Joe Neville

Amos 5:14-15

Luke 17:5-10



Increase Our Faith!


It is good to read this story about Jesus and his disciples this morning, for this seems to be indicative of the level of serving I has seen in this church community among our laity.   A case could be made for the disciples being among the first laity.  The disciples have just heard Jesus' counsel in the previous verse that they should forgive another up to seven times for the same sin.  They are in a bit of a panic because Jewish law demands forgiveness for the same sin only three times.  Jesus is asking for double that, plus one.  The disciples cry out, "Increase our faith!"  Jesus reply suggests they don't need more faith; what they have is enough.  "If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be rooted up and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you."

Rather than telling the disciples how to increase their faith--make it bigger, better, stronger, or more able--Jesus simply suggests that the disciples need faith. They only need faith the size of a mustard seed--nothing more.  Faith is not a growth industry or much of a marketable item; it is not subject to the laws of supply and demand. Faith is ours by God's grace; it is a gift and cannot be measured or quantified. The amount of our faith may seem minute, inadequate to the task; ridiculous for the size of the difficulties of our lives, but Jesus is telling us that our perception of size is immaterial. The distinguishing characteristic of our faith is our openness to how God's power might be used in us. Our faith need not be measured or compared, because the vast power of God's grace cannot be measured or compared to anything we know.

Even a tiny grain of faith can open us to God and to God's taking on the impossible for us. Jesus uses the example of a mulberry tree which happens to be growing close by. Now the mulberry tree was well known in those days for its extensive and pervasive root system, so dangerous and fast growing that there were city ordinances against planting a mulberry tree near a cistern. Uprooting a mulberry tree would be like trying to get rid of all the ivy in an overgrown Connecticut yard . . . very, very tough work. And planting a mulberry tree in the sea would be impossible, like planting an orange tree in a Rochester, NY winter storm!  The image is one of improbability and impossibility; Jesus asserts that all we need to do the impossible is faith, the size of a grain of mustard.

The next section of this Gospel reading presents an even more difficult challenge. Jesus uses the example of the master/slave relationship, a relationship we are extremely uncomfortable with culturally.  At least I am!  But Jesus' example is drawn from the slave/owner economy of his day and is not transferable to our employer-employee economy. The meaning of the parable has to do with works-righteousness--the notion that God owes me something now that I have done all this for God. Members of our faith Forum, which meets on Wednesday mornings, will readily recognize this as we have tried to understand the thinking of Job.  We are reminded that we are never saved or justified by our works, but only by faith or by grace through faith.

The apparent severity of this passage should be balanced against other passages where the master/slave analogy is used. In Luke 12, faithful slaves will be served by their master; and in Luke 22, Jesus declares himself as "I am among you as one who serves." Jesus viewed himself as one who led and who was led. He was both free and bound by his relationship to God.

So it is with us. We are leaders and followers. We are free and completely bound to God, we are called to be among each other to serve, but we are never to be servile in our relationship to God or each other. The Biblical ethic we are called to embrace is a love ethic which frees us from dominance, submission, and control. It is relational and generative and does not aim to control or diminish the power of another. This ethic aims at mutual empowerment and claims freedom from enslavement.

This is the Christian ethic of power, but it is the power and freedom we gain with each other through love. Unfortunately, the comments attributed to Jesus in Luke 17 do not reflect the usual generosity of Jesus' teachings. We can only conclude that Jesus was trying very hard to teach a difficult lesson by using an extreme example; or perhaps, as the Jesus Seminar work suggests, this was probably not one of Jesus' original parables, but may have been added much later. Even though Jesus might not have taught this particular parable, the Christian ideal of being one who serves is consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

As I reflect on the past few months I have been with you, I am moved by the number of folks in this community who serve so willingly.  It's good to be reminded of the enormous amount of work that is done around here in the name of faith and love.  And much of this work, I have to admit, is servant labor, which the giver gives generously and without resentment or petty pride.  Crossways are collated and sent out, hours of time from family and personal relaxation are given to the Yankee Fair to continue the ongoing ministry of this church, precious souls labor with no recognition to try to balance a budget that doesn’t seem to want to be balanced, others donate from there own pockets to make sure that people out there know what we are doing in here, ushers and greeters do their work willingly and without holding back--all these little tasks add up to an enormous testimony of goodness and commitment to love.

How many times have I heard in the last nine to ten months, when I have thanked someone, "Oh, it's nothing." And how many times have I thought to myself, "It's a lot!"  But big things can come from small efforts.  Jesus made it clear in the Gospel that the realm of God does not start out on a grand and glorious scale. The realm of God starts out small, and it begins in each one of us. It begins with something no larger than a mustard seed. No act of love is too small, or so insignificant that is fails to make a difference in the unfolding of God in this place! It is in the tiny grains of our faithfulness that the love of God is encouraged to grow and take hold.

In his memoirs, the great Oscar Wilde told of a time when he was brought from prison, where he was held after being found guilty of homosexuality, to face further indignities of the Court of Bankruptcy.  He wrote:

“When I was being brought from my prison between two policemen, a man waited in the long dreary corridor so that before the whole crowd, whom an action so simple hushed into silence, he might raise his hat to me, as, handcuffed and with bowed head, I passed him by . . . I do not know to this present moment whether he is aware that I was even conscious of his action. I store it in the treasure house of my heart. I keep it there as a secret debt that I am glad to think I can never possibly repay . . . .

When wisdom has been profitless to me and philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who have sought to give me consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth, the memory of that little lovely silent act of love has unleashed for me all the wells of pity, and brought me out of bitterness of exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, great heart of the world.”

God's love born in us starts just that way, with something as small as a mustard seed, as small and fragile as a mere tip of the hat. They can communicate the most powerful of all realities, the love of God. Perhaps the realm of God starts out so small within us so that we will not shrink away from the enormous truth of what we are invited to share, for it is nothing less than the kingdom of heaven right here on earth.

A mustard seed, the task of collating Crossways, helping a child up the steps to the sanctuary and then Sunday School, or sending out minutes to a meeting--they are all so small and can seem to be of no consequence in the scheme of things. We assume it takes something huge to demonstrate faithfulness. But even something as small as the tip of a hat can communicate the largest and most powerful of all realities: the love of God.

Desmond Tutu, the black Episcopal bishop of South Africa who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his ongoing work against apartheid, was once asked to recall the formative experiences of his life. He replied:

One incident comes to mind immediately. When I was a very young child I saw a white man tip his hat to a black woman. Please understand that in my country such a gesture is completely unheard of. The white man was an Episcopal bishop; the black woman was my mother.

Perhaps the direction of a whole life was changed from that simple gesture of respect and love. We assume that in order to make the world a better place, we should somehow increase our faith--make it bigger, deeper, better than it is. We assume that bigger is better: more powerful, more noticeable. Then we will be able to make a difference! But our God does not ask more from us than we have, and sometimes what we have is not any larger than a mustard seed.

In this lesson from Jesus, he does not say that we can do great things if only our faith were increased. But he does say that God will do great things, even establish a home on earth, if we but dare to plant the tiny seed of faith that has been entrusted to us.