A woman approaches her pastor before the Sunday service. “My husband is crazy,” she says. “He is threatening to kill me if I go to your church this week.” “You must believe,” the minister tells her. “God would never let harm come to a faithful person like you.” Somewhat relieved, she decides to stay. The next week she speaks again with the pastor: “My husband says he will burn all my possessions and kill me if I attend your church this week.” Again he says to her, “You must have faith. God will never let that happen to you.” With this, she takes part in worship. The next Sunday she runs up to the pastor and says, “Now my husband says if I attend today’s service he is going to kill me and burn all my possessions, then he is going burn down your church and kill you.” The pastor, somewhat unnerved by this new development, reflects thoughtfully and then responds, “My dear child, have you ever considered going to the church down the street?”
We seek many things through our participation in the life of a church: an experience of the Holy One, connection to other people, guidance in matters of behavior, healing of the body, mind, and heart. The list could go on and on. Each of our lists undoubtedly has on it something to do with faith. We want our faith to grow throughout our lives, to be strengthened when times are tough, and to give us some measure of insight so we can understand things that are difficult to accept.
Jesus’ apostles approach him in today’s reading with a request: “Lord, increase our faith.” I suspect each of us has uttered this petition as a prayer more than once in our lives. Jesus famously responds, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can say to be mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it will happen.” On a positive note, his teaching highlights the power of faith. On a negative note, like the pastor whose easy counsel for another holds little sway in his own heart, it highlights how paltry most of us sense our faith really is.
If you Google search the question “How can I increase me faith?” (as I did this week), one of the first suggested sights to appear offers three surefire steps:
Read the Word.
Heed the Word.
Test the Word.
And while this formula excels in memorability, it’s ease falls far short of our own experience. We think to ourselves, “Anyone who has faced even the most basic challenges of life knows having, building, and sustaining faith is nowhere near as simple as this.”
When the apostles express a desire for increased faith, what exactly are they seeking? Are they asking to grow in knowledge? – “I wish I knew more about the bible and what it says.” Are they asking for more insight? – “I want to know why bad things happen to good people.” Are they asking for a sense of certainty? – “I wish I had all the answers, like my fundamentalist friend.” Are they asking for the strength to do the right thing? – “Lord, help me to be faithful.” Or, are they hoping to find a deeper, more abiding trust and peace? – “I want to live with confidence is the face of life’s challenges.” Faith has all of these facets and more.
If we look closer at today’s reading, it is unclear which (if any) of these the apostles are thinking about when they ask Jesus to increase their faith. In the verses just before Jesus instructs his followers to rebuke a brother who sins and then says you must forgive a person who repents, even up to seven times. Well, speaking for myself, if faith is all it takes to do this, I’m going to need a lot more of it than I have! Still, it is not apparent if the request for increased faith comes in response to this teaching or if it is independent of it.
What is clear is the unclear way Jesus responds with the hyperbole of a tiny seed and expansive tree followed by the odd example of the exhausted servant who must keep on serving. Based on his response, Jesus interprets the apostle’s request as a desire to have more confidence in their own abilities. They want to believe they have what it takes to live something of the life they see in their master. If you boil down his response, Jesus says of faith a little bit goes a long way and, like the old Nike campaign used to say, “Just do it!” – don’t over-think this, lace up your shoes and put them to use doing what you love.
The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is fear and paralysis – an inability to move forward in the face of the opportunities and challenges facing you. Jesus says “You have enough in you to do it. Put one foot in front of the other and have faith. I believe in you and I am with you.” Faith, it seems to me, is not as much about confidence as it is about courage. It is about trying to do what you know you must even when you do not know if you are able. “It is not faith you are lacking,” Jesus says, “it is courage.” You have all the faith you need. What is holding you back from acting on it?
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world… We are all meant to shine… We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone
Accepting this to be true requires faith, but not much according to Jesus. Acting on it… well, that is a different matter entirely. Acting on it takes courage.
I have posed this question to you before, but it has been a while: If you were given the assurance you could not fail, what is one thing you would dare to do? I want to hone in on this by magnifying the focus. I suspect some of us here – perhaps most of us – have something weighing on our minds today. What would you choose to do this afternoon if you could be assured you would not fail? I am not talking about something as frivolous as buying a lottery ticket or curing cancer, unless you have a Ph.D. in Biology. I am thinking about something that been an unaddressed concern, perhaps for a long time.
Possibly it is something you have let slide because you don’t believe you have it within you take it on. Maybe it is too complex for you to figure out on your own. Who can you confide in for insight and guidance? It is possible opening the door will lead to a host of other problems. Still, pursing health and wholeness is far better than trying to manage sickness or holding together brokenness. Or maybe you have an opportunity to do something that seems beyond you. It requires you to take a risk, or to stretch yourself, or to make some sacrifices, but the reward could be wonderful.
Is it faith you lack… or courage? God has created you and you are special, gifted, and capable of so incredibly much. Go ahead and ask Jesus for more faith and he will say, “You have all the faith you need. Believe in yourself and just do it!”