The small chapel was packed. People sat shoulder-to-shoulder on floors, stood by walls and filled the chairs. Brothers John and Emile, two middle-aged, unassuming men, had flown all the way from a monastery in Taize, France to pray with those of us who had managed to travel to Boston, MA last Sunday. As an attendee of this gathering, I found myself sitting on the floor on a brown cushion, gazing at this low marble platform before me, covered in candles. The service began and, like smoke rising to the heavens, the room reverberated with voices as the people sang about love, longing, and life.
“Let all who are thirsty, come,” they sang from their hearts, “Let all who wish, receive the water of life freely.”
It struck me that just moments before the brothers – in soft-spoken voices – had invited us to attend a Taize retreat in St. Louis, Missouri, located close to the town of Ferguson.
“We understand the divides in this area are very deep,” Brother John said, “When we first arrived in St. Louis, people were like, ‘Who are these French guys?’ But as we talked, they realized that we don’t have answers, we are coming in to create spaces of prayer and trust. We understand that trusting God and others requires us to take risks, to step outside our comfort zones.”
Brother Emile added, “It’s like an event one of the Taize brothers organized in Africa, to bring people of many different countries together. In the months leading up to the event, even the day before, people kept saying, ‘This is not possible. Africa does not have the structure for this kind of event.’ Yet, the event went off well and afterward everyone commented on what a meaningful event it was. Faith is about seeing possibilities in places where we have not seen them before.”
Possibilities of healing, justice, and reconciliation.
Like a seed planted in the ground, these words sunk into the soil of unbelief, frustration, and mistrust that had been cultivated by the crises of violence and division in our nation.
“Is it actually possible to start somewhere? Is it actually possible to find healing in our nation?” We began to wonder collectively.
After Brother John and Emile’s invitation, we broke out into workshops to teach us ways of cultivating justice in our communities and then gathered in the chapel of MIT, shoulder-to-shoulder, for worship.
As we pondered our own frustrations, the voices rose up around us, voices of people from different countries, difference races, different generations, saying,
“Let all who are thirsty come. Let all who wish receive the water of life freely.”
And on that day, these voices enveloped all who heard them with the beginnings of hope.
“Let all who are thirsty come. Let all who wish, receive the water of life freely.”
Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber writes, “I don’t think it’s my own faith or prayers that has any way saved me, but the faith and prayers of others.”
To me, this is Good News, because sometimes the despair in our world feels suffocating, like it is hard to move around because: What’s the point? What difference can we possible make? The unbelief swims around us as we muddle through the day.
Like the disciples in today’s passage. Overwhelmed by Jesus’ request to love greatly and forgive often, the disciples plead: Jesus, increase our faith.
Increase our faith.
This plea is also one uttered by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a nationally-known pastor and author. She uttered this plea one week as she struggled to find words for a sermon. Her sermon was supposed to be on this amazing story from Acts about the disciples Paul and Silas. Paul and Silas are thrown in a prison cell for preaching about Christ and shackled to a stake. Not knowing what else to do, they begin to pray and sing familiar hymns that they learned in their worship communities. Their voices reverberate off the walls and rise like smoke to the heavens, as the prisoners around them sway and listen to the melodies of love, longing, and life.
Then, suddenly, there is an earthquake and the doors fly up and everyone’s chains are pulled loose and there they are, all them, free.
It is such a beautiful story and, yet, Nadia struggles with it because Paul and Silas have this superhero faith, a kind of faith that Nadia is not able to conjure up for herself.
How can she free others if she can’t even free herself?
The soil of her soul is composed of unbelief, frustration and mistrust. Nadia pulls a muscle and can’t work out and loses faith. She runs out of coffee at home and thinks, God, why me? She turns on the news and is filled with vitriol and wonders at how is possible to see the humanity it her ideological “other”. Right about now, her own quantities of faith are feeling vastly insufficient.
Nadia gets why the disciples say to Jesus: Increase our faith.
At this moment, Nadia notices that she has been tagged in a YouTube video.
Standing in her friend’s kitchen, Nadia listens to this video of a trucker named Larry who identifies as a former Marine, biker, conservative Republican. On his last trucking trip, Larry listened to the online sermons from Nadia and her gay associate pastor Reagan Humbler. Larry shares that Reagan’s sermon on Doubting Thomas made him cry … it tore him apart. He thanks Nadia and Reagan for helping to peel away the calluses on his heart and helping him to love.
In this moment, the calluses on Nadia’s own heart peel away, her chains pull loose. All week she has been striving to love her ideological other, who for her is so similar to Larry, and yet it is Larry and his faith and his broken and healed heart that gives her the faith she lacks. She does not conjure it up for herself, and yet there it is.
Larry’s words break open Nadia’s understanding of the Paul and Silas text. It makes her realize that she isn’t Paul or Silas, she is one of the other prisoners listening to the singing. They don’t do anything and yet their shackles fall off. The faith of two is sufficient for the whole group.
When the overwhelmed disciples say to Jesus, “Increase our faith,” Jesus responds, saying, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Uproot yourself and plant yourself in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
These words are not words of judgment but affirmation.
“See what faith you have?” Jesus is saying, “It is enough to change the world. Even if it is only the size of a mustard seed.”
We have enough. Enough faith. Enough love. Enough hymn singing. Enough freedom.
In the words of Nadia, maybe faith is never given in sufficient quantities to individuals but it’s always given in sufficient quantities to communities, because it’s not a competition, it’s a team sport and we carry each other through.
Like the Taize songs rising from the chapel as people prepare to go to St. Louis. Like the music rising from the prisons, bursting open chains. Like the hymns of this church sung week after week even when some of us find ourselves without words or without voices. Like the video of Larry reminding us that, even when you or I do not have faith, others do and it is enough to turn the world upside down, to bring about the kin-dom of justice, peace and joy.
I was reminded of that truth last Saturday as I attended the Mission and Stewardship Day for the American Baptists in Connecticut. The end-of-the-day worship service included a 15-person Gospel Choir from Stamford. They sang from their hearts, “Holy Spirit, breathe on us, fall on us, rain on us.” People stood and moved and clapped along and, afterward, Al Fletcher, the region executive from Maine, made his way to the pulpit and said, “I bring you greetings from Maine. Pay attention or you’ll miss it.” Head nod. “That’s how we greet each other out there and let me tell you the singing from this service has filled me up with enough energy for the entire week.”
Al’s words bring to light that we Baptists are a diverse bunch, from our Gospel singing to our New England nods, and we need each other because this is a team sport and it is the beautiful diversity of our voices that will carry us through.
Joe Delahunt, one of the region staff members, said in response to the soulful service: I am speechless.
This response, perhaps, best captures the meaning of World Communion Sunday, a day when we all – throughout the world – gather around the communion table, praying and caring for each other across diverse backgrounds and denominations because we are in this together. We show up, with insufficient faith, and discover together the abundance of God. Some of us find ourselves, like Larry, with tears coming down our face as we discover in the deepest parts of our souls that we are enough. Others of us find ourselves speechless like Joe at God’s abundance. Still others of us, like Nadia, simply witness the song and discover, in the process, that our chains have fallen to the ground and we are – all of us — indeed free. Thanks be to God. Amen.