WASHINGTON CITY CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN
October 6, 2013
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Sometimes we start reading a passage and it seems that Jesus is giving the disciples a hard time, and we can’t really figure out why. This is one of those passages. The disciples say, “Jesus! Give us more faith!”
Doesn’t that sound like a good thing? Doesn’t that sound like something they should be asking for? Who here would not like to have more faith, stronger faith? Which one of us, if we had the chance to walk and talk and live with Jesus physically, might not have asked for more faith at some point along the way? More faith sounds like a very reasonable thing to ask for. It sounds like a good thing to ask for.
But when the disciples say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Jesus responds by implying that they don’t have any faith at all to increase. He then moves on to say that they’re like slaves, or in our times servants or employees, who expect the boss to thank them or give them a bonus every time they do the minimum amount of work that their job requires. So what is wrong with the disciples asking for more faith?
To answer that we have to look back a few verses. Jesus has told the disciples the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, a story about Lazarus, who has nothing but sores that are licked by dogs. That parable is part of an ongoing theme in Luke – the last shall be first, the weak shall be exalted, the rich shall be humbled. Then Jesus talks about the importance of not causing little ones to stumble, and how it’s essential to forgive others. That brings us to where our passage today starts.
I think there’s the answer to why Jesus responds as he does. He’s been talking to the disciples and teaching the disciples about poor people, weak people, small people, sinful people. He’s been talking about what our responsibility is to other people, and the disciples respond by making it all about them. The disciples respond by talking about what they want, what they think they need, what Jesus can do for them. They refuse to let Jesus put the spotlight on anyone but themselves.
And so Jesus answers them with a little hyperbole, a little exaggeration. “What do you mean give us more faith? If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, if you had even this much little teeny-tiny amount of faith you could tell a tree to jump into the ocean and it would!” That is exaggeration. It is not meant to be literal. We know that the disciples have at least some faith – that’s why they’re the disciples. That’s why they left behind home and family and jobs and nets and boats to follow and minister and learn with Jesus. They have at least some faith, or they wouldn’t even be there and they wouldn’t think Jesus could increase their faith.
The other way you can tell that Jesus isn’t being literal, that Jesus is exaggerating, is when you think about what he says they could do. He doesn’t say if they had any faith at all they could do something practical, something useful, something helpful. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could end world hunger.” “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could bring peace and justice to the entire globe.” Instead he says that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could uproot a tree and replant it at the bottom of the ocean. As if that would be anything that anyone would want to do, or as if it would mean anything if anyone did it.
Jesus’ frustration grows from the disciples thinking about faith as something to benefit themselves, something to bring glory or riches or power to themselves. Faith isn’t something that you can quantify. It isn’t something that you can store up and save until you need it. Faith isn’t something that is about the faithful person and her needs. Instead, Jesus wants the disciples to think about having faith as being a way of serving and benefiting others.
That second part of the scripture, that part about the slave, that describes to a large degree what faith is. Faith is doing what you are supposed to do, doing your duty as a Christian. Faith is doing as God has commanded you. Faith is doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Faith is loving others as yourself. Faith is active. Faith is to be lived. Faith is directed outward. And faith is something that we can do every day.
In our reading from Habakkuk we see that same shift from things being about me, about the writer, about an inward focus to an outward focus. The writer wonders about the world around him. How long will destruction and violence rule? How long will I cry for help before the Lord answers? God, why do you make me live like this? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Do you hear it? Oh God, why is this all happening to me?
Then the focus shifts. I will stop looking at me. I will stop looking at my life and my needs and my feelings. Instead I will stand on the rampart and keep watch for God. I will watch for God and listen for God’s answer. The focus shifts from inward to outward.
And God’s answer comes. Make the vision plain. Write it in a way that all can see it. You may have to wait, but God’s kingdom will come. Until then, the righteous will live by faith. Once again, faith is something to be lived.
Mother Teresa said that our calling is not to do great things. Our calling is to do small things with great love. We don’t necessarily need greater faith, or more faith, or stronger faith. We need to live out of the faith that we have. We need to look for ways to live our faith daily, in small ways. We need to look for ways to share our faith daily, in kindness and service to others. We need to look for ways to share our faith daily, standing on the ramparts and seeing not just the death and destruction that Habakkuk saw, but seeing God’s vision and hearing God’s call. Seeing opportunity. Doing what we are supposed to do. Living and walking by faith.
Alyce McKenzie tells this story. I knew a man in a church I served years ago who gave money for new choir robes. In talking with me about it, he said, “There is just one condition. I don’t want to be recognized by the congregation or the community or the staff or anybody. If you ever thank me publicly I’ll come and get the robes and take them away.
I nodded in agreement, but I was thinking, “Well, that’s a little extreme.”
“Maybe you think that’s a little extreme,” he said. “But I want to keep clear in my mind what my motives are. As soon as I get thanked and that starts feeling good to me, my motives get corrupted. When a person has money and can give choir robes, it‘s what they should do. It’s not something they should be thanked for as if it’s any big deal.” He paused and concluded, “You thank me, the robes disappear. You stay quiet, the robes stay. “
It was the oddest threat I’d ever received in ministry.
The guy who gave the choir robes puts it very well. “When a person has money and can give choir robes, it’s what they should do.” I may not have money to give choir robes, or refrigerators and freezers for the Nutrition Program, or something big like that. But I do have money to do something. And maybe there are times we don’t have money to do anything. We have other gifts. We have other talents. We have time here and there to share.
If faith is about doing our jobs as Christians every day, what does Jesus say about what our jobs are? At the conclusion of her story about the choir robes, McKenzie summed it up. Our job, according to the verses just before this passage, is to see the needs of those who are suffering around us and to do what we can to help them. Our job is to freely forgive those who wrong us. Our job is to use our gifts and our presence to encourage others’ faith rather than to be a stumbling block to them. And in today’s passage Jesus says that we have enough faith to do those things right here, right now, today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Only the one who obeys believes, and only the one who believes obeys.” Faith is something that we can demonstrate by coming here on Sunday morning and gathering to sing and share and pray. Faith is something that we can demonstrate in singing hymns and praises to God. And faith is something that we can demonstrate every day by obedience to God’s call. By watching on the ramparts for God’s vision and then making it real and plain to others as we walk by faith. By recognizing that we have faith already, and that God has given us work to do. By not worrying about how much faith we have or what kind of faith we have or what our faith does for us, but by directing our faith outward into the world. Make your faith a daily thing, and God will be praised. Amen.