The apostles said to the Lord, “Make our faith stronger!” Jesus replied: “If you had faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree to pull itself up, roots and all, and to plant itself in the ocean. And it would! If your servant comes in from plowing or from taking care of the sheep, would you say, “Welcome! Come on in and have something to eat”? No, you wouldn’t say that. You would say, “Fix me something to eat. Get ready to serve me, so I can have my meal. Then later on you can eat and drink.” Servants don’t deserve special thanks for doing what they are supposed to do. And that’s how it should be with you. When you’ve done all you should, then say, “We are merely servants, and we have simply done our duty.”
Luke 17: 5-10
“Make our faith stronger,” Jesus’ followers asked him, or as their cry comes to us in another translation, “Increase our faith!” I don’t know about you, but I can relate. Seeing the kind of faith that Jesus had, small wonder his disciples felt inadequate about theirs. In their feelings of inadequacy, the disciples, like many of us, assumed that what they needed was something more and better than what they had. By extension, we can presume they felt that they needed to be more and better themselves.
As with so many of his amazing one-liners, Jesus’ response to them reaches across time and space with astonishing relevance for us, saying, in essence, that a little bit of faith goes a long way. Apparently we don’t need as much as we think; faith the size of a mustard seed will do. And despite our feelings of inadequacy, it may be that we, too, are enough.
Because we live in a world that always assumes that more is better, and because we are constantly being measured, or are measuring ourselves, on the yardsticks of comparison, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the notion that what we have, and who we are, is enough. Jesus wants us to know that in God’s economy, unlike ours, less is more and a little bit is enough to move mountains. In the realm of grace, we don’t need very much to do enormous good, and we, the never-quite-good-enough ones, are, in fact, those whose faith is needed.
I realize that a certain percentage of the population is blessed with a high degree of self-confidence, and thus does not struggle as others do with feelings of inadequacy. They are the ones–perhaps you are among them–that the rest of us tend to compare ourselves to and fall short. In school, these are the cool kids, the trendsetters. Marketers of new products seek out the cool kids because they know that others will follow their lead. In the adult world, if you’ve ever taken the Strengthsfinder assessment tool, you know that for some, their natural strengths include “self-assurance.” If you are gifted with self-assurance, what I’m about to describe probably doesn’t apply to you.
This is what can happen to the rest of us, those who often feel inadequate and in need of more. Because we know how small our gifts are in the face of what’s needed, we feel embarrassed and even ashamed to offer them. When we see how meager our efforts to do good appear in light of all that needs to be done, we wonder if we should bother doing anything at all. Moreover, we know the full range of our motives for whatever good we manage to accomplish, and thus we feel sheepish when we’re given more credit than we deserve. We have a hard time believing in the economy of grace, that God would be pleased to take our gifts and efforts, however small, despite our motives, however self-serving, and work through us. But according to Jesus, it’s true: with faith the size of a mustard seed, with good intentions the size of a mustard seed, with love the size of a mustard seed, God can do amazing things in and through us.
The land of grace isn’t a distant place; it’s right here. We enter it whenever we open our messy, imperfect, sinful hearts to God. In the realm of grace, a little bit of whatever we have goes a long way. A little bit of faith is enough to uproot mulberry trees; that is to say, enough to turn the world upside down or do what seems impossible. A little bit of faith is enough to set our lives back on course when we’ve lost our way, to seek reconciliation or be at peace when reconciliation eludes us. A little bit of faith is enough to persevere when the going gets rough, to take a stand when truth requires it, to love others for who they are rather than who we’d like them to be. A little bit of faith is enough to accept ourselves as we are. We don’t need a lot of faith, Jesus says. A little bit will do just fine.
Yet how can that be? Wouldn’t more faith be better than less? That depends on what we think faith is.
So let me tell you, first of all, what I believe faith is not. Faith is not a commodity, something we can quantify or accumulate. Nor is faith a talent, skill or aptitude that some people have and others don’t. We don’t become a faith-full people by amassing spiritual experiences or flexing spiritual muscles.
I saw a cartoon once in which a person coming out of church with his arms stretched up and his index finger point to the sky, the way some football players strut around after scoring a touchdown. The caption read: “Yeah! Our church is Number One!” Faith isn’t like that.
This is what I believe faith is: it is a way of living that is open to God and other people, and a way of being ourselves, authentically and gracefully. Faith is a practice through which we learn to meet and engage our lives with undefended hearts. In the words of Joan Chittister, “Faith is living the Good-life already at work in us.” (Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages. New York: Crossroads Press, 2001). p.22.)
Faith in God has more to do with who God is rather than how much faith we have, which is why it doesn’t take much for us to be mighty persons of faith. Faith the size of a mustard seed will take us as far as we need, whenever we decide to live from it and act upon it.
When the disciples asked Jesus to strengthen and increase their faith, surely they weren’t asking for a greater capacity to accept certain beliefs about Jesus, as we often think of faith. What they wanted was for Jesus to increase their ability to trust him, and perhaps trust themselves, so that they could act in the face of uncertainty. They wanted to be more like him, to have something of his power to inform their prayers, their speech, their way of life. His response, in essence, was,“You have all the faith you need. Go and act upon the faith you have.” Faith has a lot in common with persistence, and, in any given endeavor, taking the next, most necessary step. It’s a bit like driving in fog, which is how the author E.L. Doctorow described the process of writing a novel. “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Several years ago as part of my Doctor of Ministry degree, I wanted to study how communities of faith move through the process of change. I wanted to understand how the new idea or way of doing something moves from being one person’s idea to becoming a shared value or practice of an entire community. For while some people love embracing new possibilities, the majority of us, if we’re honest, would admit that we respond to new ideas with indifference at best, and sometimes with outright resistance.
My studies drew me into the fascinating realm of social change theory, which outlines certain principles that affect how whole societies, and smaller communities within them, move toward new ways of thinking and behaving. Think back, for example, on how we came to accept things like no smoking in public places, or the rights of LGBTQ people to marry, or in our faith tradition, how we made changes to the Book of Common Prayer.
Through a rather messy process, and with the essential participation of those whom sociologists and marketers describe as “key influencers,” the new ideas or ways of being enter into conversation with the old. For a time, it seems as if both can coexist peaceably. Do you remember the days of “no smoking sections,” in restaurants, or even more ridiculous, on airplanes? Eventually it becomes clear that something must be relinquished in order for something new to be gained. If there’s a lot at stake, there follows a time of struggle, and things can get nasty. We say and do things that surprise even us in their intensity. No matter how noble the new idea is, there’s no way of knowing how things are going to turn out.
I suspect that’s where we are as a society, and indeed, as a species, in our awareness of and response to climate change. More and more people recognize that we need to change our behaviour and consumption practices. A lot of us know this to be true but aren’t yet ready to make significant changes, and we’re sure that half-measures will be enough. But eventually, we all need to make a shift, and a dramatic one at that. As that realization grows stronger, so do the forces of resistance. That’s when things can get nasty, or perhaps even more frustrating to those who can see what we’re up against; when our self-imposed blindness becomes more strident. The struggle, just like the planet, is heating up.
In this time of struggle, people of faith can lose heart and get discouraged, whether in the role of preserving something precious or seeking to bring about needed change. We’re tempted to give up and walk away because things have become so unpleasant. But that’s precisely the time when perseverance in small ways can do the most good. Think of Jesus speaking these words about faith the size of a mustard seed being enough to move mountains to you at precisely that moment when you feel as if the light you want to live by is in danger of being extinguished. It’s through perseverance in the darkest times that real change can occur.
For what often follows struggle, if people of faith can simply hold steady, is a shift in energy, and the momentum that up until that point was working against faith now begins working for it. That’s the tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell called it in his book on human behavior, the moment at which a new behavior or way of thinking has been “caught” by enough people to bring about a dramatic shift. (Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 2000).) The amazing thing about the crossing over, or tipping point, is that it requires far fewer people than we might imagine. In the famous words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I know that there are many reasons for us to be discouraged these days. On so many fronts, we seem to be moving backwards rather than forward. Public discourse has been hijacked by extreme voices. The worst of human prejudices and behavior wreak their havoc in increasingly erratic and therefore unpredictable ways. The effort it takes to simply tend to basic needs can be exhausting, particularly when a part of our own ecosystem is out of balance or in distress.
These times call for the kind of perseverance needed to run marathons. It may be, in the words of Brian McLaren, time to “keep our short-term expectations low and our long-term hopes high.” For, as he writes: “the forces that oppose quests for change are strong, and they always win some of the time. In so doing, they test our ideas and our character and weed out all but the strongest and most enduring. On our quest, we should expect setbacks and mistakes, opposition and conflict. At many points we will be tempted to give up. And we should never underestimate our own power to be wrong and to do or say something amazingly stupid at the worst possible moment. This helps us not to take ourselves too seriously, and to put our trust in God.” (Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: 10 Questions that are Transforming the Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), p.250.)
The good news is that a little bit of faith goes a long way. A little bit of love, a little bit of courage, a little bit of decisive action can help turn a hopeless situation around. If you don’t think that one person can make a difference, think again.
Let me leave you with a simple practice that Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton suggests in his soon-to-be released book on Christian practice entitled The Walk: Five Essential Practices of the Christian Life. Look at one of your hands and its five fingers. Every day, he suggests, strive to accomplish five deeds of kindness or generosity. They needn’t be large. It could be a simple as saying hello to a neighbor; giving a server a generous tip, refraining from swearing at someone who cuts you off on the highway. Or it could be a more sacrificial act in service to persons in need, or crossing a boundary that otherwise divides us.
Hamilton regularly challenges his congregation in the Kansas City area, which is quite large, to calculate the collective impact of their deeds of kindness. No matter a congregation’s size, the difference we can make in our communities and our world can be transformative. If there are 100 people in worship today and we all commit to 5 acts of kindness, that’s 500 acts of kindness is day. Multiply that by 7 days in a week and 52 weeks in a year, and we quickly realize that, taken together, our efforts can, in Hamilton’s words, “close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be,” or as God would have it be. He writes, “Nonreligious and nominally religious people are seldom interested in our worship styles, theological distinctives, or myriad of programs. . . What leads the unchurched to take notice of a church is when that church and its members genuinely care about them and when they are actively engaged in seeking to have a positive impact on the community.” (Adam Hamilton, The Walk: Five Essential Practices of the Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019) p. 215.) Think of what a difference St. Philip’s, Laurel can make, and the Episcopal Church as a whole, whenever when we decide to act on the small bits of faith we have.
Before you and before God, I commit to at least 5 acts of kindness each day and invite you to do the same. May God work in and through our mustard seed faith, accomplishing far more in us than we can ask for or imagine.