Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“The Faith We Have Been Given”
Rev. Art Ritter
October 6, 2019
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 plowing 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!’”
My daughters and son-in-law are on the same Verizon account as Laura and me. I believe that the three of them are currently using IPhone 7s while Laura and I are still using our miserably outdated IPhone 5s. Amelia called Verizon the other day to check when she would be available for an upgrade to the new IPhone 11. The customer service representative told her that she and Maren and Max were not currently eligible for an upgrade but that they could use the upgrades on the account with belonged to Arthur and Laura. When Amelia made the request, I was not especially sympathetic. I told her that I was quite comfortable using my old phone but that I wanted the flexibility to be able to change in the future. I told her that I would keep my upgrade, thank you very much. And then I told her that she should be quite happy with the phone that she had been given. Of course I added a few obligatory fatherly sentences about knowing some people who are still using flip phones! I’m sure she appreciated that.
The disciples of Jesus come to him with a specific request: “Give us more faith!” You couldn’t really blame them. For quite a while they had been listening to Jesus outline what would was needed to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. The things that he was teaching were rather difficult and demanding. Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Forgive even when it’s not deserved. Give without expecting anything in return. Be ready to take up your cross. Given these challenging requirements, we can all understand the disciples’ request. They will needed some help to be whom he was asking them to be. “Increase our faith,” was their heart-felt request.
I remember long ago, at the very first church I served, a parishioner came into my office with a similar wish. He asked for help in increasing and deepening his faith. As a young minister, I was thrilled to be asked to help and I was eager to provide a solid answer. I took some books off my shelves and handed them to him. I talked about establishing a discipline of prayer. I recommended a daily Scripture reading. I asked if there was a particular ministry within the church that he might find meaning in serving. I might handle a similar request today a little differently and certainly without the same amount of certainty in my answer.
Jesus’ answer was completely different. It almost seemed as if he were brushing his disciples off. He did not offer any suggested reading material. He didn’t give them any tips on praying. He didn’t share any of his tricks on how to approach God in the midst of life’s tough circumstances. He really didn’t offer them a whole lot in the way of practical encouragement.
They wanted more faith. They wanted an upgrade. And Jesus told them that the faith they already had was sufficient for the tasks at hand. Just a mustard seeds’ worth is all that was needed. You may want an IPhone 11 but your IPhone 5 can still get the job done!
Jesus gave this strange illustration about a mulberry tree getting planted in the middle of the sea. What a strange thing to say! Who would want to uproot a modest mulberry tree and send it flying into the ocean where it would take root and grow? This is ridiculous. The late Rachel Held Evans writes that she believes Jesus was gently, poking fun at his disciples and their preoccupation with flashy signs and wonders as the measure of true faith. They wanted some visible and something impressive, like the ability to call down fire from heaven anytime anyone crossed their path in a suspicious manner.
I think that Held Evans is on to something here. There is a great temptation for us to turn faith into something complex and difficult and powerful. Faith is a path we can map out, a course we can complete, a secret that we can learn, and a destination to which we can arrive. We want to try the latest soul-saving gimmick. We figure that through some class or some book or some preacher or some church we can get better at it. But Jesus told his disciples that faith is really quite simple. You just need a little to move a mountain. The signs and wonders performed by Jesus weren’t necessarily flashy and impressive but they had a point. They healed and fed and blessed and restored and comforted. And that is just what we as followers of Jesus are also called to do.
Walter Brueggemann wrote, “We all have a hunger for certitude. The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude. It is about fidelity.”
I noted on my calendar this week that October 1 was the feast day of St. Theresa of Lisieux. The notice peaked my interest. I don’t know much about Catholic saints and I had never heard of St. Theresa, so I looked her up. It was interesting to discover that she was a saint who has inspired Christians to honor God by being faithful in small things. She wrote about how small her faith was but also about how she believed that she had been given enough faith to trust that she was doing what God wanted her to do. “God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized,” she said. “So in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a saint.”
Perhaps Jesus was trying to tell his disciples that faith isn’t manifested in flashy things, in displays of power, and in uprooting and replanting mulberry trees in the sea. When you have enough faith to be faithful, you have enough faith to do what you need to do. We should not let our desire for more certainty and more strength and more wisdom keep us from using the faith we have. We don’t need to demand more faith because if we use the faith we already have been given in the way that God desires, then it will always be enough.
We have what we need to be faithful. It may only be the size of a mustard seed but we are called to make it work. The faith we are given and to which we are called is not about getting more of something or about being more certain of something. It is about loving God and loving neighbor. In small things, God can move mountains- or do things within us and with us that can change the world.