Last week we explored how faith is a gift from God, and not an emotion or an idea we create for ourselves. This week Jesus’ disciples ask for the gift of faith. And Jesus responds with some strange statements. He says that if the disciples had even a tiny bit of faith, they’d have the power to tell a tree to throw itself into the ocean. Then he uses the example of a slave-master relationship to compare to how we should relate to God. And the whole thing is apparently meant to teach the disciples something about what faith is.
We know Jesus often spoke in confusing parables that don’t make much sense on the surface. And this Gospel passage is a challenging one for a lot of interpreters. It’s problematic for two reasons. The first part about the mustard seed makes us question if we have any faith at all if we ever have any prayers that go unanswered. If we’re not careful, a passage like this can make someone who just lost a loved one fall into even deeper despair because they were praying hard but must’ve just not had enough faith. How many of us have had unanswered prayers that we truly believed God would answer? How many of us have been disappointed in God’s apparent lack of response? We’re not trying to uproot a mulberry tree or move a mountain, we’d just like an answer to a simple prayer, and when it doesn’t happen a passage like this comes along and makes us feel even worse like it’s our fault the prayer wasn’t answered!
Then there’s the problematic second part of this passage, about the unworthy slave. It’s one of those Bible passages that people in the 1800s used to support slavery. It makes it seem like Jesus is condoning slavery or is at least comfortable enough with its existence. And to think that the slave-master relationship is how we should relate to God, well that’s certainly problematic especially when elsewhere Jesus tells us to relate to God like a loving parent.
It’s worth noting that neither Jesus nor his disciples had slaves. First of all they were too poor. Secondly, the Jesus movement did seem to be against such things, with both men and women of various levels of social status all valued and accepted. Similarly, the early church was known for treating slaves with just as much respect as free people, something Paul had a lot to say about in his letters.
Now a passage like this one is hard to understand even in context, never mind when it’s read by itself. Maybe the surrounding verses will shed some light on it for us. Luke 17 begins with Jesus teaching the disciples about forgiveness. He says, “If someone sins against you 7 times a day, then you must forgive 7 times a day!” Then his disciples, probably thinking there’s no way they could do such a thing without some kind of miracle, ask Jesus “Increase our faith!” which begins the passage we read this morning. I think it’s important to remember that this near impossible teaching about ethics and forgiveness is what leads into the disciples request for more faith.
I’m sure we can all relate to the disciples’ desire for more faith. How much better life would be if we had faith to move mountains, even metaphorical mountains. If we had the kind of faith that makes us wake up happy and excited to serve God every day. The kind of faith that inspires unlimited strength and energy even when we’re feeling run down. The kind of faith to serve the community and help those in need no matter how busy or tired we are. The kind of faith that gives us courage to stand up to the establishment. The kind of faith to ease all our doubts and sadness even when life is at its worst. The kind of faith to always feel God’s presence no matter what.
But I wonder if it’s such understandings of faith that Jesus is trying to show us aren’t really faith at all. They’re emotions we feel that we often mistake for faith. Pure faith isn’t an emotion. It’s not something we can have more of or less of. Faith, according to Jesus, is a lot more about what we do than how we feel. That’s why he uses the example of a slave doing chores. The example shows that faith is something practiced, something lived out. Not some emotion to be felt, but an experience to be lived.
So faith isn’t an emotional experience. And faith isn’t an intellectual experience either. It’s not placing all our bets on a certain idea, philosophy, or ideology. It’s not intellectual assent to an idea. Faith is, at its core, a relationship of trust. For example, I don’t believe my mom and dad love me like it’s some kind of credal statement that I can assess and argue about. I simply know that they love me and live it out in my relationship with them. It’s not a fact to be debated, it’s just true. And it’s the same way with God. That’s why Jesus tries to deconstruct his disciples’ understanding of faith and teach them what it's really all about.
There’s a famous poem that exemplifies the theme of faith as relationship. I’m sure some of you have heard it before. It’s called Footprints in the Sand:
One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonging to him and the other to the Lord. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times of his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it. "Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you'd walk with me all the way. However, I noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life there was only one set of footprints. I don't understand why when I needed you most you would leave me." The Lord replied, "my precious child, I love you and I would never leave you during your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints it was then that I carried you."
This story exemplifies the fact that our relationship with God is not about us always being able to stand or keep up. Faith isn’t about positive emotions and always feeling passionately on fire for the Lord. Faith isn’t about intellectual certainty and control either. Faith is, this poem makes clear, a relationship of trust that will be there even when we’re not at our best. Trust that God will carry us through the worst things imaginable even if we can’t find the strength to trust in that moment. Even when life is so hard that we can barely hang on, still God’s goodness and love remain. God is with us even when we can’t feel it. God is with us even when we can’t bring ourselves to believe it. God is with us even when we think we have no faith.
So rest assured when you question your faith, your unanswered prayers, your feelings of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is a lived relationship. A relationship of trust with God. It’s certainly something we can grow into, and it may feel like faith expands or shrinks at certain times in life. But it’s really not the size of it that matters. It’s not a feeling or an idea as much as it is a relationship. A relationship that we already have. A relationship with a God who loves us, and will carry us our whole life through.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 10/2/2022