Increase our faith

RCL Year C, Proper 22

Sermon by Kimberly Axtell


And the disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith.”

Hmmm. When I signed up for this preaching assignment and quickly glanced at the readings, I thought to myself, oh goody, I get the reading about having the faith of a mustard seed that grows into a tree and becomes home for all sorts of creatures. What a lovely image.

Then I read the text a week later and realized that instead of the gentle, encouraging Jesus, who wants to supports the disciples in their faith, I got a stern Jesus who chastises the disciples and essentially calls them slaves. Huh? How did we get here and what’s going on?

As you may realize we are approaching the end of the year. Not the end of the calendar year or the school year or the business year. We are approaching the end of the liturgical year. In the larger picture, during the course of a single year, we celebrate Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ death. After Easter, our readings transitioned into the theme of discipleship: parables and stories about how to live out our Easter faith. And that trend will continue through the end of the church year. When we pick up the story today, Jesus is in the northern part of Israel where he has found a receptive audience. He will shortly begin walking slowly down to Jerusalem, to his eventual showdown with the authorities and his execution for sedition.

But we are not there yet. As we pick up the story today, Jesus has finished his ministry in the north and, at least in the way that the author Luke arranges his material, he is teaching his disciples about broader issues, getting them ready for ministry after his death. Last Sunday, we had the lesson about the rich man and the beggar. Prior to that, we had the strange parable about the shrewd manager. And in the brief passage in between, not covered by the gospel reading for today, Jesus instructs his disciples to forgive and to make sure that they do not cause others to sin. With all this going on, no wonder the disciples responded with their cry, “Increase our faith.”

And yet, this is not a cry of desperation, this is a demand. For those of your school teachers out there, this request is in the imperative voice, this is a demand – Increase our faith!

What I love about this demand is that it has an expectation. The disciples, who have walked and talked, and lodged and eaten with Jesus over the last few years, were comfortable enough to have expectations. They didn’t know how their request would be accomplished but they knew enough about Jesus that somehow, he would be able to fulfill their request. So it comes as a surprise, at least to me, is that Jesus would respond as he did. Instead of comforting his disciples, who might be a little freaked out about the ratcheting up of his rhetoric, Jesus seems to take them down a notch.

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed…

If you’ve ever seen a mustard seed, you’d know that it is quite small. And yet both the seeds and the greens pack quite a punch. Jesus, in comparing faith to a mustard seed, is remarking on both the size, the smallness of the seed – we’re not talking about a coconut seed here – and its commonality. If you’ve ever admired our bursts of yellow on the local hills, you are looking at yellow mustard. Rapidly growing, some might even call it a weed. After our spring rains, the plant spills over borders taking advantage of our hills and wasted spaces. In doing some research about this plant, there is even the suggestion that, as a weed, this plant might even be viewed as unclean. Small, insignificant, unclean, and easily overlooked; Perhaps this is how you see your faith at times?

If you have the faith of a mustard seed…

This seems to be quite a contrast in images. When we approach the Bible as a text that is given to us straight from the mind of God, we can miss the point that Jesus and others often use humor, hyperbole, sarcasm, even shocking images to shake us into new ways of thinking.

If you have the faith of a mustard seed you can say to this mulberry tree, “be uprooted and planted in the sea.”

Do you have the faith of a mustard seed? ( I’m not sure, given the context, if that would be a complement) Individually, collectively? I would say, yes, at least that much and more. I have seen amazing things happen here: acts of faith, words of prayer and consolation, acts of healing, of reconciliation, visions for the future and who we still can yet become. Which has led me to consider a couple of aspects of a life of faith.

Faith is not just an intellectual exercise. In the Hebrew Scripture understanding, in the world of Jesus’ disciples, faith was being part of a community, a personal commitment to Jesus and what he taught, not just “gee I get where you’re coming from,” kind of faith. What I also find interesting is that there is an action component.

Jesus, at this point in the story, is telling his disciples what they will do and what to avoid. They are to forgive, they are to heal, they are to be persistent, they are to give to the poor, they are to pray. In order to do all these things, they need faith (a commitment to Christ and community). When they complain and demand, indicating that maybe they feel that they don’t have what it takes to do this job, Jesus says no – they already have all that they need. In fact, they have the minimal skills and faith necessary to be slaves and to do their master’s bidding. They indeed have the faith of a mustard seed and more.

But is this faith, no matter the size, an individual accomplishment? Or is this something held in common? One of the things that I find is often lost in translation, that is lost in the transferring of the culture of Jesus’ time to today and our attempt to graft it onto our American culture, is the sense of community.

Our current culture is very individually focused. Whether we speak about money, how we run our cities, our rights and privileges as American citizens, the focus of the conversation is on the individual. Rarely do we see the rights or well-being of a community trump the rights of the individual. We see this focus in our discussions about guns, heath care, about schools, taxes and prisons. Individual responsibility is the underpinning of our own cultural expectations. This concept would be foreign to Jesus’ culture. In Jesus’ time, you were only a person as a member of a family, religion, community, with well-defined rights and responsibilities When we see parables of healing, what we really see is a restoration to community.

So, is faith an individual accomplishment? – if you had the faith of a mustard seed, you’d make a killing in the landscaping business moving mulberry trees around willy-nilly? Or is faith something that we do together – a broadening of our community, supporting one another in prayer and encouragement, a vision of God’s community, God’s kingdom that exists here in this place, and also outside these church walls?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question. Because, in some funny way, this is a stewardship issue (you probably thought I wouldn’t mention the word, huh? As we move into stewardship season and all…). For if faith is either an individual gift or a communal resource, how do we strengthen what we have and build for the future? How do we fit God into our busy lives and listen for the call of the Spirit? Do we need more apps for our phone, our computers, our lives, or do we just need to take advantage of the opportunities we already have in place?

Last week, our guest preacher, who was really good, had a song for us. Well, I have a song as well, but I’m not going to make you sing it J It’s just a ditty I learned as a child, and as I was thinking this last week, there’s a lot of wisdom in the stuff we learn as children. It goes like this:

I want mower of Jesus, mower and mower and more. (now the song only works if you act like you are pushing a push mower).

I want mower of Jesus, mower and mower and more.

I want mower of Jesus than I ever had before.

I want mower of his great love so rich and full and free

I want mower of Jesus, so I’ll give him more of me.

And so, can it be, that a life of faith, a life of living into the gospel, might be summed up in a children’s song? I want more of Jesus, so I’ll give him more of me.

As we move, individually and corporately closer of the wonder that is the Christ, godself who walked the earth, who created community in selfless giving, – we walk in faith.

Through worship, prayer, bible study and community, we learn about this ageless salvation story and where we as individuals and a congregation become a part of the journey of faith. And if you feel that your faith could use a tune up, there are several ways to plug in. There are at least two prayer groups that I know of that are always looking for more pray-ers – there might be more. There is bible study, and there is the daily office challenge. This is an opportunity to participate in a venerable practice of daily prayer – see Kate for more information. There are online opportunities for prayer and study. There is Sunday worship and Thursday morning worship. There is community, where we have the opportunity to share our own faith stories and to encourage others. And there are leadership and volunteer opportunities to put your faith and talents to good use.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” Why? So that they would be able, capable, of living into Christ’s expectations of them: to heal, to forgive, to pray, to reach out, so that through words and deeds, prayer and worship, they might broaden their community, might extend the reach of God’s gracious kingdom. And in asking the question, of being bold enough to challenge God, the apostles found out that they had more than enough faith to do the job. May we, individually and communally, discover that we have enough faith to do all that God calls us to do and to be. Amen.