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Increase our Faith

Lamentations 3: 19-26
Luke 17: 5-0

World Wide Communion Sunday

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

God, help us to be present to you this day;
present to your dream-filled work
of evoking, imagining, forming, and inviting.
Draw us closer to you.
We are ready to listen.

In 1965, when I was 19 years old, I decided to be become a minister in the United Church. My minister of the church at Rosemount First United thought it might be a good idea for me to be presented to the congregation as a Candidate for ministry and asked me to preach at that worship service.

So I agreed and thought that I would present a great sermon that would move the hearts and minds of the people. I probably spent over a hundred hours preparing that sermon and that hoped that it would spark a great awakening in the life of that congregation.

Well, after the service was over, a couple of people said that they enjoyed the sermon and one person said that the sermon helped them. I was greatly disappointed, No, I was devastated by the lack of response. I wrote a letter to a good friend of my family, who was also a minister expressing my disappointment and asked “What is your standard for a successful ministry?” He wrote back and said, “If you are able to help five people in five years, that is successful ministry.” I responded by writing “Five people in five years is only a total of twenty five. I don’t consider that to be much of a success.” He wrote back, “You fool, I meant a total of five people. Helping one person a year is successful ministry.” He also told me to read the parable of the mustard seed.

“Increase our faith”, the disciples demand of Jesus. It is their first blurted response to Jesus’ teaching that they must forgive any persons who sin against them, who says. “I’m sorry”. They felt that they did not have enough faith to be that strong or big-hearted to forgive. “Increase our faith,” they ask.

Now most people when they hear Jesus’ response, think that Jesus is putting down the disciples, saying, “O you of little faith, you do not even have the faith of a mustard seed.” But that is a misinterpretation. Jesus is really saying, “Don’t let yourself off the hook, you have plenty of faith to accomplish all that I ask.” You see we have inverted the metaphor to mean that we need faith as big as a mountain to move a mustard seed. On the contrary! The disciples are suggesting that and Jesus tells them that they faith plenty of faith already.

In the original Greek the sense is clear that the “if” clause is one that implies that the situation is already true. “If you have faith – and you DO!” is its meaning. It takes a faith just the size of the teensiest mustard seed to uproot a tree – and not just any tree, a mulberry tree which can live to be some 600 years old, and whose roots are so deep and so strong, that they can break rocks beneath the earth’s surface. We are not talking about pulling up a little green weed here, but a strong, well established deeply rooted tree and make it fly through the air and replant it in salt water, oh and make it thrive there.

Now when Jesus was telling this parable, he was exaggerating for emphasis. You see the mustard seed is a small tiny seed, but it is not the smallest of all seeds on earth. It is not even a very big plant. When I was doing an internship in Saskatchewan, I saw fields and fields of mustard plants. They stand about three feet tall, and are like a small bush. But basically, the mustard plant is weed. It is an aggressive weed. It takes over any garden. You would not want to plant it near your vegetable garden, because it would take over and dominate any garden as it spreads over the ground. It is a tough plant to eliminate.

So Jesus uses this image to unmask the excuses his friends are making. Oh, I would be more forgiving if I had more faith. How often have we said something similar? If I had more faith I could be more compassionate. I will be more generous when I have a little more money for myself. I can’t find time for friends until after I retire. I can’t reduce my drinking until I get stronger. I could work for social change, but…. (you fill in the blank.) Jesus is basically saying, “Excuses, excuses. You already have it in you in do what you need to do. Just do it.”

Mother Teresa, who worked with the poorest of the poor, is often lifted up as an example of great faith. But did you read the report which came out about a year ago which documented Mother Teresa’s profound doubts; throughout her adult life she even doubted the existence of God. As she continued her invaluable ministry to some of the earth’s most destitute people – or perhaps because of it – she found herself living with profound doubt. When I read that article I found it liberating to think someone who was so revered for her faith would admit that she had doubts.

Paul Tillich, the great theologian of the 1960’s, who had to flee Nazi Germany, once said, that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but an integral element of faith. He probably knew from personal experience.

What Jesus is saying in this little parable is that whatever times we live in, whatever the circumstance of our lives, whatever form our faith may take – it is sufficient. The mustard seed is not a symbol of the inadequacy of our faith, but of its earth shattering possibility – rock crunching, tree-lifting, life-changing, world moving.

But it is not just enough to stand there and enjoy the view. Seeds are meant to be planted, so that even more lovely things can grow. When we plant the seeds of our faith they cause more faith to grow, and the acts of faith to occur, which are God’s love, justice and mercy.

I remember a Candidate for ministry who was being ordained and said to me that I was the reason why he was now being ordained. He said that I had spent several hours with him one afternoon at a church camp and listened to his struggles and his fears and gave him the best advice he ever received. I barely remembered him and had no idea what I had said, but the mustard seed of faith had been planted and now was blossoming into a new creation.

I remember a married couple who came to me on their tenth anniversary to say thank you for performing their marriage and thank you for the counseling session we had for it had saved their marriage many times. They said that the wisdom I had shared had been very helpful. And they often quoted me to each other when they were in difficulty. Again, I don’t remember what I had said, but I do know the basic outline that I follow in those sessions, but here was a mustard seed which had been planted and had born fruit.

I remember a time when I was visiting in the hospital and hardly said a word to the family gathered, but was thanked for my compassion and caring and how important it was that I was present during the difficult time of illness and death. I had no great words of wisdom, just the calm presence of the pastor, showing the love of God in human form.

I have learned much in my 37 years in ministry. Not of least of which is to attend to the mustard seeds events in life. They are signs of God’s kingdom in our midst. They spread like weeds and have an impact far beyond their size. They work, we know not how.

We are all like one of God’s mustard seeds, spreading God’s kingdom in our families, our community our church. Sometimes, the smallest act, the briefest word, the nominal deed can have an effect far beyond our expectations.

So do not hold back, take the step in faith, you already have it, be one of God’s mustard seeds in the world. Who knows what can happen? Let yourself be surprised by faith.

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