What Is Faith? Pentecost 17

What Is Faith? Pentecost 17

Year C, Proper 22, The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
October 2, 2022

Year C:  Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

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Faith! What a powerful word!

The prophet Habakkuk said, “The righteous shall live by faith.”[1]

“Great is your faith,” Jesus said to the Canaanite woman when she begged him to heal her daughter.[2]

“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.[3]

What is faith?

We see a glimpse of faith in the Book of Hebrews. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.[4]

The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

That sounds a lot like our lives.

Our lectionary reading today takes us on a somewhat circuitous route to consider faith and our lives.

The story is familiar enough. We’ve probably all heard about the Parable of the Mustard Seed. What starts as a tiny seed becomes a huge shrub, about six feet in height.

Wouldn’t it be incredible if our faith was like that mustard seed – it just took root and spread?

Jesus’ disciples make what would seem a logical and obvious request in today’s Gospel passage. “Increase our faith.”

Often people come to their clergy or spiritual advisors seeking help with issues of deepening faith or overcoming doubts and uncertainty. This is not surprising because most of us experience such needs.

If we were hearing this for the first time, as Jesus was, how would we expect Jesus to respond? By giving them pointers so they could have more faith. By helping them understand God better so their faith could become deeper. By assuring them of God’s love so they would have fewer doubts.

In describing faith like a mustard seed, Jesus described the power of faith as being so strong that even the tiniest bit of it would provide a force such that, for example, could successfully order the tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea.[5]

Indeed, I think we struggle with this image because we underscore so much of our lives with the phrase, “if I just had more faith….”

I think most of us have struggled with that statement in our lives. But, if I just had more faith, I wouldn’t have so many questions or doubts. If I had more faith, God would answer my prayers. If I had more faith, that important person in my life wouldn’t have died. If I had more faith, I would be a better person, sister, and spouse. If I had more faith, I would know what to do and handle things better. If I had more faith, life would be different.[6]

That is an approach to faith at least as old as the apostles’ faith. It is the approach they have taken in today’s Gospel.

The request to increase the disciples’ faith, our faith, allows us to believe that things would be different if we had more faith. That reveals, at best, a misunderstanding of faith itself. Jesus clearly states faithfulness is not about the size or quantity of faith. Instead, he talks about a mustard seed. A tiny seed.

Faith is not about how strongly we believe in Jesus’ words or actions. A married couple’s faithfulness is about giving their life to one another and receiving the other’s life as their own. In the best of circumstances, they are faithful because they carry the relationship with them wherever they go, in all that they do and all they do. That’s the faith relationship Jesus was talking about.

This Tuesday is the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis was the son of a wealthy textile merchant and, as such, part of the new Italian middle class that was coming into its own. His father’s wealth and Francis’ natural charisma made the young man a leader of the youth of his town.

As a boy, Francis dreamed of earning glory in battle. But Francis’ path took a series of turns closer and closer to God rather than an all-at-once conversion. At least two formative experiences profoundly changed the course of Francis’ life. First, on a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis saw a beggar outside St. Peter’s Church. The Holy Spirit moved him to trade places with the beggar. Francis exchanged clothes with a beggar and then spent the day begging for alms. The experience of being poor shook Francis to the core.

Later, Francis confronted his fears of leprosy by hugging a leper. Like trading places with the beggar in Rome, embracing a leper left a deep mark on Francis. Shaped by his experiences with the beggar and the leper, Francis decided to walk away from the opulent lifestyle afforded him and sought out a radically simple life.

The point of my telling Francis’ story is not to say that is the way for all of us. What it does underscore is the second part of today’s parable.

What Jesus insisted upon is that we all need to obey God and do our duty. As an example, he depicts each of his disciples as a humble servant, an enslaved person who tends sheep and plows fields. The effect of Jesus’ teaching is that a disciple needs enough faith to serve and care for God’s people with the attentiveness of a servant.

Francis’ approach to his life of Christian service fits with Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless salves’ we have done only what we out to have done!”

The hard part is that when we come in from doing something for God, we cannot expect some great reward, only more work.

So, how can we live more fully into the Gospel in our own time and place?

We are all ministers by virtue of our baptism. And as ministers, each of us has a wide variety of jobs to do in the kingdom of God based on the gifts God has given us. Each of us has to find those jobs. Whether as a vestry member, an Altar Guild member, a food pantry volunteer, a community volunteer, or an activist and prophet like St. Francis. Francis took his mustard seed of faith and used it to trust that he could hug a leper, though he was afraid. In the process, he found the faith to work among lepers. And so, again and again, his steps of faith emboldened Francis to trust God more. It is the same for us. Each step of faith strengthens our trust in God to follow even more fully.

Faith is not lived out in the abstract but practiced daily in ordinary everyday circumstances. Some days when the pain and heaviness of life seem more than we can carry, it is by faith, and relationship with Jesus, that we get up each morning and face the reality of life. Other days present with different circumstances. When we feel the pain of the world and respond with compassion by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and speaking for justice; when we experience the brokenness of a relationship and offer forgiveness ad mercy; when we see those in need and offer our presence and prayers – in all those we have lived, seen, and acted by faith. Then there are days when we feel powerless, lost, and do not know the way forward. By faith, we sit in silence and wait.

The question for us today is not how much faith we have but how we live the faith that we do have. How is our faith and relationship with Jesus changing our lives and relationships? Are we walking in faith to seek thanks or as a simple act of love?

In faithful Christian communities, people can be many things and feel many ways: happy, triumphant, sad, anxious, fearful, or comforted.

But God loves us exactly as we are. We live in God’s grace, mercy, and faith given to us in a mustard seed.


[1] Habakkuk 2:4, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (“NRSVUE”)

[2] Matthew 15:28, NRSVUE

[3] Luke 17:5, NRSVUE

[4] Hebrews 11:1, NRSVUE

[5] Cf. Luke 17:6, NRSVUE

[6] Cf. “Supersize My Faith, Interrupting the Silence, Michel K. Marsh