20 Pentecost: Faith enough

Mustard Seeds
"Mustard Seeds" by BGDL, on Flickr
Luke 17:1-10
Jesus said to his disciples, "Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive."

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The 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.

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'? Would 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'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So 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!'"

Every time I read this gospel, a hymn-verse leaps into my head. The disciples say "increase our faith," and my mind goes to the communion hymn, "Thee We Adore." Maybe you know it. The third verse goes like this:

Fountain of goodness, Jesus, Lord and God,
cleanse us, O Christ, with thy most cleansing blood:
increase our faith and love, that we may know
the hope and peace which from thy presence flow.
(Thee We Adore, O Hidden Savior, ELW 476)

Increase our faith and love, that we may know the hope and peace which from thy presence flow.

It's a prayer that many of us have likely prayed, in so many words, just like the disciples who cried out to Jesus, "increase our faith!"

It was October of last year. I was lying in bed at night, processing the news that our third attempt at IVF had failed. And for the first time in our many years of trying to have a baby, I finally got fed up. I laid awake in bed, praying...if you could call it praying. Mostly, I just said angry things to God. I said words inside my head that I’d never say out loud, in polite company or otherwise. I was hurt, I was angry, I was tired. And I wondered whether I had faith enough to keep going, to keep trying and hoping.

"Increase my faith and love," I prayed, in far angrier language, "that I might know hope and peace in this struggle."

Have you ever had nights like those? When you lie awake wondering if you really have faith and strength enough to press forward? When your doubts and fears seem to outweigh your faith? When the calling set before you by God seems to be just too difficult to carry out?

Throughout this season of Pentecost, the green season of growing in faith and discipleship, Jesus has been telling his disciples, over and over again, about the struggles of faith and discipleship: To be a disciple, you give up the comforts of home, and you put the concerns of the kingdom of God ahead of your other priorities. Being a disciple means carrying the cross, giving up possessions, and recognizing that the cost of discipleship is your very life itself.

Today, Jesus again instructs the disciples to do some hard things. “Follow me,” Jesus said, “and don’t give in to temptations to stray from working for the kingdom. Follow me in protecting the vulnerable. Follow me in confronting sin and injustice. Follow me in forgiving one another, and forgiving one another over and over again.”

Like the disciples, we are no stranger to the reality that faith and discipleship sometimes ask us to do very difficult things. Public things, like feeding the hungry, forgiving as we’ve been forgiving, putting the needs of others ahead of our own needs. And personal things, like moving forward through grief or confusion or tough personal circumstances.

Any one of these things has the power to keep us up at night, whether we are heartsick over the needs of our world or paralyzed by the needs of our own souls. And in those awake-at-night moments when we feel overwhelmed by the paths life has set before us, we, with the disciples, cry out, “Increase our faith!”

Because maybe, we believe, maybe if we had more faith, all the hard stuff would be easier. Maybe, if we had more faith, we could be better people. Maybe, if we had more faith, we could actually do good in the world. Maybe, if we had more faith, we’d have more answers and more certainty. Maybe, we think to ourselves, there is this certain level of faith, a certain volume of faith that needs to fill us up before we have the courage and strength to go forward in whatever God calls us to do or endure.

Everything else in life seems to function this way. You need a full gas tank before you can head out on a road trip, and you need a certain level money in your savings account before you can buy a house, and you need a certain number of years in your current position before you can earn a promotion, and you need a certain level of education or training before you can do certain tasks. We're used to this idea that you need a particular amount of something before you can benefit from it.

And so we look at faith the same way. Either as a practical concern or a matter of desperation. "Increase our faith!" we cry out to God, because it's hard for us to ever believe that we have enough of it.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it turns faith into a commodity rather than a gift. It turns faith into a bargaining tool, where we think we can trade a certain amount of faith for some outcome that we desire from God. It turns faith into a weird mystical protein shake that we drink to bulk ourselves up before we do the heavy lifting of sharing the gospel with the world.

This "increase in faith" mentality makes faith all about us instead of all about God; all about our needs instead of all about God's faithfulness.

This is where Jesus steps in with the reminder that even a speck of faith the size of a tiny mustard seed is plenty. More than enough.

Because the thing about faith is that it really isn't about us. It's about God. In our dark nights of the soul, it’s not actually the quantity of our faith that gets us through, it is the whole and complete faithfulness of God to us that sustains us. And when we are called to do hard things like forgiving and reconciling and feeding and healing, it’s not the strength of our faith that helps us carry out those tasks, it is the whole and complete faithfulness of God to us that empowers us.

Jesus tells the disciples that the tiniest speck of faith is enough to answer God's calling. That even the teensiest scrap of faith is plenty to act faithfully in the world. Hence his little discourse on slaves doing only what they ought. He’s telling the disciples that they don’t need superhuman faith to answer God’s call to act faithfully in the world.

Because there is no rule that says you have to have all of your own baggage figured out before you can offer a listening ear to a friend in need. And there's no prerequisite that you have to have forgiven yourself before you can forgive others around you. And you can feed the hungry even if you are still feeling spiritually hungry. And you can tell somebody that God loves them even if you aren't quite sure that you yourself are so loveable.

Jesus calls the disciples and us to follow in his way of mercy and love, but he doesn't tell us that we need to be spiritual giants before we can do that.

Instead, he assures us that a speck of faith the size of a mustard seed is plenty of faith to live as disciples. He reminds us, deep in our hearts, that a taste of bread and a sip of wine and a droplet of water are more than enough to carry us through each week.

Because even a tiny, feeble faith can cling to the promise that God is faithful, and loves his whole creation; that there is nothing, not height or depth or anything in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; that by God's grace alone we live and move and have our being.

Friends, God is bigger than all of your fears, all of your doubts, all of your hesitations. God is faithful, even when we aren't. Even your smallest seed of faith in our faithful God means that you have the strength to face tomorrow, and the power to live faithfully for the sake of the world. For it is indeed by grace that you have been saved and will be sustained, through faith, whether big or small, and this is not your own doing, it is the doing of God, who promises always to see you through each new morning, for each day is a new reminder of resurrection, and a new sign of hope for you, for me, and for all creation.

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