(a sermon for February 25, 2018, the 2nd Sunday in Lent; second in a series, based on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 17:5-10)
And the disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” That’s all we need, Lord… just give us a little more faith, won’t you please?
As we heard our text for this morning being read, maybe your reaction was the same as mine: here we go again! Those shallow, self-serving, never ever satisfied disciples of Jesus, always seeking out more than what they’ve been given; always managing to respond to something as wonderful as faith by making an improbable and downright inappropriate request! I mean, as though you could even quantify faith in such a way; building it up like you were storing up food in a pantry or hiding riches in a locked safe. Never mind what Jesus said about having faith the size of a mustard seed being more than enough to hurl a mulberry tree into the ocean (!); once again, those disciples just don’t seem to get it! Faith is either something you’ve got, or you don’t… right?
Of course… read around this particular portion of Luke’s gospel and you discover there may have been a little bit more to that request than what it seems. After all, Jesus had just warned them against ever causing another person to “stumble;” that is, to create hardship or temptation in their lives. He’d also given them the unenviable task of calling out the sins of another disciple, while at the same time making sure they always forgive when there’s repentance; even and especially if that sin happens to have been against them! Oh, and here’s the kicker: “if that same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
Good grief! And understand, this was just the latest of a long series of difficult and pretty overwhelming teachings coming from Jesus! It’s no wonder that they were asking for more faith; I have to imagine that every one of those disciples were not quietly wondering what it was they’d signed up for when they’d decided to follow Jesus! How could anybody possibly live up to Jesus’ expectations, much less make a faithful difference in the world as his disciples without… more faith; or at least more faith than what they ever felt like they possessed! And so, please… please Lord, “Increase our faith!”
And that we can understand, can’t we?
After all, it’s a hard world out there; most especially for any of us who would carry the banner of faith. There are so many crucial needs in the world that are as yet unmet; so many challenges before us to do what’s right and so much conflict that gets in the way of what needs to be done. I don’t think that any of us here would argue against the assertion that this is a world in crisis, and yet it’s also seemingly a world of decreased faith; where voices of the Spirit are being constantly drowned out by the din of hateful and divisive rhetoric coming from just about every corner of the public square. Not to be overstate this or to sound wholly grim, friends; but these are days of confused and conflicted situations where people are both scared and scarred! I ask you: how can there ever be enough faith to weather the storms of violence that have become all too commonplace in this society; how can we have the faith that’s necessary to truly live out Jesus’ rule of forgiveness, to say nothing of the commandment to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves? What are we supposed to do in a world like this… what about faith in times like these?
As the disciples said to Jesus, so say we: “Increase our faith!” That’s all we need, Lord… just give us a little more faith, won’t you please?
Actually, maybe the truth is that we’re approaching this request, and indeed this “frequently asked question” in the wrong way.
I’ve always been very fond of our reading for this morning from the Epistle to the Hebrews, a small portion of a much longer exhortation – a sermon in the best sense – on the example of “real, intense, life-changing faith” shown forth by God’s people throughout history. From Abel to Enoch to Noah to Abraham and every successive generation – men and women, shepherds and warriors, people of power and others who were utter outcasts – here were the people who had more than enough faith to face the challenges before them. This 11th chapter of Hebrews is quite literally an eloquent and celebrative evocation of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1) that surround us; and it all begins with the author (presumably Paul, though some scholars debate that) declaring that “now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
It’s a very familiar verse, to be sure; in fact, I would dare say that these are the words that a lot of us refer to when thinking about faith, or perhaps more accurately what we think about what happens in faith: that all our hopes will be fulfilled, that our prayers will be answered, and that even though things aren’t turning out the way we would wish for them to be right now, that by grace and somewhere just beyond our sight it’s all happening just the way it should. What we’re talking about here is not simply what it is we believe about God or about life; it’s also about having “the eyes of faith” even if it doesn’t always jibe with outward appearances, or being willing to take that “leap of faith” even unto the abyss in the knowledge, however uncertain, that we’ll land safely on the other side!
And friends, I would not presume to tell you that this is a wrong assumption; truly, there have been too many times in my own life – and I’m betting in yours as well – where acting that boldly in faith has been the best (and maybe even the only!) response to whatever task or choice or challenge I’ve had to face! So I’m not here to deny the value and importance of this aspect of our faith; but I also want to say that there’s more to faith than just that.
In that first verse we shared today, faith is referred to in two different ways and with two different words in the Greek language. The first is upostasis, which we read as “assurance,” but is most accurately translated as “standing under.” In other words, faith represents a “standing under,” or upon a foundation of belief; a sure and certain belief in God. Or to put it still another way, it’s our confidence in God that leads us to stand firm in our faith. To wit, this is how The Message translates this verse: “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that make life worth living.” Faith, you see, has to do with trust that God is at the foundation of everything in our lives, the knowledge that God is at work in and through all the joys, the sorrows, the challenges and yes, even the times of crisis in our lives and in our world.
The second word that’s used here in regard to faith is elegchos, which we read as “the conviction of things unseen,” but actually is better translated as “reproof,” “rebuke,” or “evidence.” In other words, don’t doubt or reject the foundation on which you stand because the evidence of what God is doing and has always done is both powerful and irrefutable! And that’s where Paul starts his exhortation of the faithful throughout history. These are the stories of people for whom faith was not merely an intellectual exercise but the direct result of a trusting relationship with the almighty in any and all circumstances, even in those moments when it might seem as though God is silent or invisible. This is about what happens when everything in life and living becomes girded on God’s movement rather than our own… so don’t dismiss those “things unseen,” for this is where God may yet be at work!
That’s where the disciples made their mistake, you see; they asked Jesus to increase their faith, but what they really needed was a means to more faithfulness. That’s why Jesus, using that image of the tiny mustard seed, could tell them even in their overwhelmed state that they already had enough faith; and that’s why Jesus goes on to tell them a story about slaves “doing what was commanded” for the sake of the master. Because ultimately, what makes you a disciple, what makes you strong, what makes you loving, what makes you “faith-full” is to trust in that foundation of God’s presence, power and love, and to let everything else in your life flow from that!
Or, if might borrow a verse from another verse from the gospels, one that we repeat every week here in prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10)
Not that that’s wholly, if at all, understood! I’ve known so many people over the years – and this includes a whole lot of church people – who were convinced that the only way they could ever earn God’s love and acceptance and salvation was to aspire to perfection; that living perfect and thinking perfect and being perfect was in fact the meaning of faith, that if you fall short of this goal of perfection, the only solution to this is more faith; and that if you can only garner enough faith then you’ll be a good Christian now and eternally.
But let me just say this, quoting here the words of Charles Reeb: “Christians are not perfect,” he writes. “Christians are not in control. Christians don’t have all the answers. Christians are not better than other people. Christians are not folks that can give the perfect theological answer to every question.
“Christians,” Reeb goes on to say, are those who have learned, like Abraham, that God can be trusted… [that] God can be trusted to give peace in the midst of the storm. God can be trusted to take what is eveil and transform it into something good. God can be trusted to empower you in the midst of trouble. God can be trusted to receive you when you die. God can be trusted!”
Faith, more than simply believing a set of ideas and much more than following a series of rituals, practices, habits and even sacraments, is ultimately trusting in God; and beloved, as Christians you and I know we can trust in God not only, as the Letter to the Hebrews proclaims, because God has been shown throughout history to be trust-worthy, but most especially because God has sent his Son Jesus to us as the ultimate assurance of everything we hope for in our lives, as well as the sure and certain evidence of that which is yet to come. And sometimes – most times, in fact – having more faith simply comes down to it is taking up a life that is steeped in faithful living; it is to let God’s presence and power move us through challenge, doubt and all those times of feeling overwhelmed, rather than trying to make it happen through our own efforts.
It is a hard world in which we live; and sadly, there’s hardly a day in which somewhere that sad truth isn’t reinforced for us. But we have hope for a better world; because in faith, dear friends, we trust in God. And it’s in that faith that you and I can continue, even now in the midst of it all, to be faithful and seek to live unto that hope that is assured to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and by the on-going movement of God’s Spirit.
Let us not be overwhelmed, beloved; but let us be moved by God to do what need to be done for the sake of the kingdom: to care for those in need; to protect the vulnerable; to reach out to the lost and the lonely; to offer up friendship to those who dwell on the fringes of life and living; and to contribute, each in our own way, to what’s good and right and loving; so that we might grow as disciples and let our very lives serve as a witness to God’s presence and power all around us.
That’s what faith is about. And for this, and so much more, may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry