Here’s the scene: Jesus has just told the story of the rich man and Lazarus. You remember that story, we talked about it last week. A selfish, self-centered rich man enjoyed a life of wealth and ease, while the poor beggar Lazarus laid outside his gate with nothing to eat, and only the dogs to lick his unclean, diseased body. Lazarus dies and the angels carry him to heaven, to the side of Father Abraham. The rich man dies and goes to the land of the dead — Hades — where he is in agonizing torment.
The rich man lifts up his eyes in Hades, sees Father Abraham and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his tongue with just a drop of water on his fingertips. Abraham says, “That’s not possible” because no one can cross the barrier between them. Dives (which means ‘rich man’) then asks that Abraham send Lazarus back to his 5 brothers, so that they will not end up where he is. Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them.” Dives protests, “No, but if someone returns from the dead, they’ll listen.” To which Abraham replies, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even if someone rises from the dead.”
Increase Our Faith
So, that’s the story the disciples and others have just heard. Then, Jesus expands on that by warning them not to cause others to sin, and especially not to lead “little ones” — presumably children — into a life of resisting God. Then, Jesus adds the idea of forgiveness of those who sin against us. So, not only should we not cause others to sin, when they do sin against us we are to forgive them.
This is more than the disciples can bear, and as we pick up the reading from Luke for today, the disciples cry out, “Increase our faith!” In other words — HELP! These are tough, counter-intuitive demands Jesus is making and they’re not up to the job. So, they cry out for more capacity to do these things — more faith.
Now, at this point, you would think that Jesus would realize that he has a teachable moment here, as educators call it. He has garnered the disciples’ attention, they recognize their need, and all that remains is for Jesus to reassure them that everything is going to be okay.
Instead, he tells them — “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” Matthew’s gospel (17:20) says it even more dramatically — “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
In other words, you don’t need more faith. All you need is a little faith.
When I was a kid, and heard this passage read, I usually imagined a really good magic show. You know the kind — where the magician makes things disappear or levitate. I imagined waving my hands in a grand gesture, saying the magic words, and presto-changeo, the mountain would disappear — or levitate and float over to the ocean (I wasn’t sure how far this magic spell would work) and drop itself in.
This, I am happy to tell you, is not what Jesus had in mind. Jesus was using a figure of speech. He was comparing the smallest seed — the mustard seed — to the largest plant — a mulberry tree. Translation: the smallest amount of faith can move the largest obstacle. Same thing with the mountain, only more hyperbole — the smallest seed can move the largest mountain. But the point is still the same — you don’t need more faith. You just need a little faith.
Faith Is Confidence in God
And what is faith? Faith isn’t just a “stiff upper lip” that helps us muddle through the difficulties of life. Faith is confidence in the God who created the universe, confidence in the story of God in which we find ourselves. Brian McLaren stated it this way in an affirmation he called, The Jesus Creed —
We have confidence in Jesus
Who healed the sick, the blind, and the paralyzed.
And even raised the dead.
He cast out evil powers and
Confronted corrupt leaders.
He cleansed the temple.
He favored the poor.
He turned water into wine,
Walked on water, calmed storms.
He died for the sins of the world,
Rose from the dead, and ascended to the Father,
Sent the Holy Spirit.
We have confidence in Jesus
Who taught in word and example,
Sign and wonder.
He preached parables of the kingdom of God
On hillsides, from boats, in the temple, in homes,
At banquets and parties, along the road, on beaches, in towns,
By day and by night.
He taught the way of love for God and neighbor,
For stranger and enemy, for outcast and alien.
We have confidence in Jesus,
Who called disciples, led them,
Gave them new names and new purpose
And sent them out to preach good news.
He washed their feet as a servant.
He walked with them, ate with them,
Called them friends,
Rebuked them, encouraged them,
Promised to leave and then return,
And promised to be with them always.
He taught them to pray.
He rose early to pray, stole away to desolate places,
Fasted and faced agonizing temptations,
Wept in a garden,
And prayed, “Not my will but your will be done.”
He rejoiced, he sang, he feasted, he wept.
We have confidence in Jesus,
So we follow him, learn his ways,
Seek to obey his teaching and live by his example.
We walk with him, walk in him, abide in him,
As a branch in a vine.
We have not seen him, but we love him.
His words are to us words of life eternal,
And to know him is to know the true and living God.
We do not see him now, but we have confidence in Jesus.
So, it’s not about trying harder to be “good Christians.” It’s not about putting on some phony mantle of pseudo-spirituality. It’s not about adopting an aura of other-worldliness. It’s Jesus we need. Assured that we are not in this alone, that all it takes is a little confidence in Jesus on our part, God fills in the blanks. Like the little boy who gave Jesus his lunch. Not much, only a few small pieces of flat bread and tiny fish, just a boy’s lunch. Too small to feed more than one boy, much less a crowd of 5,000. But in the hands of Jesus a little becomes a lot. A little faith moves mountains. A little faith uproots trees. A little faith — the faith that you have — is all you need. A little faith in a big God. It’s not about us, it’s about God.
But Wait, There’s More!
Now if that were the end of the reading today, we could all go home with enough to think about for a long time. but, Jesus adds something else. Jesus tells a story like this —
“Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’
To quote the famous chef, Emirel Lagasse’ — “Bam!”
Jesus smacks them right between the eyes. We may not need more faith, but Jesus says, we need more faithfulness. We don’t get gold stars for doing what we’re supposed to do, because, we’re supposed to do it!
In his book, The Way of Jesus, Eugene Peterson talks about Abraham and his example of faith. Here’s what Peterson says —
“…the Abraham story narrates a way of living in which God is personal and immediate, in which God is embraced and followed, in which God speaks and is obeyed, in which we recover and practice a language that we knew quite well in infancy and early childhood but, in [John Henry] Newman’s haunting phrase, “lost awhile” — a language learned in the company of grandparents and playmates, birds and unicorns, the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley, among prophets and poets, singers and weavers. It is a language of story and metaphor, immediacy and relationship, vision and dream, wisdom and the kerygma that is Holy Scripture, all said and sung in holy worship as we are washed in holy baptism and eat and drink the holy Eucharist: the Word made flesh, the words that Jesus lived and spoke, the words and sighs that the Spirit prays in us. This is a way of living in which we gradually, over a lifetime, learn to live with God personally and believingly…” The Way of Jesus, pgs 47-48.
And that is it exactly. Not just faith that is intellectual belief in a set of propositions, but faith that is faithful. Faith that “learns to live with God personally and believingly.” Faith that listens, hears, believes, obeys — faith that is worship on all the days of the week, not just one. And, this faith which is faithful results in mountains that get moved.
Brian McLaren in his new book, Everything Must Change, quotes the same passage we have read this morning, and says —
Jesus in not interested in the geographical rearrangement of mountains. It is the societal map of greed,lust, arrogance, fear, racism, domination, oppression, revenge, and injustice that he wants to redraw. He wants his disciples to move mountains of injustice and make new rivers of creativity and compassion flow.
But faith brings God’s creative power into our global crises, so the impossible first becomes possible and then inevitable for those who believe.
Mountains can be moved and everything can change, beginning with our stories, beginning with faith, beginning now, beginning with us.
— Everything Must Change, pg 300.
Kathryn Prill, a member of Solomon’s Porch — a missional Christian community in Minneapolis — tells the story of a trip to Guatemala where Solomon’s Porch has an on-going ministry with the people of Quetzaltenango. While there, Kathryn said she had become quite adept at rebuffing the legions of shoeshine boys — little kids with meager shoeshine kits who roamed the streets in hopes of earning a little money.
Feeling badly about this one day, she was approached by a 9-year old boy named Pedro, who asked if he could shine her shoes. Kathryn was wearing running shoes, and explained to Pedro that her shoes couldn’t be shined, but would he like something from McDonald’s? “Caja feliz?” he asked — which is the Spanish equivalent of “Happy Meal?”
Kathryn said she and Pedro walked to McDonald’s. As they approached, Pedro told Kathryn he would wait on a park bench, because in Guatemala they have armed guards who keep the beggar kids out of the McDonald’s. Kathryn entered the McDonald’s, ordered the Happy Meal, and stuck the plastic Snoopy toy that came with it in her bag because there wasn’t room for it in the box.
Kathryn said she felt like the newly crowned “Social Service Queen of Latin America” as she sat with Pedro and unpacked his Happy Meal lunch. As the hamburger and fries came out of the bag, Pedro’s expression remained unmoved. Kathryn handed him the soft drink. Again, no response. Then, she remembered the plastic Snoopy she had stuck in her bag. She reached down, pulled it out, and then, she said, Pedro smiled.
Kathryn said, “For all my posturing and pride in buying Pedro his meal, it was neither me nor the food I provided that brought him joy. No. I was trumped by a plastic Snoopy.” — Reimagining Spiritual Formation, pg 143-144.
Faithfulness means that in the end, we have only done our duty. We don’t need more faith, we need more faithfulness.