In the summer of 2004, I went on a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico, chaperoning the youth group of the congregation I served at that time. Our mission: to build a house in a poor neighborhood of Tijuana. I had never been to Mexico before, and I didn’t know what to expect. Boy, was I in for a culture shock!
It started with the accommodations we stayed at – a very basic kind of hostel in one of the poorer neighborhoods, with bare rooms that contained a few bunk beds with quite filthy foam mattresses. I am usually not squeamish, but when one night a mouse took a walk across my sleeping bag, I was close to freaking out. I will not give any details on the bathroom situation, but let’s say that much, it was nothing like using a bathroom here. And then, of course, we were not allowed to let tap water even touch our lips, our daily toilette required special caution. Add lots of dust, stray flea-infested dogs, and merciless heat, and you get the picture.
But then going to the actual site of the roughly 10 by 25 foot house that we were supposed to build made the hostel and the neighborhood it was in seem plush and luxurious. I had never seen such poverty before. We entered a shanty town, erected on a former official or unofficial dump site. No running water. Electricity was stolen from overhead life lines, which were cut down and lay open in the dirt roads – life wires, mind you, and little kids playing all around. Even more stray dogs. Most shelters were made from scrap materials – ply wood, plastic tarps, old tires, wooden crates, cardboard. The house we were about to build would be one of the fancy places in this settlement, small and basic as it was, because we would use real building materials and construct it properly. To think that people actually lived there…
Two days into this 10 day trip, I was ready for the comforts of my home again. This was a journey that, had I known more about the details, I may not have made. However, today I can say that it was one of the most important journeys of my life. My horizon was expanded enormously. I grew – in experience, in understanding, in gratefulness, in compassion, and in faith.
This is one thing that happens when we leave our comfort zones and travel to unknown places – we get a different perspective on things and issues. We change. We grow. And often, this growth comes at a price – ever heard of growing pains? And I’d totally agree, without a certain discomfort, there is no real growth. I mean, if we are not challenged in some way, why in the world would we feel the need to grow?
Jesus and his disciples have been on the road for a long time. They have been on a journey with quite unexpected detours and surprising and yes, often uncomfortable encounters. They are on a journey that leads to where no one, not even Jesus himself, wants to go – to Golgotha and the cross. One just has to look into the gospel stories to realize that this journey is not always what the disciples anticipated, that they have their moments of challenge, and moments of immense discomfort – Jesus is leading them to many places that they themselves probably would not have chosen to go to. And yet – they stick with Jesus. It seems that they realize that they are on the most important journey of their lives, a journey that expands their horizons, a journey that makes them grow. In experience, in understanding, and in faith. However, the longer the journey, the more the disciples realize how much more growing there is to be done. Whenever Jesus confronts them with a new challenge, there is the awareness: they are still those of little faith. And so, in today’s gospel, after several challenging encounters and words from Jesus, they, maybe exasperated, ask Jesus: Increase our faith. Make it bigger. Grow our faith.
And Jesus? Does he grant the request? It’s not that easy. Yes, faith is a gift from God, faith is not some accomplishment of ours; in that sense, it’s good the disciples realize that this is something Jesus can give. However, a gift has to be used. Some gifts are easy. Just imagine a birthday gift you’ve received in the past. There are some uncomplicated gifts, like a food items or flowers. But then there are also those quite complex gifts you don’t just unwrap and know how to use or master right away. When I was 12, I got a guitar for Christmas. Great gift! I taught myself a couple of chords, but I never really learned how to play the guitar – I never really learned how to use this gift to its full potential. It takes practice. In the same way, faith is a very complex gift, and we have to practice it, in order to grow in it. And this is exactly what Jesus tells his disciples in today’s gospel, albeit in a somewhat cryptic way. Lord, grow our faith! Well, then, work at it, like slaves work for their master. Do what God asks of you. Follow the commands to love and to share, to do justice and walk humbly with your God. Only through faithfulness, your faith will grow.
I think this actually is the perfect gospel lesson on a day we celebrate a baptism. In just a few moments, little L will be baptized into the faith and into the body of Christ, the church. Baptism is a wonderful gift from God – but just as the guitar I got on Christmas so many years ago, this gift has to be used and practiced in order to be fully realized. That’s why you, D and A as parents, and you, E and M as sponsors – and, by the way, you all as the congregation that surrounds Leonie – will make some promises today, to help L grow and mature in faith. To help her practice her faith.
We don’t know where life’s journey will ultimately take L; of course we hope and pray for the best. We want her to grow up to be a happy and fulfilled and compassionate person. But, as we all know, life has a way of throwing us curveballs, and to lead us down unexpected roads, and sometimes roads we would not have chosen for ourselves. And so I just love the baptismal verse you chose for L, from Joshua 1, 5b: I will not fail you or forsake you. Or, in German: Niemals werde ich dir meine Hilfe entziehen, nie dich im Stich lassen. This is God’s promise, to sustain L and each and every one of us as we walk the sometimes treacherous road of life. This promise, God’s promise, and your efforts to help L grow in faith, will give her strength to deal with all kinds of things life will throw at her. Help her be strong! Nobody expects her to be perfect in faith or in life. But help her live a life in love, honesty, and integrity. That’s the best we all can do.
My hunch is no human being has ever been perfect in faith. There is always more to experience, there are always more temptations and obstacles to be overcome, there are always more love and justice and hope and grace and forgiveness needed. We will always be on a journey – walking with Jesus, who is with us, always, and who will not fail us or forsake us – but who also inevitably will take us down roads we might not choose to go, to places and situations way out of our comfort zone.
Jesus might respond to our request, grow our faith, by saying: well, then, walk with me. Let me take you places you haven’t even imagined before, places you wouldn’t choose to go to yourself. But this is how you grow, in spirit, in faith. And this is the most important journey of your lives.