I once had a friend who became a Christian later in life because of a mystical encounter with Jesus, where Jesus appeared to him and spoke to him. He loved Jesus. But he was NOT a fan of the bible. Years later we started reading the bible together in a group, and it was the first time he had dived into it with openness.Actually, not the first time.
The first time was when he was mountain biking alone and came around a corner to see, laying next to the path, a bible, open to the sky. A sunbeam was shining down on the pages. He stopped the bike and got off. With heart pounding he reverently approached the bible. Picking it up gently, he read from the open page…something about wiping out the enemy peoples and not marrying the foreigners or you’d be punished by God. Horrified and confused, he threw down the bible and got back on his bike and didn’t have anything to do with Christianity for years, until Jesus appeared to him.
Today’s scripture is a great example of why the bible is best read with others. Yes, personal devotion and bible reading is great, and God speaks to us through scripture when we are alone. But we are reading something ancient from cultures we have very little in common with, and oh my goodness, but it can be confusing and sometimes horrifying. I actually get a little excited when a passage feels weird and inaccessible at first glance, because I trust that all scripture has a word for us from God, and not seeing it right away just means there’s going to be a treasure there if we dig. We also do well to read it together with one another because we can help each other recognize our own bias, our own cultural lens that is coloring how we hear the words.
In this text the disciples ask a very discipley question, the kind of question pastors and Christian educators today wish people more would be asking, the question we all feel we should be asking, “increase our faith!” Ok, not a question, more a demand. But still. It’s a good thing to want, right? More faith? What better to demand?
But Jesus’s answer, let’s face it, it’s just weird. First he says if they had even the amount of faith the size of a mustard seed they could tell a tree to stand up and go plant itself in a lake and grow there and it would. Then Jesus goes into this thing about slaves. Which feels so problematic today it’s hard to even read the words aloud much less attribute them to Jesus, the gist of which is, slaves are just there to work and shouldn’t be rewarded for it. So they should just consider themselves worthless slaves for only doing what they ought to have done anyway.
The word of the Lord.
I bet they wish they hadn’t asked.
But I kind of get why they did.
Because just before this Jesus said,
“Hard trials and temptations are bound to come, but it’s bad for whoever brings them on! Better to wear cement shoes into the ocean than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. And he also said, “Be alert. If you see your friend going wrong, correct them. If they respond, forgive them. Even if it’s personal against you and repeated seven times through the day, and seven times they say, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,’ forgive them.”
"The apostles came up and said to Jesus, 'Give us more faith.'”
So, yeah. I’m guessing the ante feels high. I’m thinking the disciples are feeling the pressure. This all feels pretty daunting. They’re probably thinking, How can we manage not to screw this up? Maybe what we need is some more faith!
And suddenly, just like that, they’re in the way of fear. How do we know? Because according to them in this moment, faith becomes something we do. Earn. Measure. Accumulate. Faith becomes power. Power to live right, sure, but power, nevertheless. Which is actually not at all what faith is.
Faith is much closer to admitting we are completely powerless to live right.
I think Jesus tells these ridiculous stories, these mini-parables, if you will, to highlight just that. And he may have had a little edge to his voice too. Like, do you guys even listen? Fine, let’s play the game your way. Let’s say faith is power. If that’s the case, then faith is so powerful, that a tiny little bit can do this thing that defies all laws of nature.
They asked for more “faith,” but what they were asking for was more control. They were asking for the ability not to fail, some way to guarantee success at this discipleship thing. Jesus just jumps right to furthest logical conclusion of their aims – you’ll know you’ve succeeded when you’ve accumulated enough faith to command nature, on the one hand, or when you’re obediently doing your duty without ever expecting recognition or reward, on the other.
Maybe succeeding at faith isn’t the goal. Maybe faith isn’t about succeeding or failing at all.
I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly, Jesus says. Follow me, Jesus says. The son of man came not to be served, but to serve. Jesus says.
We don’t forgive, and care for those more vulnerable than ourselves, and love and serve, as Christ does, because we are doing our duty like obedient slaves. And we don’t uphold the weak and restore broken relationships because we are racking up points or dodging punishment.
We live in love because we are loved. We care for others because we are drawn into God’s life of care. We forgive because forgiveness gives us back to each other and to ourselves. We live in the way of God embodied in Jesus because our true humanity is found in, and not apart from this love and care for each other and the world.
Rowan Williams says discipleship is “learning how to be a place in the world where the act of God can come alive.” When we confess our sin, or stand up for those weaker than ourselves, or do something kind for someone else, we are a place in the world where the act of God comes alive.
Faith, then, is not a quantifiable element. It’s a nudging toward, a longing for, a questioning, and doubting, and trusting, and forgetting, and remembering, and messing up, and confessing, and being forgiven, and learning, and braving, and caring, and reaching out, and messing up again, and apologizing, and being forgiven, and being hurt, and forgiving, and seeking, and longing some more.
Faith is allowing yourself the possibility that Jesus is here, and then letting yourself wonder about who this Jesus is and what he’s up to in your life, in this conversation, in this tragedy, in this ordinary moment. It is Christ’s work, Christ’s relationship to God, Christ’s faithfulness that holds us. We surrender our sorry, striving selves into trust. Because it’s a relationship – all of life is – a relationship with our maker, with our fellow human beings, with the earth in which we live, and the person we are and were and are becoming.
And just like the disciples, we forget this. And we ask for more faith so we can do it right and not screw it up. But faith is a willingness to live attentive, expectant, awaiting the action of God in the world, trusting it is always about to occur.
There is a kind of gift in taking something to its natural absurd conclusion. We did that together a decade ago when we faced our fears. In the Gathering Room hangs a sign that says, “We are exactly the right size and make-up and have all the resources we need for what God wants to do in and through us.” That was only said because we stated the opposite of what we really thought and wrote it down. What we really thought in 2011, when we let ourselves be brutally honest about our fears, was that we were too small, too old, and didn’t have enough money. We might as well have said, “Increase us! Increase our faith!”
But then then we took it to its logical absurd conclusion. What are we saying, actually? That we are too small to love our neighbor? That we are too old to help each other seek God? That we don’t have enough money for God to work through us? That we are not big enough, young enough, rich enough for God to use us? How absurd are these ideas we’re clinging to? How do they hold us back from what God has for us?
So we stepped out in faith and stated the opposite and began to live into it. Which is to say, we recognized that it’s not about us at all, it’s about God and what God is already doing, and what God wants to do, in our lives, in the world, through us, with us. We get to participate not because we’re so powerful and impressive, but actually because we’re not. And then, it’s about us too – because God uses exactly what we already are to accomplish God’s purposes. Each unique person participates, and God is not limited by our strength or hindered by our weakness. God works and we get to join in. That’s it. Faith is trusting this. Entrusting ourselves to this. Wondering about who this God is, seeking this Christ.
There are all sorts of ways the bible leads us back to God and God’s kingdom.
And sometimes the bible leads us back to God when Jesus gets sassy and sarcastic. Or cryptic and enigmatic. When he forces us to look at ourselves, or holds up the things we think are so solid and sure and shows them to be flimsy and ridiculous. And that’s an invitation to faith too.
There’s no measuring in faith. No game. No losing or winning. There’s only love – God who came in to free us from our impossibility. We will hurt one another. Undoubtedly. But thanks be to God we can forgive. We will stumble. No question. But thanks be to God we will be forgiven. We are held in love. Invited into faith. And all the disciples would have had to say is help me. Help me forgive. Help me not cause others to stumble. Help me, God. Those are the words of faith. And when we say those words, we are learning how to be a place in the world where the act of God can come alive.