A Sermon for 6 October 2019 – World Communion Sunday
A reading from the gospel of Luke 17:5-10. Listen for God’s word to us.
“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!’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
If I asked you to rate your faith on a scale from 1 to 10, what number would you assign? 1 would be terrible. No faith at all. 10 would be amazing! Your zinging along all day with a depth of connection, an intensity of joy, a peace that palpably surrounds your entire being. One reason I so love the 16th Century Spanish mystic and nun Teresa of Ávila, who routinely was seen levitating by the sisters at daily prayer with her. Is that for all the rapture for God that Teresa experienced in her body and soul, she also admitted there were times each day when God, who she referred to as her Beloved, felt so incredibly elusive. She knew the spiritual life was about ecstatic connection with the Divine. AND (as she said) doing the work of washing the pots and pans in the kitchen. The highs and the lows and every day in between. Teresa counseled Christians to expect and welcome it all. So that if I asked you right now to assign a number to your faith, I hope it wouldn’t be 1 – though some moments it might be. And maybe it’s 10 – but I highly doubt it’s that way 24/7 for anyone, though hopefully it’s close at least sometimes for most.
The gospel of Luke records this funny little scene where the disciples of Jesus ask him to increase their faith. They want a number closer to 10 and further away from the no faith of number 1. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ saying about the mustard seed of faith comes right after his time on the mountain when he transfigured into the glowing rapture of God alongside what appeared to be Moses and Elijah. Then, when Jesus and his disciples Peter, James, and John come down from that experience; a man falls at Jesus’ feet begging his son be healed. The father explains that Jesus’ disciples were unable to help. So, Jesus reminds of the power of even a mustard seed of faith. But in the gospel of Luke, Jesus just had finished teaching his disciples about the seriousness of their role. The weight of their responsibility as his followers so that they dare not cause another to stumble. The magnitude of graciousness he expects so that any who turn from their wrongdoing are released through the gift of forgiveness. Jesus is going to go on to tell them a parable about slaves, servants as the Greek term more typically is translated, just doing what’s commanded. Getting on with the work their Master tells them to do. ‘Cuz that’s what servants do! As a result of all Jesus is teaching, the disciples gawk: “Lord, increase our faith!” They might as well have been saying, “You want us to live in this world how? To be mindful day in and day out of the effect we may have on those who surround so that none of them ever stumble because of us? Not expecting some great reward but getting on with it all anyway? Like, seriously Jesus, following you is like that???” He better increase their faith! And while he’s at it, be sure he gives an extra dose too to each one of us. Because in light of that vision for his disciples, most of us likely feel like we’re going to need a whole lot more faith!
Faith is a curious thing. In the Greek of the gospel, the word we translate as faith is πίστιν (pisten). Though many often think more of faith as a body of content we must know about God, pisten connotes trust. The Apostle Paul reminds beautifully in his first letter to the Corinthians that his own proclamation was not in lofty words. Not in some huge body of human knowledge. He writes that he wanted their faith to rest not on that of his own doing, but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:5). It’s the same direction Jesus points his disciples when they ask for increased faith. Alluding to the power of God which spoke creation into being, Jesus tells his friends: “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” (Luke 17:6). In other words, what we do for God as a result of our faith is not dependent on how much of it we have. It’s about who God is. One biblical commentator puts it like this: “The true miracle of Jesus’ saying is not about overcoming natural laws (by doing things like uprooting mulberry trees), but about the presence of true faith, a faith that takes hold of the God with whom ‘nothing [is] impossible,’ [Luke 1:37] (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, Margit Ernst-Habib, p. 142). One tiny shred of faith is enough for us to do the amazing! Not because of our tiny shred of faith. But because of God!
I received an email this week from a film publisher who took a moment to update his subscribers about what’s been going on in his ministry and life. This dedicated soul, who so creatively expands others’ hearts and minds with the content he makes available for spiritual formation, poured out the personal challenges of his past several months to let subscribers know the experiences that will impact the direction his future publications will take. He closed his update with two jarring little words. He wrote: Stay Weak. “Stay Weak,” I thought! Who wants to do that?! The culture all around us is about strength. Power. Might. No one wants to be a weakling. Those who are weak are pushed to the side. Trampled. Kept out. We pump iron to feel strong. We stockpile missiles to feel strong. We swagger over others in order to feel strong. Stay weak? In a doubletake, what the film publisher’s challenges must certainly be revealing flashed in my mind.
Jesus wants us to know we do not have to be strong to do God’s work. Remember the Apostle Paul’s great affliction? The thorn in his flesh never fully revealed to history, but that kept him from “being too elated?” (2 Cor. 12:7). He begged and pleaded and prayed for that weakness to be taken from him. Finally he heard: “My grace is sufficient for you, for (my) power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). At last, Paul came to know what Jesus had been teaching all along. We know too – though sometimes we forget. God chooses the weak to work in this world. That which is last according to culture’s standards is first with God. Little is enough. So that who God is, not who we are, will shine. So that how God is able, not how we are, will be magnified. A mustard-seed-of-faith is plenty for the work of God to be accomplished! Not because of us. But because of God! One biblical commentator writes: “When the disciples ask for greater faith, knowing that difficult times lie ahead of them, Jesus responds by asking for something small: a trusting faith the size of a mustard seed, so that the faithful follower of Jesus might not look at herself, judging her own faith, relying on its strength or being scared by its weakness, but look instead at the One she follows” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, Margit Ernst-Habib, p. 142). Consider instead: God.
The next time you wonder if the amount of faith you have is enough for anything much to happen, remember the lesson of the mustard seed. It’s not about us and how much faith we might have. It’s all about God.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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