Wars and rumors of wars proliferate around the world. Nations, tribes, gangs, ideologues kill each other for the love of money, for the love of power, for the love of revenge, for the love of violence, for the love of God (God help us). The way to make any drop of difference at all seems not only unclear but impossible. But our God says to us, "blessed are the peacemakers." (Mt 5:9) "Lord, increase our faith!"
Refugees and immigrants, displaced by terrorism and poverty, wander the earth and seas looking for safety, an open door, a compassionate welcome. The sheer numbers and depth of suffering and need are overwhelming; the opposition to making space for them is like an insurmountable wall. And our God says, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." (Mt 25:35) "Lord, increase our faith!"
Drug and alcohol abuse withers bodies and breaks relationships leading to despair, destitution, and sometimes terrible violence. The cycles of abuse seem to hold people captive with greater power than any treatment we can devise. But our God says to us, "I give you power and authority over all demons, to cure diseases, to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and to heal." (Lk 9:1-2) "Lord, increase our faith!"
The depth and breadth of poverty and hunger not only in faraway places but right here in the United States is a shock and disgrace. And we wonder, "where will we get enough food to feed all these people?" And God says, "bring your five loaves and two fish and feed the people." "Lord, increase our faith!"
Our political and social context is marked by distrust, division, and demonization. We wonder and worry whether there can ever be reasoned debate, mutual respect, and a shared commitment to the common good. It is easy to feel powerless in so broken a system. And we worship a God who says, "Love your enemies... pray for those who persecute you" and "Do unto others as you would have them do to you." "Lord, increase our faith!"
In the face of prejudice-racism, sexism, heterosexism, every "ism" that plagues our society-in the face of the suffering and oppression that bigotry engenders, we are tempted to nurture our grievances or try to ignore the realities (as if that were really possible). We grow weary and cynical of the struggle for justice and reconciliation. And our God says to us, "love your neighbor" and "you must forgive." "Lord, increase our faith!"
Would-be disciples of Jesus feel the weight of the world's brokenness and wonder how the work will get done. Some of us relinquish responsibility in the face of the task and others take on more than we can manage; some of us strive and labor, hoping that what we do will earn us a seat at the table of God. But Jesus says, "when you have done all you were ordered to do say, 'we are worthless slaves who have no need of payment for we have done only what we ought to have done!'" "Lord, increase our faith!"
Why did the apostles cry out, "Lord, increase our faith"? Because what Jesus was teaching was difficult, because what Jesus was asking them to do felt overwhelming, because in light of the needs and challenges before them, they felt ill-equipped and under-qualified. I don't know about you, but I can relate. "Lord, increase my faith..." And what does Jesus reply? "If you had faith the size of the smallest seed..." you could do difficult things like move a tree and you could do even impossible, seemingly absurd things like planting that tree in the ocean. Commentators disagree on whether Jesus is suggesting the disciples have no faith or simply don't recognize the power of the little faith they have. But regardless of whether Jesus is irritated or encouraging here, the message remains: "You only need some faith-any faith, just a little faith!"
So what is it that we need? What is faith? Well, in Luke, every time Jesus speaks of faith it has to do with trust in what God can do through Jesus. The disciples are usually chided for their failures of faith. Others, often outsiders, like the centurion in Luke 7 or the woman with the hemorrhage in Luke 8, are praised and received as participants in their own healing because their trust in God is manifest through what they say and do. The suffering woman doesn't just quietly believe in God's love and care for her; she doesn't wait for some magic healing to occur without her having to do anything. Instead, she puts herself on the line, breaking all the rules to kneel and touch the fringe of Jesus's cloak believing in what God can do, in what God-in love-wants to do for her. Faith is to trust in God's promises of steadfast love, compassion, and restoration. Faith is to put that trust into action, to do what is asked by God, to do the hard thing, to risk disappointment and failure because you believe that God will see you through. I'm reminded of the extraordinary response of the people of Mother Emanuel, African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina following the murder of their pastor and eight parishioners while at Bible study in the church basement. To the young man whose racist, violent hatred led him to gun down the same people who had warmly welcomed him, to that one, Mother Emanuel spoke words of forgiveness and called for mercy even as they denounced his horrific actions and grieved their beloved dead. This is an example of profound, mature, lived faith.
In this age of extraordinary human achievements in science, technology, and engineering it is very tempting to talk about faith, to say we trust God, but then live our lives as functional atheists-as if it were our responsibility to save ourselves and the world. After all, many of us have seen or participated in human endeavors that have brought about great improvements in the lives of others. But even a cursory review reveals our very best efforts to bring about healing, feeding, peace, unity, and all the rest as partial, often fleeting, and hampered by short memory and the limits and frailties of being human. For example, how easy is it for us to give in to the temptation to respond to violence with violence instead of with mercy and forgiveness? If our faith really abides in our human capacities alone, we are doomed to despair. We know we aren't able.
But the heart of the good news is that God has not and will not leave us nor forsake us. We are not left to our own devices to fix what is so deeply broken in ourselves and in our society. Jesus reminds us that even the smallest bit of real faith-trust in God-is what is needed. Apart from God, all our best efforts are like an unplugged extension cord: brilliantly designed and having everything required to do what it was created to do, but ineffectual so long as it remains disconnected from the source of power.
So if faith is about trusting not in our own capacity but in what God can do, does that mean we are "worthless slaves"-that unsettling image Jesus uses in the parable? If someone other than Jesus were speaking in our text today, we might be able to reject outright the strange parable and teaching that follows as nothing more than a vestige of an ancient, unjust slave economy. And there is certainly room for critique of any use of such language. But we know from the rest of the story that Jesus doesn't think human beings are worthless. In fact, human beings-you and I-we're what Jesus lives and dies for. We are not worthless, but rather deeply valued and loved. And Jesus doesn't enslave people, Jesus sets people free (e.g. Lk 13:16). We are valued not as commodities but as partners in the work of God's saving love in the world. Jesus knows that the work and growth of God's kingdom will depend upon the disciples; and so in a great act of faith-trusting in what God can do-Jesus entrusts the ongoing work of the kingdom to the likes of you and me (Lk 9:1, 13; 10:1). As Teresa of Ávila says so beautifully, "Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world."
Our hands and feet and eyes are not manipulated like a marionette with Christ pulling the strings. Rather, just like every disciple from the beginning, we have a choice to make. When we choose to "plug into" God's great love and compassion for us and for the world, we receive power. That power is not for the purpose of controlling things, lording over people, proving ourselves, or getting special treatment. We are given power to live and to love as Jesus. And that means we live and love without expecting reward or even to see the results of our labor. It means having faith in God's love for us, having faith in what God does for us in Jesus Christ, having faith in what God can do in and through us even amidst all our faults and frailties. We are not "worthless slaves" but rather those whom God has deemed worthy to receive love, sacrifice, and the sacred responsibility to care for all the beauty and bounty of earth.
Lord, increase our faith that we might trust you more than we trust ourselves.
Lord, increase our faith that we might trust you more than we distrust ourselves and others like us.
Lord, increase our faith that we might finally know the true reward that is participation in the work of your saving love.