Give us more!
So this was my sermon on 6th October, focussing mainly on the Gospel reading...
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 - 2 Timothy 1:1-14 - Luke 17:5-10
The gospel reading today starts rather abruptly with the words The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" Nothing there to give us a clue about why the apostles suddenly had what appears to be a crisis of faith. But we need to remember that in the chapters of Luke’s gospel that precede these verses there has been some pretty heavy stuff: teaching about rich men going to Hades, about tying millstones around necks, about forgiving seventy times seven… No wonder the disciples are starting to feel that this is all getting a bit much. And that perhaps they don’t have the faith in their Master that is necessary to do everything he is asking of them.
And so you would expect Jesus to have some comforting words for them. But what Jesus appears to do is to mock them, saying “if your faith was even the size of a mustard seed, you’d be able to tell a tree to move and it would…” But it’s not, so you can’t…. The words of Jesus here seem to be spectacularly unencouraging.
It’s that word “if” that does it. But actually the Greek word used can also be translated as “since” – which puts an entirely different light onto the words.
Instead of saying “your faith isn’t even that big, so you can’t” Jesus is saying “Even though your faith is only that big, you can…”
He is reminding the disciples that faith isn’t really a quantifiable thing. They want more of this thing called faith, but Jesus is trying to show them that they already have enough; what they need to do is learn to use it. The great theologian Thomas Merton wrote: We already have everything, but we don't know it and we don't experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess. The trouble is, we aren't taking the time to do so.
We do not need to fear that our faith in God is not enough. Even our mustard grain sized faith is sufficient if we learn to use it. Even a tiny faith is enough if we stop fearing that we can’t be good Christians – whatever one of those is!
But what is our faith sufficient to do? In the second part of the reading, we are told: Our faith is sufficient for us to do our duty. To do what God requires us to do. Faith doesn’t have to be heroic; it’s not actually about big things like moving mountains (why would you want to?) or making mulberry trees grow in the sea (again, why?) It is about realising that what we do in our everyday lives to bring about the Kingdom of God is enough. The disciples were obsessing over faith – what is faith? Do we have enough? Give us more! We need more! – and in fact this can become a distraction from the kind of faith that Jesus asks of us. His faith is about loving God and loving our neighbour, it is about forgiving, about giving away, and not about getting more of something so that you feel good about yourself.
As a young Christian, I remember feeling downcast as someone “wiser” than me told me that my prayers were not being answered because I didn’t have enough faith. If only I had the faith, then that person I prayed for would not have died … or that child would have been healed …or that disaster would have been averted. But I honestly don’t think that answers to prayer rely on the faithometer of the pray-er. I don’t believe that God checks up on our faith levels and thinks “Yes, she has enough faith, let’s answer that prayer!” Or “Sorry, not enough faith there. I’ll just let the person they’re praying for die.”
No, I think that Jesus was talking here about recognising that even the simplest things done in faith can have a huge impact. Having faith that whatever we do for God will have a result. One commentator put it this way: Faith is putting one foot in front of the other and walking toward a future we do not see yet, but trust that God is fashioning. Faith is heading out of the door each day looking for opportunities to be God’s partner and co-worker in the world. Faith is understanding that the various challenges put in front of us -- whether solving a problem at work or forgiving someone who wronged us -- are actually opportunities that invite us to grow as disciples and witness to God’s presence and goodness in the world.
Paul reminds Timothy of this when he says: for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. This is what faith is: believing that what we do is for a great and mighty God, and that, if we do our bit, he will do great and mighty things. But it is God that will do the great things, not us. As Mother Theresa says “Our calling is not to do great things, but to do small things with great love” and to then have the faith that God will take these small things and make them great.
And so Jesus tells his disciples -- both then and now -- that we’ve got all that we need to be faithful, and that being faithful, finally, is about recognizing all the God-given opportunities just to show up and do what needs to be done. It’s about caring for those in need, protecting the vulnerable, reaching out to the lonely, being concerned for the environment, and contributing to the common good. It’s about all the ordinary stuff we do all the time that when taken together and blessed by God, becomes extraordinary.
That’s what faith is. The disciples didn’t need more of it. We don’t need more of it. We have enough. We simply need to see that what we have – the desire to follow Jesus, to live his way, to play our part in the Kingdom of God – what we have was enough if we trust God to use what we do in his service.