I was absolutely charmed this week to watch a video clip on twitter of a rather well to do middle aged man, sitting at a table in what purported to some kind of church service/experience. His voice was heard above the din, crying out in some sort of prophetic tongues or utterance—at least, that’s what he would have said. But as he carried on, without much coherence, or really, none at all, he seemed to become bored and so picked up his phone to look at it, without ceasing whatever it was that he was saying. Then he thought better and put the phone down. But the temptation to scroll through the internet or his email or whatever was too great and he picked it up again. And then the sheer stultifying ennui of his existence overpowered him and so he scrolled and scrolled and finally gave up the speech part of the prophesying and just sort of made a grinding noise, and then he said hallelujah a few times and the clip cut out.
The problem with the age of omnipresent media is that you can always be caught on camera at your worst, when you aren’t really able to remember what you are doing or why. These little moments give us a glimpse into the underbelly of religious expression, the depressing monotony of showing up to do the same thing every week, often without any kind of belief. Probably a lot of people in the room who weren’t on camera, who were similarly praying and carrying on, were at least expecting God to do something. Surely they wanted to go away from that prophetic hour at least encouraged to keep going on with their lives. But the leader, slumped in his chair, cynically scrolling through the internet, certainly lacks something—faith at the very least.
‘Oh Lord, increase our faith,’ say the disciples to Jesus this morning, no doubt feeling bowed down with weight of woe. The last few chapters of Luke’s gospel have been tough, the parables discouraging, and they are all on their way to Jerusalem to die, or so they expect. The sense of doom increases every moment. Clearly, they need faith, or something. It’s the very simple, sensible request you make out of need. ‘My glass is more than half empty,’ you say, ‘I haven’t got everything I think I need—faith most of all.’
Jesus answers with the usual pep-talk. ‘Eh,’ he says, ‘you don’t need much.’ All the faith you need is barely the size of a mustard seed, which is a uselessly small seed. Like, if you take your mustard seeds and accidentally spill them all over the rug in your Sunday school room, you can try digging them out on your hands and knees, one by one, and restoring them to their little wooden container, but after about ten minutes your knees and back will be on fire and you will give up and vacuum them up and just go buy new ones. The wretched things are tiny, and you can’t even really grow a mustard plant in this climate, although, I’ve never tried. Maybe I should.
Anyway, ‘Eh, not very much,’ isn’t the answer the disciples are looking for. When they ask for their faith to be increased, like all of us, they are wanting Jesus to move them out of their miserable apathy, to breathe into them the kind of enthusiasm that comes from seeing that faith is really worthwhile because it produces something, it makes the money fall down from heaven and the lame walk and stuff. But Jesus says, oh, you don’t need that much. Just a tiny bit. And then he goes on to the horrid little lesson, one certainly incomprehensible in our time, of the servant who does what he is supposed to do and receives no congratulations whatsoever. He does his duty. Amen. What’s your problem?
It’s a hard hard lesson. I doubt think the disciples looked at Jesus in awe and said, ‘Oh, Thank You! You’re right!’ They probably regretted asking for more faith.
Because what does faith, true faith, produce? We always want to ask this question as if it has an answer sealed off from all other considerations in life. “Believe it! Achieve it!” shouts the sign on the local elementary school to everyone in the world as we pass by every day on our way to church. No matter who you are, if you believe hard enough, you’ll be a winner! Little children walk through the doors and go on to the kind of lives we can all expect—meager ones filled with heartbreak, inadequacy, lack, and the usual problems of fatherlessness, poverty, and gray weather.Believe, have faith in…that’s the terrifying question…what? In what do you have faith? Or rather, in whom? Yourself? Your bank account? Your star? Your sense that the cosmos can’t possibly let you down?
If you ask God, of all people, to increase your faith, you might be asking the wrong question. Why are you asking it? What do you want? I want the universe to be sorted out, I want my cold to go away, I want my house to be clean, I want time to do all the things I think are most important, I want a lot of stuff. And I want faith that God will give it to me.
Whereas, that’s not what faith is for. It isn’t a commodity. It isn’t the currency that gets you the thing you want most—well, I take that back. If its Jesus you want, then yes, faith will absolutely deliver. Faith in him, that is. If you have faith in him, it doesn’t matter how much of it you have. The little infinitesimal bit is efficacious because it is properly directed.
Efficacious to produce, though, that which you would never normally desire. A mulberry tree thrown into the sea? Or worse, the devastating humility to obediently show up to your life without any expectation of congratulations or acknowledgment?
The psalmist tries his best to be lots more encouraging. ‘Fret Not’ he says over and over, until it feels like one of those choruses that repeats too often. Don’t worry about the wicked prospering. They won’t be there long. After a while, you will look for them and won’t be able to find them. Meanwhile, try trusting God! Commit your way to him! Be still and wait patiently! Oh stop it with the exclamations. Waiting is boring and…maybe I will just look at my phone.
But looking at your phone—is this what the psalmist means by “evil devices,” is this really prophecy?—is designed to make you fret, so.
Doubtless Jesus is picking up the line from Habakkuk, knowing, in his providence, that the lectionary would have arranged for it to be read at the same time. “The righteous shall live by his faith,” explains God, answering the stressed objections of Habakkuk who can’t understand why the Chaldeans would be allowed to overrun Israel no matter how wicked they, Israel, are being. Ask for justice, and you get the Chaldeans. It doesn’t seem like quite the answer he was looking for. Who are the righteous? Not Israel. Not Babylon. Not me.
It’s ok, its not really about your faith, even as it isn’t really about your righteousness. The speck of longing—only the size of a mustard seed—of trust in the one who is righteous, who comes as a servant to do the work set before him, who never pauses to look up to see who is watching or who will congratulate him, but who unflinchingly sets the table, provides the food, serves the meal, all with…what? Energy? Excitement?
No, with Himself.
The disciples keep trudging down the road after him, their faith more, honestly, than they could possibly want. It’s a long road and it ends in disappointment and heartbreak, sort of. Except when they wake up one morning and discover that their worst enemy, death itself, has been torn up and chucked into the sea. Jesus is alive rather than dead. Their mouths are filled with laughter rather than weeping. The seed turned out not to be a dried, useless speck of nothing but to be the whole kingdom of God, overturning the whole order of their lives.
Seriously, increase your faith, go to church, no one will congratulate you for going but Jesus will not be looking at his phone while you’re there either.