Is it a demand? Increase our faith!
A whiny complaint? Increase our faith.
Maybe a patient mantra. Increase our faith. Increase our faith. Increase our faith.
Jesus doesn’t seem all that sympathetic to this demand or whiny plea or mantra or whatever it is. Increase our faith.
Here in Luke, Jesus is on his long trek to Jerusalem. Along the way he teaches with parables, some of them clear in their meaning and others, like a code, need to be deciphered. We get two short parables today – the first one seems impossible and the second one is just weird. What do they have to do with increasing faith? And do they have anything to do with each other?
This traveling party, perhaps like a caravan that camps together, protecting each other from the Roman authorities, this is not only Jesus and the twelve disciples. There are other people as well, coming and going, as their lives and responsibilities allow. Luke 8 tells us there are women accompanying Jesus – Mary, called Magdalene, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who ministered to him out of their own resources. They are all disciples. Later on when Jerusalem becomes the obvious destination, there are still women, (11:27) who call out from the crowd. Is this part of the reason some of the parables include banquets, yeast, parents and children, and the image of God as a woman who has lost a coin?
The traveling disciples are Jew and gentile, women and men, young and old; they encounter supporters and challengers, healthy and unwell people along the way. But “Increase our faith” doesn’t come from this large group of disciples, it comes from the apostles. I usually think of disciples and apostles as interchangeable titles and titles are so unimportant. But here it must mean something. At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus addresses the disciples:
Jesus said to the disciples, “Stumbling blocks will inevitably rise but woe to those through whom stumbling blocks come.”
Then Jesus talks (to the disciples) about forgiveness, “forgive seven times a day.” It is after this that the The apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith.”
The writer of Luke/Acts (part one and part two of Luke’s gospel) makes this distinction in a way that the other gospels do not. Matthew and Mark use the term ‘apostle’ only once each and John never uses “apostle.” The writer of Luke/Acts seems to think it is important to distinguish between the large group of disciples that follow Jesus and the “chosen” who are closer in with Jesus. (Why this distinction is important is for someone’s dissertation, not this sermon.)
So here we have the “apostles,” the ones we would presume already have more faith, having been commissioned to go out to preach and heal. And yet they say to Jesus, “Increase our faith.” Do the apostles feel pretty good, they already forgive way more than seven times a day and now they want to increase their faith even more? Or do they feel depleted, inadequate for the task and journey ahead and hope Jesus can help them increase their faith?
Here in the priesthood of all believers, I can imagine that either one of those motivations might be present. Some of us are doing pretty well, living out love and hospitality with joy and energy. And some of us are overwhelmed by life, and caring for people we know and those we encounter along the way. Increase our faith.
How do we increase our faith? Jesus’ response is not, “If you want to increase faith, pray more.” He doesn’t say read the scriptures more. Jesus doesn’t even say go to synagogue more often. When the apostles say – Increase our faith – Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…”
It sounds like the hyperbole that we sometimes get from Jesus. But I think it is more than that. I think that it is Jesus’ way of breaking faith into manageable portions. Start small, really small. Don’t try to be some big prophet. Just take the smallest piece of faith you have. Like the mustard seed: break open the small seedpod and find the speck of seed, an idea of faith, and go from there.
This past week Richard Rohr’s daily meditation featured Thérèse de Lisieux, a young nun from 19th century France. Therese took this idea of the small things and made it her way of life. She called it her “little way” of love. Here are some examples of what it looked like for Therese, as described by Heather King:
- She overcame her instinctive dislike of a particular nun, and . . . [exhibited] such charity that the sister actually thought Thérèse felt a special fondness for her.
- She stifled her almost compulsive desire to turn around and glare at the nun behind her in choir who made a clicking noise (apparently by tapping her rosary against her teeth), realizing that the more charitable act would be to pretend that the sound was music to Christ’s ears and endure the annoyance in silence.
- Every evening at dinnertime Thérèse took it upon herself to usher a particularly vexatious elderly nun from chapel to her place at table in the refectory, even going the extra mile to lovingly cut the crabapple’s bread.
Therese was doing small things; she was changing herself. She found little ways to live her faith – and it increased her faith. These little acts, her “little way,” seem small but they have had a great effect on many people as they too choose the little way of love. Though Therese died from tuberculosis at age 24, her “little way” lives on; she is now a saint of the Catholic church.
All well and good, doing the small things to increase faith, if you can get started. But let’s be realistic, sometimes it is the starting that is the hard part. The parable that comes after the confounding mustard seed at first seems totally detached. But what if it is a clue for how to get started with the small things.
“If one of you had hired help (or servants) plowing a field or herding sheep and they came in from the fields, would you say to them, ‘Come and sit at my table’? Wouldn’t you say instead, ‘Prepare my supper. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You can eat and drink afterward’?
Jesus goes on – It’s the same with you who hear me. When you have done all you have been commanded to do, say, ‘We are simple workers, We have done no more than our duty.’” Just do what you’re are supposed to do. Do your job. Just show up. Don’t try to do the job of someone else. Don’t muddle up the order of things, just show up and do what is asked of you. It’s the little things.
We might want to argue that doing things the way they have always been done is not the way. That keeps unjust systems in place. That keeps the servants as servants and the masters in power. This is a very legitimate and important argument – and one that I imagine Jesus would support. But that is for a different parable. In this parable, we do our part in life, as small as it may seem and somehow that makes all the difference, perhaps even increases our faith. Is this Jesus’ version of the butterfly effect?
(You remember the butterfly effect – the idea that a flap of a butterfly’s wings can be the initial energy, the small turbulence, that causes a chain of events that begin the “domino effect” and lead to much bigger change thousands of miles away.)
Jesus doesn’t explain this mustard seed effect. He isn’t explicit about how the little things add up to make a big difference. He just jumps from tiny seed to uprooting a mulberry tree into the sea. In our own lives, like with Saint Therese, the smallest things might seem inconsequential. But greeting a stranger with kindness instead of indifference, spending an hour talking with a friend – instead of an hour doomscrolling, riding bike instead of driving, these make a difference to me when I can do them – and on my better days I remember they somehow make a difference in the larger system of which I am a part.
It is not always immediately apparent what the difference is but we have faith that it is true. The mustard seed effect takes time and repetition. It is not instant. Whether the effect is butterfly or mustard seed, we see that it is true in the climate – and in human relations. It is true in how we relate in our families and in how we interact as a congregation and in the larger world. The small things matter. If you have faith the size of a mustard seed.
We can each do our own mustard seed small actions but it is even more amazing when we invite others and we join our small mustard seed actions together. Maybe that is how we see mulberry trees uprooted and thrown into the sea – in our own lifetime. The writer of II Timothy reminds us that God didn’t give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, of self-discipline. Combine mustard seed faith with power, love and self-discipline, and together we have what it takes to join with other seeds of faith – to move mountains. Increase our faith.