a Sermon on Faith, Doubt, and Mustard Seed Necklaces

2013-10-06 nbw hfass sermon 2 <—-click here to hear a real, live preacher.

When I was a little girl, I was given a small necklace.  It was a Christian necklace, see, but it held, not a little gold cross or a silver Jesus fish symbol-thing. No.  Hanging from this gold chain was 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, maybe you guys could help me with something here: 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 have no idea what good that does.

And regardless of the relative merits of mulberry bush drowning…this text has often made my faith feel inadequate. Because I’ve always heard it as this 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.

This week while on the road, I had a really interesting experience around how some people struggle with what they think it means to have faith.

See, I’m basically boring myself to death out there. I mean, I’m saying the same things over and over which is downright monotonous for me, so what I really love, is doing Q and A – or as my friend Brian Calls it: Q and R Question and Response.  This Thursday I spoke to about 11 hundred people on the UND campus in Grand Forks North Dakota, which I think may also be the actual population of Grand Forks North Dakota.  Anyhow, it was too many people to be able to do a proper Q and A where people stand up speak and so we asked people to write down their questions instead.

And reading these questions, I realized how different it is to write something anonymously than it is to stand up and say it out loud in a room full of people. I think that’s why the prayers of the people here at House are so raw and vulnerable – in a way they wouldn’t be if people were standing up and saying their prayers out loud.

What I was struck by were the sheer number of questions that were so similar – no, not “what do your tattoos mean?” but things like, is it ok to feel distant from your faith when you are going through a really hard time in life? And…  What does it even mean to have faith?  And…What if I am not sure what I believe? And.. Is doubt ok? And one was really a statement and not at all a question: someone wrote: Sometimes I wonder if there really is a God because of all the hurt and suffering in life.

And so, with these questions and the texts for today rattling around in my brain, I started to think again, as I have before, about how often we assume that having faith means not doubting. We assume that having faith means not struggling with faith….that having faith means being totally trusting and peaceful and absolutely serene when really tough stuff is happening to us or around us.

But the thing is, that then, when the hard stuff in life happens, not only do we feel crappy, but then we have to add to it also feeling totally inadequate about our faith, which just makes it all worse.

I think we sometime mistakenly think having faith is like being the little engine who could – I think I can I think I can…and if we just muster up enough – a tiny mustard size amount of faith we can do anything – we can trust God when things are bad and never struggle or doubt and we can even uproot bushes into a watery grave if for some reason we think that’s what is called for.

And this Gospel text about the mustard seed kind of feels like Jesus is scolding us for not having even the tiniest amount of faith. Which can easily contribute to us thinking that if we have the right amount and the right quality of faith then the hard things in life won’t be hard and we will never doubt.

So here is the time when I say that knowing a little Greek can be helpful.

But knowing how to look up blog posts from guys who know a lot of Greek – is unbelievably helpful.

Because here’s what I learned – 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. But there is also an “according to present reality conditional clause”: meaning, “If you have the faith of a mustard seed (and you do) …” [1]

So here in Luke Jesus isn’t scolding them for not having even the tiniest amount of faith – instead when they ask him to increase their faith he’s affirming that the disciples already have the faith to do what is expected of them.

In essence, he seems to imply that they don’t need more faith, they need to realize that they already have faith and even if it’s a small amount…that’s totally enough.

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 this small and Jesus is saying “good enough for me!”

That’s a different message entirely isn’t it?

Which brings me back to the questions I got this week in Grand Forks.  So many of them seemed to imply that people were struggling with the fact that hard things in life are hard. That somehow since they don’t have great positive feelings about God in the midst of their own suffering that this somehow means they lack faith and this worries them. For some reason we tend to think that having faith means unwavering belief, and never doubting and always no matter how awful things get, never ever having negative feelings about God and certainly never wondering if there really is a God.

It’s like we’ve forgotten the strong, and totally awesome tradition in the Hebrew Bible of complaining to God.   It’s called lamenting – and we should totally reclaim this part of our tradition…I have a friend who says if you’re going to have a praise band in your church, that’s fine but only if you also have a lament band because being the people of God has always meant a whole lot of both praise and lament. And yet we think that being in a place of praise is having faith and being in a place of lament is lacking faith but that’s simply not true.

I love the way some the characters in the old testament really have it out with God – how they confront the Almighty… it’s downright argumentative.  Anymore if we are angry with God we just give him the silent treatment.  But not so with our ancestors in the faith.  If they felt there was some serious neglectful, abusive or absentee parenting from God they…you know…complained.  And their complaints were not a sign of faithlessness.  Quite the opposite really.   Their complaints, and their questions about God, were a sign that they were in relationship with God.

And the central theme of Habakkuk, the text we heard as our first reading is that, unlike the proud, the righteous live by their faith.

Now, when I hear the term “the righteous” I don’t know about you, but I honestly think “Ned Flanders”.  It’s easy to think that the righteous means the same thing as the religious, the pius, the priggish. Those who never waver in their faith.  But scholars much smarter than myself agree that “righteous” in these texts is not primarily a moral category – it’s a relational category.

The faith of the Righteous then is not as much about never doubting as it is about having a heart which longs for that which it cannot create for itself…to be righteous is to be a person – to be a people – who take the promises of God seriously enough to be unafraid of lament. Who know that doubt is as much about being in relationship with God as faith is. And Jesus was right. Even if it’s a tiny mustard seed amount, it’s enough.

So if things are hard. If you are struggling. If when it comes to God you feel more like complaining than commending, know that this too is faith. And that still it is enough. Amen.

 


[1] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke17x5.html

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • EDWARD DOBBS

    Dear Nadia:

    I was in Denver the first part of September and attended your worship service with a very dear friend (wonderful experience and most refreshing…just like I hoped for!)…my friend just gave me this link to your Sermon that she attended yesterday evening (your inspired ministry has become her new home!)…Thank GOD that you have risen to HIS service in the special way that you are given to do…especially by having your Sermon immediately available so that HIS message can be contemplated in a way that each individual can, perhaps, more readily absorb at their own rate of comprehension…Thank you for all of the Love that you are in JESUS CHRIST, Amen
    Edward Dobbs

  • LadyJo

    This was something I really needed to hear today. As always, a valuable and refreshing perspective.

  • MysticBlueRose

    I so lived this when my youngest son was born with a congenital heart defect that kills 50% of the kids who have it by age 5, and I paced my work parking lot for weeks screaming at GOD…aka lamenting. A coworker found this out and was HORRIFIED. How can you yell at GOD aren’t you afraid of him smiting you dead??? LOL. So I told her that GOD knows your heart/mind better than you do and so you might as well shout it out to him because he knows you. Didn’t convince her. We have so many toxic teachings in the church. Thank you for standing against toxic teachings!!!

  • Ginger Doege Metcalf

    Thank you for this sermon. I struggle against doubt daily (as part and parcel of my depression I guess) and needed to hear your message that faith and doubt are OK together. P.S. I got a mustard seed necklace when I was about 12 and still have it.

  • Heather

    I had a cheap “turn your neck green” necklace when I was twelve too! And I will never forget one day in 7th grade my homeroom teacher, who I saw a few times a day, taking notice of my necklace and asking to see it closer. She had thought it was a mustard seed necklace, but it was actually a (fake, lol) pearl. She said she liked it and thought it was a mustard seed. Now, that really baffled me then! “A mustard seed? Uh, weird!?” I hadn’t been taught many stories in the Bible. However, many years later I learned about the mustard seed of faith. Now, sometimes when I’m feeling unsure about my beliefs I think about my former teacher’s interest in my necklace and her strange “mustard seed vision” and somehow find comfort for my soul. Sometimes I think just breathing is an act or form of faith. The details seem to find a way of working themselves out.

    And I really appreciate your compassion and openness in talking about this topic. I believe, for myself, my faith would be very consistent and shallow without times of doubt. It has always gifted me back with more substance and building materials.

  • Pubilius

    thank you Nadia! I remember one day someone on Tumblr helped remind me: Faith and doubt are two wonderful conjunctions– Doubt is not rejection of God, but growth through struggle. I also think of all the time Jesus performed miracles and people still doubted, we haven’t seen and still believe.

  • Laura

    We did a little theological reflection on this passage in my bible study group tonight . . . Our discussion went in a fascinating direction, and changed my whole perspective on the audacity of the disciples’ demand, “Increase our faith!” . . .

    The focus on this passage is always the mustard seed component, and yet there is So Much More to this scripture than a metaphor on the power of faith . . . in fact I think the mustard seed and the flying mulberry tree are only a side comment on Jesus’ part . . . I say this, because the rest of this scripture is soooo disconnected from the seed and the uprooted tree . . .

    it seems to me that Jesus is saying, “You want more faith . . . ? Whatever . . . here’s the deal, Disciples . . . you have a Job and you are expected to do your Job . . . you are called to Serve, (and don’t expect a reward just because you did what you were supposed to do). Service is your package. So look at it this way . . . you’ve already got what it takes, because it doesn’t take much . . . so do just exactly what you’re supposed to do . . . and trees will grow and trees will fly . . . and not because you Asked, but because you were obedient to your call.

  • documentarydude

    like your thot—that doubt is a natural part of a relationship with god ..as is faith..and we should remember those 12 disciples at one point were given special powers to heal and deliver people from demons…they were the inner circle…and most of them died martyrs. point being we as Christians are given an amount of faith in relation to our calling and giftings..

  • Deb G

    I thank God for every single individual hard at work discovering and discussing the Biblical compassionate Jesus/God, over against the centuries of distortion that created a punitive Jesus/God.

    I believe it is one of the most important ministries today. There were many secular reasons to build a frightening, vengeful, hostile God; chief among them being power through fear. I am one of millions working to release the old, hurtful messages to make room to accept a beautiful, welcoming love.

    Thank you for this sermon and your work to make it clear that our imperfections are perfectly acceptable.

  • http://www.shinyphoto.co.uk/ Tim

    Quite a few churches I know could use a lament band…

  • Karen Guthrie Bigham

    I needed to hear this. Thank you.

  • Jennifer John

    So pleased to read this and know I wasn’t the only one with this necklace. I wore it alot… Thank you for helping us reclaim lamenting and realize there is nothing wrong with opening yourself to God. cannot wait to see you in DC

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    You always do such a great job in communicating your message, and your messages are always very good. But THIS ONE is beyond wonderful. I don’t know where you get such insight.

  • Gerardo Noriega

    Thanks, Nadia, for reminding us that we can also complain to God if we are suffering, as much as praise Him when counting our blessings.

  • KentonS

    I’m thinking the “church growth” types would recoil at the idea of a lament band thinking it’s a sure way to drive down numbers. I’m thinking it might actually drive them up.

  • marty_jones

    I’m delighted that you are ‘on the road,’ even though it’s monotonous,
    and tiring. You probably have an idea of the gift you are to the Body of
    Christ, and those on the sidelines, looking in through the windows…
    Or, you may not have an idea, based on shortcomings within yourself [your book is here in my office; I haven't read it yet]. In case you have not yet been able to process it, YOU ARE a tremendous gift to the Creator. I watch my adult children, and their friends, in their struggle for acceptance as individuals who don’t want to conform to the ‘status quo’ andconsequently receive so little support from the Body.

    I’ve been struggling with chronic pain for nearly 40 years; most of the time that I’ve been a Believer. In recent years it’s become worse. Everything from ‘I must have run too far today’ to ‘shoot me and put me out of my misery.’ Fortunately, not so much of the latter. I have a bunch of people who have been praying on my behalf for years. I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t that the Creator refuses to heal me. One of the consequences of my helplessness is that I turn to others for solace and support–often hard to find in the Christian community; who far too often are as ‘helpful’ as “Job’s Comforters.”

    I work at making my laments shorter than my petitionary prayer; and have come to a place where my anger is leveled mostly at today’s Pharisees, rather than toward the Creator. We’ve never been promised ‘easy’ except by a foolish few. Tim Hansel talks about ‘being healed of the need to be healed,’ as a way of dealing with “Job’s Comforters.” I’m inching my way toward that place again.
    I’m glad you came into my life.
    Blessings, Marty

  • Nicki Inman Darnell

    I love you. Come to Grand Junction. Please. Bring your lament band as well. Thank you in advance. <3

  • Charles J Taft

    Well, just a minor correction, Grand Forks is several times 11 thousand in size. But a lament band sounds like a great idea! Right on!

  • Lea Ann Webb

    Yes, a lamentations band! Thank you so much for making me WANT to read the
    Lamentations in the Psalms- I never know what to do with them and they make me a bit uncomfortable so I sort of skip over them. I love your honesty and your ability to not just say, “Yep, there ya go”, upon reading the stories of my Southern Baptist Church. There just has to be more- thank you for dishing it up. One of the joys of being a “both and” Lutheran. I had a mustard seed necklace too. I immediately lost it!

  • Mark

    I always wondered why evangelicals never cried out to G-d, unlike Jews did and do. I am glad you mentioned that having faith can mean that one does cry out. I always felt that on the first Sunday post tragedy, church would have more meaning if the service focused on lament rather than a simple prayer for those hurting and some sermon on Paul.

  • ann harrington

    A great movie example of a pastor lamenting can be found in “The Apostle”. Go here to check it out: http://youtu.be/BTVo9ymHBSc


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