Any of you who happen to be “Facebook Friends” with me, may have noted that there have been a number of special occasions in my family lately. I think one of you may have even commented on it. Because between the latter part of August and the beginning of October, all three of our children’s birthdays as well as Jim and my wedding anniversary fall. As I was telling someone this week, what that meant during all those years that our kids were growing up, when we often had a “kids” birthday party plus a family gathering for each one each year, was that from the latter part of August to the middle of October there was cake – and lots of it – at our house.
Of course, my kids are all grown up now. The youngest just turned 26 the other day. Each year, come this time, it’s natural for me to take a trip down memory lane and with a good dose of nostalgia, remember those sweet times when these awesome creatures entered our lives. Sometimes I go so far as to remember the births themselves, and one of the things I remember, is that like most women there came a time during the labor and delivery process, that I just wanted to scream (and perhaps I even did), “I can’t do this!” I was convinced, in those moments, that I simply didn’t have enough strength, enough endurance, enough of what it took to get the job done.
Our gospel lesson for today starts out with the disciples demanding of Jesus, “Increase our faith!” I think of this as their own little “I can’t do this!” protest along the discipleship road. You may remember that in the text leading up to this point, Jesus has been teaching what the kingdom of God is like. In parables, some of which were quite challenging and, truth be told, perhaps even a little scary, Jesus has been teaching his disciples how the life of discipleship looks different from the life the world around them, because it subverts the values that the world holds on to with an iron fist. Jesus has been challenging the Pharisees and anyone else who perpetuates the poverty of the poor, ignores the plight of the needy, and disregards God’s command that love should guide our actions, interactions and relationships. Jesus has been teaching his followers that in the kingdom of God, barriers are broken down and the boundaries that separate us are eliminated.
Just before this particular text, Jesus says to his disciples that stumbling blocks within their lives are sure to arise, a statement he follows with, “woe to anyone by whom they come!” Teaching them how to live in community, he says that if another disciple sins that they should confront the offender, and if there is repentance, they must forgive that person and welcome them back into community, not just once, but over and over again. No matter how many times they sin against you, you must forgive them when they repent, he tells them.
And the reaction from the disciples when they hear Jesus’ instructions? They plead “Lord, increase our faith”” They might as well be saying, “We can’t do this!” They are overwhelmed and fearful. They don’t believe they have the strength, the endurance or the gifts to do these things expected by God. “We can’t do this! So, Jesus, just increase our faith.” Because surely, if they have more faith, if they have enough faith, then they will be okay doing this discipleship thing. More faith will make the job easier. If we could just have more faith, then we could be better disciples and could be better at following these teachings, right? But right now, they’re just not sure – it all just seems too hard.
But this begs the question, is faith something that is actually quantifiable? Is it something we can measure, accumulate, or store, something that builds up to a critical mass at which point it becomes effective? In this gospel, Jesus’ response reminds us, “You already have all the faith you need to live as disciples of Christ.” Even if your faith were as tiny as this seed your faith would be sufficient for you to do great things. It is faith that is fed through relational living, by following Jesus, and depending on and trusting, even in the middle of doubt, in God. Believe. Trust. Know, that the faith you have been given is all you need.
Our understanding of how we get this faith is one of the parts of our Lutheran heritage and theology that I love. For we believe that faith is given to us - by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a gift, tiny as a mustard seed but mighty enough to do wondrous things which we receive in our baptism. We didn’t do anything to earn it. God’s favor and blessing and our faith come to us through God’s grace, and aren’t based on “having enough” of anything, or doing enough good works or being “Christian enough” for God’s liking. Rather, we are saved by God’s grace given to us as a living manifestation of God’s love. It frees us to likewise engage the world in love. And each of us has all the faith we need to walk the discipleship road, we simply need to exercise the will to do it.
But we know that discipleship is not easy. The passages just before this one illustrate that fact. Neither does discipleship, living into our faith, “happen naturally.” Even as disciples, we remain broken human beings, living in a broken world. But God takes us in our entirety and teaches us the way to living in relationship built on grace. Discipleship requires intentionality, demands decisions on how we will live that are patterned on the Word of God as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus commands that our faith be lived out in love, and discipleship requires choosing to respond to God’s grace by living and responding to one another in godly, graceful ways. Like looking out for the poor and the outcast. Like holding one another up, working together for God’s mission, like forgiving one another when we are wronged, and welcoming the repentant and forgiven ones back into community. We have all the faith we need to do these things. The challenge for each of is to make the daily choice to tap into our faith, discovering as we do pathways in which our behavior reflects the faith that is ours, and using it to build faith in others. That’s not asking much, is it? And the people of God scream out, “But we can’t do it! Lord God, increase our faith!”
I read an old prayer that goes something like, “O God, I don’t’ pray for enough faith to move mountains. I can get enough dynamite and bulldozers to do that. What I need and ask for is enough faith to move me.” That’s the truth of the matter, isn’t it? Because for faith to become alive and evident in our lives requires some movement on our part.
I know that even when we acknowledge that grace is a gift from God, and faith comes from God, there are still going to be times when we are exhausted and worn out and we doubt that we really do have enough strength and endurance in our lives of faith to get us through or to keep us going. There are times when we are tested by our lives lived in community, whether in our homes or our places of employment or even here in church. It is in those moments when we are most tempted to shout, “I just can’t do this! Increase my faith!” And it is in those moments that we are most in need of God’s grace to work in our lives, revealing Godself to us in new and surprising ways. And when that happens, we are changed. There is a movement in our spirit. Our faith becomes alive in a way that we never knew before.
In his commentary of this text, Brian Stoffregen asks some questions about what might happen if we got what the disciples ask for here, and God honored our request for more faith: “Are we sure we really want more faith? More faith could lead us to stop doing some sinful things that we really like to do. More faith could lead us to be more forgiving towards those who have sinned against us – and we really don't want to forgive some of those mean, rotten people. In some cases, we would like to see them dead.
“More faith could lead us to be more like the slave in the story at the end of our text. That is, we become more dutiful slaves of God. Doing our duties willingly: Being more dutiful in attending worship services every week. Being more dutiful in contributing generously of time and money to the church and to the needy. Being more dutiful in participating in Sunday school and committees and other church activities. Being more dutiful and doing such duties willingly, without grumbling or complaining. Could more faith mean sacrificing one's own pleasures for the sake of the needy? Could more faith mean following more closely the footsteps of Jesus – which led him to the ridicule and suffering and death on the cross?
The good news of the gospel is that even when we fail at doing these things, which, because we are broken people living in a broken world we will do, our faith remains, a gift from God. And we are forgiven and restored. The good news of our Lord Jesus Christ lies in the fact that grace comes to us when we least deserve it, when we cling to the “I can’t do it,” when we try and fail and rise to try again. When we are weary, when we cry out “I can’t do it, Lord, increase my faith,” Jesus responds, “Yes you can, because my faith is sufficient for you.” And then he feeds us with his body, quenches our thirst with his blood, and sends us out, freed and forgiven, to love, to serve, and to live in the name of Christ Jesus. Amen.