It's a Low Bar - (thank God)
A sermon on faith and doubt (for inside the women's prison)
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"
The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you. - Luke 17
When I was a little girl, I was given a small “Christian” necklace. But it wasn’t a little gold cross or a silver Jesus fish symbol-thing. Nope. As a 11 year old girl, I wore a fake gold chain from which hung a small, clear, plastic orb – that contained within it. . . a tiny round seed.
You might see where this is going . . . it was a mustard seed. If you have faith the size of this tiny mustard seed, Jesus said, you could uproot a huge tree and throw it in the ocean.
Um, I have never understood why, if given such vast power over physical objects, one would, out of all the options available, choose to uproot bushes and throw them into the ocean. I mean, I would maybe uproot an entire New York pizza parlor and drop it into my backyard, sure, but choosing to use a superpower to drown mulberry bushes feels like a pretty big missed opportunity.
That aside, I have to admit that this “if you have faith of a mustard seed” text has not been one in my life that has made my faith feel stronger . . . this text has been one in my life that has often made my faith feel inadequate. Because I’ve always heard it as a syllogism:
With only a teensy weensy amount of faith, Nadia could perform miracles.
Nadia does not perform miracles.
Therefore Nadia has so little faith it’s not even as big as that mustard seed around her neck.
Well, for the record, that necklace was super cheap and always turned my neck green so, you know, I didn’t wear it much.
Anyhow, when I am on the road speaking at events, I always take questions, and I am struck by how different the questions are when they are written down anonymously as opposed to when people have to stand up and say them out loud.
The stand up out loud questions are often like, what do your tattoos mean?
But the written questions are more like, is it ok to feel distant from your faith when you are going through a really hard time in life?
And…What if I am not sure what I believe?
And.. Is doubt ok?
And even statements like: Sometimes I wonder if there really is a God because of all the hurt and suffering in life.
These questions, asked under the cover on anonymity, feel like they maybe come from the same place as when the disciples said Lord, increase our faith. Thinking if they could just have a greater quantity of faith, then things would be less hard for them.
And the way I always heard Jesus’ response about the mustard seed felt to me like Jesus is basically scolding them and also us for not having even the tiniest measurable amount of faith.
But a closer reading of the text offers some help – and forgive me for talking about grammar in a sermon, but in Greek there is a "future conditional clause": If you were to have the faith of a mustard seed -- implying that you don't have that faith now (which is how I always heard it).
But there is also an "according to present reality conditional clause" in Greek: in which case Jesus response to the disciples changes to: if you have the faith of a mustard seed (and you do) —implying that they ALREADY have enough faith.
So here in Luke Jesus isn’t actually scolding them for not having even the tiniest amount of faith – instead when they ask him to increase their faith he’s basically rejecting the premise of their request.
In essence, he seems to imply that what they need isn’t more faith,
What they need to realize is that the thing they already have IS faith.
It’s like Jesus is saying how much faith do you have? and I’m like I don't know Jesus, it’s not very much it’s like barely any and Jesus is saying “perfect!”
That’s a different message entirely isn’t it?
So maybe our prayer for today shouldn’t be Lord, increase our faith, but Lord increase our awareness of what faith already looks like in our lives.
Which brings me back to the questions I get on the road. So many of them imply that people struggle with the fact that hard things in life are, well. . . hard. That somehow since they don’t have the same great positive feelings about God in the midst of their suffering as they do in the midst of their joy that this somehow means they lack faith. Or if they doubt it means they do not have faith, and if they do not have faith it means God is far off – like God is so needy that if we don't text him heart emojis every couple hours he stops loving us.
But friends, I just don’t think our thoughts and feelings are quite that powerful.
I mean, Jesus does not promise us that where two or more are gathered he will be there, you know, IF you have all managed to have enough faith this week.
So I wonder if maybe when we are a little neurotic about whether or not we have enough faith, it’s both giving ourselves too much credit and not giving ourselves enough credit all at once.
Too much credit because our thoughts and feelings, while not unimportant, are just not so powerful that they have any kind of eternal spiritual impact, and not enough credit because honestly we probably have a lot more faith than we realize.
For most of my life I thought that the only exercise that “counted” was going for a run, or working out at the gym. And there were times in my life I would do just that for 30 minutes a day and then be sedentary for 23 ½ hours. But I have started wearing a fitness tracker and am stunned to see how on days I don’t “workout” I still walk 10,000 steps a day just living my life. Just doing things like housework and grocery shopping – things I never thought were part of my fitness.
So when it comes to spiritual fitness – sometimes in our lives we can hit the God Gym and sometimes we just can’t and in those seasons, let’s trust that there are many spiritually unassuming parts of our lives that have an element of faith to them and that those parts really add up.
Here’s an incomplete list:
If you dream about a good future for your children, that’s a form of faith.
If you are moved by the faith of your ancestors, that also counts.
If you have doubts – that is also a form of faith because at least you’re still engaged in the question.
Do you hold those you love in your heart when they are suffering? Faith.
Do you notice the changing blue of the Colorado sky…totally counts.
Do you see the inherit dignity of other human beings – also faith.
Have you asked someone to pray for you because you just can’t pray right now? Faith.
Is there a feeling of gratitude for anything at all in your life - I mean AT ALL? That’s a kind of faith.
Here’s a good one: do you ever complain or tell God off? In the Bible, that’s called a lament – and you know what? It’s a form of faith.
All of that is to say, all the faith you need is already there no matter your thoughts and feelings.
So if you are straining to touch a faith that feels out of reach and judging yourself for falling short please know this: God always puts all the best shit on the bottom shelf.
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