October 6, 2013, Pentecost 20 – Faith Is
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A few weeks ago I found a fun picture on facebook. It was a drawing of a chubby little cat who was standing on a stool and painting a self-portait. He was leaning over to view himself in a full-length mirror while he painted, but on the large canvas, instead of his own likeness he had painted a fearsome tiger. It was a picture of someone with a very good self-image.
That’s what the apostles wanted when they came to Jesus. They saw Jesus do all kinds of amazing works – he had power over illnesses and demons and he spoke with an authority that people could feel – and they wanted him to give them that power, so that when they looked in the mirror they would see Jesus, the tiger, and not the pudgy puss they knew they were. And maybe also – because they were normal people who pretty much think the way we all do – maybe also so that they would look good to other people. So they came to Jesus and asked him, “Increase our faith.” Because they figured, reasonably enough, more faith equals more power.
And Jesus answered them “If you had the littlest smidge of faith you could order that huge mulberry tree over there to rip itself up by the roots and plant itself in the deepest part of the sea.”
And there are several different ways that answer might be understood. Jesus might have been criticizing the apostles for their lack of faith – “If you had any faith at all, you’d already be doing great works – you only need a little bit of faith, and you can move mountains.” It sounds like a challenge to them – well, DO you have enough faith? Do you have any faith at all? I know people who understand this verse this way, especially people in charismatic circles. And at various times in my life, this verse has made me worry about my own faith. I know that I don’t have the faith to go out and order trees around. But what about other things, things that are actually important. Do I have enough faith to pray that my friend will be healed, or that my son will get a job? How can we measure our faith – maybe we have enough faith to pray that we can find our car keys, but not enough faith to pray that someone will be healed of cancer. Maybe the big things we need to leave to the faith experts. We measure our faith against the faith of people that we think of as really spiritual people – clergy, because it’s their job to have lots of faith, and other really holy people we know – and we are inclined to leave the big faith jobs to them, like we leave the heavy lifting to my son Wyatt who has really big muscles.
And then we have fallen into the very trap the apostles had fallen into, because the problem was that they didn’t understand what faith is. Faith isn’t really quantifiable at all. That’s the point Jesus was making. Faith isn’t something we can have more or less of, like having enough money in the bank to write out a check, or enough medical training to give somebody CPR. Faith doesn’t come in sizes, and faith isn’t something we pump up, like lifting weights to increase muscle mass. And the reason we can’t measure big faiths and small faiths is that the whole power of faith consists ONLY in who you have faith in. Faith opens our eyes to see; faith is a window to see truth, and whether we look through a pinhole or a picture window, the only thing that really matters is what we see – or to be more exact, WHO we see.
There is a story about the prophet Elisha. A foreign king kept trying to attack Israel, but every time they were about to attack, Elisha warned the king of Israel, so that Israel was always a step ahead. When the frustrated king found out who was ruining all his plans he sent his army to get rid of Elisha. And when Elisha’s servant looked out the door next morning, he was alarmed to see that they were surrounded on all sides by well-armed enemies, and he ran to tell his master. But Elisha told Gehazi, his servant, not to get all het up about it, and he prayed that God would open Gehazi’s eyes, and all of a sudden Gehazi was able to see that the enemy troops were surrounded by a countless number of angels with flaming swords. Very comforting indeed, and the story has a happy ending.
The reason Jesus told the apostles that they could move mountains – or mulberry trees – if they only had the tiniest bit of faith, is because they had faith in the One –the only One – who can do all things, because he is the Lord and Creator of the Universe. If you are surrounded by enemy troops, or if you are diagnosed with cancer, your faith had better not be in the power of your prayer – it had much better be that you are praying to the right person. It makes no difference if you feel hopeful; it doesn’t matter if the words of your prayer are eloquent, or if you feel particularly full of faith when you pray. It doesn’t matter if you have ever before prayed a single prayer in your life, and it doesn’t even matter whether you have made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ or not. When you pray for healing, it only matters that you pray to the One who knit your body together in your mother’s womb, the One who is in control of every atom of creation, and the One who is able to love and care for you whether you live or die. And that One is the Father, to whom we can come and ask all things, any thing. The Father hears the smallest cry; he listens to the weakest prayer, he can be reached by faith even if it is the size of a tiny seed. But all the power is his; he is able to do all things.
When we say that people have great faith, we don’t mean – or we shouldn’t mean – that they are spiritual giants, who have a direct line to the heavenly throne, so that their prayers carry a lot more weight than us poor schmucks with our awkward and stumbling prayers. When Jesus chided his disciples for being people of little faith, what he meant was simply that they kept on forgetting to trust him, like Peter, who actually stepped out onto the waves of the sea, but then began to sink when he took his eyes off of Jesus and focused on the impossibility of what he was doing. Genuine faith, and firm faith, and perfect faith, all those things that the evangelists and apostles wrote about faith, are not levels of spiritual power – they are talking about the trust that grows in us little by little, prayer by prayer, as we live our lives with our eyes on Christ, because Jesus Christ is the one who makes the Father visible to us.
The Old Testament reading today was from the prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk wrote in the 7th century BC. The little kingdom of Judah, which was all that was left of the nation of Israel, had become so corrupt that God was about to send Babylon to carry out his judgment on them. It was a terrible time, full of violence and wickedness, and the prophet is crying out for justice. And God answers him that the judgment is surely coming, but – God tells Habakkuk – the righteous shall live by his faith. God said, through the prophet, that no matter what was going to happen, no matter how powerful Babylon might be, faith in the Living God was the source of life for his people. Habakkuk’s words, “the righteous shall live by faith”, are quoted three times in the New Testament, because it is just as true for us as it was for the people of Judah. In Romans, Paul says that those words describe the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation. In Galatians, Paul says that those words express our freedom from the tyranny of the Law. And the writer to the Hebrews quotes Habakkuk to urge us to hold fast to the one in whom we have put our trust: “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”
Faith is not a spiritual superpower, but it is the very source of life for God’s people because by faith we see that we are in his hands always. By faith we see, like Elisha’s servant, that the armies of God’s angels have the minions of this world surrounded and outnumbered and outclassed. By faith we see that neither life nor death nor any other power in creation can separate us from the love that the Father has for all his children. We don’t need bigger faith or smarter faith or stronger faith. But we do need to practice our faith. We need to practice looking at Jesus instead of looking at the waves beneath our feet. And we need to remind one another to look past the fears and sorrows and doubts that threaten to overwhelm us, to the glorious armies of God that surround them all.
There is a quote by Don Shelby in the bulletin today that reminds us that our faith is in a person, not in ourselves, and not in just any person, but in Jesus himself. He writes, “When we tell ourselves “I can never change” or “That will never happen,” we presume too much and believe too little. In Jesus Christ, God renders all of our final conclusions premature and all of our talk of determinism as simply bad faith. In Christ, God opens closed doors, brings resurrections, reveals possibilities, reclaims the lost, liberates the cursed and possessed, and changes the unchangeable.”