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Do you feel that your faith is strong or weak? How much faith do you have- faith the size of a mustard seed? How can you measure faith? What is faith, anyway?
We have an idea that faith is a set of beliefs, “I have faith because I can assent to a set of propositions encapsulated in the creed”. Over the last weeks a couple of people have told me that they struggle with some of the propositions in the creeds- does that mean that they don’t have faith? I don’t think so.
The problem for the disciples was not one about what they believed but about how they were to act. Jesus had told them, and the Pharisees and various other interested parties, several hard stories about wealth and how you should behave if you had it. He has just said to them- you can’t serve God and money, because one will become dominant over the other and if you choose money, it will replace God in importance for your life. Then he has told them about a rich man who failed the poor because he was serving his own wealth, not God. Next he tells them that they must not cause others to stumble, in other words they have to be kind and generous, building others up and not doing things that make others have a crisis of faith when they see that the disciples rhetoric does not match their protestations of faith in God. And then, if that were not enough, he tells them that they must forgive those who “sin against them”, and not just once, but over and over again. This is all difficult teaching about how we humans are to behave, and it is no wonder the disciples blenched.
I think that perhaps we can see an underlying set of beliefs in all this, that go something like this. God is the creator of our world, and he expects his bounty to be shared equally among us. God loves all of us, every single person he has created, and so God does not want any of us to consider ourselves as more important than anyone else. So, as a consequence, if we take more than our share of things, God is not impressed. God is the one to whom power belongs and when we declare that we are powerful, unless we are proceeding in God’s strength, we are doing the wrong thing. These are not the words that we say together as a creed, but believing in the sovereignty of God implies these things and if we listen hard to what Jesus has been saying over these chapters of Luke, these things are the things he considers important to believe.
So where does faith come in? The disciples think they need a lot more faith to cope with all of this and Jesus seems to say to them that they don’t actually have any to begin with. Maybe the disciples are asking for the wrong thing here. This comment of Jesus’ that IF they have faith the size of a mustard seed they would be able to tell a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea, seems a very strange one to me. I imagine them sitting under the shade of said tree on a headland overlooking the Sea of Galilee and Jesus proposing the most unlikely thing he could think of at that moment to show them that faith is not the issue, or at least that having a quantity of faith, surely immeasurable to begin with, is not what it is about. Even a tiny bit of faith- the size of a mustard seed gives you a great deal of power- to do things.
To illustrate what he means he tells them a parable, which for us is a little confusing. Slaves or servants who were indebted to their master, were a fact of life, and we don’t have to presume that this is a wealthy farmer, in fact we can see from the story that he is only a poor man, as he has just one slave, who helps him in the fields but also has to do the inside work. They would have worked together in the paddocks, ploughing and shepherding- both things that the apostles were called to do. When the outside work was finished the servant went in to prepare the meal, after he had served the master he would sit down and eat himself. It sounds very like a job description for me! The slave is totally dependent on his master. The translation here doesn’t help us to understand so let me give you what Bailey says is how it should be read. We have, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” Rather it should read, “Is the master indebted to the slave?” In this culture of obligation, the question is important- does he owe him anything for doing his job? and the reply Jesus gives us to say, “we are servants to whom nothing is owing, we have only done our duty”. We can relate to this in the work place, when we do our job, it might be nice to be thanked but we do not expect a bonus every time we do what we are supposed to. And Jesus is telling the disciples that what they have from God has been given freely, and God doesn’t owe them anything if they get on and behave in the ways that they are called to. God has already given life and new life freely, it cannot be earned, so they don’t need more faith- what they need is get on with it. The slave is offering loyalty to his master, obedience and hard work, the master is offering meaning in life, worth, security and relationship. Jesus says, you just need to get on with doing what you are asked by God, don’t worry about how much faith it takes.
And yet the request of the disciples is valid. They are feeling overwhelmed by Jesus teaching, and as they go on towards the cross and beyond the resurrection they are going to feel even more overwhelmed by events. And that can be our struggle too. We call out to God to help us, give us the faith that we think we need to meet the challenges of our life. Jesus’ reply to us, as them, is just go on doing what is right, go on loving and caring for others, go on behaving responsibly with your money, go on forgiving and I will be with you caring for you as the master does for the slave. You don’t have to earn a relationship with God- it is freely given, you don’t have to earn your salvation- Jesus has already saved you, you don’t have to earn God’s love because you were loved before you were even born.
We, both as a church and as individuals need to recognize that we are God’s servants. This is not a popular idea in our culture, we don’t want to be seen as God’s servants. Some of us, of course, are public servants, and as such are used to the idea of serving the public good, but as private individuals we would rather be served than do the serving.
What are the things we are required by God, our master, to do in our daily lives and in our life together as a community? This is part of what we are exploring in our “Dare to Dream” gatherings. In our parish vision statement, found on the front of our pewsheet, we say we see ourselves as people who endeavor “To worship God openly and actively, enabling us to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to hear and to respond lovingly to the diverse needs of our community”. There is no mention of the word service but it is implied, isn’t it? So we think we should worship God, which is service as well and hear and lovingly respond to the needs of our community. are we doing that, as a church and as individuals?
Another question this passage throws up for me is, am I waiting to be thanked every time I do something to serve someone else or God? Do I think that God somehow owes me? This sense of entitlement is very strong in our culture at the moment and we, as God’s beloved children, need to remember that the obligation is all on our side.
Do we, like the disciples, have a sense that our faith is lacking when we are faced with difficult tasks, or things that we really don’t want to be bothered with? Do we call out, “Increase our faith” so that we will be able to do this you ask of us? Jesus says, “put on your apron and serve me” and I think that in the very act of doing what we are called to do we are strengthened for the task, our faith is increased and then at the moment when our lives are assessed the report will be, “well done, good and faithful servant.”