5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The 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.
7“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’? 8Would 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’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So 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!’ ”
In the Lutheran church, we talk about faith a lot. Martin Luther clung to the promise in Romans that we are not made righteous by works, but by faith. But what is faith? What is faith? We use the word faith like a commodity, like something that you can get more or less of and that, if we want God to love us more, use us more, or make us happier, we need more faith. We use phrases like, “You gotta have faith” or “If I just had a little more faith” in the wake of sickness or fear. But that understanding of faith, the commodity of faith, is not something that was really involved in the religious landscape of Jesus day.
The word used in Greek for faith is pistis and it essentially gets at the idea of trusting something, trusting that the promise is true. Faith in Christ, then, means trusting that what Jesus has done is enough for you and, follow me here for a little bit, that trusting that your trust in Christ is enough for you. It means that, while it may seem more comfortable to trust that our money or our social status or our health will get us through, that it is really Christ. Because through Christ, we see the heart of God – the sovereign, eternal, and unchangeable love that created the world, calls us forth from despair, and is working to bring all people to Herself.
But, if we have this understanding of faith, what do the disciples mean by the question in our gospel? We hear them asking Jesus to increase their faith. But is that possible? This scenario plays out in my head like the familiar scene at a swimming pool. There’s a mother with a young child, clad in their new swimming suit and bright colored floaties, ready for their first swimming lesson. They ease into the pool, the Mama holding her kid while the child clings tightly to her, until the water is up to the child’s chest. Naturally, the child clings to Mama and, when forced to let go, to the edge of the pool. And there’s where we find them, the loving mother calling her child to her, reminding them of the doggie paddle they’ve been practicing in the bathtub, telling the child that the floaties will help, and holding our her arms. All the while, the child clings tightly to the edge, afraid to let go. “Don’t you trust me? You can trust me,” the mother calls, just a few feet away. “I know. I trust you,” the child responds, but they can’t seem to let go of that edge. The pool is a deep place and, while it looks like fun from the safety of the dry deck, it can be absolutely terrifying.
Either the child trusts or they don’t. There is no increase. There is presence and absence. We cannot improve our own faith. Faith is not something you stockpile for a rainy day. Faith doesn’t have a future – faith is always in the present. It can be strained. It can be pulled and moved somewhere else. It can be tested. But faith is always there, in the present. It cannot be increased and saved for the future. I think that’s why Jesus uses the mustard seed analogy so much – you can’t split a mustard seed, giving a little to one thing and a little to another, diversifying your portfolio of faith until you know you’re safe. Faith, trust, is in the present, solitary, and can sometimes feel like a little thing. We cannot improve our own faith, but, with the Spirit’s work in us, it can and does become easier.
We see faith being tested in our other readings today. Habakkuk (always a fun word to say) and Psalm 37 (which only shows up once in the entire 3-year lectionary cycle) show us what faith looks like in times of sadness and fear and doubt and anger. Tell me that we don’t know a thing or two about sadness and fear and doubt and anger these days. It’s important to see that faith does not mean an absence of emotion or that we travel through this world blind to the sin and the brokenness in the world around us. Instead, our faith makes us open to them.
You see, faith in Christ means trusting that fear, sadness, anger, and even death itself does not have the last word. In Christ, we see that love and grace and mercy overcome that. On the cross, we see God’s love poured out for the poor and the rich, the scared and the angry, the sick and the healthy, the abused and the abuser, the immigrant and the native. The empty grave shows us that death, itself, has been buried. With our trust in Christ, we are not blind or senseless to them – we feel the sting of grief, the frustration, the anger, the fear, and the stain of sin – but we trust that that other stuff is temporary.
This allows us to see the world with both eyes open, to notice and do what we can to address the pain and sorrow. We can’t take it away and we can’t numb it without also numbing everything else. So, instead, like the prophet Habakkuk and the Psalmist, we call to God – we bring it to God’s attention and we work to make it right, not by holding onto the edge, storing up things to make us not feel it, but by trusting, letting go, and diving into the open arms that await us. Sometimes that means that we dive into the unknown; sometimes that means that our fear and our sadness and our pain doesn’t stop right away. But is does mean trusting that God is for you. It means trusting that God can use the brokenness as a way to show healing, that God uses darkness as a canvas for light to shine, and that nothing we can ever face is left unredeemed or unwanted by God.
This kind of faith, the faith that is active and working in and through us, changes us in love. And we shouldn’t be ashamed of that. The author of 2 Timothy encourages his readers to not be ashamed. Don’t be ashamed of who you are and who you are being made to be through faith and the grace of God. Don’t be ashamed of the work of God in and through you. This active faith brings us to places and people we never thought we’d go to proclaim the gospel through words and through actions. We have the verb “trusting”, but we don’t have “faithing.” I think maybe we should.
Faithing in Christ is not easy. While the concept may be understood, it’s practice is hard because when you’re that kid, clad in your floaties and swimming suit, the only option at the time seems to be clinging to the side of the pool. You know God can catch you, you want to believe that She won’t let the waves overcome you, but it’s a lot easier to cling to what we know. We may not have to worry about the uncertainty of the water when we cling to the edge, but we’ll never experience the full joy of swimming. We can cling to so much – our health, our homes, our jobs, our money, our time, our happiness – but trust in Christ is different.
Faith, trust, is difficult. It often defies our expectations and our abilities. Faithing means sometimes recognizing that we don’t understand everything but also never giving up our ability to ask questions. Through difficult and easy time, our faith in God’s promise, our trust in God’s faithfulness, will bring us to places we never imagined. It’s living and active. And, though it can feel like such a small thing, it is the biggest thing. I’m not going to say that you’ll be able to transplant shrubs with your mind (Jesus is obviously speaking in hyperbole here). Faithing doesn’t change the world around you and make things easier or better. But, by grace through faith, God’s love works through you and in you, and that changes everything. It changes how you live and move and have your being in the world around you. In times of fear, in times of grief, and in times of sadness, know that your faith is not wasted. God is redeeming the world, healing the broken, and shining light into the darkness. Amen.