Scripture Readings: Luke 17:5-10, 2 Tim 1-14
“Does anyone else feel a bit overwhelmed?” This comment I blurted out last week after announcements was a statement which revealed more about your wet-behind-the-ears pastor than anything else—my awe at the scope of church activities, as well as my insecurity about “getting it all done.” There are lots of commitments we have made as a church to each other and to the greater community. And our prayer list is long. Celebrating World Communion with sharpened awareness of global Christian brothers and sisters, we could make it much longer. There are so many needs in our world. So I get it when, in our reading from Luke, the apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”
Their plea comes in response to what Jesus has been teaching. Last week, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 challenged us to see, have compassion, and take action, bridging all kinds of impossible chasms. Then, in the first four verses of Luke 17, Jesus tells us it would be better to drown in the sea than to cause a “little one” to “stumble.” He tells us to rebuke our fellow disciples when they sin, but forgive anyone who sins against us and repents, even seven times in the same day. High expectations for obedient action and fathomless forgiveness. Does anyone else feel a bit overwhelmed?
And so we cry out, “Give us more faith!” It seems a reasonable request, especially in our culture, where “more” is always “better.” But “faith” is one of those words we throw around so often that its meaning can get fuzzy. In religious circles, “faith” often seems to mean an assent to a set of beliefs which allows one to join a club. In secular culture, “faith” often seems to refer to a personal power to accomplish our loftiest aspirations.
With those definitions in mind, we get excited. Just think what we could do with more faith! Individuals could carry out more commitments, do more good deeds, and make a bigger difference in the world! Our church could increase in membership numbers, financial giving, and mission projects. With increased faith, we might finally “succeed,” individually and collectively in carrying out the demands of discipleship. But haven’t we learned over the past few weeks that Christ’s way rarely corresponds to our popular assumptions?
It turns out that these ideas of greater and more successful faith are distortions which have from day one twisted Christians away from Christ. Is “faith” a quantifiable substance, which can be increased or decreased? This kind of thinking veers us from one extreme to another. On the one hand, sometimes we think we don’t have enough, and find ourselves paralyzed in timid inadequacy. “I’d teach Sunday school if I knew more about the Bible.” “I’d give more to the church, if I had more time or money.” “I’d help lead worship, if my voice were stronger.”
On the other hand, sometimes we think we have such superior faith that God should reward us. “So-and-so hasn’t shown up again when they said they would,” we find ourselves grumbling, with just the slightest tinge of self-righteousness. Or, maybe, “I’m tired of keeping this program going when no one else would,” we say, with just the slightest sense of beleaguered martyrdom.
But the faith Jesus gives does not take us to such extremes. As Paul reminds his protégé Timothy, the faith of Jesus Christ Timothy has learned from his mother, his grandmother, and from Paul himself, is not “a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Refusing pat answers or step-by-step methodology, the parables of Jesus reorient us toward this kind of faith, which is more daring and more do-able than we’d imagined.
First, there’s the mustard seed parable. Here Jesus addresses our timid inadequacy. Earlier in Luke 13, Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, tiny, yet powerful enough to produce a plant which can shelter birds of the air. Now, Jesus is telling us that mustard-seed-sized faith is powerful enough to command a total rearrangement of the landscape. 
But do we have even that much faith? Many of us, already feeling inadequate, will doubt ourselves. After all, if only a tiny bit of faith can make strange miracles happen, and we see no miracles round our neighborhood, we must be truly lacking. But a closer look at the Greek helps. Scholars note that the Greek “if” in this sentence is not pointing out the absence of faith but is affirming the faith that the apostles already have. Jesus is saying, “You don’t need more faith. If you have faith the size of a mustard seed (and you do), you can do more than you imagine.” Maybe it’s not an increase in faith that we need, but rather an increase in imagination! Recognizing that our smallest faithful acts have more transformative power than we are aware, this parable invites us to venture boldly into discipleship. What is it God is calling us to do?
After the first parable affirms the faith we do have, the second parable changes the question from “How much is enough?” to “What is faith for?”Now, this parable is notoriously difficult for us to hear. It assumes a world where slavery is the de facto economic pattern, and asks us to identify, in turn, with master and slave. The central question sounds dehumanizing: “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” And the conclusion sounds harsh: “So you also say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.”
Even if we get past those difficulties, we are resistant to imagining ourselves as slaves in relation to God as Master. This doesn’t sound like good news. We like to think of ourselves as independent, free agents who can “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps,” and we keep score of our personal “net worth.” Hard to hear, but the parable elicits a liberating truth. If “faith” isn’t an assent to the beliefs of an exclusive club, nor is it a self-reliant, personal power to accomplish, what is it?
Using the language of master and slave this parable is trying to tell us that “faith” is ultimately a relationship of dependency and loyal trust. To have “faith” is to recognize our dependency on God’s generosity and care for everything we are and everything we have. To know ourselves as “worthless slaves” in relation to God is not a humiliation but an honest recognition that our “worth” is dependent on God’s accounting. We can do nothing to put God in our debt, nor to increase our worth in God’s eyes. God, upon whom our existence depends, does not owe us anything, yet God’s generosity calls us to respond.
It turns out, then, that faith is a relationship, marked by…faithfulness. With faith in the One who has already given us everything we need to live, we obediently do what we are called to do, trusting God to continue giving us everything we require. Author Miroslav Volf puts it this way:
“Our power to be and to act comes from God. Faith merely recognizes this. Hence faith doesn’t tell us how little we are and what we can’t do. On the contrary, it celebrates what we most properly are—God’s empowered creatures—and it frees us to our greatest accomplishments…Faith is an expression of the fact that we exist so that the infinite God can dwell in us and work through us for the well-being of the whole creation.”
And let us remember who it is telling us these parables! It is our Lord Jesus Christ, the One who reveals that our worth in God’s eyes already exceeds anything we might aspire to. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the One who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” Our Lord Jesus Christ, the One who tells us, “I am among you as one who serves.”
John Fife, former pastor at Southside Church in Tucson, AZ, told me something about Christian faith I have never forgotten. Overwhelmed by scope of problems in our world, and frustrated by the inadequacy of our impassioned activism, I wondered aloud if there was any point in continuing our efforts. A veteran of the Sanctuary Movement, convicted in court for helping Central American refugees find safety in the United States, Fife knew something about efforts to make a difference. He just smiled at me and said, “You know, we are not called to be successful, but we are called to be faithful.” And then he continued: “So get over it. We’ve got work to do!”
And that is what these parables remind us: We are not called to be successful, but we are called to be faithful. We are called to show up again and again in this place to worship together. We are called to show up again and again in this place to pray for each other and for our world. We are called to show up again and again in this place to hear Christ’s call,trusting in the One who gives us life, the One who gave his life for us, and the One whose life in us renews us every day for new faithfulness. We are called to give freely of all that we receive.
We simply cannot underestimate the power of such small, daily, faithful actions, our mustard-seed faith. What a strange image in the parable: a mulberry tree, accustomed to being rooted and growing on land, rooting itself in the sea. A rearrangement of the landscape. It seems absurd, but I like what preacher Kenneth Carter sees here: “Perhaps the meaning here is that God works in all kinds of circumstances, among all types of people, in all kinds of situations.” With a little mustard seed faith, a tiny openness to God’s transforming power in Jesus Christ, a tree can take root in an unusual place, and God’s kingdom can take root in us.
Celebrating World Communion today, we become aware again of the ways God’s kingdom has already taken root, in every unusual place we can imagine. People all over the world are eating bread and drinking of grapes, sharing in the body and blood of Christ, finding themselves strengthened in a relationship of trust and solidarity we believe makes every one of us a new creation. We see the working of mustard-seed-faith, as the Word of God in Jesus Christ has spread, across time and space, to every corner of our world, one person at a time.
Our table today is laden to overflowing with grapes and breads from around the world. It represents the life abundant God give us, that we trust in and depend upon. Life abundant given to us by our Creator, poured out for us by our Redeemer, and renewed every day in us by our Sustainer, that we may abundantly pour ourselves out for others, there in this place and around the world. Take and eat, my friends. Taste and see the goodness of our Lord.
All praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
 John Buchanan, Homiletical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, 143.
 Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year C, 431.
 Kimberly Bracken Long, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, 142.
 Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge:Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005, 44.
 Philippians 2:5-11
 Luke 22:27