Small Faith

Luke 17:5–10, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on October 02, 2022

I was away on study leave last week—reading, hiking, enjoying the quiet and getting plenty of rest. Meanwhile, my spouse Jen handled all the tasks of the household. I was hiking through the prairie, contemplating wildflowers, when she sent me a text. It was a photo of her list. She had constructed a grid with the days of the week across the top of the paper, the list of tasks running down the side—more than 20 items she needed to do each morning: feed the pets, walk the dog, wake the children, unload the dishwasher, make breakfasts, pack lunches, and so on. She had drawn lines to create boxes so that she could check off each task as she finished it. I don’t think she sent her list to make me feel bad, but to share her satisfaction in what she’d accomplished. In return, I sent her a quote, this gem from Abu Sa’id, an Islamic mystic who lived in the early middle ages: “A real saint is not one who flies in the air or walks on water, but simply one who continues to be fully present to God in every breath even in the midst of work and family.” (from the introduction to Radical Love, edited by Omid Safi)

Xan, you have a Socratic talent, a knack for asking questions that methodically peel back all the layers and examine all the angles. Why did the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith? Why were they concerned about whether they had enough faith? What made them think they didn’t have enough? What would “enough” be? What did they think he would do to increase their faith? How would they know if it were effective? What did they even mean by faith? Faith in what? Faith to do what? What did they expect or want from an increase in faith?

Well, the context of this passage does provide some answers for the questions you’re asking. The really big picture is that Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem, on their way to a deadly confrontation with the powers that be. And for chapters and chapters, Jesus has been teaching his followers that discipleship is demanding. It requires single-hearted commitment to God’s vision. It means giving up possessions, redefining kinship, and accepting the consequences of these unpopular choices. Discipleship re-imagines our whole world, and especially our political and economic systems. And at the beginning of chapter 17, in the five verses right before our reading, Jesus continues to lay the expectations on thick. Disciples must protect the well-being of God’s “little ones”—the poor, the weak, the sick. If they cannot do this, it would be better for them to be cast into the sea with a millstone around their necks. And disciples must both hold each other accountable and forgive each other endlessly (as many as seven times a day). Whew! Perhaps all that makes it more clear why the disciples felt they needed a booster shot of faith—faith that was more, faith that was bigger, stronger, and more effective. 

The question of what we even mean by faith is still very much alive all these thousands of years later! It’s the same question we are asking in our “sharing faith” small groups. There cannot, and there should not, be just one definition of faith. However, in this teaching, this strange mustard seed saying,  Jesus gives us some guidance. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” In other words, size is irrelevant when it comes to faith. The teeniest tiniest bit of faith is all we need. Really, faith isn’t something we can measure or quantify at all. There’s a sense of improbability to this saying. Mulberry trees do not uproot themselves. Nor can they live in the sea. Similarly, in the parable of the mustard seed Jesus tells elsewhere in Luke, the smallest of seeds grows into “the largest of all trees.” This statement is problematic, because mustard is not a tree at all; it is a vigorous bush.

I wonder if Jesus is saying that when, in faith, we do the small things we can do, God joins our efforts and they become much bigger than we could ever imagine. And I wonder if he is also saying that this divine-human partnership we call faith brings about highly unlikely, even seemingly impossible, results in the world. Like new ways of being family and community. Like an economy rooted not in profit, but in mutual care, in receiving and sharing gifts. Like a society that uses power with justice and love.

I find the second part of today’s text troubling yet illuminating. I am puzzled about why Jesus was so quick to use a metaphor grounded in the master-servant hierarchy, a dynamic of oppression he’s usually challenging. On the other hand, it’s an illustration, not necessarily an endorsement. The message might sound harsh, like: just do as you’re told without expecting to be thanked. Maybe, though, it’s more like, stop thinking that faith is some kind of super-power; that to be faithful, you have to do extraordinary things. Perhaps Jesus is actually saying: faith is an everyday thing, a thing expressed in the most ordinary ways, in things you’d never think to lift up as cause for gratitude or celebration. Faith is woven into the guts of our routines—emptying the dishwasher, packing the lunches, answering the emails, doing the homework. Faith motivates, sustains, and guides us as we move through the lists and checkboxes of our days.

Small faith is all we need. Small faith drags me out of bed while it’s still dark. Small faith encourages me to rest when I’m too tired to do anything more. Small faith shows me the beauty of the first frost as I meander across a scruffy field. Small faith nags me to let go of my preoccupations in order to be present to someone else. Small faith is silly enough to play tickle monster with a 9-year-old and has a sense of humor that is dry and devious enough to make a 13-year-old crack a smile. When our furnace got red-tagged (surprise!) small faith told me to pause and investigate heat pumps. Small faith nudges me toward compassion rather than overwhelm as, while chopping veggies for dinner, I take in news of devastating hurricanes and courageous women in Iran.

In this passage, it seems to me, Jesus is full of paradox as usual. Faith is small, daily, and ordinary. And faith can do big, extraordinary, and astonishing things. Faith is God’s gift of presence in each moment and our willing response to that divine nudge. Faith is a collaboration, humanity and God working together. One moment at a time, with each item on our “to-do” list, we have the opportunity to be disciples, to join Jesus in reimagining this world. Amen.