<Take a listen. Sermons are better heard than read>
5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
7“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”
It Doesn’t Work That Way…
Give us faith in good measure
And let it be enough
I am glad I brought in my trusty rock today. It keeps tigers away. Did you know that?
Doubt it? Well, do you see any tigers?
And these shoes, I’ve never lost a race in these shoes. I’ve also never run one in them…
We used to play these philosophical games at University, incorporating statements like these that, on the face of them, are ridiculous, and yet you can’t really, at least not now, prove them wrong. But we have this hunch that it really doesn’t work like that. At least I do.
Ask me to get into a cage with a tiger and only this little rock, and I won’t take you up on it…
“Increase our faith,” the disciples say.
I wonder if they think of their faith in the same way I was just talking about this rock. I wonder if they imagine that their faith does something for them that means having more of it results in something better.
Because I’ve heard people ascribe crazy things to their faith. I’ve heard people hold up winning lottery tickets, claiming their faith got them the win. We’ve all seen that with Emmy’s and Oscars, right?
I’ve heard people say that their faith found them their house. Their partner. Their job. Their…you name it.
But what happens when the house is in foreclosure, the divorce papers are filed, the pink slip is given. Was that a failure of faith? Or was it just squandered? Or was it there at all?
I mean, if faith gets us everything, I guess it doesn’t matter because whatever happens next can be ascribed to faith. We just have to wait for that good thing to happen and then we can call it all part of God’s plan, right? We just have to have…faith? Right?
What is faith, anyway?
We talk about it like it’s a kitchen appliance sometimes. Like it’s sitting there on our counter between the blender and the toaster, to be used when the toast burns and the blender spills out the top. Faith will fix dinner; don’t worry.
We talk about faith as if it’s something we earn, like Girl Scout badges. “Oh, how did you get through your that painful relationship?” “My faith got me through it,” we might hear as they slap on their merit badge, as if faith earned them the right to survive that painful breakup without the residuals of the broken heart. But what does that really mean, in the end?
We talk about faith as if it’s optimism. George Michael sings, “We gotta have faith, faith, faith.” And we hum that tune as we look at our bills and aren’t sure how to stretch the money, as we look at our health and realize our days are numbered, as we look at the uncertain future and put on a smile.
But faith isn’t optimism. If it is, we’re all delusional and starry-eyed, and while I love being starry-eyed as a general disposition, no amount of optimism will turn a frown upside-down when you’re sitting with that family who just lost their son to Lake Michigan in a tragic boating accident at 3am on the 5th of July.
It’s not an appliance to turn on and make things better. It’s not a magic fairy dust to sprinkle on that house to make it yours. It’s not a badge you earn that lets you breeze through the dirt of life, and it certainly isn’t that “hang in there” poster you throw up in a moment of tragedy.
This is what faith looks like in the ER at 3am on the 5th of July: it looks like grabbing a small bowl, filling it with water from the little sink, closing the curtains, gathering the family around that young man, and praying the Lord’s Prayer in broken Spanish as you mark him with the cross and remind everyone of the promises of God known through baptism. It looks like letting the mom crawl up on the table to weep over her baby, holding her hair back, and trusting that somewhere in the unwritten future God’s wholeness and healing will come in time. That somehow Jesus came for moments like this, not to prevent them from happening like this rock preventing tigers, but so that we might know that God is with us even in that moment and will, in time, bring resurrection and life.
The disciples think a bigger faith is a better faith. And, in fact, the word for faith used here, pistis, is actually better translated as “trust.” They think more trust is better trust. It’s funny: we usually picture this story as if one of the disciples say to Jesus “Increase my faith,” but Luke says they said in chorus, “Increase our faith!” To which Jesus replies to them all, “If all y’all had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could do impossible and crazy things like tell a mulberry tree to go throw itself in the sea.”
It’s kind of a snarky response for Jesus, and I think that’s the point. His image is as crazy as he feels the question is. Most teachers say “there’s no dumb question,” knowing full well there absolutely is, and it seems like Jesus might feel that way about this particular question.
Because faith can’t be quantified like that, I think. So he transforms the question from one of size, to one of simple action.
His use of a servant as an example is kind of indelicate, but when mashed up against this story, hits a right note. Faith is not something that we do to expect something in return, we can’t curry God’s favor or a better life by having more of it, but rather it is something we have and act on because that’s who we are.
We trust God because we’ve been shown a God worth trusting. A God who led the people from slavery into freedom, even though the desert journey was tough. A God who kept Daniel safe in the lion’s den, even if God didn’t prevent Daniel from being thrown there. A God who kept Mary, Jesus, and Joseph safe from Herod, even though she’d eventually weep over her son when he was drowned on the cross on that Friday only to have him walk back from death on that new day. A God who promises forgiveness despite our sin, who promises love despite our penchant for hurting one another, who promises mercy despite our desire for revenge.
We’ve been shown a God worth trusting because God usually acts opposite the way we’d act in the same situation, and that’s the one we know can save the world because surely we’re not able.
Faith is something we have, in whatever amount we have it, because we’ve been shown glimpses of that new day called the resurrection day. And we’ve been promised that in this life we can trust that it can be felt and leaned on even when the day looks darkest because God never lets death have the final say.
And sometimes…no…most times, faith is something that must be shared. Not like a virus, that’s another way Christians like to talk about faith sometimes, as if you can catch it from each other if you hang around the right people. Martin Luther believed faith was a gift from God, and wasn’t spread like a virus but only encouraged like a spark into a flame.
But I mean shared as in, if your faith is low, grab on to some of mine for a while. And when mine is low, spare me some of yours. Because trust is sometimes hard, and so God calls us into community and says to us gathered here, “If all y’all had faith the size of a mustard seed…” That’s why there’s no such thing as a solitary Christian. We need one another and, I think, we need one another’s who don’t look like we might look, lest we think this is only what the faithful looks like. We need the young to hold onto the faith of the old, the white to hold onto the faith of the black and brown and vice versa, the gospel singers to hold onto the faith of the Gregorian chanters, the 8:15 service folks to hold onto the faith of the 10:45ers, and the 10:45ers to hold onto the faith of the 5:30ers, and the 5:30ers will Taize sing us all to sleep in the end.
Jesus says to us, to Good Shepherd, to Raleigh, “If all y’all had faith the size of a mustard seed…” To which we respond in chorus, “We do!”
And then I imagine Jesus says, “So what are you waiting for?”
Because faith is not something that gets better when it’s bigger. It doesn’t work that way anymore than this rock works to keep tigers away. Faith is something that gets better the more you do it together. A gift from God that gets better the more you practice it, no matter what amount you’re adding to the mix.
It looks like gathering around the dead places of this city, of this world with baptismal water running down our foreheads and Christ’s promises on our lips, praying together in whatever broken ways we invoke God’s name, throwing our broken gifts together as an offering, crying, singing, laughing, sharing, and trusting that God is transforming that dead place into new life, and transforming our faith in the process.