Faith the size of a mustard seed

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Mustard seed in palm
Lectionary 27 – October 3, 2010
Habakkuk 1.1-4; 2.1-4; Psalm 37.1-9; 2 Tim. 1.1-14; Luke 17.5-10
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

“Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord (2 Tim. 1.2).” Amen.
I brought with me one of my most precious possessions. It is this Bible. It is not just any Bible…it was a gift to me from Ben right after we got married. See, I used to load my backpack up for seminary classes every day with this massive hunk of pages, the Harper Collins Study Bible complete with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books to make it extra heavy. As you can imagine, my backpack became much lighter with this gift. It meant a lot to me not only because it was from Ben, but because he wrote these words on the inside cover:

“For my love Renee, so that the Word of God might not weigh you down as much as the Harper Collins version. May your faith increase with participation in the Word. Love, your husband, Ben.”

Besides having wonderful literal and figurative humor about God’s Word, Ben wished for me that my faith would increase with my participation in it. I think that is a pretty great thing to wish for someone, don’t you. But what does it mean to increase one’s faith and why might we want such a thing?

Today in the Gospel according to Luke, the disciples demand that Jesus increase their faith. It is an interesting thing to demand something from Jesus. Now I don’t know if this is a good theological habit or a curse really, but I like to read what comes before and after any given reading for a Sunday. I thought, Why are the disciples so demanding for Jesus to increase their faith? Listen to what comes right before their demand:

Luke 17:1-5 Jesus said to his disciples, "Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2 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. 3 Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4 And 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." 5 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"

Well no kidding, “Increase our faith!” If this is our reality or what is ahead, I need more faith too. For God’s sake, Jesus, increase my faith!

In our Old Testament reading we have the witness of Habakkuk, who cries out to God for help all day long because of the violence he witnesses. He says to God, “3Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.”

How many times have we asked God thousands of years after Habakkuk asked his questions of God: Why do you make me witness such terrible things on earth? Why is there cancer? Why is there war? Why do people starve to death each day? Why do rains still flood the earth? Why are we addicted to things that suck the life right out of us?

“Violence, God…help us…increase our faith.”

When I think deeply and seriously about why the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, and ultimately why I ask it, I have to admit that the request is mostly out of fear. Jesus made no secret about the path he was on to suffering and death, and that his followers would also one day join him on that path as well. If we would just have enough faith, maybe we wouldn’t suffer so much. Maybe the violence of the world we witness wouldn’t touch our hearts so deeply and cause us pain. If we would just have enough faith, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to forgive someone who has wronged us or to forgive ourselves. Jesus, increase our faith so that we won’t stumble or cause anyone else to stumble either.

But to think about faith in this way, out of fear or preventative measure, is to misunderstand what faith really is. It is not about controlling our circumstances or outcomes or how we will prevail through what life or death throws at us; but rather, faith is about trust.

It is about trusting in something other than ourselves, our own abilities, or any other created thing. Faith does not let us live in the illusion that we have control over our lives and the world. To be able to trust is by far the single most difficult task of human beings because it requires that we have to give it all up and admit that we actually need God and each other.

There is a coffee shop I like to go into in Decorah, IA, and at this coffee shop there is a wall hanging that says: “Everyone should believe in something. I believe I’ll have another cup of coffee.” Oh how many times I have said that in my life! Even though it is silly there is some truth to it. Everyone believes in something: whether there is a God or not; whether Scripture is really the Word of God; whether the Vikings will make it to the playoffs; whether the stock market will go up or whether or not we’ll have a tough winter. But faith is different than belief. We can believe that there is a God, but do we trust God?

Now belief certainly influences trust. Let’s think for a moment how we might perceive God. If our perception of God is distant, wrathful, angry and out to get us, I don’t think I’d be first in line to sign up for this whole Christian life and faith and all the other “stuff” that goes along with it. I certainly wouldn’t trust this God; however, if our perception of God is an intimate God who engages us in our everyday lives, who has our best interests in mind and we believe loves us, then we can start to have a conversation about trust.

But how do we know God is trustworthy? To think about this question we need Paul’s words to Timothy that were in our 2nd reading today. In it Paul lifts up his ancestors and reminds Timothy of the faith of his mother and grandmother and encourages him by saying that he is convinced that their faith also lives in Timothy. I don’t know about you, but I think this is amazing stuff. In God’s great mystery, we carry and are influenced by Paul and Timothy and the faith of Christians who have lived throughout these past 2000 years.

It is there witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ that has sustained faith, essentially trust in God, of those of us who have come after them. And right now we are doing it for those who will come after us. Paul simply comes right out and names his suffering for the sake of the Gospel, and then says: “But I am not ashamed, for I know the One in whom I have put my trust…” In baptism we ask those being baptized to live among God’s faithful people in order that they may learn to trust God. When we trust God we are transformed. Our trust in God influences our choices, actions, relationships, purpose…everything. When we trust God we are open to God shaping and forming us anew and we are also open to God coming into our very being to work healing and wholeness in our lives.

So what of increasing our faith? I have to wonder if perhaps we and the early disciples of Jesus should instead ask, “Lord, increase those around us who trust in you because I simply can’t ever have enough faith on my own to make it.” Maybe this is why Jesus talked about faith the size of a mustard seed right after he was asked to increase his disciples’ faith. If we had all the strength and answers we needed, there would be no room or reason to trust in God.

What I believe Ben meant by his wish for me with the gift of the Bible was to deeply engage with God in Scripture, human beings, and the rest of creation in a way that marveled at the vastness of God’s mercy and grace, yet left room to ask the “whys” of life that seem to contradict who I believe God to be.

Mustard seed faith includes the doubters and those who raise their complaints to God, like Habakkuk. Mustard seed faith knows that trust is not possible without the Holy Spirit, who is alive and active in the world and given to us in baptism, who keeps calling us back to worship to hear the stories of faith throughout the ages and to the table to receive Jesus’ very self. Mustard seed faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11.1).” It is a faith that says, “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14.8).”

It is not about what we perceive as more or less faith, but rather it is about trust. Trust in a God who loves us allows for us to live and move in this world and hope in the next that is to come.

Mustard seed faith is tiny and can seem insignificant, but when it is put together with all the other seeds in the Heart River body of faith, and then with the others Christians in the US, and then with all of the other people of faith for thousands of years, that’s a lot of mustard…or faith. To ask to increase our faith is not to ask that our faith be broadened on a much larger and wider scale, but it is a sincere request to be deeply rooted in Jesus Christ and with those who bear his name.

If we have a teeny tiny bit of trust in a God who loves us, God has something to work with. And maybe, just maybe seemingly impossible things, oh like a mulberry tree on command uprooting and planting itself in the sea…or forgiveness and reconciliation…or 25 years of ministry at YCC…or even the absurd notion that after we die our bodies would be resurrected and given a more new and full life…and that we would continue to live among God and God’s faithful people. People of Heart River, may your faith increase with participation in the Word.