The Nature of Faith

a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22C/Lectionary 27]

Luke 17:5-10 and 2 Timothy 1:1-14

The other day our 3-year-old son was in the living room of our home and he got up and walked into the kitchen, stood in the middle of the room with his face turned up toward the counter and said in a clear voice, “Alexa, announce: Mom, I need you down here. I’m thirsty.” And Alexa did his bidding! Melinda was upstairs reading in our bedroom. We have another Alexa device next to our bed, and within a second it snapped on, chimed its little tone that signals a message is coming through. Then came Jasper’s voice, as clear as a bell, “Mom, I need you down here. I’m thirsty.” We got a kick out of it, of course, but mainly we were blown away. We didn’t even know that he knew how to use that function on Alexa. None of us taught him that. I suppose he has watched us use it and has figured out, at the ripe old age of three, has figured out the power of technology to do his bidding.

It is tempting to think of faith like an Alexa skill. While faith, no doubt, is really a complex subject, I find that I often treat it or talk about it like it’s a power or an ability or a capacity that I can use to our advantage to make life easier. Many of us think of faith as this quality or this force we can possess that can get stuff done. And, if so, we’re in good company, then, because Jesus’ disciples seem to think of it in this way.

IncreaseOurFaith

One day, after they hear Jesus give them a particular hard-to-digest set of guidelines for living in God’s kingdom—guidelines about forgiving people that sound particularly difficult—they naturally respond, “Increase our faith!” Teach us more skills on the Alexa! Fill up our tank. Insert a chip with more gigabytes, Jesus. That will certainly help us get the job done. And we can’t blame them, can we? In all my years I’ve never, ever heard anyone say,  “Man, I wish I had less faith.” Faith may be the one thing people would say they always want more of.

Yet, based on his response to the disciples, Jesus doesn’t really want us to think of faith in those terms. Jesus doesn’t talk about faith like it’s a skill or a force or a power or a microchip embedded in us that gets us to function the right way. I was recently reading an article about how the third main age of computing is about to be upon us and it will totally remake the world. In this next age we will see mini-computers and micro-ships implanted in just about everything. They’ll be in our clothes and communicate directly with the washing machine on how to clean them. They’ll be used to make traffic lights be more functional to traffic flow in the moment, detect early signs of disease in farm animals. They’ll be in toothbrushes, beehives, and pacemakers.[1] A child won’t tell Alexa to get his mother when he’s thirsty. A device on the refrigerator will alert her that he’s dehydrated.

microchip

The idea that there’s this little seed in us that can have so much power and affect our reality blows our mind to think about. And on the surface, Jesus seems to speak of faith in the same way. He doesn’t say microchip. He says mustard seed, which is very similar. The point is that it’s an incredibly small thing that contains great potential. He tells his disciples that’s all they’ll need  to be able to get a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Or, to speak a different language, it’s all they’ll need to raise the X-Wing fighter from the swamps of Dagobah.

If you’re like me, you’re probably fascinated with the idea of something so small having so much power. The problem is that Jesus is actually joking with his disciples here. He’s exaggerating, playfully mocking their request for more faith in order to make a point—a very, very important point. Because whether the analogy for faith is a mustard seed or a microchip or some kind of entity residing within us like “the Force” in the Star Wars movies (which is what it can feel like), the point is we’re coming at it wrong. Faith is not a tool. Faith is not a special ingredient we possess that makes everything better, or that makes the impossible possible. Faith is not a substance that God checks to see if we have before God does certain things for us because ultimately, if that is the case, God really isn’t that important. If faith is just a tool or a seed or something I possess that can get the job done, then faith is really all about me and my powers, isn’t it?

In those scenarios, I become the Luke Skywalker that can overcome my obstacles, and God becomes, at best, just a person cheering me on from the sidelines. At worst, God becomes a cruel landlord or supplier who supposedly requires us to have something—faith—which he alone is dispensing to us. Getting a mulberry tree to uproot and plant itself in the ocean is not an example of how faith can accomplish the miraculous. It is a ludicrous exaggeration to say perhaps faith doesn’t work that way at all.

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The very next thing Jesus tells his disciples is this little story about a slave coming in from working in the fields. No one, says Jesus, would say to the slave, “Go ahead and have a place at the table.” And no one gives the slave any credit for what he or she has done. That’s not the place of a slave. Setting the table and preparing dinner is what a slave is supposed to do. No one tells a slave to stop being a slave and start relating to the Master like an equal. The slave has a role to fill and tasks to complete. The slave understands who he or she is in relationship to the master.

We may find it a little awkward that Jesus speaks about slavery this way, especially given our country’s particular history with it, but in Jesus’ day slavery looked a bit different, and we have to use the lesson he provides. The point he is making is that faith is a relationship, not an entity. It is better thought of as a set of tasks, a role we assume, a to-do list. When it comes to faith, it’s not about quantity, and it’s not about quality either. It’s about doing something. It’s about seeing that God is in charge and we have a role to fill as disciples.

After all, that’s how Timothy, in this middle lesson, gets his faith: first it lives in his grandmother Lois and then his mother Eunice. It was through tasks built on a relationship they understood they had. Faith isn’t based on genes or chromosome and get passed down that way. Nor is it a virus that spread through contact with other people. Faith not something we “have” at all, but something that’s done. It’s heard, seen, copied, perfected, adjusted. Faith is discovered when we take stock of what is right in front of us and, quite frankly, getting to work, living out the next step in our relationship with God…as one post I saw on Facebook this week…do to the “next right thing,” even when we’re disillusioned. And sometimes those tasks and that role are not going to be a walk in the park. A famous theologian and scholar from the early 20 century, G.K. Chesterton, once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

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Sometimes it may feel like faith is what is powering us, but sometimes we may feel empty. Regardless, the relationship is still there, Jesus says. God is still providing, still guiding, still loving. We are still his children, his sheep, his disciples. And our part, even in those cases where we feel we’re not up to it, is to go on to the next task.

One time at seminary Susan Briehl came to campus to give some lectures. She’s a well-known Lutheran pastor and hymn-writer who has mainly served congregations on the West Coast. Some of her hymns are in our hymnal. She told the story of when she served as a campus pastor at a major university. She shared that some students would come to see her after a few semesters at school and complain their faith was slowly being chipped away at. Maybe it was the pressures of school life and being away from home. Maybe it had to do with confronting thoughts and rival beliefs in a new way. One particularly dejected student came in one day and said, “You know, pastor, when I came to college my faith was strong and vibrant. It was like a house I lived in where I was comfortable and it made my life better. I liked that house of faith. But I feel like everyone—my professors, my friends, the new subjects I’m learning about—they’re all trying to take apart my house of faith. At first, they came and took all the doors off the hinges. My house had no doors! I could keep things inside our outside. It was annoying! But, I still had the house, so I just got used to it.

And just when I got used to my house having no doors, they came along and took off the roof. At first, I thought I was ruined. I thought, ‘What’s a house without a roof?!’ But eventually I adjusted. I still had all the other parts of the house. It was still fairly recognizable as a place to live. It was colder and I didn’t have the protection I did before, but I got used to it.

Then someone came and took all the furniture. That was hard. I liked that furniture. It took some getting used to. But I figured: I can just sleep on the floor. Plenty of people do that. And just when I got used to my house of faith having no doors, no roof, and no furniture, someone came and took the floor. I can’t have a house without a floor. It went right out from under me and now I’m falling, pastor. I’m falling in my faith and I’m scared where I’ll land. What do I do?”

man-falling-why-the-best-things-in-life-are-all-backwards

And Pastor Briehl looked at the student and said, “I’m sorry you’re falling and feel so helpless. I don’t know when you’ll stop falling, but I can tell you this: as your falling, pay attention. Look out for hands. People will be sticking out their hands as you fall. And in their hands will be bread. Go for the bread. Grab that bread and keep falling. You’ll need that bread. It will keep your faith alive. It will sustain you. And eventually, you will land. And once you land, you can begin building a new house of faith. But until then, watch for the hands and go for the bread.”

That message came at a time when I really needed to hear it. Some events of my first semester at seminary had started to undo my house of faith. But Briehl’s words refocused my attention—and maybe it can refocus yours—like a slave that needs to know what job is next.  Sometimes that task is just looking for those hands. There were hands for me—plenty of them—reaching out with bread. In fact, every Thursday evening in the Chapel there was bread at our worship service…just as, in fact, there is bread here this morning and every week, and hands reaching out to give it to you, forgiving you. There are hands all over the place, offering sustenance to keep going, once you begin to look for them.

Instead of worrying about what our faith looks like, or whether we have enough, whether the mulberry trees will ever move like we want them to, whether a given situation will end up like we hope it does, the best thing to do is just to reach out, to grab the bread, to serve, to know the grace will abound no matter where we are, no matter what we think we lack. We are God’s and he will provide. Because even the cross of Good Friday, when Jesus himself is falling, falling, falling, reaches the solid new floor of Easter morning where all can be rebuilt.

 

Thanks be to God!

Mustard-seed

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

[1] “Chips with everything,” in The Economist. Volume 432, no 9160. Sept 14-20, 2019

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