells them they just need to grow their faith. He loves them, and speaks in parables that are the tool for growing. He tells them stories that will be the seeds for the change itself. Jesus reminds us our faith has to grow like a mustard seed, beyond our imagination and so big that it seems impossible that it once could have been contained within the small seed. Our symbol for the past decade of the plant and the mustard seed is the thistle. It is right that a small thistle seed can eventually break through concrete and stone hearts. Thistles rise like faith that grows out of experiences of being dismissed or hurt in this world. What could have been the seeds of bitterness or disillusion has become the source of change and great faith. Thistles remind us to forgive each other our shortcomings, and grow wild and spread where the wind blows. Our faith, Jesus reminds us in these stories, is about growing, changing, and above all else, forgiving. Forgiveness is the water that allows our faith to grow.
Last week I asked the congregation to go out again and be thistle farmers since it was high thistle season. I explained that we take the thistle, grind it and press it into paper and make beautiful boxes to hold the healing oils made by our cottage industry. There have been about fifteen people who have brought in loads of thistles, all with stories of joy, fear, and humor about venturing into scary fields and harvesting the nocuous weed that reminds us there is beauty in all creation. Yesterday a 72-year-old woman who attends a church out in Franklin harvested out at Thompson Station. An older man stopped and told her to be careful, they looked pretty, but they were the devil weed and carried bugs. She told him what she was doing and he said the owner of the field would be very happy, and she could pick to her hearts content. Then she met a young mother named Laura from Spring Hill, Tennessee who asked if she could get involved. I imagine the story the thistle farmer must have told and how it must have sounded like the parable of the mustard seed. Maybe she said something like, “I have come to believe that our faith can be as bountiful and powerful as the thistle. It has taken me a lot of forgiveness to get here. Isn’t it beautiful?”