Faith is Enough: Luke 17:5-10
20th Sunday after Pentecost: Oct. 2,2016
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!’”
In the past month, I have explained my somewhat unusual status as the Vicar, rather than Pastor, here at Abiding Peace more times than I can count.
I explain that my route to the pastorate has been rather circuitous – starting with a call to ministry when I was just 13, but taking a round-about way to get here. I explain that I earned my MDiv degree back in 2003, never expecting to end up in the pulpit, but that God knew more than I did and was preparing me to take this call almost as soon as I entered candidacy.
And as I tell the story I also have a chance to talk about YOU – the amazing way that you all have welcomed me – as a not-yet-ordained minister – to simultaneously lead and learn with you. I talk about how this kind of welcome is part of who you are, as a community. And I also talk about how three years without a pastor has helped you to embrace flexibility.
And the response to all of that almost always includes this:
“WOW! Three Years! They must just be so happy just to have someone!”
I don’t take offense. I think it’s true. And it doesn’t take anything away from how blessed I feel here, or from the genuine identity of this community as warm, and welcoming, and committed – it doesn’t take anything away from all of this to acknowledge that there is a sense of felt need here – a sense that there has been a lack, and a sense of anticipation that NOW we can get excited about moving forward.
There is an excitement in this moment, but also a nervous energy. A sense that the stakes have been raised. Now that we have someone consistent, will we finally see…
More children in the church?
More people in general?
More connection to the local community?
More…fill in the blank.
I know I have felt that expectation – even if it’s just in my own head. And that is why I feel like these texts are speaking DIRECTLY to this moment in the life of Abiding Peace.
Because we have really good reasons to pray “increase our faith!”
Increase our faith, God, that You can do new and mighty things through a small congregation, whose members are already committing so much of their time and resources to this ministry. And increase our faith, God, that You can do kingdom work through this very new Vicar, despite gaps in my knowledge of Lutheran doctrine, and despite inexperience as a leader in the church, and despite the limits on my time because of school, family, and geographic distance.
[Now because you all are who you are I want to make it clear that I don’t need you all to come to me after service and tell me you don’t expect all this of me. You would totally do that, and I love you for it, but God actually already did that for me through this week’s texts, because God is really great like that. So – don’t feel bad, just get excited with me about what I learned, which is this:]
When I hear the prayer of the disciples – I relate! But I also grimace, because I see the response Jesus gave them!
“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed…” which sounds a lot like – You want “more” faith? All you need is faith about the size of the head of a pin.” One of my favorite Christian authors, Rachel Held Evans, describes this response from Jesus as having “a bit of snark” and she has a point.
After all – the “then” to Jesus’s if-then proposal can really only be read as sarcasm. “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed” then “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea.”
But who in the world would WANT to uproot a large shrub from the ground and replant it in the ocean? It’s a completely absurd picture. Jesus seems to be… making fun of the disciples.
So what do we do when we actually identify with the disciples here? What do we do when we honestly want more faith? How do we hear Jesus’ response as good news?
I suggest that there are at least 3 things we can do:
First, we can appreciate a Savior who can tease us. Teasing is an invitation to not take ourselves so seriously – not because our work is irrelevant, but because the very seriousness of the task to which God has called us means it is too heavy for us to carry on our own.
If we focus on our own ability, or inability, we will get discouraged and ashamed.
But shame is not Jesus’ standard vocabulary – at least not to those who are desperate for help. He may dress down those who are satisfied in their own self-righteousness, but faith is what Jesus always holds up as the SOURCE of healing, and forgiveness, and hope.
So I don’t believe Jesus is rejecting the disciples’ recognition that faith is what they need. Far from in. In fact, I think this story teaches us the opposite, as we see in the second thing we learn from Jesus’s response to their prayer.
We learn that the disciple actually HAVE the faith they need.
Part of that realization is actually present, already, in their prayer, because they understood the source of faith – they understood that faith is a gift of God.
They did not ask “what do WE do to grow our faith?” – they asked Jesus to increase their faith, so they had the source right. Faith is a gift – it has to be given, by God.
But if the disciples understood this, what did they have wrong? They were wrong in their diagnosis of the problem. They thought their problem was that they did not have “enough”, but that would mean that God’s gift had been inadequate, that God has been somehow parsimonious is measuring out the gift of faith, and they needed to go back for an added dose.
The disciples thought that faith is measured on a graduated scale, but Jesus’ snark about the “mustard seed” suggests that this is the wrong way to understand faith.
Greek scholars tell us that the construction of that strange if-then metaphor is constructed in a manner that indicates certainty about the “if” statement:
In other words, the verse should not be read as “if you only had the tiniest bit of faith.”
Instead it should be read as “if you have faith, AND YOU DO!” The problem is not that the disciples don’t have enough faith. God has given them faith, and that is all they need.
Which brings us to the third lesson I find for our church in this story. It is perhaps the most challenging, but I think also the most encouraging: As a gift that is sufficient, the challenge for our faith is not about quantity. It’s about owning it to do the task before us. We have received a beautiful, transformative gift – a gift that is sufficient.
We must never think that we got here out of our own hard work and righteousness, but that doesn’t mean we are utterly passive. No, God calls us to “rekindle” the gift we have received, as we heard in the passage from 2 Timothy this morning. Paul instructed Timothy to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you." And then Paul encourages Timothy to “join with me in suffering for the gospel,” but to do so “relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.”
We have a holy calling in this place - with all the gifts and weakness God has given us, we have a holy calling which is the acting out of our faith. I think this is the point of Jesus’s reference to the master and the servant.
The work God calls us to is just our natural work. We don’t do it for special praise. And we don’t need any special new infusion of God’s grace to do it. God has given us what we need, so we can go forward in confidence to just do it.
Now, I am fully aware that I am probably preaching this sermon to myself as much, if not more than to anyone else in this congregation. You all might be less prone to the spirit of fear than I am. After all you have had the last three years to witness the enoughness of the faith God has given you. But, I can’t help but remember the promises we all made in this room 4 weeks ago when I was installed as your Vicar. We made promises to each other that we would do this work God has given all of us in this new phase of the life of this congregation using a very important phrase: “We will and we ask God to help us.”
Our promises held confidence and confession in the same breath. Confidence and confession. We will, AND We need God’s help.
And maybe that can be the model for our prayers as we think, and dream, and pray, and work together to do the work that God has given us to do in this church, in this community, in this time. Not “increase our faith”, but rather “We know you have given us what we need to do Your work. We will, AND we still need You to help us.”