One of the things I love about the English language is that our words are so flexible. You know what I mean? You can take a word and use it as a noun, as a verb, as an adjective and sometimes even an adverb. I love my work, I work hard, these are my work clothes.
But there is one big exception in the English language, and that is the word “faith”. We’re allowed to use it as a noun, we can say “increase my faith” but we never get to use it as a verb. And that is a real problem for our faith.
Because if we could use the word “faith” as a verb, we could say things like “I faith you”. And wouldn’t that make faith sound much more active, and much more relational. In fact if we could use faith as a verb, most of the creeds and doctrines of the church would begin this way:
“I faith in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”
But we can’t. So we have to substitute. Most of the time when faith shows up as a verb, we substitute with the word “believe”. And that’s a problem.
Because belief can get us stuck in our heads. Belief sometimes sounds like it’s more about what you know, or how much you know, than who you know. Belief only gets us so far. Faith is much more. What, exactly, is faith?
When I get asked that question, I like to tell my rock-climbing story.
It was about a dozen years ago that our family went out west to visit my brother Steve. He took us out rock-climbing near Vancouver. Now rock-climbing really isn’t my thing. I have a fear of heights, and that really doesn’t sit well with hanging off the face of a cliff. But Steve offered to take us, and my kids were keen, so I thought I’d give it a go.
Now it seems to me that the most important piece of equipment when you go rock-climbing is the rope. When you’re on a cliff face, a good rope can mean the difference between life and death. And so one of the first things we did when we got to the cliff was take the rope out of the car and examine it for nicks and kinks. It looked good, and Steve assured me that it was strong enough. We fastened it over the pulley at the top of the cliff and made sure that it was also long enough. So far so good. At this point, you might say that I had “faith” in the rope.
But that’s a bit of a superficial use of the word faith isn’t it? Because when I’m standing safely on the ground with the rope beside me, all I’m doing is agreeing with a collection of facts about the rope: the rope exists, it’s long enough, it’s a good rope and so on. But so far this is just knowledge. I don’t really have any relationship with the rope yet. That will come when I get onto the cliff. Too often we make the mistake of thinking that faith is simply believing in a collection of facts or doctrines. That may be a good start, but faith is so much more. Faith is about a relationship.
My relationship with the rope definitely gets a bit more serious when I clip that rope to my waist and start climbing the cliff. I’m climbing on my own, I’m supporting my own weight but the rope is there “just in case”. I know that if I fall, the rope will support me and keep me from crashing to the ground. I wouldn’t climb without the rope, but if all goes well and I don’t make any mistakes, I don’t need to use the rope to get to the top of the cliff. At this point I start to have more of a relationship with the rope, but it’s a relationship that I’ll really only use if I get into trouble.
The critical moment in my relationship with the rope happens when I get to the top of the cliff and it’s time to go back down. In order to get back down the cliff, I need to let go of the rock face with my hands, and drop back into mid-air with only the rope to support me. Now, remember, for the last half-hour, I’ve been clinging to that rock face for dear life. Letting go and falling backwards is not an easy thing to do. This is the moment when you find out whether you really trust the rope or not.
A lot of people on the cliff had trouble at this point. Faith in the rope at this crucial moment is no longer just about knowledge, and it’s no longer a ‘just in case’ kind of thing. It is much more existential, it’s a relationship which really matters. You have to trust the rope. Some people couldn’t do it. Instead, they climbed up over the cliff top and had to walk the long way back down.
Faith has more to do with trust than belief. And in that critical moment either you trust or you don’t. Or as Yoda might say, “trust or trust not, there is no try.”
Which if you think about it, is kind of what Jesus is saying to the disciples in today’s gospel.
The disciples are feeling the strain. They’re on a long journey, they’re tired. They’re fearful, they know that the authorities are watching. Jesus has challenged them, he’s been talking about the cost of discipleship, he’s been talking about giving away your possessions, he’s been talking about the need to repeatedly forgive those who hurt you. They’re feeling the strain, yet Jesus is still going strong, he’s still healing, and teaching and reaching out to those who are oppressed, changing lives.
The disciples want what he’s got. They want Jesus’ faith, and they want a lot of it. They want more: more strength, more power, more knowledge, more certainty. They want big faith, super-sized faith. And so they cry out,
“Lord, increase our faith.”
But faith isn’t something you can measure. It’s not something you can have more of. The disciples have the wrong idea here. And Jesus chides them for it. He picks the smallest thing he can think of, a mustard seed, and says even if you had that much faith, you could do amazing things.
Because to faith is to trust. And when it comes time to let go of the cliff and fall back into mid-air, either you trust the rope or you don’t.
A lot of people have puzzled over Jesus’ words in this passage. What does he mean by faith the size of a mustard seed?
What if the tiny grain of faith that we need is simply this: to trust God. Do we trust God, or not? Jesus wants us to trust in God’s faithfulness.
Because it is God’s faithfulness that is great.
The poet who wrote the book of Lamentations that we read this morning, he gets it.
The poet’s world has fallen apart. Jerusalem has been destroyed, its people taken into captivity.
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people …
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
This is a deep lament. It comes from a place of suffering and desolation. But then something amazing happens:
“This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness.”
The poet trusts in God’s faithfulness.
When we speak of God’s faithfulness, what do we mean?
We mean, as the poet says, that God’s steadfast love never ceases and his mercies never come to an end.
We remember that God said through Moses, “I am your God and you are my people.”
We recall that Jesus promised just before his death, “I will be with you always.”
These are God’s promises to us. Can we trust these promises? Our faith isn’t a belief system, it is a relationship: we trust in God. We trust that God will be faithful to these promises. We trust that God’s faithfulness is great.
That is the mustard seed of faith.
Homily: Yr C P27, October 6 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Lamentations 1.1-6, 3.19-26; 2 Tim 1.1-14; Luke 17.5-10
Image by Ruth Hartnup, Creative Commons