“Increase our faith,” the disciples said to Jesus. “Increase our faith.” What prompted this request? According to Luke, Jesus warned them about being a stumbling block to their neighbor: “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Talk about pressure! Jesus is going to make us “sleep with the fishes” if we cause our neighbor to stumble? “Increase our faith, indeed!”
In verse 4 of the same chapter, Jesus told them, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” Endless forgiveness? With no pre-existing conditions or limitations? “Increase our faith, indeed!”
Sometimes I think we’re a little hard on the disciples. We think, “They had Jesus right in front of them. They saw the miracles, heard his teachings first hand. They should have had faith the size of Mount Everest.” Yet, here they are, asking for more. “Lord, increase our faith,” as if faith is a quantity that can be measured out and kept in a jar in our pantry until we really need it.
But can we really blame them? This world is a tough and scary place. There are many things that cause us to be worried and fearful. There are many things that cause us to be anxious and filled with doubt. Who among us has NEVER asked God to “Increase our faith?”
Increase our faith, when our leaders in Washington and Raleigh act more like predators and thugs than our elected representatives. Increase our faith as we watch our colleague’s jobs being terminated while we’re expected to absorb their workload. Increase our faith when our bodies betray us and we drag them through each day, wrestling with disease and depression. Increase our faith when the government asks the Church to do more to help the poor, while they do less.
Increase our faith as we worry about paying the bills, meeting life’s demands, and living in an increasingly hostile world. Increase our faith, Jesus, and increase it now! If we can pick it up at Sam’s Club in bulk quantities, we’re there! Just let us know what aisle it’s located on! Increase our faith…even just a little bit would help us a lot! So, come on, Jesus! Don’t be stingy! Increase our faith!
The most interesting thing about our gospel lesson is not the request for increased faith. It is Jesus’ response which I think is sometimes misunderstood. “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.”
Faith the size of a mustard seed? That’s pretty tiny. That’s not much faith at all! A mustard seed can be easily held with a pair of tweezers or pinched between our index finger and thumb. Maybe there’s hope for us yet!
Jesus talked about the mustard seed on other occasions as well. In Matthew he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; i is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” [Mt 13:31-32]
So great things come from little things? I can roll with that! A little bit of faith can move mulberry trees. A small kingdom seed can take root and grow into a tree that provides shelter for others. That will preach!
But, wait a second, what’s a mulberry tree? Well, I’m glad you asked the question! A mulberry tree is an important tree on our planet. The leaves of this tree are the sole food source of the silkworm. No mulberry trees, no silk. Furthermore the fruit from this tree is edible and is widely used in pies, tarts, wines, cordials and tea. It’s a very useful tree. It grows all over the world. Furthermore, it’s a big tree with a thick trunk and strong branches.
Now, that we have a visual, we see the contrast between the tiny mustard seed and the sturdy mulberry tree. But didn’t Jesus say something about faith moving mountains? Isn’t that a better analogy? Well, Jesus did, in fact, say quite a bit about faith moving mountains. The most well-known passage is found in Matthew 17: “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
St. Paul also picked up on this analogy in his brilliant passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
“Increase our faith,” the disciples asked Jesus. Now that we’ve unpacked his response a bit, I think we can begin to understand what he’s getting at. When most people hear this passage they think that their tiny faith has to be bigger and stronger like a mulberry tree or a mountain.
But maybe Jesus is trying to tell us we have to trust that our mustard seed faith is ENOUGH. Our tiny faith, that shrivels at the first sign of trouble, is ENOUGH. Our tiny faith, that cannot see beyond what’s right in front of us, is ENOUGH. Our tiny faith, that clings to the truth that Jesus loves us, this we know, for the Bible tells us so, is ENOUGH.
Jesus, is telling his disciples they don’t need MORE faith or BIGGER faith. They need to trust that the faith they already possess is ENOUGH. Their tiny mustard seed faith can move mulberry trees and mountains, even when they doubt this is possible.
David Lose, former president of Gettysburg Seminary, says, “Faith doesn’t have to be heroic. Faith, as Jesus describes it, is just doing your job, just doing your duty, not because of any sense of reward but simply because it needs doing. Faith, in other words, is doing what needs to be done right in front of you and this, Jesus says, the disciples can already do. Folks who feel daunted by discipleship need to hear that sometimes faith can be pretty ordinary. That’s what Jesus means by saying that if they had the faith even of a mustard seed, they could uproot and move a mulberry tree. That it really doesn’t take all that much faith to be, well, faithful.”
Typically when we hear our gospel lesson we believe that true faith produces spectacular results. If we have enough faith, we can be head of our diseases. If we have enough faith, our financial woes will disappear. If we have enough faith, bigger and better things will come our way.
While this may be the message of prosperity preachers, I think Jesus had something more practical in mind. We see this in verses that follow where Jesus talks about servanthood: “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 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!'”
What I think Jesus is getting at here is that being faithful means we need to trust that the mustard seed acts of service we do in the name of Christ, have mulberry tree moving implications. Our faith isn’t there so we can get fat at the table, receiving all of God’s choice blessings. Our faith is there to grab a towel and basin and wash the feet of our neighbors.
Turning to David Lose again, he makes the following observation: “Jesus tells his disciples, both then and now, that we’ve got all that we need to be faithful, and that being faithful, finally, is about recognizing all the God-given opportunities just to show up and do what needs to be done: Doing our work, caring for those in need, protecting the vulnerable, reaching out to the lonely, befriending the friendless, keeping the world going, contributing to the common good. It’s all the ordinary stuff we do all the time and, taken together and blessed by God, it’s pretty darn extraordinary.”
Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a day when we remember the saints across the globe that gather together to be fed by bread and wine at the Table of grace. Some use old-fashioned white bread. Others use pita, or naan or tortillas. Some use Welch’s grape juice. Others use wine from a bottle or a box. Some will dunk their bread in the wine. Others will drink from a common cup or individual cups. Some will come up for a blessing, which is symbolic of their unity with those who are gathered around the table.
Whatever the case may be it’s, the same meal. It’s a meal that unites us and calls us to be one, just like Jesus and God are one. When we look at the mountain-sized task it is for Christians to dwell in unity and harmony, it may feel like our mustard-seed faith is not up to accomplishing the goal. And so, we cry out like those first disciples, “Increase our faith.” Jesus tells us we need to trust that we already have the faith we need to accomplish his purposes on earth. Every mustard seed act of service builds upon another. Your mustard seed and my mustard seed join together with all the other mustard seeds across the globe. Guess what happens? Mulberry trees get uprooted Mountains get moved! It’s that simple. It’s that profound.
So, friends in Christ, what I hope we take with us this morning is not the feeling that we need more faith. I hope we can trust that the faith we already possess is ENOUGH. It might not look like much. It may be as tiny and insignificant as a mustard seed. But Jesus looks at our mustard seed faith, smiles, and says, “I can work with that!” AMEN
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck