Increase our faith!

 “Increase our faith!”  Who among us can’t relate to the disciples’ cry at the beginning of the Gospel reading today?  Up to this point, Jesus has talked about the necessity of taking up one’s cross; he’s told the crowds to care for the little ones among them and forgive those who sin against them.  Jesus has told the Parable of the Good Samaritan along with the story of Lazarus and the rich man, a really tricky parable that seems to be about heaven and hell.  The disciples have listened as long and as they quietly can, squirming if not chafing under how challenging it all seems.  It’s finally more than they can muster, and they now cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”

It’s the disciples’ way of saying, “We just can’t do it.  We can’t succeed at all these things.  It’s too hard.  Either you’re going to have to give us a dose of Gospel steroids, or you’re going to have to get someone else.”

I know how they feel.  I suspect you do, too.  The needs of our community, not to mention the world, are so big.  Relationships with people who are different are harder and harder to maintain.  Bridges more difficult to build.  Balance is a bigger challenge to achieve.  Our collective store of grace is sapped. 

And now to top it all off, you have this new rector who will encourage you to make a renewed commitment to the life of the church, to make new efforts to attend both Sunday school and Holy Eucharist, plus involvement in the weekly community life of this place, plus reengaging the programs and ministries of our parish.

Under the weight of all this, we may also cry to God, like the disciples, “Hold on!  First increase our faith!”  And this makes Jesus’ response to the disciples in the Gospel this morning seem, well, not very pastoral.  I actually like Matthew’s version over Luke’s, in which Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains.”[i]

Jesus then tells the disciples an odd parable about good servants who plow the ground, tend the sheep in the field, and serve at their master’s table all without complaint.  It is almost as if Jesus is telling the disciples to quit their whining and get to work.

Now, we know that Jesus loves the disciples, and we know it’s not Jesus’ style to respond to a cry for help with a lack of empathy, so what might he mean by his response to the disciples today?  To understand, we could use a bit of help from Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer’s 1939 Technicolor triumph.

When I was a child, The Wizard of Oz aired annually on CBS television.  It was, some will recall, an event!  My siblings and I would watch the movie with pie tins of Orville Redenbacher popcorn, sitting in front of my grandparents’ enormous cabinet television (but always six feet back because of, you know, the radiation). 

The primary conundrum for the characters in The Wizard of Oz, as for the disciples, is that they all have in mind that that they need things they do not yet have in order to accomplish the tasks set before them.  The Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion are anxious and afraid, and they believe that before they can begin truly living they need greater virtue.  “Increase my mind, my heart, my courage!” they cry in turn to the Wizard.  But instead, the Wizard sends them out to accomplish great and challenging things as they are.

Along the way, though, circumstances require the friends to think clearly, to show empathy, to be brave.  In other words, in the very acts of living and making the journey together, they discover to their surprise that all along they have already had in abundance the things they seek.  They are already ingenious, courageous, and big-hearted.  And they accomplish amazing things, freeing the land from the power of evil.

This, I believe, is what Jesus, in his wisdom, is telling the disciples today: that faith is not something we receive before we live for God and do God’s work.  God doesn’t give us faith to then go do God’s work.  Rather, it is through God’s work that we come to discover the faith that already lives within us, yearning for expression.  It is like the characters in The Wizard of Oz, who learn as they travel and grow in friendship that they have had within them all along the heart, mind, and courage they seek.

When the disciples cry out to Jesus today, they are unable to see that, with Jesus, they have already taught, fed, healed, and followed.  They have already moved mountains!  But because they are focused on all the things they fear they cannot do, they do not realize the faith that is already within them.

The disciples, even with all their anxiety, have faith.  And everyone in this room, simply by virtue of being here, has faith.  That impulse to seek and know God, however dim, however vague, that brings you to this place is the mustard seed of which Jesus speaks.  It is the grain that caused the disciples first to follow.  It is the same grain that lives in me and lives in you.

In his response today, Jesus uses images of plowing and herding and serving at table, because these were the all-consuming ways of life that would have resonated with the disciples.  “Live your whole lives for God,” Jesus says in essence, “and you will discover that the faith you need is already within you.”

For us, sheepherding doesn’t resonate.  But Jesus’ wisdom still does.  “Go into your law office…or classroom…or ER…or business…or garden…or home,” Jesus might say.  “There, live for God.  At St. Mark’s, roll up your sleeves and teach your children, or engage in community, or join in ministries of care for those on the margins of life.  Love with a love that knows no bounds.  In living for God and in doing God’s work, there you will discover your faith.  And though at first it may seem as small as a mustard seed, it will be all the faith you need.” Sisters and brothers, you are here, and that means the mustard seed is already within you.  God’s grace is there, ready to be watered and grow.  It is never too early and never too late.  And you may someday look back on your journey and realize to your surprise that you, too, moved mountains.


[i] Matthew 17:20

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