“Mustard Seed Faith” Colchester Federated Church, October 2, 2022, (Luke 17:5-10) World Communion Sunday

Today we encounter Jesus’ disciples being a little bit demanding in the Gospel according to Luke.  The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith.  Perhaps it’s an earnest request, though it can also be read as a demand.  “Increase our faith!”[1]  There is an exclamation point at the end of this sentence after all.  Jesus responds with what would become a famous teaching: “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.”[2]  The disciples believe that they need to have more faith in order to follow Jesus’ teachings.  “Increase our faith!”  Throughout the Gospel of Luke, faith is shown time and again by people who overcome some sort of barrier or obstacle in their path to reach Jesus, trusting that Jesus can help them.  Jesus is patiently telling his disciples in our Gospel text that even a speck of faith is enough.  Mustard seed faith is all that is required to follow him.

This teaching can remind us about the power of faith.  Over the years, I have come to understand that faith is not as much about believing the “right things” about Christianity—orthodoxy (right beliefs) as it is about orthopraxy (right practices).  Meaning it’s fine if you believe all the “right things” about the trinity or atonement or ecclesiology or systematic theology, but if you’re mean and judgmental, what’s the point of those “right beliefs”?  Faith, without putting that faith into loving action, is pointless.  What’s the point if you’re not loving God, loving your neighbor, and loving yourself as Jesus taught us?  Moreover, faith is about trusting God in all things, trusting that God is there for us in the good times and the bad.  Trusting that Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us.  Trusting seems to get to the heart of the matter, to go deeper into our souls as opposed to believing something to be true staying up in our heads.  It is great to know things, however faith might be better defined as trust.  Faith as trust can change your life.

Professor Marcus Borg wrote in his book Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored that faith in premodern Christianity harkens back to the Latin word fidelitas and the Greek word fiduciaFidelitas means fidelity or faithfulness.  We can consider what that means in a human relationship—what does it mean to be faithful to someone?  Borg reflects that faithfulness “has a positive meaning of commitment, loyalty, allegiance, and attentiveness to the relationship.  So it is in our relationship with God; faith as fidelity does not mean simply not going after other gods, but commitment, loyalty, allegiance, and attentiveness to our relationship with God.”[3]  We are invited to have an actual relationship with God—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”[4]

To love someone—God included—we must focus our loving attention on them.  Now I know that there may be some who think that your Pastor going off on an 8 Day Silent Retreat at a Roman Catholic Retreat Center is a little intense or odd.  Trust me, this is now the second time that I have done this retreat and there are moments when yes, it’s SO strange.  You’re in a room full of 30some people eating meals in silence.  Sometimes we would listen to classical music this go-round.  But yes, it’s odd to pass someone in the hallway and not say “excuse me” or “how are you today?”  It’s odd to be the youngest person and maybe the only Protestant retreatant again (though this is an ecumenical ministry of the Society of Jesus [the Jesuits]).

There were funny moments where I left the grounds of Eastern Point and encountered people out in the world in Gloucester, some of whom kept trying to talk to me.  Because that is normal human behavior as I awkwardly responded to their “Good morning!” while passing each other walking on the road with this strange hand wave.  Though sometimes I broke down and said “Good Morning!” back because my Midwestern heart was breaking over being perceived as rude.  And there was this elderly man walking his little dog and he was particularly chatty and seemed a little lonely, so we had a full-on conversation.  I confessed this to my Spiritual Director, and Sr. Jean assured me that it was fine to speak to someone when walking in the neighborhood. 

Anyway, perhaps it helps to know that the reason I do this sort of thing from time to time is to have the space to completely focus my attention on God.  Not on our congregation, not on my family and friends.  But to fully focus on being attentive to my own relationship with God.  This isn’t something that I preach about for you to do, God willing that is never the case.  This is something that I have discovered is necessary for me not just as Revered Lauren Ostrout, Pastor of the Colchester Federated Church, but as Lauren the Christian who’s doing my best to love and follow Jesus in my own life.

And this text about having faith the size of a mustard seed was a good one to come home and preach about.  Because it gets to how each of us would define having faith in God in the first place.  What does having faith or being faithful look like in your own life? 

When it comes to this idea of mustard seed faith, we could also consider that faith comes from the Greek word fiducia meaning trust.  We could define faith as commitment to God and deep and abiding trust in God.  We can consider how differently our Gospel text would sound if we consider that Jesus was inviting the disciples to be committed to him and trust in him.  That’s the point of a life grounded in God.  Marcus Borg further reflects, “Faith as faithfulness to God and trust in God is the product of a deeper and deeper centering in God.  Faithfulness leads us to pay attention to our relationship to God—through such attention, we become even more deeply centered in God.”[5]

An image that may help was once shared by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.  Kierkegaard related that “faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water.”[6]  No body of water is that deep.  I Googled how many fathoms deep is the deepest part of the ocean (I have no idea how pastors wrote sermons before the internet).  Anyway, Google told me that the Mariana Trench was recorded as 4,475 fathoms deep.  That’s about five miles deep, and that seems to be the deepest recorded part of the ocean.

Okay, so faith is like floating in 70,000 fathoms of water.  The point is that if we struggle and flail and have a complete meltdown—we might sink.  But if we have deep and abiding trust, if we trust that the water can and will hold us up—we float.  It doesn’t matter how deep the depths are underneath us.  We float.  And so it is with faith—mustard seed faith.  It only requires this pinch of faith, and we will float because we trust in our hearts and souls that God is there holding us up. 

It doesn’t mean that waves and storms won’t come along.  Whether that comes in the form of natural disasters like so many people faced recently in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Florida, and elsewhere.  It doesn’t mean that we won’t face hardships in our lives.  That we won’t contend with illness or heartbreak, with death itself and all sorts of losses that leave us reeling.  But somehow, if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we will float.  Friends, hear the invitation of Jesus to all of us today—to be committed in our relationship with God and to trust that God is with us through it all.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 17:5, CEB.
[2] Luke 17:6.
[3] Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored, pg. 121.
[4] Matthew 22:37, NRSV.
[5] Borg, Speaking Christian, pg. 122.
[6] Soren Kierkegaard, as quoted by Borg in Speaking Christian, pg. 122.

Photo by Rev. Lauren Ostrout.