Suppose you are in a room with two windows on opposite walls of the room. One window is very small, and the other is large. The large window looks out on a cold landscape characterised by chaos, conflict and hostility. The other window, which is very small, looks out on a land of justice, mercy, love and peace.
Faith can be compared to a window. It doesn’t matter whether the window is 6 ft or just 6 inches. What matters is what the window looks out on, and whether we choose to look there. If we’re looking to the God who loves us, who has compassion on us, then even the tiniest little peep-hole of a window will display aspects of the justice, mercy, love and peace of God. In a world where the daily news keeps the knowledge of evil at the forefront of our minds, we know life is often a struggle and sometimes very tragic indeed. It’s no wonder that we sometimes cry out to God to increase our faith so that we can make it through the day.
But as we heard from Luke’s gospel, even faith as small as a mustard seed is enough to move a mulberry tree. Matthew and Mark’s gospels put even more emphasis on this, where faith ‘as small as a mustard seed’ can move a mountain. The primary message is that it’s God who empowers our life of discipleship and with God, all things are possible. So if you sometimes feel as if you haven’t got enough faith, remember this: It’s not great faith we need; it’s faith in a great God. Its faith and trust in a God who will hold us and help us.
I read this story the other day: A tourist was hiking in the Lake District. She fell over a precipice. As she plummeted down, she grabbed the branch of a small tree. She looked up to the top of the rock face and cried out, “Help! If there is anyone up there, help!” Suddenly a voice from heaven said: “I am here. I will help you. Let go of the branch and I will send the holy angels to hold you safe in my supporting arms. Have faith. Let go.” The girl looked up, looked down to the jagged rocks below, looked up again, and asked: “Is there anyone else up there?”...
It’s not an easy thing to let go.
In some places in our gospels, people are praised and even healed by Jesus for their strong faith in him. But here in Luke 17, Jesus reassures his disciples and us that he knows we aren’t always capable of sustaining a fired-up faith. He knows that sometimes in place of a flame there’s just a small spark. He knows there will be times when we will doubt his faithfulness to us, as even his first disciples sometimes doubted. And this is ok, because our God is a great God. He can handle our weaknesses. He loves us, and he can take it.
But what God doesn’t like, and this is illustrated by the second part of our reading from Luke 17, what God doesn’t like is when we get arrogant about our faith – if we begin to think of ourselves as privileged. Here’s that part of the reading again:
"Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' "
Does the servant get special thanks for doing what's expected of him? No. By this little parable, Jesus shows his disciples their need for deep humility. We don’t deserve any reward from God for our faithful service. No matter how hard we work for God, God is not in debt to us. Jesus came among us as one who serves, and his followers are also called to be servants. We hear it said (and how many more times is it thought): ‘I’ve done all this, I’ve given all that, I’ve worked so hard – surely God (and my fellow church members) will be satisfied with all that I do, and I will be honoured. The reality is that all genuine service to God is done from gratitude, and not to earn anything at all. God is never in our debt.
Likewise, in spite of all the work we might do for the Church, we must not hold fellow members of the body of Christ in our debt.
Jesus asks all his disciples to uphold the kingdom values of justice, mercy, love and peace. But so difficult seem the teachings of Jesus that his disciples ask for greater faith, to which Jesus points out and affirms that even the little faith they have is adequate enough. It’s interesting that Jesus uses the mustard seed image here in relation to faith, and in Matthew 13, he uses the mustard seed image in relation to God’s kingdom. Listen to that passage:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”
How reassuring it is that faith as small as a mustard seed is enough for God’s Kingdom to grow within and among his people. And going back to the imagery I used at the beginning, where faith is like a window looking out on a kingdom under God’s rule, even a very small window of faith is enough for the living Lord to work with. The more we let go and trust, the wider that window becomes. But even Jesus’ closest disciples were forever doubting and confused. How often did Jesus say to them, ‘O you of little faith’? But our generous God takes our little faith, and grows it like a seed within his kingdom and into his kingdom - his kingdom of embracing love and hospitality, of welcome, of inclusion, and of more grace than we can ever imagine. It’s not what we do; it is what he has done. To God be the glory. Amen.
(With thanks to Tom Wright for ideas!)