2 Timothy 1:1-14 Luke 17:5-10
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this. (Actually, I am sure you have!) But from time to time as you read Scripture, Jesus says something quite jarring. Of course, if we were more honest with ourselves and with how we read Scripture, this would probably happen much more often! As one writer puts it, “We need to constantly remind ourselves that the man Jesus was a foreigner; that he spoke a language quite unintelligible to us, followed a life-style few of us would survive, and lived in a culture whose values most of us would reject!”
But from time to time this jarring still occurs. And it certainly occurs in our gospel reading this morning.
Because what kind of Jesus, when the disciples come to him with a perfectly respectable request like, “Increase our faith!” tells them in no uncertain terms – the Greek syntax indicates just a little narkiness – that if they had just the tinniest amount – a mustard seed-sized faith – they could persuade a mulberry tree to transplant itself in the ocean, echoing comments in Matthew and Mark about moving mountains into the sea.
And what kind of Jesus, who we expect to proclaim release for the captives and freedom for the oppressed, instead speaks as though slavery and social inequality is a given, “Who amongst you would say to your slave who has just come in from the fields, ‘Come and sit and eat.’ Wouldn’t you actually say to him, ‘Prepare and serve my meal. You can eat later’….Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” And finally, tells his own disciples to think of themselves as worthless slaves, doing what is expected without expecting thanks.
It’s a difficult passage to get our heads around.
Because all of us can sympathise with how the disciples are feeling at this moment – their sense of being overwhelmed by the challenge of Christian discipleship. For in the verses preceding, Jesus has spoken about taking up and carrying the cross, about giving up all they have, about the penalties for those who harm the faith of others and the need to forgive and to forgive and to forgive… those who wrong you.
And we face exactly the same overwhelming challenges today. Working out what it means to carry the cross. Wrestling with the impact of consumerism on our faith. Reflecting – thanks to a Royal Commission – on how pride and greed and terrible, terrible abuse have tied a millstone around the church’s neck. And struggling still to live our faith in real ways everyday in our interactions and relationships. Don’t we also want to say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”
But perhaps we need to think again about what faith is…
This might seem like a silly illustration – as silly as planting a mulberry tree in the sea – but all week it has been stuck in my head….
When I was fifteen years old, my family travelled from Jayapura in West Papua to Jakarta on a… – cruise ship is probably too glamourous a description – more like a cruise ship-sized ferry. And every day, three times a day, amongst the announcements made in Indonesian, the following announcement was made in English: “Would the foreigner’s passengers please come to the dining room wearing clothes and using shoes.” Now, as I mentioned, I was fifteen and I found this English construction amusing, but my brother found the idea of not wearing clothes and using rather than wearing shoes hilarious – as only a thirteen-year-old boy can!
But as I thought about that linguistic usage disconnect this week, I wondered if it might also explain the disconnect between the thinking of Jesus and that of the disciples – and of us.
Because they, perhaps like us, were thinking of faith like the way we think of wearing clothes: that the more layers of faith you can put on, the better off you’ll be; or as if the more specialised, the more technical, the more perfectly you can gear up your faith to suit the occasion, the better off you’ll be; or the fancier, the more glamorous, costly and impressive your faith looks, the better off you’ll be.
Whereas what Jesus was saying is we’re just meant to use our faith – like we use our shoes – we’re simply meant to put whatever sized faith we have into action.
Because perhaps faith is not something quantifiable anyway. Perhaps it’s not something we ‘have’ or ‘possess’ or ‘feel’, but simply something we ‘do’.
Perhaps faith is not a noun, but a verb.
And while moving mountains or mulberry trees into the sea sounds spectacular, most of what faith compels us to do, day by day, day after day, is small and mundane. As writer Debie Thomas says, “The life of faith is as straightforward as a slave serving his master dinner. As ordinary as a hired worker fulfilling the terms of his contract. Faith isn’t fireworks; it’s not meant to sizzle. Faith is simply recognising our tiny place in relation to God’s enormous, creative love and then filling that place with our whole lives.”
Because look at the people who are commended for having faith throughout the gospel of Luke. None of them are extraordinary. None of them are the people we might expect. In Luke 7 it is a Roman, a foreigner, of whom Jesus says, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Later in that chapter it is a woman, a so-called sinner, who washes and kisses Jesus feet, and Jesus says, not only ‘your sins are forgiven’, but ‘your faith has saved you’. In chapter 8 it is a desperately ill woman, someone at the end of all their resources, who touches the fringe of Jesus’ clothes and is commended for her faith. In chapter 17 it’s a Samaritan beggar and in chapter 18 a blind beggar who receives his sight.
All these people stepped out in faith just as they were, just where they were, just recognising God’s enormous creating love – they just did it.
And we can think of more recent examples.
Some of you might remember a few years ago John Morrison telling the story of Trevor Huddleston an Anglican priest in South Africa in the 1940’s and 50’s.
The story is that one day Huddleston was walking down the street and a black South African woman and her nine-year-old son were coming the other direction. In the days of apartheid, when a black person and a white person met while walking on a footpath, the black person was expected to step into the gutter to allow the white person to pass and nod their head as a gesture of respect. But this day, before the woman and her child could step off the sidewalk, Huddleston stepped off and, as the woman and her son passed him, tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to her.
The nine-year-old boy was a young Desmond Tutu. When he asked his mother why that man had done what he did, she told him that Trevor Huddleston had stepped off the sidewalk because he was a man of God. That very ordinary action in that one moment, Desmond Tutu says, was the defining moment of his life. He found his calling, “When she told me that he was an Anglican priest I decided there and then that I wanted to be an Anglican priest too. And what is more, I wanted to be a man of God.”
I can tell you an even more recent example about people stepped out in faith and recognising God’s enormous creating love in very ordinary ways, as very ordinary people – because they are relatives of mine!
My father’s older sister, Aunty Fay (who some of you know), lives in a retirement village in Sydney and her craft group decided to send $500 they had raised to Parkes Baptist Church for assistance for people affected by drought. So, Aunty Fay rang Parkes Baptist and spoke to the minister’s wife who said, yes, they could definitely use the money and thank you very much.
Later that day, Aunty Fay got a call from my Uncle Stuart because it was also her birthday, and she knew he was away driving in far western NSW, so she asked where. “We’re just a few k out of Forbes, ” my uncle reported.
“Oh, “ says Aunty Fay, “I’ve just been speaking to the minister’s wife in Forbes. We’re sending them $500 to help anyone affected by drought.”
“Well,” says my uncle, “How about I just drop by the church and give them $500 and you can give your $500 to me when I see you.” So that was settled and an hour later, he rang again to say he’d found the church and the manse and the minister’s wife, who’d seemed very surprised to be getting $500, but who had burst into tears and told him about a family who’d come to the church who desperately needed help, and to express the very deep thanks of Forbes Baptist Church to Aunty Fay’s craft group.
“Forbes Baptist Church!” said Aunty Fay, but I spoke to Parkes Baptist Church!”
“But you said to me Forbes!” said Uncle Stuart. Anyway, it is all now settled. The craft group have sent their money to Parkes and Uncle Stuart has donated his to Forbes.
As Debie Thomas said, faith isn’t fireworks. It’s just the ordinary ways that we as very ordinary people step out in response to our own need or the need of others every day. Its simply recognising our tiny place in relation to God’s enormous, creative love and then filling that place with our lives. Simply showing up and doing your job. Listening when someone needs to talk. Volunteering in the activities in your church or local community. Taking a watering can to the struggling new planting in the nature reserve – as I watched a neighbour doing Saturday morning. Chatting to a person who looks lonely on the bus or in the café. Raising a bit of money for people in need. Writing a thank you note to someone who has done a kindness. Telling someone you appreciate the job they’re doing. Mowing a lawn. Cooking a meal. Praying for someone you know who is having a hard time.
All of these ordinary things done by ordinary people – just putting the faith we have into action – are what faith is.
So, can I ask you this morning, to just take a moment and to think about one thing – one kind and helpful thing – you did in the last week, and to acknowledge that this was an act of faith. And to look around this church – and to think about all the acts of faith that were performed this week – and to celebrate those. And perhaps to think about the week ahead and what might happen, what it might look like if we were to do even more acts of faith.
And perhaps when we think about the great challenges of Christian discipleship these small ordinary acts of faith might not seem so much. But they add up. And they grow, Jesus tells us. They grow and they grow like tiny mustard seeds.
Can I close in prayer, borrowing the words of a hymn you know well:
For the fruit(s) of all creation, thanks be to God;
for the faith of every person here, thanks be to God;
for the ploughing, sowing, reaping,
silent growth while we are sleeping,
future needs in God’s safe-keeping, thanks be to God