Like a Mustard Seed…

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.

Why Beer and Hymns? (Where Beer is Optional, Singing is Not)

A couple months ago, I went to the wedding of friends in the Twin Cities.  It was a beautiful event, as most weddings are, but this one was particularly delightful for numerous reasons.  One of the reasons was because the bride and groom have a large circle of friends who love music, are long-time church folks, and thus, participating in the singing of the hymns that day was deeply moving.  Our voices not only rose together in luminous harmonies, but as I looked around at the people gathered, everyone was smiling at the music we were making together. More than a few of us were also  wiping away tears as we grinned like fools.  It didn’t matter that some of us can hardly carry a note, we made a joyful noise along with those who were the professional singers and all together, the sound was not only breath-taking, but it was one of the most magnificent moments of spiritual harmony I have felt for ages.

I thought on the way home about how even though I sing hymns every week in worship with my congregation, it was so different singing at that wedding.  Surely, part of the reason was the pure joy of the wedding and seeing old friends, but I know it was also because I wasn’t leading the service.  I just got to sing for the love of singing and the love of God.  I wanted more of that feeling.

I talked with a pastor friend, the brilliant Dean Grier of First Lutheran in Audubon, and we decided that an opportunity for fellowship and song in our community could be a cool thing.  Yes, for us as pastors, because we would get to sing and enjoy the music in a way that is very different from Sundays when our minds are often cluttered with other stuff (is the scripture reader here? where did I put the stuff for the children’s sermon? maybe I should not tell that one story I was thinking about telling in my sermon…) and also as a form of evangelism.

In the church, we unfortunately tend to think of evangelism as getting people to come to church so they will worship just like we do.  We treat evangelism as a way to answer the problem of our empty pews and offering plates.

Of course, real evangelism is something quite different.  It is going out into the community where people already are and being the church there.  As Saint Francis of Assisi famously said, “Preach the Gospel always, if necessary, use words.” Sometimes this can look like doing service projects.  Sometimes this can look like visiting the sick and homebound.  Sometimes it looks like working at a soup kitchen or running a coat drive.  Sometimes it can look like gathering at a bar and singing hymns together.

Beer and Hymns at the Cormorant Pub will be very simple:  singing and fellowship.  Don’t expect a sermon.  Don’t expect structured worship of any kind and yet, don’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit chooses to move in that place.  I’m expecting it.

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Below is a blurb if you would like to share it with your church, Facebook page, or any news source:

Would you be surprised to walk into a bar and hear hymns being sung in four-part harmony?  Well, that is what is happening in pubs across the nation as Beer and Hymns takes shape in communities looking for faith, fellowship, and ways to share the joy of sacred music outside of sanctuary walls and Sunday mornings.

Do you like to sing? Do you, like Martin Luther, enjoy a nice, cold beer now and then?  Well, thanks be to God! Beer and Hymns is soon coming to a pub near you!  It’s simple:  we get together with friends and strangers and sing old hymns, eat food, drink beverages (beer is optional, singing is not!), and enjoy one another’s company.  We’ll gather from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 29th at Cormorant Pub in the center of Cormorant Village (10790 County Highway 5, Pelican Rapids, MN).  Invite your friends!  All ages are welcome.  For more information contact Ruth Hetland at  ruthehetland@gmail.com.

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The Church

I spend a lot of time trying to understand the church.

There are so many things I love about the church.  Here, I will list just a few:

1.  I love the stained glass and the old architecture of churches.  When churches are busy and full of life, that is great, but I’m also partial to when the church is quiet and still and it is a place to pray and think.  This may be why I have always been partial to country churches.

2.  I love the quilting ladies and all they represent.  The fellowship that can be found among a group of women who come together and quilt is a lovely thing.  I like the simplicity of the process of making the Lutheran World Relief quilts – how the women find scraps of clothing that may be otherwise thrown away and they stitch them into pieces of art that are then sent around the world and help people in countless ways.

3.  I love when the congregation sings in harmony on a Sunday morning – or especially how it sounds when a group of pastors sing together.  There is little as lovely as a group of Lutheran pastors singing in four-part harmony.  I cry every time.

4.  I love funerals – and how the body of Christ gathers together to remember the person who has departed and support the people left behind.  I love how Christian people throughout time know that there is real comfort that comes along with the casseroles and plates of sandwiches brought to a grieving family.

5.  I love how the Holy Spirit can still surprise me and show up when I least expect it – on a Sunday morning when I am feeling tired or crabby, and yet something in the music or the scripture will still touch my heart and leave me feeling comforted, better, and whole.

6.  I love how the church has been a home for me as long as I can remember.  Church people have always loved me and embraced me and supported me all through the years of my life.

But there are many things about the church that frustrate me, too.  Here, I will list just a few:

1. I am frustrated that so many have not felt loved or embraced or supported by their churches and thus have given up on the idea that it is a place where worthwhile and wonderful things can happen.

2.  I am frustrated that church is seen as a destination.  At the same time that I love the architecture and the stained glass because of all it represents to me personally and historically, I know that the building isn’t the church, the people are the church.  And too often, we fall so in love with our church buildings and keeping them looking how we think they should look that we forget that we don’t need them. At the end of the day, church buildings are really only so much brick and wood and stone, they are not the living Word.  They will not save us. They cannot comfort or sustain us.  Too many church buildings have become, quite simply, false gods.

3. I am frustrated by apathy, mostly my own apathy.  Long ago, people regularly died for their faith. Now we can hardly get people to make sure their kids come on a confirmation retreat. Jesus and the disciples journeyed long and hard to preach the gospel.  My ministry looks more like this – I moan that church is a whole hour earlier now at my new church than it was at my last church.  When did I become such a spiritual cupcake?  I get frustrated with so much passionless faith I see around me and yet, too often I wonder what exactly has become of mine?  I’m comforted in my knowledge that doubt and faith go hand in hand and I trust that God is just as at work in fertile seasons of belief as well as in all our times of desert and questioning.  However, I can’t get over the unsettling wondering of just what Jesus would think of what we have built the church to be.

No one has said the church is perfect and I have seen incredibly good things happen because of and through the church. However, there are some days I think a lot about  what a church council president said to me long ago.  He said he thought it might be the best thing for the Christian church on earth if all the church buildings burned to the ground.  No longer would we be tied to all our edifices and trinkets.  We’d be forced to go out into the community, meet together in homes, remember that this faith we share is about so much more than a place.  We’d no longer be on the autopilot of “are these the paraments for this church season” and “are the bulletins ready for Sunday yet” and “how much was the offering for Sunday?”  None of those things would matter anymore and we could just get together and pray – in a park, in your back yard, by the lake, anywhere.

I can imagine Jesus entering into that kind of space a lot more easily than I can imagine him feeling comfortable in most any church building I have known.

Slippery Strands of Faith

Faith is a funny thing.

For some faith is just a lifelong journey beginning with the waters of baptism. It is a beloved relationship. Spirituality may not be something completely understood, but there is nowhere else we are likely to be found on a Sunday morning than right here with our eyes fixed on the cross.

For others, faith is like a wrestling match – trying to reconcile all the pain and suffering in the world with the belief in a loving God. Worship and time spent with the Scriptures is equal parts soothing for the spirit and fuel for the flames of our questioning as faith is both loved and something with which one struggles.

For others, faith is a lot like a love story. At some point or another, this person falls deeply in love with the Gospel – perhaps through some life-changing experience. But like all love stories, after the initial swooning and falling and deep, sweeping emotion, and after all the fire of first passion has burned away, hopefully there is still enough heat left in the embers to keep the flame alive over the years.

Faith is different for each of us. There are different reasons that bring you and I to this place each week to think about God and thank God and show our devotion to God and wrestle with God.


Many famous words have been written about faith to try to convey the many different facets and understandings of faith.

Martin Luther wrote: God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.

Oswald Chambers wrote: Faith for my deliverance is not faith in God. Faith means, whether I am visibly delivered or not, I will stick to my belief that God is love. There are some things only learned in a fiery furnace.

And my favorite is from E. Stanley Jones: Faith is not merely your holding on to God–it is God holding on to you. He will not let you go!

I really like Nicodemus, the Pharisee leader of the Jews central to our Gospel for today. Here was a man who was publicly a religious leader, kind of supposed to have matters of a religious nature figured out. So when you think about it that way, perhaps it is no surprise that he comes to Jesus by night to ask him questions. He has seen the amazing things Jesus can do, he has seen his miracles and he wants to know more. He is drawn to Jesus.

To tell you the truth, I’m so jealous of Nicodemus. I covet what he gets to do here – because he gets to share this quiet moment with Jesus and ask him the deepest questions of his heart. Just he and Jesus, alone together, sharing in conversation about the kingdom.

And I love how Nicodemus peppers him with questions and Jesus is trying to explain his answers and Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?” And Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Because I know that if I were ever to have a quiet evening conversation with Jesus, I would be asking Jesus questions like this and many others and eventually he would say to me something like that, too – “Ruth, are you a pastor at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church, and yet you do not understand these things?”

But I am certain he would say it with a twinkle in his eye – because he would know already how desperately little I understand. He would know already how slippery the strands of faith can feel on my fingertips some days. He would already know that every day I long to feel closer to him and my only comfort is the knowledge that he is closer to me than my own heartbeat – whether I feel him near or not.

There’s an old story that illustrates this thought pretty well. I’m sure you may have heard it before. One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”

Our vision is small and we can only see so far. This life is such that we are oftentimes only given glimpses of the glory of God. We spot him in those moments of grace or deep truth or mercy, when we witness true, selfless love, the perfection of sunlight rippling on the water or the scent of a baby’s cheek next to our face. We catch glimpses of God all the time. And yet, for those countless times when we do not, there is something else – and it is quite something. It is a promise.

Jesus and Nicodemus, I don’t know how long they were able to speak that evening, but we know that after spending a great deal of time talking about the questions in Nicodemus’ heart, Jesus finally tells him what it all comes down to.

It’s a verse we all can probably quote by heart, John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

But it doesn’t stop there – praise God it doesn’t stop there. Verse 17 reads, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When I think about the context of this conversation, it is so particularly beautiful. Nicodemus, a man coming to Jesus in secret at night, because he doesn’t want everyone to know how he questions and how he feels a desperate need to know Jesus more deeply – and Jesus tries to explain all these inexplicable things to him patiently and with care – but finally he sums up everything for Nicodemus and for us saying, “I didn’t come to condemn you, I came to save you.”

Jesus doesn’t condemn us for our questions, or for our lack of faith. He came to love us and save us in spite of those things. Although faith may feel like wandering in the dark much of the time, may we never doubt that Jesus is right there in the darkness beside us, closer than we could ever know.

When my mother was dying back in 2011, I was surprised the moments of comfort that would come. Of course, none of them could take away the pain that I was going to lose her, but they helped me catch glimpses that even though I had to travel this road of her death and the grief to come, I was not forsaken. I would be okay. Mom would be okay. I wouldn’t know how until I journeyed into that unknown – but we would be okay.

And out of nowhere, the lyrics of old hymns that my family used to sing together when my brother and I were children, those lyrics would run through my mind over and over. “When peace like a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say It is well, it is well with my soul.”

I took those moments of peace and comfort as the gifts from God I know they were. I held tight to them and hold them close still. There have been times in life when God has seemed remote to me – but that was not one of those times. And I know that peace wasn’t given to me because I am good but because God is good.

Brothers and sisters, the good news for today is that no matter how you feel about your faith or how near or far God seems to you, he is here. God is journeying with you and holding you close – and God will not fail to remind you of that just when you need it most.