Sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2016 || Proper 22C || Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14
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.
Read literally, this passage could have saved the church several thousand dollars this summer. It’s true! After all, we had to have several trees removed from our property, and getting that done safely and expertly was expensive. But Jesus seems to say that a faithful person could just tell a tree to be uprooted and hurled into the Mystic River. I must confess to the members of the vestry and finance committee in attendance that I didn’t try this tactic before we engaged the tree-removal service. I apologize.
Then again, I would not have been my own first choice within this parish as the person of faith to go talking the trees out of the ground. I don’t have nearly as much faith as some sitting in this room.
And right there, with that thought, I fall into the same trap that catches the apostles at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. I fall into the trap of thinking faith has something to do with quantity. “Increase our faith,” they say. “Increase our faith.” Give us more. We don’t have enough yet.
But Jesus has no interest entertaining their request because he does not subscribe to their quantitative understanding of faith. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he says, you could do extraordinary things. I could be holding a mustard seed on my fingertip right now, and you would hardly be able to see it. Jesus chooses the smallest seed he could think of to illustrate his point: faith cannot be quantified.
Think about it like this. When our twins were newborns, they went through about fifteen diapers each every day. Thirty diapers: that’s a box of newborn-sized diapers every three days. (That’s why we registered for them, by the way.) Two years and halfway through potty training later and we’re down to four total diapers per day: one each at naptime and bedtime. Diaper use is quantifiable. Many things in life are – from salaries to mileage to box scores.
But the most important things in life are not quantifiable. Bravery, for example: you might have all the data in the world telling you a soldier is a crack shot who scores off the charts on all of her evaluations, but until the true moment of decision, until she has to drop her weapon to drag a wounded comrade out of enemy fire, there is no way to measure bravery. There is no way to measure love. And there is no way to measure faith. Because, unlike diaper consumption, faith is not quantifiable. It makes no sense for me to say, “This year I have 26 faith, but last year I had 29.”
By choosing the tiniest seed he could think of, Jesus changes his apostles’ frame of reference and counters their request. “Increase our faith,” they say. And, in effect, Jesus says, “No.”
So if it’s not an increase in faith we should be praying for, then what? Jesus’ visually arresting statement about the mulberry tree gives us a clue. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he explains, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” In other words, don’t ask for an increase in your faith. Instead, pray for a greater desire to act on your faith.
Faith’s closest synonym is “trust.” So when we act on our faith, we place ourselves in a vulnerable position before God. We trust that God will not forsake us. We trust that God will keep God’s promise that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ our Lord. Acting on faith means not knowing the destination, but trusting our companion to lead us there.
This realm of unknowing is what sidetracks us into the trap of the quantifiable. We never truly know where we are going, so we seek solace in trying to quantify the resource that will get us there. But there’s no such thing as “enough faith” or “too little faith” or “just a little more faith.” I implore you to banish those phrases from your vocabulary.
In their place, try these phrases on for size: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” and “I desire to be faithful” and “Today, my act of faith will be…”
Yes, today. Today! Not all acts of faith are monumental or fit for commemoration. Most are mundane. Most acts of faith just happen in the everyday-ness of life. When you pray for a greater desire to act on your faith, you signal to God your readiness to commit to a daily life as an active follower. “Today, my act of faith will be…”
Perhaps you have never prayed regularly or you used to and fell out of the habit. Make your act of faith remembering to say grace at a single meal a day. Don’t make it elaborate. A simple “Thank you, God,” will suffice. If you want to take it one step further, give thanks and then remember those who hunger and lift them up from your own heart to the heart of God. This act of faith will change your life. You will discover new reservoirs of compassion for those who are hungry and impoverished.
Perhaps you have discovered this new compassion for the hungry. Make your act of faith buying some extra groceries each week and donating them to a food pantry. Or join the team that cooks for the WARM Center. Or sponsor children’s lunches at our sister school in Haiti. Or advocate for the rights of those dealing with food insecurity at events like the CROP walk. Whatever you decide to do, begin with prayer. Then say, “Today, my act of faith will be…” and let your flickering trust in God guide your heart.
Of course, not all acts of faith happen in the dailyness of life. Perhaps you hit rock bottom the day your mother died. Or your spouse. Or your child. The future ended. You sat on the floor with your knees drawn up to your chest and you rocked back and forth. You didn’t cry at first because the shock froze your tears in your tear ducts. But then the first wave of grief knocked into you, hot like a sudden fever, and the tears flowed and you never thought they would stop. All the oxygen was sucked from the room. You couldn’t breath. … And then you did. The next breath was an act of faith.
In today’s second lesson, Paul tells Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Did you hear that? “Lives in you.” Faith is alive. It’s not a quantity. It’s not something you can store on the shelf until you need it. Faith is a living part of us, a mingling of our biology and our spirituality. Faith is the action of trusting in God to guide us to God knows where. There’s no such thing as more or less faith. There’s only the mustard seed and the action it compels. So my question for you is this: Today, what will your act of faith be?