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Why We Don't Need More Faith

A sermon on Lue 17:5-10

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Billy Pasco on Unsplash]

You may not be surprised to learn that I was not especially excited to preach on this week’s lectionary passages.

They’re… tough ones. Right? It’s not just me?

The first reading makes it infinitely clear why the book is called Lamentations. It is a lament for lost people, lost freedom, lost hope, lost… everything!

And the gospel, if anything, is worse! We get:

A serious warning about not leading people astray;

A command to forgive those who sin against us repeatedly (which has been used in really dangerous ways over the centuries to convince abuse victims that they have a religious obligation to tolerate abuse!);

When the disciples flag for Jesus that what he is saying is hard, and understandably ask for help, he delivers a bizarre analogy about faith as a seed that can root a tree in the sea;

And then he follows-up on this rebuff with a slightly clearer but even more off-putting slave-master analogy about the life of faith being servitude without even being thanked for it.

My favorite commentator, Debie Thomas, has this to say: “I’m not sure I like Jesus in this passage. He sounds so irritated. He seems to promise the impossible – a mulberry tree that bears fruit in the sea? – while simultaneously expecting the disciples to regard themselves as worthless slaves. What is happening in this passage?”[1]

It's a valid question. I can think of a few others too:

Why in the world would the lectionary committees choose to include this reading in Sunday selections when so many other things get left out?

And, then, there’s: why is this section even in the Bible at all? It’s clearly a disjointed collection of various sayings of Jesus that got recorded without context and then just mashed together… and I honestly don’t understand why.

What are we supposed to be learning from this?

My instinct is just to join my voice to the cry of the disciples. “Jesus, increase my faith, because I’m not sure I believe that this reading has anything edifying to teach to my community!”

But that instinct just brings on a bigger crisis…

Not just because pastors aren’t supposed to express that kind of doubt from the pulpit…

but, also, because when the disciples make this (relatable, reasonable) request… Jesus says NO!

Or, not “no,” exactly. It’s more like he says, “don’t be ridiculous.”

More faith? Oh, come on! That is not what you need. Even the smallest amount of faith is sufficient to do this random, completely useless action that you would never actually want to do, but that’s not the point. A lack of faith is not your problem!

Now, it’s easy for me to get caught up on the “ridiculous” part of that response.

My felt need in this whole conversation with the gospel text does not feel ridiculous. It feels urgent, thank you very much! I need some help here.

But, when I step back from the anxiety, I also know that Jesus is right about the problem being located in the disciples’ diagnosis of what they need.

If what they needed was MORE faith, that would mean that faith is an object that can be quantified. That it is something we HAVE, in greater or lesser qualities.

But that’s an understanding of faith that I always preach against. Faith is not a noun in its most essential nature. It is a verb.

Faith is something we do. It’s an orientation of trust in God that then shapes the way that we live.

I preach this “action-of-trust” understanding of faith so often that I accurately guessed the root of the Greek word translated as faith in this passage before I even looked it up.

The disciples ask for more πίστις (pístis), which is a noun, but it connects to the Greek verb πιστεύω (pisteúō),[2] which means to trust. It’s the word Jesus uses in Mark 1:15 to define his whole ministry – calling people to repent and trust in God.

And this perspective on faith-as-trust shifts the way I hear Jesus’ uncomfortable master-slave analogy that rubs so wrong on my 21st Century sensibilities.

Jesus is challenging the disciples to shift their perspective from “we need more” to “look what you already have.”

And what they already have is a relationship with God as familiar (to them) as the basic household arrangement in their society… where everyone has a role that requires no special dispensation to fulfill.

In other words, faith is not a key to unlock religious superpowers. It’s not something we need to accumulate or level-up in order to achieve a higher level of discipleship.

Faith is just a way of living in relationship with God. A turning toward God in trust.

As Debie Thomas, again, describes “Faith is simply recognizing our tiny place in relation to God’s enormous, creative love and then filling that place with our whole lives.”[3]

We don’t need “more” faith, because faith doesn’t come in different quantities. It’s not something we expend in a transactional way, as though we had to check out faith-budget before we can commit to a given act of discipleship.

Faith is the quality of our relationship with God. It is knowing that whatever challenge we face, with face it surrounded by God’s love and motivated to do the hard things God asks of us because we trust that God is guiding us to do what is actually right and good for us.

Faith is not something we have. It is a relationship that changes us as we live it out each day.

It changes us by shifting our focus away from our own ego needs, so that we can recognize that there will be times we will stumble, but we want to make sure that we aren’t the ones who are tripping other people up – because we care about the people who look to us for guidance more than we care about being right.

It changes us by releasing the instinct to keep a record of wrongs, and instead being willing to walk alonsideg someone who is struggling to break harmful patterns and who needs someone else to teach them that they can trust in forgiveness and hope in change.

It changes us by equipping us to live lives that aren’t out for recognition or reward, lives that serve because being part of the work that God has for us is actually what we long for.

Faith changes us by grounding us in a relationship of trust, so that even on the days when the gospel message is confusing, and we have uncomfortable questions, and Jesus isn’t making it easy… we trust that our struggle is NOT a result of some deficiency in our faith.

I want to share one more Debie Thomas quote with you about this passage and what it teaches us about faith, because she says it so perfectly:

“One of the most damaging messages the Church communicates to people struggling in their spiritual lives is that faith is somehow antithetical to doubt, fear, ambivalence, or confusion. That when it comes to faith, our problem is scarcity. This is a cruel and deeply damaging lie. Having faith – even having enough faith – does not mean that we will never struggle with unbelief, distrust, or anxiety. Having faith means leaning hard into God’s abundance. Having faith means pursuing God and the things of God even when the pursuit feels painful or pointless…. Faith is living within God’s extravagant decision to love and pursue us. Faith is trusting Jesus one step at a time, day after day after day.”

I know this is true.

This is why I can stand up in the pulpit week after week and preach from a gospel that I do not always completely understand, and that I certainly do not perfectly apply in my life.

Because faith is not about our understanding, or our performance. It is about trusting that we are held in God’s love and God does not expect us to be “more” than we are.

Thanks be to God.


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