- Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
- Psalm 37:1-9
- 2 Timothy 1:1-14
- Luke 17:5-10
You can find all the readings here, in CEB and NRSV.
The teacher at the front of the room was looking at me expectantly.
I sat stiffly in my seat, a bit panicked. Such a loaded question.
They had just asked: ‘What is faith?’
What do I say? How do I explain? As my mind scrabbled to put the best possible words in order before my mouth took over, my eyes and ears brought to my attention the state of the classro0m.
There was absolute silence in that classroom. My classmates were all either looking up at the ceiling with eyes closed, waiting for the answer direct from the Divine, or they were slumped over and staring at their notebooks and keyboards, embodying the silent student mantra of ‘don’t look at me, don’t look at me, don’t look at me’.
Here I was, in a class full of seminarians, with a professor of theology, and I had honestly thought the question was rhetorical. Which was why, when everyone else was avoiding eye contact, I was staring at the professor eagerly anticipating an explanation.
So, we stared at each other waiting for the other to speak. For what seemed like a very long and uncomfortable amount of time. My mind went from panicked whirling dervishes of thought and explanation, each less sensible to the previous, to settling into mute stillness like the things disturbed by the wind do when the wind suddenly dissipates. And all at once, I became rather alert to my surroundings.
A voice broke that stillness, “We know and we don’t know, right? It’s sort of the wrong question.”
The entire room heaved a sigh of relief as the professor went on to teach the class.
Leading up to today’s gospel, the crowds following Jesus – rather, the disciples and those who are seeking to put Jesus in his place – have been hearing lessons on how to be a good disciple: don’t be the cause of another person’s sin and seek to warn your brothers and sisters to stop sinning; forgive, again and again; listen to the teachings of the faithful; whoever is faithful with little is faithful with much.
To which, the disciples ask of the Lord: “Increase our faith!”
And Jesus, cryptically, responds: “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.” (Luke 17:5-6, CEB)
I think the disciples are a bit panicked about the reality of faith. They know and they don’t know. And Jesus isn’t particularly clear.
And all this talk of faith and seeds brought another equally difficult question to mind this week: How does a seed grow?
Do you really know?
Have you ever asked a farmer to explain it?
We know that the sheaves of wheat that come up from the ground grew from seeds, grains really;
planted in the tilled soil, watered, fertilized, watered some more;
and soon a green shoot emerges from the brown dirt;
and grows up toward a sky;
and gets bigger and bigger, producing a stalk with a head of grain.
But, we’ve simply explained the process of a growing seed. We haven’t really answered my question.
How does a seed grow? Some would say that it is the time of year or the introduction of water and warmth. The water hydrates the dry seed and the ground warms the seed and it is activated for growth. Well, most times. Sometimes, seeds that are planted don’t grow when they are planned to. Sometimes seeds that are planted don’t grow for years. Sometimes, seeds that are planted appear not to grow at all.
And, my oh my. Doesn’t that sound like something that isn’t a seed at all? Many people through time have drawn a parallel between these seeds and faith.
There are a number of clergy friends who have referred to baptism as ‘planting the seeds of faith’. Baptism is a time when we come together as a faith community to hydrate this seed in our midst. Sometimes it’s a baby, sometimes a child, sometimes a fully grown adult – always a created child of God among us, a community made up of God’s children: brothers and sisters in Christ.
And so we gather, and promises are made and prayers are spoken: words of blessing for all, words of remembrance and ritual to serve as reminder for the thing that God has already done. We are the faith-filled. Luther said that faith is the thing that “changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts, and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active, and powerful thing, this faith… Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace.”
You see, faith, worked in us by God’s doing, is the thing that changes us and brings us up out of the waters of baptism, renewed and washed clean. We are not planting a seed of faith. It lies within us already; we are the soil within which it grows.
Baptism is an invitation for all to still our racing minds and hearts and find ourselves in the presence of holy things that bring us into that special awareness of God’s presence in the midst of us. Baptism is special because it is a time when new parents bring their child into that presence, or someone brings themselves into that presence with acknowledgement that though there are a great number of things that we do not understand in this world, we know that God is working great things through the faith that lies in wait in all of us. We get glimpses of that reality and are charged with tending those seeds when we celebrate a baptism, or remember our baptismal promises, or gather around the Lord’s table to eat as a community of faith: Water, word, and wine and bread.
Perhaps the waters of baptism and promise do in fact hydrate those seeds of faith, and our bodies keep those seeds warm and activated for growth when we gather in the warmth of the body of Christ.
Well, most times, right? Sometimes, faith seeds that are planted don’t grow when they are planned to. Sometimes faith seeds that are planted don’t grow for years. Sometimes, faith seeds that are planted appear not to grow at all.
This is the wonderment and beauty of God’s work. We know and we don’t know. We know that faith is a thing within us and we don’t know what it is. Not really. It’s not about what faith is or how much faith we have. In truth, faith isn’t quantifiable. Jesus says as much when responding to the disciples. Faith in us is exactly like God’s love for all creation – immeasurable, unimaginable, beyond our very understanding.
But, we learn the way of faith by living, working, resting, and playing in the communities of gathered faithful. In sharing life with our brothers and sisters in Christ we learn about the tilling of our soil, the watering and fertilizing, and the attention that needs to be paid to those pesky weeds. We come to learn what it means to live with God’s gift of faith in each of us. We discover that each seed of faith carries the incredible potential of God’s work in the world. We set aside time to be renewed in water, word, wine and bread. We grow into that potential when we do as Luther says and ask God to work the faith that is already in us.
Let us pray,
Holy Trinity, we give you thanks for the time of Sabbath when we can rest in you and be refreshed in your promises through water, word, and wine and bread. We give you thanks for the reminder of your love for us in our sacrament of Holy Baptism. We ask that you would surround and bless those who are in the various stages of baptismal preparation, those who are baptized this day, those who are celebrating baptismal anniversaries with your love and peace. Help us all to remember that faith is a gift from you out of love for each of us. Amen.
- Karoline Lewis. “The Increments of Faith.” Dear Working Preacher, Working Preacher.org
- Robert E. Smith, trans. “Martin Luther’s Definition of Faith.” An excerpt from “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522 by Martin Luther, 1483-1546.
- Audrey West. “Commentary on Luke 17:5-10” Gospel Reading, Preach This Week, Working Preacher.org
This week’s image is entitled: “The Mulberry Tree,” by “Henry Herbert La Thangue”. You can find out more about the art here, and more about the artist here and here. The artwork is posted as seen on wikiArt and is public domain.
 Rev. Robert E. Smith, trans. “Martin Luther’s Definition of Faith.”