The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 17th Chapter
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!' "
I love the disciples. For totally the wrong reasons, I admit, but I love them. I love them because they always seem to mess up and when they mess up it makes me feel better about my discipleship. It’s schadenfreude... feeling good because, well, at least I’m not as bad as THOSE guys! I’m far from perfect as a disciple, but at least I never wanted to rain fire on a village who didn’t welcome Jesus or tell Jesus “God forbid you go to Jerusalem!”
So, when I read this lesson I thought right away, (shaking my head and chuckling to myself) you disciples; not even faith the size of a mustard seed! Who DOESN’T have at least THAT much faith? But then I didn’t just read the lesson, I HEARD what Jesus was saying. I heard Jesus say, “If you, Erik, had faith the size of the tiny, minute, minuscule, little, itty bitty size of a mustard seed the YOU'D be able to uproot a tree with your words and plant that tree in the ocean.” And I thought, “Oh, no! I can’t do that! I can’t talk to a tree and get it to uproot itself and then fly over to the ocean and plant itself in the sea. I can’t do that! And what’s worse is right now I literally live a block from the ocean... I would only have to make the tree fly like a block and a half to get it to the ocean and I STILL can’t do it! So my faith too, is smaller than a mustard seed!”
When it comes to seed sized faith, I never thought I had the largest out there, after all the largest seed is the sea coconut which can weigh up to about 90 pounds, but I also never thought I had the smallest seed sized faith either, which would be a rain forest orchid seed that weighs only 1/35,000,000th of an ounce! I’ve never thought I had the biggest faith out there, but I did always think I had faith at least a little bigger than a mustard seed. Maybe lima bean sized, or green pea sized, but now I don’t know how big my faith is.... celery seed size, maybe? lettuce seed? Maybe it really is only orchid seed sized. I don’t think there is any way to really know!
And THAT, I think, was exactly what Jesus was trying to do. When Jesus compared faith to the size of a seed, something people buy and sell as a spice, he was making his first important point about faith. Faith isn’t like a seed! It’s not a commodity you can order up by the pound from Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit or anybody else in the market. In this first part of the parable the disciples thought that they needed to be first filled with faith in order to do the good things that Jesus did out in the world. With that in mind, they came to Jesus for a faith fill-up. Jesus let them know that you don’t get faith the same way you pick up a bottle of mustard seed or cumin at the market.
So faith isn’t a commodity. What is it? In the last 300 years or so, since the Enlightenment, the most widespread idea of what faith is all about is believing something that is unprovable or unbelievable. In Jesus’ day though, faith was less about the ability to confess a belief in something unseen and more about a person’s life becoming radically centered in God. Faith was more about loyalty, allegiance and a radical trust in God that would guide a person’s way of living in the world. Faith was a trust in God’s love and care so complete there was no room for fear or anxiety. It was seeing yourself, the people around you and all of creation as God sees them and then living our lives out of that vision.
In the second part of this parable Jesus let the disciples know that thinking they needed faith BEFORE they went out to do God’s work in the world was wrong as well. To show them their second wrong-ness, Jesus described a scene where a master and a slave are interacting. In the story Jesus tells, however, the roles of the master and the slave are reversed and in this story the master serves the slave. Jesus is trying to get the disciples to understand that their notion that they have to get faith BEFORE they do God’s work out in the world is just as backwards as a master serving a slave.
It’s as if we’ve sat down at a restaurant table, snapped our fingers and placed our order with the One we’ve assumed is our waiter. “Would you be good enough to bring me a heaping helping of faith please? And I’ll have a cocktail while you get that ready.” The disciples told themselves and I think we tell ourselves, that as soon as God gets here with our faith and we get sufficiently filled up on faith, THEN (and only then) will we be ready to go out into the world and do the things God would like us to do.
Here’s another way to illustrate that same idea....I’ve always wanted to play the guitar. I don’t know how to play the guitar SO what I would REALLY like is for someone... God, Jesus, the spirit of Les Paul... someone to give me, or increase in me, or fill me up with “talent,” “chops” or even “mad guitar skills”... whatever it is that will allow me to play the guitar and THEN, filled with talent, chops and mad skills, I’ll go do good things in the world like play at church, camps and nursing homes. But that’s not the way it works, is it? If I really wanted to increase my ability to play the guitar... if I really wanted “chops” or “talent” or “mad guitar skills” what’s the only way to do that? Yeah! I’ve got to go PLAY the guitar!
Jesus is telling us that if we want to be FULL of faith, if we want to have our lives radically centered in God, the way to do that is to start living it! To spend our time focusing on the things and the people God is most concerned with in the world... the poor and poverty, the hungry, the lost, the last and the forgotten. If we want to see our lives filled with faith we need to work at seeing the world and it’s people, their joys, their sadness and all of creation through God’s eyes and live our lives concerned with the same stuff that God is most concerned with.... unconditional love, compassion and justice. In short, if we want to be full of faith, the way to do that is to go out there and start living faith-FULL-y!
But what if we don't do it right, or perfectly or make mistakes and end up making things worse? We need to remember that Jesus sent those first disciples, the ones I love for always being so wrong, out into the world with all of their imperfections perfectly in tact. Jesus isn’t looking for the perfect or doctrinally correct or ideologically pure... just for the best we can do in each particular moment. Sometimes what we can do in that moment will be awesome and more often than not, quite short of awesome. But we cannot allow that to be a reason not to try. Even if it looks and feels and sounds as clumsy as me trying to learn a new chord on the guitar, Jesus says we need to just go! Go and live faithfully... feed the hungry in all the ways people are hungry; advocate for justice so the pay for a day’s hard work is actually enough to buy what you need to live; heal the sick in body, mind and spirit; visit those who are in prison in all the ways we humans find ourselves imprisoned ... because it is only in our living as faithfully as we can in the moment... flaws, faults and faux pas included that we will find ourselves filled with faith. Amen.