“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” Luke 17:5
Maybe you’ve found yourself awake in the deepest, darkest part of the night because you are so worried about someone you love. They’re facing a health crisis, perhaps, or struggling with an addiction, and you have no idea how to make things better. You wish you had more faith so you could feel sure everything will be OK.
Maybe you’ve found yourself caught in the middle of a really contentious disagreement with a family member or a friend. The whole thing drains you of energy and you can’t figure out how to repair the relationship. You wish you had more faith so you could fix things with this person.
Maybe you’ve found yourself feeling anxious because of the news. Violence everywhere. You’re worried about where the next mass shooting might break out. Or you wish politics weren’t such an ugly business these days. You wish you had more faith so you would feel less scared and less angry.
All of us at one time or another can relate to the words of the prophet Habbakuk that we heard in our First Reading: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” It’s the desperate plea of someone who has seen terrible things and longs for God to make it all stop.
So we understand why some of Jesus’ followers come to him with their own desperate plea: “Increase our faith!” We want a faith that is strong enough to stand up to all that life throws at us, and sometimes it feels like whatever we have just isn’t enough.
But here’s the challenge. Faith is not really quantifiable. How would we even measure it? I don’t have some sort of scale for you to stand on that will tell me how much faith you have so I can write it in your spiritual chart and compare this year’s number to next year’s when you come for your annual check-up. I’m not going to give you a faith report card, where we divide faith out into different categories and assess how you measure up. That’s not how it works.
Jesus responds to this request in a few ways that may not seem helpful. First he tells his followers that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could toss trees into the ocean. It’s a confusing image, but remember that mustard seeds are among the tiniest of seeds, and yet the bush that grows from them is big and bushy and grows in all directions. It looks more like a tree. His point might simply be to remind us that what feels like a little bit of faith, what feels like “not enough,” can actually do more than we realize.
Jesus then uses another comparison that is more difficult to hear with our modern sensibilities. He compares having faith to being a slave. We of course don’t understand Jesus to be endorsing slavery here; but keep in mind how widespread slavery was in the ancient world. Many of the people listening in on this conversation might have been slaves. Jesus is telling us not to turn the commitment to living our faith into a calculus problem. You know what faith involves, he says. You know the role. Just do it. Set the table. Get to work.
In verse 10, the last verse of today’s gospel passage, Jesus imagines these servant followers saying, “’We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Let me offer another translation that I think works better. “Worthless slaves” can also be translated as “unworthy slaves.”[i] That helps me change my thinking about living my faith. Being “unworthy” seems more truthful than being worthless. I know that I don’t really deserve what Jesus has done for me. If there were a way to quantify what Jesus has done (which there isn’t), I could never pay it back. So why not just live in gratitude for his sacrificial love, for his gift of life that does not demand that I am worthy in order to receive it? Why not just do the things that he invites me to do – be present with God, care for my neighbor, pray, worship, serve, forgive, love?
I think the disciples got something right with their request. They say: “Increase OUR faith…” I like the use of the plural pronoun “our.” Increase our faith. Faith is something that we practice in community. So, when we come together in worship, one person might be struggling to hold on to hope, but the rest of us can sing on that person’s behalf. Another person might find it hard right now to summon the words to pray, but the rest of can pray with and for that person. Our shared faith is stronger than any one individual’s could ever be.
I’m also reminded of that shared faith by part of our second reading. The author of this letter writes to Timothy: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” This speaks of a faith that is shared, passed down from one generation to another. It makes me think of the people in my life who shared their faith with me and helped me live my own faith. These words invite us to renew our commitment to sharing the faith with the youngest generations in our community. Just as they share their faith with us.
You have a bulletin insert that I really want you to take home and try using. Over the next several weeks the Weekly Word and the bulletin will include ideas for living our faith. In this first month we’ll focus on prayer. So by the end of October you’ll have four ways of praying to try as a household. Today’s, for example, outlines a simple way to share highs and lows as a family and then to incorporate those highs and lows into a prayer. If you live alone like I do, you can reflect on the ups and downs of the week and offer those to God in an individual prayer.
I know that life is busy. I know these things can sometimes feel a little strange. But I also believe it will make a difference in our lives to take time to talk to each other and talk to God.
So try these things out. See how they go. I hope you’ll discover which practices seem to connect for you or for your family. I hope you’ll let me know how they’re going, and I hope you’ll ask questions along the way.
That letter to Timothy goes on to say: “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
We already have what we need. God has given us what we need – a spirit of power and love. It lives in us. It is more than enough.
Now what will we do with it? Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ