A Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who gives us faith the size of a mustard seed. Amen.
“Lord, increase our faith.” How often have we asked for more faith? Those times when we aren’t quite sure that we’ll be able to make it: at the end of the month, when we don’t know how the account balance will cover all of the bills, when the doctor says she’ll call in a few days with the test results, or when a loved one is deployed to a combat zone. For years now, that’s how some of us have felt about the this parish: “Lord, increase our faith…give us something, anything to get us through, to keep our doors open.” As we shuffle through this mortal life, there is no shortage of trials and tribulations when we find our faith not only tested but almost withdrawing, as though it is insufficient for the challenge at hand.
In situations like these, Christ’s words can come off as almost insulting. He has just commanded the disciples to forgive each other:
If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.
Realizing that it’s a difficult task, the disciples ask for more faith. Our Lord responds:
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.
Is Jesus here insinuating that we are faithless?
In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the challenge is even more extreme. After the Transfiguration, a man comes to Jesus and says:
Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic…; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.
Our Lord responds:
You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I put up with you?
Jesus heals the child, and the disciples ask the next logical question:
Why could we not cast [the sickness] out?
Jesus word’s must have stung:
Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.
There’s a portion of the Church that takes this promise in a literal direction. In the so-called “prosperity gospel,” pastors exhort their congregations to name these gifts and claim your reward. According to such preachers, your illness, your depression, your poverty, your grief is your fault. Clearly, if you had enough faith, it wouldn’t have happened to you. You, like Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar, would have a mansion and a private jet and be in perfect health dressed in the finest garments. Just learn to pray the right way and God will set you up like that wealthy man we read about last week. If the going gets tough, it is because you lack faith.
But if it’s entirely up to us, if our redemption in this life or the next depends only upon what we can offer, this is very bad news. If our ability to faithfully follow Christ is dependent upon the faith we possess, we’re done for. Suffice it to say, most of us are unable to command a mountain, a mole hill, a mulberry tree, or even a mustard seed to hurl itself into the sea or even just move just a little ways over yonder.
But faith doesn’t come from us. Faith is a gift from God, and the Lord gives us more than enough. Expounding upon the Apostle’s Creed in the Small Catechism, Luther put it this way:
I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with [her] gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith, just as [she] calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole…church on earth….
Faith isn’t an idea which comes from the mind, nor is it a feeling which springs forth from the heart. Faith is a virtue which, like its sisters hope and love, is given to us by the Holy Spirit.
On Friday, the eve of his installation, our new bishop recalled the hymn he quoted at his election:
‘We have come this far by faith…,’ and sometimes faith was all we had.
Bishop Strickland reminded those of us gathered that in an age of church decline and closure, in the midst of uncertainty and division, God has called us – yes, even this ragtag bunch of folks in middle Georgia – to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. We have been gathered, and here we are fed by God’s grace, here our faith is nourished by the very Body and Blood of Christ, that we might be sent out as that Body for the sake of the world.
There was a song we used to sing in the “contemporary” worship settings of youth group and campus ministry:
All of you is more than enough for all of me.
What poor theology! What utter dreck! The same could be said of a cheesecake! It’s not that that God is bigger than us! No, the entirety of God is beyond are comprehension, and the smallest sliver of our Triune God not simply “more than enough.” It’s overwhelming! A gift the size of a mustard seed, even when it’s all we have, is sufficient to overcome all the trials and tribulations of this life.
Today’s reading from Luke comes near the climax. Christ can see Jerusalem on the horizon, and the disciples don’t yet know what peril they are in. The end is nigh. There will be a long night in a dark garden and an awful Friday as they turn away from the cross. And they will be left with only that mustard seed of faith – but it will suffice. And after the glory of the Resurrection and the Ascension, the Church will be sent out in mission to a hostile world accompanied by the Holy Spirit and her gift of that abundant seed of faith.
Faith the size of a mustard seed isn’t a promise of health, wealth, and prosperity. It’s a promise that despite coming hardship and the pain of this life, despite the crosses that will be inflicted upon us, we are upheld by one who can move mountains with little more than a spoken command, who usher Lazarus into places of greater comfort, and that the cross will give way to the empty tomb. It’s a promise that we, unworthy as we are and though we might endure the trials of this age waged by the powers and principalities, will be ushered into the Kingdom of God.
You servants of the Lord, you who doubt and you who undoubtedly hurt, you who have known pain or want, you who are afraid, place your trust in God’s abundance rather than our scarcity. When you find your faith wavering, look to the source of our consolation. Our ministry has never been easy, but God has given us the faith to make it this far, and the Lord will grant us all we need.