20th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:5-10

Gracious God, give us faith to know that we have faith. Amen.

Can you guess what the sermon is about today? That’s right, faith. As Christians we talk a lot about faith—faith in Jesus, living lives of faith, being faithful—and I suspect that it’s a word we use a lot but don’t necessarily think very much about: what is it? How do we do it? Where do we get it? What’s it for? What difference does it make? Et cetera.

Today’s Gospel reading opens with the apostles begging the Lord to give them more faith. An interesting place to begin since their plea is obviously a response to something that has happened right before, so let’s back track a bit to see what was going on.

Jesus was in the middle of teaching his disciples. In the prior verses he had warned them not to be a stumbling block to anyone. He even went so far as to say that it would be better to have a millstone tied around their necks and thrown into the sea than to cause one of God’s little ones to stumble.

Then he addressed another aspect of being a disciple, forgiveness. He said that when another disciple sinned against one of them and repented, then they had to forgive that person. Most of us here have lived long enough to know that forgiveness is no tidy, effortless thing, but it is something we understand as required in following our Lord. Yet however difficult that might be, Jesus upped the stakes and said, “Wait there’s more. If the same person sins against you 7 times in one day and repents 7 times, then you must forgive him or her each and every time.” It is at that point that the disciples cried out, “Increase our faith!”

The words of the disciples are probably words we’ve each cried out at some point when we’ve felt overwhelmed, when expectations have seemed impossible. And this is where it gets interesting. Jesus says that if you have faith the size of the tiniest of seeds you can do unimaginable and impossible things. It’s not having a lot of faith that matters. It’s really just having faith in the first place. The disciples don’t need more because they already have what they need, which is simply faith.

Now the next part of the reading seems like a new subject, about doing your duty. The language is problematic because of how we see slaves as Americans, and as followers of Jesus, we can’t imagine in a million years saying: “We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done.” In order not to be a stumbling block for hearing the message today, perhaps we could alter the example to that of a master and his servant along the lines of Downton Abbey. (Yup that millstone image got to me!)

Jesus says to his disciples, imagine yourself who has a servant and that servant finishes doing his job out in the fields. When he returns, do you say, “Glad you’re back let’s sit down and eat.” (Imagine Maggie Smith down in the kitchen with the servants—not going to happen people!) The expectation here is that the servant should be treated as a servant.

Then Jesus asks them what they think when they’ve completed a task that they’ve been expected to do. The point here is that they’d simply done what they were supposed to do. Nothing was owed to them and so no reward is of course expected. It’s like when a soldier receives an order. He does it because it’s an order. Or when a newborn cries in the middle of the night. The parents might be sleep deprived and completely exhausted but they will get up and lovingly tend to the needs of their baby. It’s just what you do.

Have you ever wondered that if that’s what a solder does and a parent does, then what does a Christian do? This is where the prior verses come back around. A Christian does faith.

Now if you ask people what is faith, they will tell you that it is one of two things: something you believe in, or something that unleashes the miraculous. It’s like the story today. The mustard-seed-size faith is enough to uproot a mulberry tree and throw it into the sea, and that would really be something. It’s fantastical! But since I don’t think Jesus is telling us to exercise our faith muscle in order to uproot trees, let’s have another go at what faith might look like.

Might it not look like the very thing that is going on in the next few verses, where the servant does what is expected of a servant? Could faith be doing your duty—the thing that is expected of you, as a soldier, parent, employer, student, musician, teacher, Christian, priest or whatever? Doing our duty is about doing the thing in front of us that needs doing, and mostly it’s a pretty ordinary kind of thing. Faith is found in the ordinary, and to be faithful, that is, a person who possesses faith, what we need to do is recognize the God-given opportunities before us, so that we can show up and do what needs to be done.

Now for those of us that think faith is only about healing the sick and parting the sea, then being a good friend, or a fair boss, or a forgiving spouse isn’t going to sound like much, but that’s because we’ve left out one little detail. God.

Doing one’s duty as a soldier, teacher, parent, student, boss happens within the context of relationship. So does being a Christian. God asks us to be a people of faith not so that we can be tested and graded on some kind of heavenly exam. We are asked to have faith and be faithful because we are invited through grace to partner with God, to do good in this God’s world.

One example I came across this week was an exercise in which one imagines all the good things done by all the people sitting here today. When you put all those things together you have a mountain of good things—something more akin to the miraculous than the ordinary. Then imagine what the world would be like without that accumulation of all those good things. It’s not unlike the point in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life when George Bailey gets to see what the world would have looked like if he’d never been born. Without all the good he’d done, all the people he’d touched, all the ways he’d been faithful in his life, his town and the people he cared about were a shambles. The world was indeed a much grimmer place.1

Sometimes we forget that everything we do matters in some way to God, because God is the one that puts all those good ordinary things together to accomplish the things we never dreamed or imagined. Faith is believing this truth; it’s living it out; it’s the recognition of the thing right in front of us that needs doing; it’s the grace to accomplish this task presented to us; and it’s the way in which we participate with God to intervene for good in the world.

My sisters and brothers, let’s be a people that wake up each day looking for the thing right in front of us that needs doing, and do it.
Let’s embrace the ordinary and remember that God takes the simple things and does the impossible.
And in those moments when we feel overwhelmed by expectations, may we remember that our God is
“always more ready to hear than we are to pray;
gives us more than we either desire or deserve;
pours out the abundance of Her mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid;
and yearns to give us those things for which we are unworthy to ask,
because of the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Collect of the Day)