October 2, 2022 Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Luke 17: 5-10.
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 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. 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’? 8 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’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 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!’ ”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Increase our faith”, the apostles ask Jesus. This begs the question; why did they make this request of him, and what prompted them to ask? As is sometimes the case, the folks who determine the Scripture readings for a particular Sunday often select verses that seem peculiar when read without noting what came before. In this morning’s gospel lesson from Luke this request for increased faith is remarkably odd, since it appears to have come out of nowhere. After all, these are Jesus’ closest followers, and we would expect that they wouldn’t simply ask him to give them a greater faith without something having compelled them to make this request. Well, in this case, all we need to do is consider the two short verses that precede today’s reading. Jesus has been teaching the importance of forgiveness as a practice that all should follow. And he has just made the point that his disciples are expected to forgive their sisters and brothers, no matter how often they feel they have been wronged by another.
Jesus said to them in verses 4 and 5, “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 command to forgive this rather exaggerated example of another committing sins against one of the disciples seems to be what prompted them to ask for increased faith; ostensibly, in order to be able to endure what they felt was too much sin against them for them to bear. You will recall that in Matthew, when Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive someone who has harmed him as much as seven times, Jesus responds by saying; “no, but rather seventy times seven!” In both instances Jesus proclaims that one’s forgiveness of others must be unlimited; the disciples are commanded to not withhold forgiveness no matter the number of offenses one must endure. The disciples were obviously troubled by this and their perceived inability to obey, thus their plea for increased faith to enable them to forgive as Jesus commands them to.
Jesus responds with a seeming reprimand, telling the disciples that if their faith was the size of a tiny mustard seed, that they would be able to accomplish anything, going so far as to cite the rather strange notion that a tree could be uprooted and planted in the sea. It’s obvious that Jesus’ intention was not to instill additional faith in the disciples, but to make a slightly different point. It’s about having the right kind of faith, the kind that enables one to endure any slight, to move mountains, to plant a tree in the ocean. It’s not the quantity of faith that people have that enables them to do great things, it’s the quality of one’s faith.
Jesus steers the disciples’ away from thinking they need more faith to understanding that the faith they have is sufficient for accomplishing what is required of them. Faith the size of a mustard seed is sufficient for even the most demanding tasks of discipleship. No matter how small the amount, it is enough. There is power in the tiniest amount of faith, provided that it is put into practice for the benefit of the kingdom, for the service to God’s people. For faith doesn’t exist on its own, faith doesn’t operate independently. It is through our faith that God works, and God is able to accomplish mighty things even when our faith is as small as a mustard seed. The amount of faith in each of us is sufficient for God’s use. For, it’s not our faith, but the will of God that motivates us to forgive seventy times seven times.
It is God’s will that moves mountains; it is God working through us and our sufficient faith that a mulberry tree may be uprooted to be planted in the sea.
For what is our faith, other than a transformed way of perceiving and responding to the nature of God and to God’s power? It is more than simply an assent to belief in Jesus as the Son of God; it is more than an acknowledgement that God the Father is the Creator of the universe and all that is within it; it is more than the recognition that the Holy Spirit is the presence of the divine within and around us. In its most basic form, our faith is the acceptance that belief in the Trinity is the basis of living a Christian life. And this faith is what compels us to live our lives in the service of others. And often, as it was to the dismay of the disciples, this includes the practice of unlimited forgiveness of those whom we feel have sinned against us. And within each of us there is truly sufficient faith to accomplish this; there is no need for us to ask the Lord, to “increase our faith”.
But let’s not kid ourselves, there are times when the sufficiency of our faith may be tested; by others and more often than not, by ourselves. Perhaps there were instances when you have felt your faith to be as small as a mustard seed. And then again, especially when you have found yourself filled with joy at what you have realized that God has done for you, you may have imagined that you had the faith to move mountains. The truth is, our faith is constantly evolving, changing, developing; increasing and decreasing. The amount of faith we experience at any given time is a measure of the potential of what we think we are capable of accomplishing through it. The key to moving past those times when we feel our faith has wavered is remembering that we always have enough for God to use for God’s purpose. And God is always on hand to reassure us that we have just the right amount that God needs from us at these times.
Once I was participating in a bible study and the topic of evolving faith arose. The question was posed, “who here has never had any doubts about their faith?” Imagine the surprise in the room when one participant raised their hand with conviction, stating that their faith had never wavered, ever. After the class had dispersed, in my shame I asked the pastor what I could do differently so that I might have the same unwavering faith that my classmate asserted.
I was told that in her memoir, Mother Theresa admitted there were times when the misery, suffering, and inequality she observed among those she served was so overwhelming that she found herself questioning God’s very existence. These were the times when her faith had ebbed, yet she continued in her devotion to serve the most needy of God’s children. And it was also at these times that God found her faith to be sufficient for the work God called her to do. Her mustard seed-sized faith was enough for her to bring comfort to the most destitute in the slums of Calcutta. And if I recall correctly, I believe that my pastor assured me that my classmate, or anyone else for that matter who professed to never have doubts about their faith was quote, “full of baloney!” That was comforting to me! And besides, whatever the quantity of my faith, it would always be sufficient for God to use.
It is interesting also to note that the disciples asked Jesus for greater faith, but when they did so they requested that he “increase OUR faith”. They were asking that they would be granted the faith they thought they needed, not as individuals, but as the group that was most closely associating with Jesus. “Our” faith, not “my” faith. They recognized that if some of them found themselves wavering, that the faith of the others would elevate the level of devotion of the rest of the twelve. And it is this corporate expression of faith that bound the disciples to Jesus, just as it does when congregations act in ways that put their faith into action, into works. The people of Emanuel determined that a thrift store would provide a much-needed service for their neighbors. And a little thing like a global pandemic wasn’t going to get in the way of making “Emanuel’s Closet” a reality. The combined faith of the people of God in this place was sufficient for God’s purpose. The “Closet” is thriving and continues to provide for the needs of those it serves, with respect and dignity.
And that same sufficient faith is the reason this church remains as a place where the faithful may gather; in spite of Covid, a fragile financial condition, the need for repairs, and a general attitude within our society that many people have no need for God in their lives. Yet, when all the mustard seed faiths of the people of Emanuel are added up, it turns out that they equate to exactly the amount that God needs to further His purpose in this place. No matter the amount, it is always sufficient, it is always enough.
So, it seems that we don’t need to ask Jesus to increase our faith, any more than the disciples did. They didn’t yet know that it was the quality, not the quantity of their faith that mattered. We do know this, and we ought to depend on this knowledge as our motivation as we move into the future. Let us go forth without fear; and with trust, hope, and most importantly, faith. For it is, that with our combined faith anything is possible for God, even planting a tree in the sea. And even granting the hope that a determined, faithful congregation will be blessed to continue to thrive, in spite of all the obstacles that would seem to be against them. For when it comes to faith, enough is enough!
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and holy God, we don’t come before you with a plea to increase our faith, for we know that you are able to use whatever amount we already have. We do pray that you would grant us the kind of faith that encourages us to increase our willingness to be of service to your people. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who teaches that whatever faith we have it is always sufficient. Amen.
God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.