A Little Faith
A sermon preached by Margaret D. McGee at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
I can relate. At various times through my life, I’ve longed for—prayed for—the kind of faith I thought I saw in other people. Strong, certain faith that really could move mountains. Or at least, metaphorical ones.
When I was a teenager, the God of my childhood faith started to slip away, like Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I wrote a poem titled “Is God?” and got it published in a Christian youth magazine. The poem ends like a prayer, with the lines “Help me, God! / Help one who cannot believe! / Help a cripple walk, / Help a blind man see, / Help an unbeliever, believe.”
I was nervous about showing the magazine to my parents, because it admitted that I lacked faith, and their faith seemed so big and strong. I don’t remember that my parents thought much of the poem one way or another, but to my surprise, my Grandmother Scott, my mother’s mother and the wife of a Methodist minister, liked it a lot. I expected my grandmother to disapprove even more than my parents, but evidently forty-odd years as a pastor’s wife made her think that, when a 15-year-old struggles with doubt and faith, all is not lost.
Paul’s, writing to Timothy in this morning’s epistle reading, recalls the faith that lived in Timothy’s grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. That’s what made me think of Grandmother Scott. I wonder if Timothy ever had doubts growing up, and if his grandmother Lois had faith in him anyway.
Jesus answers the apostles request for more faith in a way that, on first reading, can be kind of discouraging. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he says to the apostles, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Okay. I don’t see the point of uprooting a tree and planting it in the sea, and I’m pretty sure whatever faith I have would not be able to do that. Putting that aside for the moment, does Jesus really mean that the apostles—his closest, chosen companions—don’t even have the teensiest weensiest bit of faith?.
Let’s look closer at that language.
The Bible was written in the common language of the time, which included hyperbole—exaggeration to make a point—as a rhetorical device, and also the idioms of the time and place. An idiom is a common phrase that means something different from its literal words, and idioms of 1st century Palestine are different from ours. For example, “raining cats and dogs”, that’s our idiom. You can imagine that it would be incomprehensible to someone from another time or culture, even though all it means is, raining real hard.
Uprooting a tree and planting it in the sea is an idiom, and all it means is that whatever can do that is real strong. Jesus doesn’t tell the apostles they have no faith. He says that even if their faith is as small as a mustard seed, it’s still really powerful. Maybe the message is that they already have all the faith they need, if they only knew it.
The Biblical scholar Eugene Peterson worked for many years on his Bible translation called The Message. Rather than translate the literal words of idioms, he replaced ancient idioms with contemporary ones, trying to express the message behind the words. Here’s how the first part of our Gospel lesson reads in The Message:
The apostles came up and said to the Master, “Give us more faith.” But the Master said, “You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it.’
Here, Jesus is saying that faith in any quantity is more powerful than you can imagine, so relax on that score. Don’t fret yourself—that’s a wonderful phrase used over and over in this morning’s psalm: don’t fret yourself about what you are capable of doing, or about what other people are doing. Like the prophet Habakkuk, crying out against all the wrong- doing that he sees everywhere. Like the fretters that the psalmist is talking to, who are focused on the evil other people are doing, and not on the good they can do themselves. The Lord answers Habakkuk with comforting words that point toward a vision, saying “… there is still a vision for the appointed time … If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. And the psalmist says, “Do not fret yourself … be still before the Lord and wait patiently ….In other words, give God a chance. Let God be God, and put your faith in the vision of God’s world here on earth. If you want to know what that world looks like, read the Bible.
It’s a place where the poor and helpless are cared for, and treated with dignity and respect. A place where the rich and powerful act with compassion, or they are brought low. A place where the stranger is welcome, and where we care for one another as for ourselves.
The second part of our Gospel reading can also be kind of discouraging at first glance, but more interesting, even heartening, if it’s about what it’s like to work toward that vision. Jesus speaks of the role of the slave, who comes home from working in the fields, then has to prepare supper for the master, before eating themselves. In our reading, Jesus asks his audience to put themselves first in the role of the master, then the slave. “[If you’re the master,] Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” (Evidently not.) “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
Okay, so, on first reading, I admit I have a problem with calling myself a “worthless slave.” But again, it helps to read this in the context of the culture where it was written. Jesus lived in a slave society. Everyone he spoke to knew slaves personally. Some probably owned slaves, others may have been slaves. It’s possible that Jesus wasn’t trying to make everybody feel worthless, as much as trying to help us all live into a world where we’re not the master, but rather, we’re all serving something outside of ourselves.
As long as my focus in my work is on me, on what I deserve, on how I look to others, on being praised and petted for how wonderful I am, well, that’s a bucket that will never be full. Today’s passage from Habakkuk ends like this: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them—in other words, though they may be proud, they don’t feel right—but the righteous—that is, those who are at peace with God and their neighbors—the righteous live by their faith.
Here’s how The Message renders the the second half of Luke’s gospel passage, at the end: “Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.’”
Okay, I can do that. And it’s kind of a relief, when it’s not all about me.
So—let’s lift up our hearts, and do the work we are given in God’s world, with whatever faith we have. The good news is that we don’t have to have great, big, giant piles of churchy faith. Just a little faith in something good can be a powerful thing. It might be, faith in another person, that their heart’s in the right place, and that all is not lost.
Or faith that Love is real, and present, and that love makes a difference in the world.
Faith that the sun will come up tomorrow morning with the promise of new life, and we’ll get another chance to do our work here in God’s world. And having done it, we can rest, and sleep the sleep of the good and faithful servant. May it be so. Amen.