The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22), Year C.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “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.
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”Luke 17:5-10
To all the children and former children in the congregation I ask you, what is the most dangerous sentence you could say to your parents when you were on summer break? For my family, the most dangerous sentence was “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do”. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that my dad would always give me the same answer. “You’re bored!? I’ll give you something to do! We got grass to mow, weeds to pull, cars to wash, carpets to vacuum…” If was lucky I would get to choose from one of those activities that I would inevitably spend the rest of the day doing. I can’t help but feel that Jesus shared the same whimsical frustration as my dad when the disciples come up and proclaimed, “Increase our faith!”. “Increase your faith?! If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could tell the mulberry tree ‘be uprooted’ and it would go live in the sea”. “Increase your faith?! I’ll give you something to have faith about…”
Jesus is using hyperbole not to say that the disciples have no faith at all, but how potent faith is. Matthew’s version of this story is far more familiar to us, “If you have faith the grain of a mustard seed, you could move mountains”. Just a speck of faith can change the whole world; and conversely, a lack of faith can destroy everything.
Take the stock market, investing is built on faith, and destroyed by lack of it. While there are a host of statistics, historic trends, and data that give the market an illusion of scientific predictability, at its core, the whole enterprise is built on faith. Though we don’t often think of it in such terms, all of it is theoretical value. The prices, ownership, gains and losses are based in the faith that theoretical money and theoretical ownership in a company have real value. Though like essentially all modern forms of currency, it’s just names and numbers on a ledger. Or I suppose data on a spreadsheet. But because we have faith in it, it is immensely powerful. Some are taken to new heights when the market goes up, but when we lose that faith and the market panics, even though it’s just names and numbers on a ledger, people lose their homes, their retirement, and their savings.
A few years ago, I worked as a chaplain in a drug and alcohol recovery center for men. One of the residents, we’ll call him “Brad”, came to us an entirely broken man. Often people come into recovery programs with an inflated ego, a sort of “I’ll pull myself up by my bootstraps, without any help” mentality. It’s a coping mechanism and is extremely common when someone is beginning to succeed in their recovery. Brad was different, he had no faith in himself, and to a degree was almost afraid of himself. The other thing that made Brad unique is he is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He would enjoy a good debate with me, and despite my protests and arguments, I never could get the better of him in rhetoric. I remember a conversation I had with him he said to me, “I have no reason to trust myself, every time in my life when given a choice I’ve made the wrong one”. He was entirely correct, if reason comes from examining past actions to infer likely future outcomes, he had no reason at all to trust that he would ever improve. Despite this, he stuck with the program, a few months passed, and he seemed to be doing better; he was holding a job, reconnecting with family members, and seemed happier.
Then he disappeared.
Out of nowhere he vanished, something must have happened, and he relapsed. A few weeks went by, then one rainy morning Brad appeared on the doorstep like a ghost. Pale, disheveled, asking for our help because he was afraid, he was going to hurt himself. We invited him in, talked with him for a bit, and decided it would be best to take him to the hospital. When they accepted him into the psychiatric ward, we thanked him for coming back, and reminded him he always had friends at the program. Accompanied by an orderly, he walked down the corridor into the ward, where we were not allowed to follow. Watching him walk away as the automatic doors began to close, I feared this would be the last time I saw him. But there was nothing left to do but keep the faith. Again, he was gone.
A few months went by before Brad appeared again. Out of thin air he was back at our doorstep, only this time he was calm, at peace with himself. He was doing better; he was in a new program and had just started looking for a new job. He had returned to let us know that he was doing better. After we had chatted, wished him well on the next step of his Recovery journey. As he was leaving, he said, “Thank you all for believing in me, this was the first place that anyone believed in me”.
I am forever grateful to Brad as well, because the sad reality of working in Recovery programs, or really many programs with the poor, is that we rarely get to see the outcome. Faith is so easily lost because we want to see outcomes. We crave assessments, reports, predictions based on the past, and performance reviews because we live in fear that our faith will be misplaced. The recovery program I worked for boasted a 22% success rate, meaning no relapses after 18 months. That was double the state average. Now any investor could tell you that is a terrible success rate, that by any reasonable account time, resources, and efforts should go to some other aid program that has demonstrated better outcomes. To combat this, as an organization we spent just as much, if not more, of our time, energy, and staff on justifying our existence to various funding sources by documenting outcomes, expenditures, and procedure as we did work with the residents. I often wonder how much more good could have been done if we were able to devote all our time to promoting Recovery.
This is not to say that faith is somehow above any reasonable scrutiny, just as reason is not above having faith. Where we fail over and over again is having no faith at all. After all, Jesus is only telling us to increase our faith the size of a mustard grain.
The trouble we have with increasing our faith is that we assume we must do it out of thin air; that we must put aside our reasonable apprehensions and concerns, and just magically move mountains. This of course is unreasonable, and thankfully the Bible never expects us to increase our faith from nothing. In today’s alternative Old Testament reading, the prophet Habakkuk recounts his frustration with the state of the world and complains to God. To which God tells him that the righteous live by faith. This of course is a pious answer that we might expect, and be deeply frustrated by, as it doesn’t actually help. But before that God says “There is a vision for the appointed time…” It is that vision which increases our faith. Faith comes not from ignoring reason, nor does it come from predictions based on past events, faith is the vision of the good that can be. We increase our faith not through mental gymnastics but through the investment in potential good. We increase our faith by interpreting suffering, struggle, and boredom not as our defeat, but as our opportunity for good.
What changed in Brad was not his past, what changed in him was his faith in himself and in others. He began to interpret his struggle and failures not as confirmation of his weakness, but recognized the potential within him. By all accounts he was a bad investment, yet it was only when he invested in himself that he was able to be pulled out of the pit.
We are charged not with a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of love and self-discipline. We have been given the spirit of courage through the saving grace of Christ to share the vision of the world that God has. Be courageous, dare to dream how the world should be not simply how it is. It is our duty to invest in the highest goals, even if the rest of the world is afraid to. If we have just a mustard seed, we can move mountains.