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What Faith Does

San Williams

October 6, 2013
Luke 17:5-10

 “Lord,” Jesus’ disciples cry out, “increase our faith.”  No one would question the sincerity of that request.  After all, Jesus has been talking about the cost of discipleship.  He reminded his disciples that it’s impossible to serve both God and money.  He told the unsettling parable about the rich man and Lazarus.  As if that weren’t enough, he called on his disciples to practice unlimited forgiveness, saying, “…if the same person sins against you seven time a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”   The disciples were astounded and dismayed. Jesus was setting the discipleship bar too high!  Whatever it takes to be a disciple, they realized, they needed more of it.  No wonder, then, that the disciples cried out:   “Lord, Increase our faith.”   

And isn’t that a request we might make, and probably have made at one time or another?  A mother prays over her child’s sickbed, even as she questions whether prayer makes a difference.  “Lord,” whispers the mother, “Increase my faith.”  Or a loved one dies and you want to believe that there is something beyond death yet doubts persist, so you pray, “Please, Lord, increase my faith.”  Or who doesn’t look with dismay at the failings of our government, the ongoing international troubles in our world and wonder whether justice will ever prevail, and whether God’s kingdom will ever come on earth as it is in heaven.  We want to believe that love will win, that peace will break out, that World Communion is more than merely a once-a-year liturgical celebration.  Perhaps we are all a little like the father in the Gospels who asked Jesus to heal his son, saying, “I believe,” but who then confessed his doubts with these words: “Help thou my unbelief.”  So the disciples’ request for more faith is repeated time and again by disciples of every age who realize how hard it is to believe what Jesus taught, and harder still to do what he commanded.  Hence our plea, “Lord, increase our faith.”    

 But Jesus doesn’t grant the disciples’ request.  Instead he brushes off their words as unnecessary.  Apparently more faith isn’t what’s needed.   If we were to update Jesus’ imagery to fit our situation, he might say to us: “Look, if you have even a pixel of faith, you could say to those oak trees in your courtyard, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the bottom of Lady Bird Lake,’ and they would obey you.” (Not that we would want to do that.) But what in heaven’s name is Jesus telling his disciples about faith? At the very least, he’s letting us know that faith is not the kind of thing that can be measured, or quantified. The amount of faith one has doesn’t seem to be the point.  Then what is? 

Well, Jesus addresses the matter with a little parable about slaves who simply do what slaves are supposed to do, which is to say, they serve.   Now, this parable troubles us for all kinds of reasons.  The very idea of slavery is abhorrent to us, and rightly so.  Throughout history, slavery has represented a blight on human dignity, justice, and freedom.  Furthermore, we wince at Jesus’ suggestion that we think of ourselves as “worthless slaves.”  Giving people a sense of worth has been a primary goal of schools, churches, parents and programs aimed at improving lives.   Thus Jesus’ choice of imagery, from our perspective, is unfortunate.  However, Jesus isn’t defending the institution of slavery.  Rather he’s replying to the disciples’ request for more faith.  With this parable, he changes the question from “How much faith is enough?” to “What is faith for?”               

Last Sunday’s Austin American-Statesman editorial page included a column by Leonard Pitts.  Pitt’s column was about Pope Francis.  He noted how the Pope is living out a brand of faith seldom seen on the public stage. The new Pose insists on carrying his own bags, living in a simple apartment, cooking his own supper, riding around in an old car instead of the papal Mercedes.  He models humility, inclusion, unpretentiousness, and compassion. One of the Pope’s earliest acts was to wash and kiss the feet of a dozen young prisoners, two of them girls, and at least one of them a Muslim. What’s curious, Pitts observes, is that so many people are surprised by this, as if the Pope’s humility and compassion were new qualities. In fact, though, the Pope is merely acting out a faith that was modeled for us centuries ago.  Pitts reminds us how Jesus, in the hours before his crucifixion, decided to teach his disciples one last lesson.  He knelt before them as a slave would do, and he washed their feet. “People call this an act of humility,” Pitts writes, and continues,  “If you are a Christian, that word is not nearly strong enough for the idea of God incarnate, the Creator of Creation, the Author of Everything, wiping dirt and camel dung from the feet of these often dull-witted fishermen—and then telling them explicitly that He is setting an example He wanted them to follow.”  What’s so embarrassing, Pitts contends, is that the Pope’s demeanor and actions are widely regarded as unusual and unexpected. Pitts ends his essay with a simple question:  “Isn’t that what faith was supposed to be all along?”

A recent letter from Somalia printed in The New Yorker magazine tells the story of Ahmed Jama.  Like thousands of Somalians, Jama fled his home country, arriving at HeathrowAirport in 1988 with a forged passport, no local contacts, and little command of English. Despite these obstacles, Jama eventually became a skilled chef and the owner of a successful restaurant in London.  Then, five years ago, Jama surprised everyone by returning to his home country with his wife and three young children.  He offered this explanation: “Someone has to start somewhere in history to change a nation.  I wanted to show what could be done, to make people forget about hunger and bloodshed, to learn to live with each other.  I wanted to become a man of hope.”

So Jama did return to Somalia, and over time he opened several restaurants and hotels in Mogadishu, even though he endured repeated assaults from gunfire, suicide bombings, and street violence. When these events occurred, Jama would simply sweep up the debris, repair the damage, and start over.

Then, on September 7th, a car bomb exploded in the restaurant parking lot, killing fifteen people, including several young boys who washed cars for a living.  Jama, who wasn’t at the restaurant at the time, rushed to the restaurant when he heard the news.  He learned that a Shabaab spokesman had announced that Jama himself was a direct target of the terrorist group, because they contended he was a spy for the British government.  Yet Jama still refuses to give up, and he plans to rebuild the restaurant.  In response to the accusation that he was a spy, he logged on to his Twitter account with this denial:  “All I do is cook food.”   

Well, we disciples are forever crying out for more faith, but Jesus responds to our plea by entreating us this way: Use the faith you have, the time you have, the resources you have to take care of one another, serve one another, love one another. If you are a cook, then cook.  If you are a teacher, teach.  If you are a parent, parent with all the love and wisdom you can muster. Whatever you have to offer, offer it trusting that in God’s Kingdom no act of service is ever in vain.  That’s what faith means, and that’s what faith does.