Sermon on Luke 17:6
How much faith are you running on? Half a tank? A full tank? Fumes? Do you wish you had more faith? Do you know where you can pick some up? Any chance you can get some faith supersized?
This is the kind of world we live in, isn’t it? We live in a quantifiable world. Amazingly it’s not too different from the disciple’s world we read about in our scripture reading today. The disciples have just heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man and they are little worried, maybe more than worried, maybe down right scared that they are going to end up in the flames of hell and so they ask Jesus how they can increase their faith. Obviously, they already had some faith in Jesus; after all, they were following him around as disciples. What they yearned for was more trust, surer belief, stronger conviction, deeper relationship that is, more faith.
Jesus responds by telling them they don’t need a lot of faith, just a tiny mustard seed of faith is enough. They don’t believe him, faith the size of mustard seed can no way be enough. They are thirsty for more.
I wonder if they were surprised when Jesus said we didn’t need more faith, that even the tiniest seed of faith is enough. What matters now is to put faith into practice, to do what is ours to do.
Jesus then responds with a little story about some faithful servants who work hard for their master and do their duty. What was Jesus getting at by responding to the question, “Increase our faith,” by talking about some hard-working servants who simply do their duty?
Jesus responds, “If you have faith” (implying that they do have faith), then you will do your duty and work hard for the Master.
Now as a Protestant this is where I see a flashing red light. The question this raises for me is, “Wait a minute, is Jesus saying that earn a stronger relationship with God if we work harder and serve more coffee on Sunday morning or teach Sunday School?” Which is it, is faith a divine gift or do we have to earn it?
If you are thirsty for a more powerful faith life, you have to practice it.
Faith takes practice. It takes discipline. It’s like a muscle. If we never use it, we aren’t aware of it, it doesn’t have any strength and it doesn’t function as it should. The muscle is always there, but it has to be exercised. If we discipline ourselves to use our muscles, it becomes strong and evident and it protects our core.
In the same way, faith takes practice. Even if we don’t see any evidence that its there, if we practice our faith it will eventually take root and start to grow. Even if we feel like we are going through the motions. Even if we are uncertain of what we think about certain doctrines or theology, we keep at it.
Simply put, we don’t believe in the faith we have been given. Being a Christian is not simply believing a set of ideas or doctrines, it is engaging in relationship with Jesus Christ. The duties Jesus is talking about here are ways of that encourage us to know him. We come to know him through disciplines of prayer, worship, study, silence, hospitality and service. We respond by taking up a taking up a way of life and by doing so our faith is increased. Make no mistake God is working on us as we participate in the practice.
Some days we may sit down to say the Lord’s prayer for example, and we begin with “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” and that is far as we can go, because this concept of God being as relational as a father and as majestic as in heaven is beyond our comprehension or understanding. But we say the prayer anyway. We go through rituals and say prayers without thinking until suddenly we are overcome with a willingness to let God’s will be done our life, whether what God might will is difficult or easy. For the first time, we really mean it.
You see what Jesus is getting at here is that if we as disciples want to increase our faith, we have to be disciplined enough to care about it and we have to trust that God will take care of the rest. However small the belief is, we need to respond to it. Not because we get a better grade from Jesus, but because in responding to our faith we get to KNOW Jesus.
The first time I became aware of Jesus knowing me while I was praying under a tree at church camp. I was in the seventh grade. It was a hot summer day in central Illinois. We had just been small groups and we broke out to have some alone time with the Bible and some questions. Suddenly, there under an oak tree, I felt a presence, an awareness I had never felt before, I knew God was with me. It was the most powerful moment and I knew God knew me and I knew God. And then I went on being a teenager, but eventually God came again in church choir and later on a mission trip at a Native American reservation. But I would never have had these moments of clarity were not for the discipline of my parents getting me to church. It started with what I’m sure was a lot of work for my parents, and the morning discipline of going to church. Getting three little girls dressed and pressed and in the car on a Sunday morning. Getting us all to choir practice. Getting us to church camp, driving us to confirmation to mission trips. They did all of that to plant a seed. Those seeds of knowing that I was not alone took root.
And they stayed planted. Eventually life brought struggles and suffering and loss and doubt. As it does for all of us, life brings challenges that shakes our core and causes us to question. We fall short. We sin. We lose our way. And when that happens we need to reminded that a little seed of faith remains. Jesus says to us today, “You have faith enough. Go practice.”
Kayla Mclurg makes the point that in earlier centuries, an altar call was a personal invitation to express one’s faith by signing on to work for the common good, whether abolishing slavery or creating child labor laws or relieving poverty. She writes, “In the little rural church I grew up in, an altar call came at the close of every service. ‘If one among us today has heard the call to place your faith in Jesus and follow him with your life, come forward as we sing.’ My heart stirred every Sunday. I wanted more faith. I wanted to follow Jesus. My mom said it probably wasn’t necessary to walk down the aisle every Sunday, but I have never forgotten how much I wanted to sign up, again and again.”
Today, we bring our own mustard seeds of faith, in many different shapes and sizes to the communion table, in the hope that God will nurture us too. Today, Christians around the world from many different traditions and denominations are celebrating World Communion Sunday. Communion is one of the most powerful rituals that we may not fully understand but feeds us with grace beyond all understanding.
This is the gift of communion. It’s the gift of prayer. It’s the gift of worship. Each discipline helps us grow.
Faith, then, by its nature requires us to act before we have full knowledge. The Good News is that cannot be measured. It can only be lived. Even when it feels hopeless or senseless. Even faith as small as a muster seed is more than sufficient … if we are willing to act on it. Jesus reminds us that we are not the masters of God’s purposes, but the slaves. We are bondservants of a cause beyond us. We can gnaw for hours on the would have, could have, should have disappointments of life, but peace will never be found there. Peace waits in the right here, right now, what is. This set of circumstances. These people. This degree of understanding and support. We have enough faith to do what is ours to do, to serve the purposes that matter.
Frederich Buechner puts it this way:
“People are prepared for everything except for the fact that beyond the darkness of their blindness there is a great light. They are prepared to go on breaking their backs plowing the same old field until the cows come home without seeing, until they stub their toes on it, that there is a treasure buried in that field rich enough to buy Texas. They are prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains but not for a God who gives as much for an hour’s work as for a day’s. They are prepared for a mustard-seed kingdom of God no bigger than the eye of a newt but not for the great banyan it becomes with birds in its branches singing Mozart. They are prepared for the potluck supper at (Orchard Park Presbyterian Church) but not for the marriage supper of the lamb.”
There is enough faith in this room to change the world. If only we have the courage to respond.
If you are struggling with your faith, or wondering what this whole being part of organized religion means, or wondering how your faith life fits into the rest of your life, remember this – keep practicing. You have enough faith in you to sustain you. Jesus will take care of the rest.
When you are running on empty and you can’t remember the last time you prayed for felt the presence of God, or if you wonder if ever really did. Trust and believe that you have been given a gift. You have enough. Keep practicing. Believe. Jesus has great plans for you.
When you are wondering about the future of God’s church. Keep practicing. Believe. God has great plans for us.
Faith is not a matter of pious exertion or heroic will power. But rather, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer testified in his prison poem “Who Am I?,” faith is the miracle of God-given trust, that willingness beyond willfulness that crawls into the lap of a trustworthy God, encouraging one to conclude in the face of all life’s questions and circumstances: “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”
Who Am I? by Deitrich Bonhoeffer
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale
Kayla McClurg. “To Do What is Ours To Do” Season and Scripture: Luke, Ordinary Time C