October 2, 2016, Is Your God Big Enough? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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What would you really think if Jesus stood right here and said to you, “If you had faith the size of a tiny little grain of mustard seed, you could command that spruce tree in front of our church to rip itself up by its roots and plant itself in the middle of Norwood lake?” Honestly, I think the first thing most of us would think is, “Wow, my faith must not be even as big as a little grain of mustard seed, because I know for sure that if I went out there and start commanding that tree nothing would happen.” We would look at ourselves, and at our faith, and most of us, I think, would be inclined to feel that we somehow didn’t measure up, even to the lowest of expectations.
The original disciples lived and walked and worked with Jesus for three years. When Jesus touched a leper who was sick he was instantly healed. When he called a man out of the grave who had been buried four days earlier, the man came walking out of the grave. When he rebuked a demon that had been tormenting a man for years, the demon came out, leaving that man well and sane and free. Jesus knew exactly what was going on in the minds of the Pharisees and Scribes who stood on the sidelines muttering quietly among themselves about Jesus’ flagrant disregard of tradition and propriety. His works and his wisdom were astonishing. How could anyone possibly stand in the presence of the Son of God without being utterly humbled?
It was only natural – natural as in the way that we all think according to our human nature – it was only natural that Jesus’ disciples would measure themselves and their abilities against the power of their Master’s works. “Increase our faith,” they asked him, in all humility. “Please, we want more of what you have.” And Jesus replied, “If your faith is only as big as a tiny seed, you have all the faith you need, even to do the impossible.” And then, knowing full well that they still didn’t understand what he was saying to them, he told them a story.
Jesus starts his story “which of you…” which was a common formula people used when they were going to say something everybody knows is true. It means, “We all know it’s like this…” “We all know,” Jesus told them, that when a slave comes in from working all day in the fields, his master doesn’t invite him to sit down and rest. A human master would never put on an apron and go rustle up some supper for his slave because he was tired. No, we know how it goes. The master says to his slave, “Go get my supper and stand by until I’ve had enough. Then you can go get something for yourself to eat.” A master doesn’t feel the need to thank his slave for doing all this; it is no more than what is expected of him. And at the end of the day, no matter how exhausted he might be, a slave never feels that he has done anything worthy of his master’s praise or thanks. “I am an unworthy slave,” he says to himself. “I have done nothing beyond what was required of me.”
That’s how the world works. We all know it. Which of you is not familiar with the weariness of spending so much time and energy trying to measure up, trying to be good enough, by your own efforts, according to the standards imposed on us by the world – or even by the church? Pretty much every human being is familiar with the thankless drudgery of work and paychecks and household duties. But it applies equally to the efforts we make to prove ourselves by being good people: by our morality or our generosity or our spirituality. It all comes down to the same thing: that never-ending, exhausting and utterly fruitless cycle of trying to achieve worthiness by the measure of our efforts. There is no end to trying to prove ourselves by our own works.
The disciples, when they came to Jesus asking that he would increase their faith, wanted above all things to measure up to the goodness and holiness and power they saw in Jesus. If only they had more faith, they thought, they could do the kinds of amazing things that Jesus did; they could measure up, they could achieve worthiness in his eyes, and in their own eyes, and in the eyes of God.
What they needed to understand is that faith is never about what we can do. Faith is only and entirely based on what God can do. And God, the God who created mulberry trees and mustard seeds and oceans and all mankind, he can do all things. He, and he alone, is worthy of our faith.
Quite a few years ago I was looking through a catalog that had a lot of little gift items. One of the gift items in the catalog was a pretty stone with the word “believe” carved into it. The description said that it was a perfect gift for a daughter or a friend, because it was so important for every person to have faith. It is a popular modern idea to think that having faith, being a person of faith, is good for you. Having faith is considered a healthy and admirable thing. But the reality is that having faith, even having big, fervent, sincere faith, is completely useless and foolish and even dangerous unless you have faith in something, someone, who is worthy of your faith. And if your faith is in one that is worthy, then no matter how small your faith is, it is enough.
There were several times in the gospels that Jesus called his disciples “little-faiths.” He used it as a kind of gentle rebuke when their faith seemed to fail them. But the thing is, Jesus never called his disciples “little-faiths” because they weren’t able to do what they ought to do. He called them “little-faiths” because they had forgotten what he could do.
When they were out in a boat with Jesus in the middle of the night one time, and a violent storm broke out, they ran to wake up Jesus in a panic. “Save us, Lord! We’re dying here!” And Jesus said to them, “Why are you so afraid, little-faiths?” And with a word, he rebuked the winds and calmed the waves. A little faith was all they needed to remember that Jesus was Lord of the winds and the sea and the storm – and of their lives.
Another night on the sea, Peter actually climbed out of the boat and began to walk on top of the waves toward Jesus. But when he took his eyes off of Jesus and looked around him at the crashing waves and heard the roaring of the wind he sank like a rock. “Why did you doubt, little-faith?” Jesus said to him, when he had taken Peter’s hand and brought him safely back into the boat. A little faith was all he needed to remember that Jesus was able to keep him safe no matter where he was.
There was another time in a boat – they spent a lot of time in boats – when Jesus was trying to teach his disciples but they were distracted, because they had forgotten to bring bread along with them, and they were really worried that Jesus was going to be upset with them. The ironic thing was that this happened not long after they had seen Jesus feed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fishes. “Why on earth are you worrying about this, you little-faiths?” Jesus asked them. A little faith was all they needed to remember the miraculous bread they had held in their own hands and the twelve baskets of miraculous leftovers they had gathered up. A little faith was all they needed to remember that Jesus was always able to provide everything they needed.
What the disciples needed, and what we need, is not big enough faith. What we really need is to put our faith in a big enough God. What are the problems that you face; what do you worry about when you wake up in the middle of the night; what is it that fills you with self-doubt? The thing about relying on ourselves and our own efforts is that so many of the things we fear truly are bigger than we are. What power do I have against a diagnosis of cancer, or the inevitable aging of my body and mind, or a tragedy that might take someone I love away from me forever? What power do I have in the face of ISIS, or global warming or homelessness or racism? What power do I have to protect my children or grandchildren who have to make their way in a world full of false promises and crushing demands? The gods that so many people try to put their faith in are just not big enough for the job: not self, not money, not political power, not fundamentalist ideologies. We are hopelessly small and unworthy in a world of big problems and impossible demands, and our faith is just the tiniest little seed of a thing. But a little faith is all we need to remember that our God, the God whose worth we’ll proclaim in just a moment with the words of the Nicene Creed, the God who hears our every prayer and forgives all our sins, the God who is present with us today in the Body and Blood of the Eucharist, in Spirit as we pray, and physically present in the gathering of his people – that he, and only he, is the God who is big enough, the only God who is worthy of our faith.
If we and our works are the measure of our faith, we will always come up short. But if our little seed of faith is planted in the one true God, we will never need to be afraid or ashamed. We know that seeds are very small. But the other thing we all know about seeds is this: seeds grow. Our little faith is all we need. But little faiths grow and bear fruit, and with our faith planted in the God who is big enough, we will be able to move mountains.