In the gospel story this week the disciples ask for help – they pray for help!: “Lord increase our faith.” Have you ever felt desperate enough to pray that prayer? Maybe it was a desperation that just kind of shouted out from you body – from the circumstances you found yourself in. And maybe you didn’t even think about it being a prayer.
Lots of prayers are like that – and this is a good thing because it means you have a genuine relationship and trust in the Lord. And without thinking – that’s where you spontaneously turn for help . . .
Many are the times most of us have asked for help – when times get tough, when we’re grasping for a faith that will support us, a faith to strengthen and empower us. . . a faith to give meaning and direction . . . or a faith that makes clear the purpose of our lives . . .
When I first read this gospel lesson in Luke 17, the first questions that jumped out at me were: Why are the apostles screaming out for help with their faith? Are they facing some huge challenge at this point? Or is this request for more faith just a general request?
Actually – in the verses which come immediately before – Jesus has just asked the disciples to do something they may know they can’t do: He tells them “If a person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” . . . A difficult commandment – another one of those hard sayings of Jesus.
Did you ever had problems trying to forgive someone who’s hurt you – someone who may have betrayed your trust – someone who may have abandoned you – – you fill in the blank of the wrong that was done to you when forgiveness seemed to be totally out of the question.
If Jesus’ teaching at this point struck this particular chord in the hearts of his followers, no wonder they were crying our for an increase in faith!! The disciples may be more like us than we may realize – they are willing to do what is reasonable – and maybe even what is exceptional – in order to follow Jesus. Many of them have left their homes and their jobs and their families to go with him. But now he’s beginning to ask things that are impossible – they don’t know how to do them – actually, perhaps they know they can’t do them!
When we’re feeling overwhelmed by life’s challenges – overwhelmed by the circumstances we’re asked to somehow cope with – wouldn’t it be great if Jesus would just wave a magic wand and give us the superhuman powers to do even what we know in our hearts we can’t do?
Although it’s not exactly a magic-wand “fix”, Jesus’ answer to that prayer for increased faith is the Good News in the gospel today! The Good News is that the faith that sustains us doesn’t have to be heroic – and we don’t have to create the faith ourselves. Actually, the bottom line is we can’t pull ourselves up by the boot straps. And in fact, Jesus goes on to explain that the disciples already have all the faith they need: that little, yet mighty mustard seed . . . faith the size of a mustard . . . faith that can command a large tree to be uprooted and thrown into the ocean. . . . Stretches the imagination, doesn’t it!!
I think what Jesus is saying here is that faith can be pretty small and ordinary, and it really doesn’t take all that much faith to be – – faithful . . . You see, faith isn’t something you measure by quantity – it’s measured by quality. It’s not about how much faith you have – it’s about where you put your faith – it’s about what you do with the faith you have. In all this you can strengthen your faith but you can’t make it increase. You either have it or you don’t. And it’s all about how you practice it . . . Faith is like a muscle: the more we use that muscle, the stronger it gets.
In the story at the end of the gospel reading – about the servant who comes in from working in the fields at dinner time – he’s expected to fix dinner for his master first before he eats himself. He does this just as a matter of course because – well – that’s what a servant does. Here Jesus is telling us something about what the life of Christian servant-hood is all about – what the discipleship of servant-hood is all about . . .
Sometimes, practicing our faith means just showing up and doing what needs to be done. Faith, as Jesus describes it, is just doing your job, just doing your duty – and not because of any expectation of reward but simple because it needs doing.
Here again, faith can be pretty ordinary – and it really doesn’t take all that much faith to be faithful. Even the simplest things done in faith can have a huge impact. Small faithful acts add up very quickly into a mountain of good works.
In the end, being faithful is about recognizing all the God-given opportunities just to show up and do what needs to be done – to care for those in need, befriend the friendless, protect the vulnerable, reach out to the lonely – to contribute to the common good. This is all pretty ordinary stuff that we may do more often than we realize – and when it’s all added up it’s really quite extraordinary.
Faith springs up in us in response to the love of God through Jesus Christ . . . it’s about relationship. And in all this, faith is purely God-given – a gift, not a self-created virtue. We can’t achieve faith – we can’t earn it – faith is a gift. All we have to do is open up to it, and God does the rest.
In our desire to make the world a better place, the challenges of following Jesus can be overwhelming. But we need to remember that it’s not about us, it’s about God working through us. We can do a little, but God working through us can accomplish so, so much more . . . anything he desires . . .
“the disciples . . . were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ “ Matthew 19:25-26
I throw this challenge out to you: The next time you come up against a really difficult situation – a difficult challenge to your faith – try praying something like this . . .
Lord, increase my faith.
Help me trust in your ability to work in this situation.
I lift it up to you – I give it up to you –
And I pray for the peace that comes from knowing that your purposes will prevail in the end. Amen.