Lamentations1:1-6, 3:19-26; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10
I. O Lord, Increase Our Faith!
We encounter an entire book of the Bible devoted to complaining in Lamentations – complaining, weeping, grieving. On days that I’m feeling grumpy or discouraged, I like to think of this book and realize that there are others who have felt this way and still remained faithful. The context of this book gives us the Israelites in exile, separated from their homeland, from their glory and successes. They are forced out of their homes into a nomadic existence forever outside of that paradise they called home. They are homeless and hopeless.
It seemed a bit extravagant to include four texts, but the other text for today is Psalm 137 which closely follows the theme of Lamentations and is a psalm of lament where the exiles are being asked and forced to entertain their captors with the songs of their homeland … songs that remind them of what they long for and reinforce their current torment.
Today, it is easy to see how difficult our experiences make it for us to rely on our faith. I could bombard you with the news stories from this week – in particular the ones about young adults who were bullied via technology so much that they took their own lives. We could overwhelm ourselves with the discouraging reality of the world. So it is easy to understand why the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. How much do we wish we had a faith that could withstand untold struggles and heartaches and still be strong and vibrant? How much do we wish that our faith could keep us from being wounded from the violence and meanness in the world?
II. Does faith grow and increase?
Considering that Jesus has just been trying to prepare them for the future, it is perhaps even easier for us to understand their concern and their desire to be fully prepared. The disciples, for once in the gospels, truly grasp the magnitude of the situation and the challenges that will meet them down the road. Jesus says no. That’s not necessary. More faith is not what you need. I have given you all the faith that you need.
This runs along the line of our belief that we are justified by grace through faith … it is not through any of our actions that we are brought back to God. It is through God’s actions and gifts. It is also similar to the reformed understanding of election and predestination. God has foreseen the challenges we will see and has built within us the capacity for all the faith we will need. Faith is a gift from God – not something that you can order more of and store away in the back room. You can’t stockpile extra faith for a rainy day, faith is more or less a “use it or lose it” kind of principle.
It’s confusing I think when the disciples ask for their faith to be increased and to have Jesus tell them to have faith the size of a mustard seed. To my way of thinking, a plant has very simple goals, really. Its purpose is to grow bigger, stronger, healthier and to propagate itself. What do plans do? They grow … they multiply.
Here’s the thing I think we should take home with us concerning a mustard size kind of faith: faith is a living, breathing entity. It is something that is alive and just like a cherished pet, it needs attention, food, water, care, nurture, exercise. You cannot set your faith on the back shelf of your mind and just expect it to be ready for you when you need its help. If you do not exercise your faith muscle on a regular basis, it atrophies and shrinks.
III. We are made with all the inborn faith that we need.
The second and probably more challenging aspect of Jesus’ talk is when he talks about what the master expects of the slave or servant. Then he puts the listener into the slave’s shoes and really tells us that if we respond to our Master and the faith within us, we don’t necessarily deserve a prize because we are just doing what we are supposed to do.
The language of master and slave makes us cringe. We like a God who gives us free will, and welcomes the Prodigal Son home with fanfare, but a God who is simply satisfied when we do our part, in truth, our job? Maybe not. That rubs against the individualist spirit within us. And we do have a God who grants free will and celebrates every time we return … but we also have a God of Expectations, a God who like a parent can give tough love and say “Because I said so!”
Was Jesus ridiculing the disciples’ question or reassuring them? Do we have too much faith in ourselves and too little faith in God? Are we willing to put aside our own personal agenda and pursue God’s vision and dream for the world, “because he said so?” Was Jesus trying to knock us down a peg or two and point out our tendency to arrogance and self-sufficiency? Probably, yes. I think Jesus challenges us in a very real way and says, get real.
But I also think that Jesus is trying to reassure us. We do not need to worry, because God has foreseen what faith we will need … and he has planted within us the faith that will see us through. Even if our little bitty faith waxes and wanes and we dwell in uncertainty, God believes in us! If we can find our way of trusting that tiny seed of faith within ourselves, great things for God can be achieved. Jesus says we could tell the mulberry tree to uproot itself and be planted in the sea. And that, I think, is where our courage flags. Faith can achieve miracles, “rearranging the landscape” and changing the world. We could change the world – now that is a scary thought. Because while we readily admit, the world is dangerous and scary and sometimes completely awful, but it’s the world we know. What if we start believing in a better world and fall short? What if we fail? What if ….
I went to a coaching clinic this past week that helps you to council and coach individuals through the kinds of question you ask, and the question that always throws me when I ask it or answer it was, “If you knew that you could not fail, what would you do?”
We’re not sure if we can change the world, because we’re not sure if we have that kind of energy, that kind of drive, that kind of faith. We all walk through this world looking like we know what we’re doing, like we have a plan and we have it all together. Really, most of us are riddled with self-doubt and the nagging suspicion that someone else could be doing a better job than we are doing.
So the most important question arising from Jesus’ passage is this: Do we have the courage to claim that kind of mustard seed faith? “There really is a God. We each need to decide if we’re going to let God work through us and do miracles that accomplish amazing, unexpected things among us.” Nobody can make that decision for you, and I assure you that there is a tiny mustard seed of faith in you that will help you once you make your decision.
IV. Journey Home through the night
A few years ago, when my college friends and I were looking at the horizons of our future and were scared by the immensity of all the possibilities, we didn’t quite know where to go from college. We weren’t sure how to know if we were making the right decisions. One of my girlfriends shared an image then that has helped me tremendously when I feel like I’m stuck in the dark.
Making faithful decisions throughout your life is like going on a long journey home in the pitch black night with a tiny flashlight. You cannot see the entire road ahead of you, and you cannot know if there are other paths that would get you there faster, but you do have the light from that one tiny flashlight and it will give you just enough light to see the steps right in front of you. You can make a very long trip successfully with just that tiny bit of light.
That light is your tiny mustard seed of faith. And yes, it can achieve miraculous things. This is what Jesus calls us to and what Jesus expects of us: “A tiny faith that aspires to great things, but that knows how to kneel and serve.”
 Martha Grace Reese, Unbinding the Gospel, pg 36.
 John Buchanan, Feasting on the Word: Luke 17:5-10.