Sermon #154 St. James the Less #62 10/6/19
"The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "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.
"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!'" (Luke 17:5-10)
The Apostle’s Demand
“Increase our faith.”
That’s what the apostles say to Jesus at the beginning of our gospel lesson this morning. And it’s quite an interesting request on their part. It sounds more like a demand than a simple appeal to Jesus.
You would have to have some serious guts to ask Jesus something as blatant as that. Either they were that courageous, or more likely, they were so confused about Jesus’ words and actions, that the only thing they could blurt out was, “Jesus, you’re gonna have to give us more faith.”
It may be helpful to know that right before the apostles say this, Jesus was talking to them about forgiveness. Jesus tells them, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
It’s no wonder the next thing out of the apostles’ mouth is to ask for more faith. They are asking a hard thing of Jesus because he is asking a very hard thing from them.
How could a normal person forgive that much? Why would you keep forgiving someone who sins against you seven different times in a day? Somehow the apostles think that if they can only have more faith, then they’ll be able to forgive like Jesus is telling them to.
This is an interesting way at looking at faith. For the confused apostles, faith is something to be possessed. If only they can gain or increase more faith, if Jesus will give them a deposit of faith, then they can freely forgive anyone and everyone. But I don’t think faith works that way.
Many of us have ideas of what faith is and what it isn’t. This past Thursday in Alpha we talked about how we can have faith.
We said, faith is believing in something that you can’t see, but then again, we have faith in things that we can see. Every time we sit in a chair we have faith. Though we can see the chair, we don’t know who put it together, where the materials came from, but we have faith that when we sit down, it will hold us.
So, we have faith in things seen and unseen. Though we may not think of faith as a possession that must be increased, we all have felt a lack of faith at times, and in that way we do understand the apostles’ request for more faith.
Thus, faith in the context of forgiveness is really what our passage is about this morning.
And Jesus addresses this question of faith in a twofold manner. He first has a word to say about how much faith is needed to do extraordinary things. And then secondly, he tells us how we should live out our ordinary life of faith.
How Much: Mustard Seed
For the writer Luke in our passage, faith is not so much a possession as it is a disposition or way of life. Faith is not increased through a transaction; you can’t go and buy more faith. It’s not a possession you can take for yourself, as the apostles may have been hoping for.
In the economy of God, faith is not something to be bartered, but rather faith is the path under our feet that leads us towards God, or the Christian journey itself. It cannot be accumulated; it can only be lived out.
Seen in this way, what Jesus is trying to show is that faith leads to faithful behavior.
So, when the apostles ask to be given faith, or to increase the little faith that they have, what they are really asking, is for Jesus to make them faithful people. Because if they are faithful, and are able to live that faith out, then what Jesus says about forgiveness may not be as impossible as they thought.
If they can truly be faithful, then they just might be able to be forgiving as well.
Again, Jesus reminds them that it doesn’t take much faith at all to do miraculous wonders. He compares the tiny size of a mustard seed to the deep and strong-rooted mulberry, or sycamore tree being put the ocean. Even a small bit of faith is sufficient for extraordinary practices to take place.
We have to stop talking about faith in terms of lack vs. abundance, as if we were talking about wealth, and we must shift the conversation to start talking about faith as a way of life and a journey with Jesus.
Christians can be extraordinarily guilty people. Some never feel good enough for God, or holy enough, or righteous enough, and I believe that is why so many people have left church. They feel that because they have questions or doubts or their life hasn’t turned out exactly how they expected that they are somehow less faithful than others. We have to shift our understanding of faith.
So with the visual of the mustard seed, Jesus reorients the apostle’s request for more faith, and shows them that they are asking for the wrong thing. More is not what they need; they need to live out the faith they already have.
And so, that’s why he then tells them how faith should be lived out in ordinary life. The story that follows may seem complicated and confusing, but it’s actually quite simple.
In Jesus’ day and time, a servant had a certain number of daily responsibilities. Jesus says that the master is not obliged to reward the servant for simply doing what he’s expected to do every single day. The master doesn’t have to praise him for completing the daily chores.
I mean think about chores around your house. I don’t know about you, but I’m not praised every single time that I take out the trash, YET I am expected to take it out.
Think about potty training a child. You praise them when they first learn how to do it, because you want to reaffirm what you’ve taught them, so that they will continue to do it by themselves, but it would get weird if you clapping for them and telling them “Good job” when they were 30.
At some point it’s just expected that you can use the bathroom by yourself and you can take out the trash without needing to be praised every time. In many ways it’s a sign of maturity that we don’t need to be validated for every little thing we do.
In the context of Jesus’ story, being obedient to God may seem like something we should be rewarded for, but Jesus says “No.” The daily responsibilities of being a disciple, requires being a certain kind of person and doing certain kinds of things, like: caring for the needy, bringing others into a relationship with God, AND forgiving (and forgiving often, as often as required, according to Jesus).
Doing this isn’t extraordinary. We don’t need a parade every time we do something good or pleasing to God. But rather faith is a way of life. When we are obedient then we get to work out our discipleship muscles.
Anyone who’s tried to start exercising after a long period of not working out, knows that it’s painful to get to a strong and healthy level again. But once you’ve reactivated and trained those muscles, you become stronger, and you can challenge yourself more and more.
You have to be committed and obedient to the workout plan whether that’s walking every day or going to the gym for an hour a few times a week, or training for a marathon.
The same is true with faith and living in obedience to God.
When we have trained and are healthy by walking the path of faith day by day then we are more prepared for the challenges that confront us. When we have forgiven someone for something small, we have trained ourselves to love and forgive when a much tougher situation appears.
A great example of this happened this past week. I don’t know how many of you saw the trial coverage of Amber Guyger, the ex-Dallas police officer who shot Botham Jean, in his own apartment last year. It sparked quite a controversy when it happened last September, and the news focused on it again this week as the verdict was handed down.
The most moving part of the trial happened at the sentencing hearing, a day after she had been convicted of murder.
The victim’s brother took the stand, and while speaking about the brother he had lost, he looked right at Amber Guyger and said, “I forgive you. I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. I love you…and I personally want the best for you. I don’t even want you to go to jail. The best thing would be to give your life to Christ, it’s what [my brother] would want you to do.”
If that wasn’t enough, he then turned to the judge, with tears in his eyes, asked if he could give her a hug. After begging please twice the judge said yes, and he and the woman who shot his brother, embraced for a minute straight with people sobbing in the background.
It was an extraordinary act of faith and forgiveness.
I don’t know if he has done an interview since that happened, but I doubt he would describe what he did as breaking news. Rather that tremendous act of forgiveness was just a part of his way of life as a follower of Jesus.
It was a very tough and personal decision, that was influenced by his faith to not allow hate and anger to take root in his heart, but instead, to live out his faith and forgive as Christians are called to do day in and day out.
It’s not that he has more faith than others, it’s just that he is willing to live it out.
And that’s exactly what Jesus was trying to teach the apostles in this passage.
Faith is not measured by quantity, but by how it is lived out.
17 Pent. Proper 22. Track II. Year C. Lk 17:5-10