At the church I served in Texas, we lived about seven miles out in the country. Out my kitchen window I could see the parish hall of the church about fifty paces to the east. A rock fence, painstakingly put in place by the first Norwegian settlers surrounded the perimeter of the church and cemetery. Over the years, parishioners and former pastors had planted all sorts of beautiful trees and flowering shrubs on the church property. There were two pear trees to the north of our house, two beautiful mimosa trees in the front yard – the boys loved to climb those – grape vines, climbing roses, and honeysuckle wound their way around our front gate, and directly outside our back door, there were two mulberry trees. Once I found out what they were, I wondered if some former pastor had planted them with a chuckle, like if he wondered if someday some pastor who followed him would look out their kitchen window now and then and see those trees and remember the verse from Luke in our gospel today and say out loud to the tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea…” just to see if anything might come of it that day. I admit I did it a few times.
In today’s gospel, the disciples ask for more faith. We, like the disciples, like the idea of more faith. Often we feel like that would be a good answer to times of trouble or doubt – if we just had more faith we would be better off or at least feel better, right?
What is faith? In Marcus Borg’s book, The Heart of Christianity, he talks about four different meanings of the word “Faith.” He refers to them by their Latin names and they are the primary meanings of the word faith throughout Christianity.
The first meaning of faith is referred to by the Latin word, “assensus”. Its closest meaning is assent – and this is faith being synonymous with “belief.” This is the predominant meaning of faith in modern culture.
There are two main reasons it is the prominent meaning in modern Western Christianity. The first is the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation produced many new denominations – each defined itself by their distinctive doctrines or confessions. Lutherans believed certain things, Catholics believed certain things, etc. Of course, some things overlapped – but it was during this time that Christian faith became about believing right things – having the “right” beliefs instead of “wrong” beliefs.
The second development happened in the Enlightenment when truth was identified with what was factual. And over time, for many, Christian faith began to mean believing questionable things to be true. Faith is what you turn to when knowledge has run out.
While thinking of faith as belief is certainly valid in many ways, the difficulty is then we think if we have doubts, we don’t have much faith.
A Carmelite nun who was the mother superior of a cloistered convent was interviewed. The interviewer asked her what was the hardest thing about her job.
“I thought she was going to say the hours were terrible or the food was bad,” he said. “Instead she said the hardest part of her job is the doubt.” She says she has great doubt – she struggles with it every day.
As Marcus Borg says, “When you think about it, faith simply as belief is relatively powerless. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. (Understanding faith to be simply) Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”
The second form of faith is expressed in the Latin word, “Fiducia.” Fiducia is a radical trust in God. Not trusting a set of statements about God – but trusting in God.
Soren Kierkegaard describes it like this – “Faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you will relax and trust, you will float.
This is the kind of faith we display whenever we take a leap of faith – to go where God calls even when it seems to make no sense, to live the way Jesus teaches us even when it is contrary to everything the world will tell us. It is doing the scary, uncomfortable, upsetting, often disturbing thing – but knowing God is big enough to catch us if we fall.
The third face of faith is known by the term “Fidelitas.” Fidelitas is fidelity, loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at the deepest level, the commitment of the heart. It isn’t faithfulness to statements about God – it is faithfulness to God.
Fidelitas is like this – we may not always feel God’s presence, yet we continue to come to worship. We may not understand the mystery of the sacraments, yet we share in them because Jesus asked us to do so. We may have questions galore about faith – yet we continue to turn to Jesus with our asking and seeking and knocking. Faith as fidelitas isn’t swerved by the winds of emotion. It is steady.
Fourth, there is Faith as Visio. Faith as a way of seeing. We share God’s worldview and compassion for others. Our faith is expressed in sharing Jesus all-encompassing love.
So faith has many shapes and forms: belief, trust, commitment, vision. In the Gospel today, Jesus shows that it’s not the size of our faith that matters, because God is able to do a lot with even the tiniest bit of faith. Even though our faith is small, the One in whom we have faith is magnificent and all-powerful.
In verses 7-10, after Jesus talks about the mustard seed, he mentions that when a slave comes in from the field, the slave then serves the master before the slave himself eats. What is this all about? Well, servants aren’t invited to the table with the landowner; they eat when their work is done. They don’t expect thanks for doing their job; they just do it. That’s what faith is like, Jesus seems to say –the willingness to do what needs to be done. The people Jesus called faithful were not illustrious or noteworthy – a centurion concerned for a sick servant, a woman who was grateful for being forgiven, a leper who turns around just to say “thank you”, the blind beggar who asked Jesus for sight – these were the people Jesus called, “faithful.”
Faith is found not in the mighty acts of heaven but in the ordinary and everyday acts of doing what needs to be done, responding to the needs around us, and caring for the people who come our way.
Do you realize, people of God, all the ways you show faith? In small and great ways each day, you display it. When you show up for worship. When you bring a can of food for the food shelf, when you arrive at your job each morning and do your work honestly and to the best of your ability, when you take care of the family God has entrusted to you, when you honor your parents by listening to them and doing your chores, when you pray for your neighbor who is going through a hard time, when you send the condolence card, when you show up to vote even when you feel the field of candidates is discouraging.
We may tend to dismiss all the small acts of faith and wonder what good they really do. But imagine if none of these small acts of faithfulness that each us did this last week had never happened. Life and faith – it’s made up of all the small things, ordinary things. God blesses the ordinary, small things. Even as small as a mustard seed.