The disciples make their plea to the Lord: "Increase our faith." There is so much to do. There are so many problems. "Increase our faith."
It always helps in interpreting scripture to look at what comes before and what comes after the passage we are thinking about. Last Sunday we reflected on a difficult teaching of Jesus in Luke 16: the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In the first few verses of Luke 17, there are three teachings related to our concerns for the little ones in this world, the ways we injure and sin against each other, and the call to forgive.
These remain challenges. There are so many needs in the world. There is so much conflict. We understand the disciples' request: "Increase our faith."
We live in a world of decreased faith. The problems on all fronts seem to be escalating: people are scared and scarred. There is massive financial debt hovering over our nation, and a greater use of violence to achieve political ends. All of our systems--educational, economic, military, political, ecclesiastical--all of our systems are in some kind of crisis.
We might be tempted to say, with the disciples, "Increase our faith." What else would we say? Well, there might be other options. One is to borrow from the psalm that is read on this Sunday:
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”Â
One option is to remember the past, to long for yesterday. Nostalgia. Nostalgia is wonderful, but in truth we do not always see the past accurately. There was a country song I remember hearing as a child, "In the good old days when times were bad." It was never easy in the past. There was disease and warfare and discrimination.
And yet we sometimes think, don't we, that we are living in some kind of Babylon? As my friend, the evangelist Bob Tuttle has noted, Babylon is no longer in Iraq, Babylon has moved west! I submit our obsession with Paris Hilton as one sign that we live in Babylon, but there are others. Do you ever think it would be better if life were simpler, like it was in the old days when we all went to the temple together and observed the Sabbath and ate kosher meals and worshipped the God of the Bible?
The people in exile knew that this world had come to an end. The old has passed away. And, then, what were we left with? A new world, a new world that we were, that we are only beginning to discover. And so we often ask, What is life going to be like in this new world? What will family life be like in 20 years? What will the church look like in 20 years? What will my city look like in 20 years?
If our eyes are open to the world around us, we have these options: we can ask for more faith, or we can return to the past, clinging to it. There is another option: we can give up. This is despair. Oddly, some Christians choose this option--it is the option underneath the Left Behind series of books. God is not going to fix the brokenness of this world, it's all going to come to an end, some are simply going to be "left behind." So there are these options before us.
We can long for the world of the past, for life the way it used to be.
We can give up, and be confident that we are God's chosen people.
Neither is adequate.
We have to look at this third option again. How are we going to live in this world?
* This is a world where 8 million children have died since the beginning of 2004, many of them from preventable diseases.
* There are 3.4 billion people who have not been reached with the gospel.
* More Christians were persecuted in the twentieth century than in any one prior.
* More people died violent deaths in the twentieth century than in any century prior to the last one.
The world is in peril. "Increase our faith," the disciples ask Jesus. He responds, "If you had just a little faith, you would be able to do amazing things...if you had faith the size of a mustard seed."
The interpretation of this scripture turns on its literal meaning. The conditional clause can be translated, "If you had just the faith the size of a mustard seed...and you do...you do have faith.
Are you familiar with the saying of Mother Teresa? Our calling is not to do great things, but to do small things with great love. The scripture might be saying something similar to us: we do not need more faith; we need to use the faith that we have!
Today many Protestant churches observe World Communion Sunday. On World Communion Sunday, we reflect on the faith that we have. Surely, this faith helps us to see a power that can overcome any obstacles. Surely this faith helps us to know a love that can overcome any divisions. Surely this faith helps us to discover an abundance that can overcome any scarcity.
Yes, sometimes we see mostly obstacles, divisions, scarcity. Sometimes it is like we are singing the Lord's song in a strange land.
And so we ask, "Increase our faith." And Jesus says, gently, confidently, "You already have enough faith. Put it into practice." There is a wonderful comment by Thomas Merton that applies here. He said:
We are indoctrinated into means and ends...But that is not the way to build a life of prayer. In prayer we discover what we already have. You start where you are, and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don't know it and we don't experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess. The trouble is, we aren't taking the time to do so.
The teaching of Jesus presents us with a vivid image. A seed is usually planted in the ground, and perhaps it grows into something (unless I am the gardener--if I plant something in the ground it doesn't grow, but that's another story). But planting in the sea?
Perhaps the meaning here is that God works in all kinds of circumstances, among all types of people, in all kinds of situations. God works even in the midst of people like you and me. "Absurd!" you might say. "Impossible. I don't believe it! It's like planting a seed in the middle of the sea! "
How does this relate to World Communion Sunday? The needs of the world are so vast, beginning right where we are, and yet the world extends beyond us, from wherever we live to those who are among the neediest of our brothers and sisters in Christ across this planet, from South Africa to Guatemala, from Pakistan to Iran. We think this morning of devastating floods and tsunamis and genocide. We think of those who suffer the ravages of warfare, on both sides of the conflict, and we think of families who mourn the deaths of their loved ones.
Somehow, on World Communion Sunday, we think more deeply about our connection with the church across the world, in cathedrals and house churches and persecuted congregations and state churches, Pentecostal and Catholic and Evangelical and Orthodox, all expressions of Christ's body, all the fruit of the great commission, that Jesus would be with us to the end of the earth. And so he is.
He is with us wherever there is even the faith the size of a mustard seed: a great processional choir or a few gathered in a small country church or an aging woman no longer physically able to attend services or a young adult burned by some experience in a local congregation. Jesus is with us wherever there is even the faith the size of a mustard seed.
He is alive wherever Christians practice the faith that they already have. It is not so much that we need more! It is that we need to use what we already have!
There is something here that relates to our human nature and goes against the grain. We want more, don't we? Isn't that one of the first words a child learns to say: More?
I saw a documentary some time ago in which the clerk would ask every customer, "Would you like to super size that?" And most folks would respond, without thinking, "Sure!"
The spiritual logic tends to work like this:
The world is a mess.
We believe in God.
We believe God wants us to do something.
The solution? Increase our faith!
Today, our prayer might be simpler, more grounded in a reality to which Jesus points: we don't need more faith. We need to use the faith that we already have. The good news, the promise of Jesus, is that even if we plant a seed in the midst of the sea, it will grow. A small act of faith will help.
On World Communion Sunday, 2007--
Let the Christians across this planet pledge themselves to saving the lives of children.
Let the Christians across this planet pledge themselves to sharing the message of the gospel with all people.
Let the Christians of this world let go of divisions and judgmentalism.
Let the Christians of the world forgive.
We don't need to do great things...but small things with great love.
We don't need more faith... We need to use the faith that we have! Amen.