“Faith.” That is our theme for this morning, as it is clearly the focus of our Gospel Reading. To be frank, I actually wish Jesus had not used the metaphor of faith and the mustard seed, as it has so frequently been co-opted and misused in modern western Christianity to suggest that if you can’t do magical and impressive things then you don’t have enough faith. And further that having enough faith is all about conflating faith and magic and assenting to the correct theology and doctrine.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. When I was newly ordained, the hospital that most members of my church went to when sick suddenly required all clergy to get id badges. Without one we were not allowed to enter the hospital. I wondered why this change occurred, and so went and asked the hospital chaplain. He told me that a local Baptist Pastor had been making the rounds to every patient in the hospital. His message was this: “You are sick and, in the hospital, because you don’t have enough faith and you have sinned in not believing the right things. If you simply believe what I tell you to believe and have more faith, you will be healed.” He actually told them that their faith must not even be the size of a mustard seed, because if it was even the size of a mustard seed, they would be well. Well, you can imagine that the patients he visited were not happy about this. They kicked him out of the hospital and screened the rest of us from then on.
Now we snicker and cringe when we hear this message that the pastor was preaching, but this way of thinking is in our brains whether we like it or not. I know of several people who were committed members of a Christian community who no longer are because they thought faith and correct belief were one and the same. When they found themselves struggling with parts of the creed or other parts of Christian doctrine, they felt that they no longer had faith and left their Christian community. I also, on a number of occasions, have had people share that they think they must not have enough faith because they prayed but the outcome for which they had been praying did not happen. It is easy to conflate faith with magic or correct belief.
But that is not Jesus’ message here. In saying that faith is like a mustard seed, a very small seed that grows into a large and unwieldy bush, Jesus is trying to say something quite different all together. Firstly, faith is not something we can quantify. You can’t have too little faith. Even the smallest amount of faith is enough to accomplish great things. Even a seed of faith holds tree-like potential. And great things are not spectacular or magical acts. A great thing is to live in the way Jesus lived, to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
If we back up a few verses, we will see that Jesus’ followers are not asking Jesus to increase their faith so that they can miraculously heal people or raise people from the dead or do any other spectacular acts. They are asking Jesus to increase their faith, because he has just told them that as his followers, they are not to be a stumbling block to anyone else and that forgiveness is an essential ethic by which they must live. Sigh, I find myself wanting more faith too.
And the passage doesn’t get any easier. Jesus moves from talking about faith being like a mustard seed to comparing his followers to servants who do not expect thanks for doing what they are commanded by their master to do. These servants just get on with their duty and do what they are required to do. No fanfare. No celebration.
In other words, faith is putting one foot in front of the other and simply doing what you are supposed to do. As a follower of Jesus, getting on with our ongoing commitment to the practice of forgiveness; being a sustainer and encourager of others rather than a stumbling block; being in community with those on the margins of our world; taking care of those who are vulnerable; caring for our family, our friends and our neighbors; being good stewards of the gifts we have been given; approaching all the mundane activities of our lives with love, and care—all of these things have the potential for transforming the world into the image of God and are therefore acts of faith. There is nothing wrong with a mountaintop experience, but it is really how we live our lives through the seemingly ordinary tasks that face us each and every day that are truly expressions of our faith.
When I was in college, I worked during my summer vacations as a nurse’s aide at the Alzheimer’s Center in Gardiner, Maine. I had the good fortune to work with a number of very compassionate and capable people as we cared for the 40 people who lived at the center. All were amazing as they received very little pay for doing such very difficult and important work. And there is one woman who particularly stands out in my memory. Her name was Anna.
She was always on the job early and always stayed late, even though she was never paid overtime for what she did. She very rarely took her meal breaks or other breaks. And this is what she did during these times when she didn’t have to be working. She spent her breaks and time before and after her shift sitting and talking with those residents who didn’t regularly receive visitors. I asked her one time why she did this, and she said to me, “because this is what Jesus would do.” Her faith, and her small faithful acts, transformed life for those lonely people with whom she spent time.
Or I think of the mother of a young 15-year-old man who died in a car accident. This young man was riding in a car with his best friend. His friend was the driver. The friend lost control of the car and ran off the road into a telephone pole. The friend survived. The young man who I knew did not. When I went to the hospital to be with this mother, the very first thing she said to me was this, “I will need you in a few days, but right now the young man who was driving the car needs you more. He will have to live for the rest of his life knowing that his friend died while he was driving, and I am afraid it is going to destroy him. He is a good boy, and I don’t want to see him destroyed. He loved my son, and my son loved him. Please try to help him.”
I was blown away by her generosity. I was blown away by her immediate movement to forgiveness. Many months later I had the opportunity to ask her about that time in the hospital.
She said to me, “If I had allowed myself to get angry with that young man, it would not have brought my son back and would have simply made everything worse for him, for me, for everyone. I couldn’t make my son be alive, but I could do something to try to make sure that his friend had some kind of life moving forward.” The smallest acts of faith can transform the world.
Don’t worry about the size of your faith. Don’t worry about whether you believe in the right things. Just get on with living in obedience to Jesus’ commands. Love, forgive, support, feed, clothe, give, sit with, fight for, do. For as Jesus also said to us, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10). Amen.