Faith is trusting God’s power at work in your heart and life, which is always sufficient.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 27 C
Texts: 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
You have enough faith. If you’re worried that you don’t believe the things you’re supposed to believe, or you have too much doubt, or you’ve done too much wrong, or you’ve done too little right – I can tell you that, right now, just as you are, you have enough faith.
When the disciples ask Jesus to “increase their faith,” Jesus declines. Not because they don’t qualify somehow, or because he’s withholding more faith from them – but because the faith they have already is sufficient. Even if it’s tiny! Jesus picks one of the smallest things he can think of to drive this point home: if your faith is as tiny as a mustard seed, that’s enough.
Mustard seeds are famously small, but I don’t think that’s the only reason that Jesus picks a seed for this metaphor of faith. Seeds grow. They transform on a scale that’s miraculous. From something so tiny can come giant trees, sprawling shrubs, stretching vines. Seeds provide – they bring fruit and food. And seeds are alive. They contain a living thing. And that living thing can produce other living things, seeds that make plants that make more seeds that make more plants…
So if faith is like that, then even the tiniest kernel of faith can live and provide and grow. Despite Jesus’ seed metaphor, I imagine that you have still felt like your faith is fragile or inadequate at times.
Timothy, a leader in the early church, seems to have faced a crisis of faith like that, one that was emotionally difficult. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, we hear that Timothy has shed tears; he has felt ashamed and afraid. His faith has grown as dim as an ember. But Paul believes that Timothy’s faith can still be re-kindled.
He reminds Timothy that his faith, tiny ember that it is, is not his own: Timothy has inherited this faith from his ancestors. Paul writes: “Your faith lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I’m sure, lives in you.” In other words, the tiny seed of faith is alive and growing. It was alive before Timothy, and now, it lives in him. Timothy doesn’t carry the burden of faith alone. Wise, courageous women (in this case) carried it before him, and now this treasure of the faith has been entrusted to him. Someday Timothy will pass it on to those who come after him, and those who come after them, and those who come after them…
Could Timothy ever have imagined that all of us would be sitting here today, recipients of the faith that was passed down from his grandmother? That tiny ember, that had almost gone out, still lives. Look, it is here, living even now, in this room, in us.
When we gather together in worship, we bring into this space the legacy of those Loises and Eunices who brought us up in the faith. They may not be literal, biological mothers and grandmothers – but you know who those people are in your life, those mothers and fathers and siblings of faith who nurtured you on your spiritual journey, who shared with you the precious good news of the Gospel, who reminded you when you were most afraid and ashamed: that you are loved; you are enough.
Now you are entrusted with the treasure. You are part of family tree of the faithful. You are called to tell others that they are loved, that they are enough. And the faith will keep living and growing, beyond our lifetimes.
We will see this in action this morning, when we baptize Abigail. This is part of the Lutheran tradition of baptizing young children. We don’t question whether or not little ones have “enough” faith, or believe the “right” things in order to be baptized – because this is God’s free gift, without qualification. One does not have to do anything to receive it. Babies can’t even walk themselves to the font! They get carried, by their mothers and grandmothers in faith. When we are baptized at any age, we are always carried, in a sense, to that moment by our mothers and grandmothers in faith. And no matter what happens in the lives of the baptized, the gift of God’s grace will always be there for them. Nothing can ever take it away.
Because God’s spirit is always at work in us, through our whole lives. Paul reminds Timothy of this also when he writes about the Holy Spirit that is “living in us.” The Spirit is always within us, guiding us and working through us. You don’t have to rely on your own strength; you can rely on the life-giving power of God that is already within you. You don’t have to worry about whether or not you have enough faith; you just have to trust the one who is at work in you. Faith is trusting that God’s work in you is sufficient.
However, trusting that God’s spirit is moving in our hearts and lives doesn’t mean that faithful living requires nothing of us. Paul describes discipleship as a “holy calling:” In response to God’s gift of grace, we are called to live Gospel-centered lives. That’s not always easy. Living out the radical compassion of the Gospel requires commitment, discipline, and sacrifice.
In the Luke passage we heard this morning, Jesus reminds the apostles of this: The Gospel life requires a willingness to serve without reward or repayment, to serve because it is the way God has told us we are to live. Jesus compares it to household slaves dutifully serving at the table of their master. They serve the meal first, before eating themselves.
It’s uncomfortable for us to hear that metaphor today. We know that a master-slave interaction is an unequal and coercive power dynamic, not a model relationship. It is troubling and confusing to hear this imagery used by Jesus. Yet we can still wrestle with the implications of his message.
The end of his short parable contains a surprising twist for the audience: Jesus puts his listeners in the role of the servants, not the master. The authority role is reserved for God. This metaphor is not about humans having power over other humans, but about faithful obedience to God. And God is not the same kind of master that humans would be. When Jesus speaks of the “kingdom of God,” we understand that he is describing God’s reign of complete mercy and justice. That is in contrast to earthly kingdoms over which humans reign. Similarly, when Jesus speaks of being “slaves” to God, that is in contrast to human systems of slavery. God is always liberating. Obedience to the way of the Gospel is never oppressive, even if it is difficult. It is always life-giving.
We don’t serve God and one another because we think it will gain us reward. We serve because it is the way of life that Christ showed us – Christ, who himself became a servant out of love for the world [Philippians 2:7]. We don’t have to wonder whether a master like that would invite us to sit down at the table and share a meal. The table of the Triune God is open to all, always, and the meal is ready. That’s what we celebrate each time we share communion.
So instead of hearing this parable as a reminder that we are worthless slaves, it can be a reminder that we are devoted servants in God’s kingdom, living out our commitment to the Gospel as a “holy calling.” If ever we feel that we are inadequate for the tasks of discipleship, we can remember that it doesn’t depend on our own power, but on God’s power working through us. And God will never give up on that work in us, no matter how dim our faith feels from time to time, because in God’s sight we are always enough. We continue living as faithful people because God has always been faithful to us – just as God was faithful to the generations who came before us and will be faithful to the generations who will come after us.