“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’”
Mustard seeds. Mulberry trees. Tiny things. Things planted in places where they are not supposed to be.
This week, your rector has been searching for faith. I just wanted faith, even the size of a mustard seed—something tiny and round. Something specific I could hold and look at and feel in my hand. This past week, I have read and wrestled with scripture about today’s gospel, against the backdrop of the Capitol Hill dome and the White House. This week, I have searched for faith the size of a mustard seed. I know many of you have as well.
On Tuesday, I sat down and scribbled the names of everyone in this parish whom I knew would be affected by a furlough of the federal government. Just off the top of my head, I came up with a dozen names. A dozen parishioners who have now caught up on chores they have been meaning to do. People who have given significant time to a project on this church campus, or run for exercise, or sat down and planned for “what if”. . .As I sat and stared at, then prayed with, the names on the list in front of me, I searched for faith.
I thought about the fact that given third quarter pledge numbers, St. Philip’s still has some financial challenges for 2013. That our Stewardship Lunch was scheduled for today. Then I said to God, “Thanks, God. Perfect timing!” and I’m sure God did not hear the sarcasm in my voice. . .
As Christians, we wonder about faith. Do we have it? Do we have enough? I suppose if having enough faith means that we can physically uproot a tree by thinking about it, then the answer is no. Yet in today’s Gospel, Jesus uses hyperbole—exaggerated language—to make a particular point. When the disciples ask for more faith, one would think Jesus would be glad they are making this request. As one writer has said, “Instead, his sharp answer implies that they have not really understood the nature of genuine faith.”
What do they understand? The disciples do understand faith as something dynamic, as something that can grow—otherwise, they would not ask Jesus to increase it. Yet what they do not seem to understand is that they already have the faith they need. All they have to do is to exercise that faith. Name it. Claim it. Act on it. Another thing they do not understand is illustrated by the second part of this passage. Jesus uses a conventional image of the first century.
If you were head of a household and had a servant (slave) who worked for you, that servant’s work—whether in the field or in the kitchen—was the work he or she was supposed to do. It was nothing extraordinary. It was what is expected. In that particular culture, in that time in history, this example made sense. We in the twenty-first century are repelled by servant or slave imagery, yet we must not read our own culture and history back into the first. Jesus thus challenges his disciples to see themselves as servants—servants of God. God is in charge. God owes them—and us—nothing. Yet we owe God everything. Whatever we do for God is just what we should do. Furthermore, God’s abundance, blessing and gift of faith come under the category of grace. Pure grace. There is nothing we can do to earn it. There is nothing we can do to deserve it. Yet, amazingly enough, God provides.
The challenge is that we cannot always see God’s provision and grace. We want faith we can see, touch, and hear. We want to see good things happen because of our faith. Yet as evidenced this week, good does not always happen—at least not what we would classify as good.
Sometimes, as I have said to you before, having faith in God may be like walking around the furniture in a dark living room. We may have some general idea of where the obstacles are, yet we probably don’t know for sure, so we have to move slowly—and often help each other negotiate the dark so that we don’t fall. In other words, faith is something that is God’s gift to each of us. At the same time, you and I have our own part to play in this life of faith. God gives us faith. It is up to us to use it.
To use another analogy, it is as if God has given us a very large bank account. When we get the statement, we are in awe of all the money in our account. At the same time, we are scared to spend any of it. We are afraid it will disappear or be stolen. Or perhaps we fear that this is a mistake. This account is not really ours. God meant to give it to someone else. No. This account—full of unimaginable riches of faith—belongs to you and to me. Yet if it sits un-used, it does no one any good.
How do we spend our faith? How do we appropriate all that the grace and faith God has given us? The first thing we must do is to acknowledge that we already have all the faith we need. Whatever we need, we already have. We may not already have what we want, but we already have what we need.
Several years ago, during the economic downturn, this parish was in a challenging place. Some folks had been laid off. Some had lost jobs they thought were secure. Others were depressed because they had jobs they hated. Yet St. Philip’s needed a new roof. Now that was pretty evident, because some of us were getting “rained on” at the altar or in the pew! Our need for a new roof was clear, but the economic recovery was not. At that time, I stood here and talked about the fear generated by nay-sayers and media about the economic situation, especially as it pertained to this parish. I must admit to you that at some point, I got angry. Then I realized that I was giving negativity rent-free space in my head and heart. I was also not living into my faith.
So I made a decision, which I shared with you at that time. Today, I want to repeat what I said then. I will not live in fear. Jesus said “perfect love casts out fear.” Today, I re-claim that truth. I will not live in fear. I will not live in fear of politicians who hold the people of this country hostage with their partisan games. I will not live in fear of scarcity. I will not live in fear for the people of this parish for whom I care deeply. I will not live in fear that this parish will not grow and prosper and do what God calls us to do and to be in this world. I encourage you to decide not to live in fear as well. I challenge you to claim love out of your mustard seed of faith and to cast out fear.
Three years ago, I said that we are going to take care of each other. That is still true. If fulfilling your pledge for 2013 or making a new one for 2014 means that you cannot pay your electricity or buy food for your family, do not make it. And do not worry or feel guilty about it. Furthermore, if you need help, come to see me privately. If your finances or job have not been affected, I ask you to open your hand and see the mustard seed of faith there. You have all you need. You may not have all you want, but you have what you need in God’s economy. You may consider giving on behalf of those who cannot. Go out to dinner one less time a week than you would have, and give that money out of your faith that God will multiply it. Buy one less Starbucks Frappuccino and put that in the offering plate on Sunday. Buy a grocery card today and give it to me so that I can give it to a parishioner who needs it. Come to the Stewardship Luncheon today and give of yourself—your time and your listening heart—to your brothers and sisters.
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” It was the wrong request. Today, Jesus stands in front of you and me. He says, “Use your faith. Cast fear as far as you can throw it. Live in the fullness of love and faith that I have given you already.” Name it. Claim it. Act on it. Faith is yours. Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 R. Alan Culpepper “The Gospel of Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX: Luke and John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 322.