July 26, 2020
Luke 17: 5–10
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 ploughing 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!” ’
Imagine you are with me at the circus. The arena is filled with happy people (this is post-pandemic times!). We are on bleachers under the big top watching tigers jump through the rings and gazing in awe as the acrobats perform. Caught up in the excitement with thousands there is thunderous applause after each act.
Then the lights go out. Next a small spotlight reveals the Ringmaster who says, “Ladies and Gentlemen. Let me direct your attention to the high wire.” Another spotlight shines on the wire high above. The Ringmaster asks the crowd: “How many of you BELIEVE that these daring people can ride safely over the high wire on bicycles while carrying someone between them? Raise your hands if you think they can.” Everyone’s hands shoot skyward, a great chorus of BELIEF. “Very well then,” says the Ringmaster, “now, who would like to be the first to volunteer to sit on his shoulders?” And all the hands fall quickly down.
There is a keen difference between belief and faith. It is easy to say we believe when we can stay in our seats. But to climb onto the shoulders of that high wire artist — well, that is faith! Today’s bible reading has the disciples of Jesus learning about faith.
A little background here. It has been some time that the disciples had been with Jesus. They had left their familiar lives and families and now were often were confused, uncertain, afraid. They had been wowed by Jesus’ healings and they believed in him. They were nervous as they watched Jesus challenge powerful religious officials. They watched his miracles and thought to themselves, “Wow, that’s great! But I could never do that.”
The disciples believed in Jesus. However, Jesus wanted not belief, but faith — because faith was needed to do the things Jesus expected of them like forgive, heal, and love enemies.
With that background in mind, the bible passage today brings us to the disciples when they are feeling overwhelmed and inadequate, facing the challenges of being faithful in a demanding world. So, what do they do? They cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith! We need a faith boost. We need a little caffeine in our Christianity, a shot of espresso in our discipleship. Please Jesus, make our faith greater because this is a big gig, you’re expecting us to handle in a challenging world!”
Would you agree this a reasonable request? Perhaps you have asked God for more faith when facing challenging situations in your life. I have. There are days I wonder if faith is really enough.
We live in a world of decreased faith. Problems in society are escalating. People are scared and scarred. There is a pandemic facing the world, nations are increasingly at odds with other nations. All our systems — government, education, economic, military, medical, political, and religious are in some kind of crisis.
We might be tempted to say, with the disciples, “Increase our faith.” What else would we say?
If our eyes are open to the world around us, we have these options: we can ask for more faith or we can give up. To my dismay, it seems that more and more people are giving up on faith. Perhaps you know people who have chosen that option. Some of them say: “God is not going to fix the brokenness of this world so why bother having faith.”
Jesus responds to the request for increased faith by saying to the disciples: “If you had just a little faith, you would be able to do amazing things … if you had faith as small as a mustard seed.”
Jesus knew these guys around him had faith. Jesus knows you have at least a bit of faith — even if you wonder sometimes. So, to the plea for increased faith, Jesus says: “Even with faith the size of a mustard seed…you have faith enough to do what its involved in following me.”
Mother Teresa, put her faith to work in extraordinary ways by serving the poor and orphaned in Calcutta, India. Along with the Sisters of Mercy she established an orphanage and a hospital for the poor who would have simply died on the streets of an incredibly impoverished city. I visited there 11 years ago. In the orphanage was a sign quoting Mother Teresa: “Our calling is not to do great things, but to do small things with great love.”
The words of Jesus about a mustard seed say something similar to us: we do not need more faith; we need to use the faith that we have! The disciples asked Jesus to make their faith greater. Jesus replied that they already had as much faith as they would need to do what he wanted them to do. And we do, too.
Faith, this unseen gift of God’s Spirit comes in many different shapes and through a variety of people and life experiences. Faith takes root in us and necessitates that we do something with it. To grow faith, just like any good thing in your life requires effort. The faith growing self-disciplines of prayer, daily devotions, service to neighbor and weekly worship with the people of God make faith grow and bear fruit in your life! And Jesus assures us that the One who planted the seed will be there to bless it as it grows. God will nurture the seeds of faith that God has planted in you. So, use the faith you have!
Thirty years ago Carol Kane wanted to help remove some of the barriers facing homeless people, the underemployed and working poor, inmates just released from prison, battered women and displaced veterans and others by providing furniture and household goods as they worked to establish homes for themselves. She felt this calling by God to help by supplying stuff to folks in central Florida who lived in such situations regardless of their background, life-story, or religion. Carol did not have an enormous faith, but just enough to start something that has had amazing results.
Carol’s mission started small. She began collecting in her garage used sofas and beds, toasters and towels donated or purchased with her own money. In the next few years, she expanded to large warehouses and in just four years, The Mustard Seed Inc. of Central Florida was created as a non-profit corporation.
From one woman taking a little bit of faith to helping a few people get back on their feet, Mustard Seed Inc. has grown into an organization that helps over thousands of people a year, distributing millions worth of used couches, La-Z-Boys, hotel beds past their prime and Disney World T-shirts that didn’t sell at the theme parks — all free of charge! Just a mustard seed of faith, nurtured by God, and tended to by Carol and the impossible became possible!
I understand that sometimes even as people of faith we see mostly obstacles, divisions, scarcity, and fear. Much of the world around us amplifies these concerns and challenge us. So, we ask, “Increase our faith.” And Jesus says, gently, confidently, “You already have enough faith. Put it into practice.”
Today, the good news, the promise of Jesus, is that even the smallest seed of faith matters — and the small acts of faith will grow to extend the grace and mercy of God wherever we apply them.