How Much Faith Is Enough?

Luke 17:5-10

17th Sunday after Pentecost  ~  Lectionary 27

 “Moderation is for monks,” my husband says.  “More is better!” is his motto.  This explains the shrubs in my yard are burnt by fertilizer.  Do we ever have enough?  Do we think in terms of and focus more on scarcity than we do abundance?  Do we wrestle with deficits instead recognizing gifts?  How often do we feel inadequate?  Couldn’t we benefit from more?  Perhaps we could profit from a better ability to speak in public, greater engagement with other people, more knowledge, or greater faith.

Today we hear the disciples cry “Increase our faith! If only we had more! Everything would be wonderful if just had more faith.” Maybe we need to back up to right before this morning’s reading begins. Jesus had told them that they would stumble.  He said that if they caused one new to the faith to trip up, they’d be better off with a boulder tied around their neck and thrown into the sea to sink to the bottom and drown.  He told them they needed to forgive the repentant as many times as they said they were sorry.  In response, they gave their honest gut-reaction to Jesus’ frightening statements.  They cried, “Increase our faith!”

How many times have we said that?  Like the father of an ill little boy in the Gospel of Mark, I have cried out, “Lord, I believe!  Help my unbelief!” [Mark 9:24].  I boldly say you have, too.  Increase our faith!

Where does faith come from?  Martin Luther, in his explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed states:

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.[1]

Faith is a gift.  We think having more faith is a desirable and beneficial thing, but Jesus’ response to them is harsh!  He says that a speck of faith would move a mulberry tree into the sea.  He tells the disciples to think of themselves as worthless slaves.  Jesus can be so difficult!  We know that he is exaggerating to drive his point home, but what is really wrong with wanting more faith?

Thinking about that, what do we mean by “having faith?”  When is it that we don’t feel I have enough of it? Is it when something happens that we perceive is negatively impacting our life?  If our faith is strong enough, we will get that job, or  won’t get sick. We will be happier, and successful.   Fill in the blank. Is this faith? Is our concept of faith about our ability to manipulate God, or self-centered magic?

But maybe our longing for more faith has more to do with feeling like a pseudo-Christian because we have doubts.  We are confused, or can’t articulate our faith.  Maybe we can’t conceive of a virgin birth, “Increase our faith,” we cry.  Maybe what we want is for discipleship, and the life of faith to be easy.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus replied to the disciples, and to us.  What he is saying is, “If you had faith, and you do!”  This Greek conditional clause translates that way.  Jesus wasn’t ranking the disciples according to their faith.  They had seen Jesus heal Jairus’ daughter, heard him pronounce forgiveness in God’ name to the woman weeping at his feet, and cleanse a leper.  They heard his teaching to love enemies, and pronounce blessing to these who are poor. Their experience of Jesus sparked their belief in him, and their trust. They believed he had the power to increase their faith.  They recognized their inability to believe on their own.

God’s call to and hope for us is use the faith that we have, no matter how much or how little, to do those things that God calls us to do.  To do them, not to receive honor or reward, but as a response to our love for God.   We are called to pass along God’s grace and love that flows so deep through the dark depths of our lives, and do so because we cannot imagine life without it.  More faith isn’t better faith.

“Faith is the ‘assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,’ says the Letter to the Hebrews (1:11),” Frederick Buechner reminds us. “Faith is laughter at the promise of a child called Laughter. Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession.”[2]

We already have what we need, more than enough as a matter of fact, to do faith.  It’s a gift from our God of abundance.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] Wengert, Timothy, translator.  By Heart: Conversations with Luther’s Small Catechism.  Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017. 92.

[2] Buechner, Frederick.  Beyond Words:  Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers.  2004.  109.