19th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 22, Year C. Oct. 6, 2013. (Text: Luke 17:5-10.)
I’d like to start off this morning by asking how many of you feel as if you have “great faith,” or at least all the faith you need? Not too many? —Well, how many of you feel like you have some faith, even if it’s just a little? Good. —OK. Now, how many of you would really like to have more faith? Great! 100% want more.
The apostles said to Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith!” And he answered them, “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.’”
I was a very literal-minded child. Maybe all children are. When I was in the sixth grade I heard this Bible verse at Sunday School, and so I decided to test my faith to see if I had enough. I sat on the edge of my bed and commanded the wastebasket to move across my bedroom —which seemed about the same thing as telling a mulberry tree to plant itself in the ocean, at least as far as I could tell. Nothing happened, so I grew concerned that I didn’t have enough faith. Mom told me I was being silly and that God wasn’t interested in moving wastebaskets around boys’ bedrooms. Of course, I couldn’t see why God would be interested in planting a tree in the ocean either, but I didn’t give my mother a smarty-pants answer.
The apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith. Most of us would like to have more faith, too. Maybe we want more faith because we recognize that—along with our little bit of faith—we also have lots of doubts. A new book about Mother Teresa of Calcutta came out a few years back, containing letters from Mother Teresa to her spiritual advisers over a period of more than sixty years. Those letters show that this amazing humanitarian, a woman revered as holy by millions of Christians and non-Christians alike, a woman who devoted half a century to caring for the sick, orphaned, and dying poor on the streets of Calcutta, who spent hours every day in prayer, was troubled through almost the entire time by spiritual dryness and doubts. After she began her work among people dying on the streets, Mother Teresa seems to have enjoyed only a few weeks of spiritual joy, bracketed by decades of darkness and doubt. —Decades!
But she kept going. She kept serving. And I think Teresa kept going, kept doing the work she felt God had given her, in spite of the heaviness of soul under which she labored, because she believed from the very bottom of her heart that she belonged to God, she was God’s servant—and she meant to embody the fullness of the gospel we just heard: “We have only done what we ought to have done! …We have only done our duty.” How she felt didn’t matter to her. She believed in God and trusted the wisdom of God, so she didn’t keep taking her emotional temperature and worrying—no matter how she felt.
You and I tend to confuse having faith with having warm, positive feelings. We fantasize that people who “really have faith” live out their lives on a spiritual high, enjoying unbroken intimacy with God, inner bliss and mystic insights, shielded by a continuous release of spiritual endorphins from the doubts and anxieties ordinary Christian plodders have to face. But that’s not so. Not at all. Mother Teresa is just the most recent and best known example of people who live lives of faith AND doubt, yet still do something beautiful for God.
Mother Teresa learned to deal with the trials of her faith by converting her frequent feelings of abandonment by God into acts of abandonment to God. She said: “Our calling is not to do great things, but to do small things with great love.” I think what Jesus said to the disciples who begged for him to increase their faith might be put like this: “You don’t need more faith; you just need to use the faith you already have,” faith that might be only the size of a mustard seed.
Mustard seeds are tiny, but I remember driving in April many years ago through fields of blooming mustard outside Dijon, France. (Everybody knows about Dijon mustard, right?) The brilliant yellow reached all the way to the horizon, as far as my eyes could see—each dazzling plant grown from a seed no larger than a grain of sand. A field of mustard plants produces tons of mustard seeds. A church full of people who each have faith that’s only the size of a mustard seed can accomplish God’s will in awesome ways. My little seed of faith, linked to yours, and yours, and yours adds up to a lot of faith!
Faith is what permits us to survive and grow—even thrive—in spite of being pummeled by adversity and the difficulties of life. Faith, just a little bit of faith, is enough to keep us from surrendering to despair, no matter what may go wrong.
The Bible says that “in all things God works for good for those who love him, who are called according to his promises.” If we’re broke, or if we’ve lost our job, or if we’re told that we have an incurable disease, it may not feel as if God is working for our good. We feel scared. Or lonely. Or empty. The circumstances of our lives at such times can conspire to make us imagine that God doesn’t care about us at all. Or maybe that God isn’t even there! Only by faith can we look at an apparently un-redeemable situation and say, “God is going to bring something good out of this. I don’t know what it might be, but I believe it.”
Remember the story about Jesus sleeping in the stern of a disciple’s boat during a bad storm on the Sea of Galilee? The wind was blowing, and the waves were high. The boat was taking on water, and the boys were scared. Things looked bad, and yet Jesus was sleeping like a baby. They woke him up and said, “Master, don’t you even care that we’re all about to die?” He commanded the wind and waves to be still, and suddenly everything turned calm. Then he said to his friends, “Oh, you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
“Why did you doubt?” We know why they doubted. We’d have doubted too. The storm was bad; the boat was leaking; the situation was beyond their control. They had “a little” faith; that’s why they woke Jesus up. Faith... sufficient faith... mustard seed faith... is what we demonstrate at times when we’re in one of the perfect storms that life can kick up, when we’re at our wits end, and we’re scared to death. We don’t know what else to do except say “I’m with Jesus. I do feel very nervous, but I’m with Jesus. And I trust him.”
Mustard seed faith is what we demonstrate when God’s work is hard, the payoff is small, there’s no “spiritual high,” and God seems a million miles away—but we’re able to say to ourselves: “This is the work God has given me to do, and I am going to do it. I am going to do it for Jesus!” That’s what Mother Teresa did. Her perseverance itself, her steadfastness in proclaiming and embodying the love of Christ at times when she felt only emptiness inside, was an awesome act of faith.
Faith is not like a drug-induced euphoria that keeps us from feeling discouraged, doubtful or afraid. Faith is a decision we make. It’s a decision to put our trust in the promises of God. We will put our confidence in the word of God that has been spoken to us --even if we’re scared, or worried, or unsure. And the love God calls us to offer the world in his name is, likewise, not an emotional reflex but a choice, an act of the will. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was this past Friday, walked away from his inherited wealth and decided to trust God for everything. Some people laughed at him. But others imitated him, and the impact the poor little barefoot saint from Assisi still has on people is amazing. Francis didn’t just preach to the birds. That’s only one story about him. Francis loved people, not just animals. He identified with other people’s pains and needs—and gave himself to them.
“Our calling is not to do great things, but to do small things with great love.” Would you like for your faith to grow? Then put it to work! What little faith you have, put it to work. Even if it’s just a tiny seed. Plant it! Water it! Invest it in action, even if the action seems of no great significance right now. Teresa of Calcutta said, “Christ is in the smile we give, and in the smile we receive.” God accomplishes miracles through small things—your smile and mine, your mustard seed and mine.
For a pdf version of this sermon, please click here.