Immediately before the passage from our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks about forgiveness to the disciples in a way that makes them feel inadequate, like they aren’t up to the task. He tells them that “if another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (Luke 17:1-4)
So, they think to themselves, “gosh, we’re not quite there yet, we need to improve, we need some extra power, some spiritual juice.” And so they call out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” We’re at about a level 5, but we need to be closer to a level 9 if we’re going to pull off forgiveness like this—if we’re going to live like the Christians we think we’re supposed to be, we need to step up our game. I think they do an interesting thing here in asking Jesus for more faith.
It’s interesting because when we think about faith we often think about it as looking towards someone or something else to put our trust in. But we also think about the ways we wish we were more faithful or the ways we haven’t been faithful when we think about faith. We compare ourselves to others and we elevate faithful people as being more loyal or being more content than us. “If I was a more faithful person I would be able to sleep better—everything would be better. I wouldn’t worry so much, I’d be happier, I would have more peace in my life if I was able to leave things up to God. If I had more faith I would simply have a much better life!”
You can see something interesting when you begin to unwrap the onion of our desire for more faith. At first, on the outside it can appear like we’re trying to trust in someone other than ourselves, but in the end, we often make faith all about ourselves and what we can get out of it or how we can and should cultivate it in our lives through discipline. Jesus knows this of course, so he calls the disciples out for not having any idea what true faith really is. He says if you had a tiny mustard seed of faith, that truly had nothing to do with you or your reliance on yourself or your own self-interest, then anything would be possible. And then he tells them a parable about servants not being rewarded for doing what was already expected of them. Jesus is showing the disciples (and all of us) that there isn’t anything that we can do or even be given that will improve or prepare us for a closer relationship with him. But that’s ok because in the case of the disciples, they couldn’t do anything to get closer to God because Jesus was literally standing right in front of them! And it turns out the same thing is the case for us.
Now, I’m certainly not saying there is anything wrong with faith or longing for an increase in faith or the gift of just a mustard seed of faith. What I’m saying is that there is a deeply engrained human propensity to make faith about us, about what we do or have or bring to the table. We make faith a work. We make it about us. In fact, we all have a great gift for making just about anything all about us. For taking ourselves too seriously and giving ourselves way too much credit.
For example: about seven or eight years ago I gave my first real sermon. It was at the wedding of two of my oldest friends. I grew up with both of them and have a lot of the same old friends, and so while I was incredibly honored that they asked me to preach at their wedding, I was also incredibly nervous thinking about dozens of my high school friends jammed into the beautiful chapel down the road at Grace Keswick to hear me preach. And I wasn’t the only one who was nervous; Courtney sat in a pew next to my good friend Stan and almost broke his hand she was squeezing it so tightly. But thankfully it wasn’t a disaster, I pushed passed the nerves and got through it. I caught my breath and grabbed a bourbon at the reception and people kept coming up to me and telling me how they thought I did such a great job. A few old friends came up to me and said they didn’t even know I could read so they were shocked that I could write and deliver a sermon. Needless to say, that all felt really good, and towards the end of the night I put my arm around Courtney and without a drop of sarcasm, in all sincerity, I said, “you know, I guess I’m going to have to get used to talking to people like this and receiving so many compliments about how great a preacher and speaker I am. I think that this is just going to be a part of my life now.” And she turned to me with a look of shock and said, “did you just hear yourself?! Did you actually just say that out loud?” We take ourselves way too seriously! We think that we have to earn respect and ultimately be rewarded with love, so we work hard at making everything under the sun all about us!
But faith isn’t a reward. It’s not a gift given in response to what we’ve done or earned or manifested on our own in any way. It’s not a reward for being disciplined or going to church or reading the right book. Rather, faith is the experience or recognition that you have already received your reward. You have already been given the greatest gift of all, because you have already been forgiven and loved by the one true merciful God who gave himself to you and to us all upon the Cross. We will never be without that gift, that sacrifice, that death and resurrection. We don’t need to build up ourselves or our faith in order to feel whole or to feel worthy or to feel loveable. The gift of God’s love has already been delivered. It’s with us and for us and that’s not an insignificant thing.
I’m reading a great book about Samuel Taylor Coleridge right now who was an English poet most well-known for his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Coleridge was a terribly depressed man, addicted to opium and simply lost in so many ways. So, in August of 1803 Coleridge left his family in northern England to go on a short tour of Scotland with his friend William Wordsworth, hoping that the scenery and activity would help him snap out of the darkness he felt like he was drowning in. But, in the middle of the trip Coleridge sort of snapped and walked off from the group. Wordsworth thought he must be walking back home, but instead in a manic attempt to exercise his own demons, Coleridge walked north and then circled back home, but not until walking over 260 miles through the Scottish Highlands all by himself! While he was walking he actually wrote this haunting poem called “The Pains of Sleep”, about someone who is lost and consumed with all of the fury that life can be, and how even through prayer he can’t escape the noise of his own madness. I had a very wise professor in seminary who told us that we should never read a poem in the pulpit, but we already covered how great a preacher I am, so I’m sure I’m making the right decision here. The poem begins like this:
Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
It hath not been my use to pray
With moving lips or bended knees;
But silently, by slow degrees,
My spirit I to Love compose,
In humble trust mine eye-lids close
But yester-night I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorned, those only strong!
Thirst of revenge, the powerless will
Still baffled, and yet burning still!….
In the midst of this experience of chaos and depression that Coleridge was experiencing in his own life, the poem concludes with this powerful line that gestures towards the one thing that he needs, yet cannot attain or earn or will on his own. It ends like this;
To be loved is all I need,
And whom I love, I love indeed.
Coleridge, like many of us have or will, reached the end of his rope. He felt the pain and isolation of broken relationships and anxiety. He felt the frustrations of failed attempts to fix himself and others around him. He prayed, he cried out, but the more he screamed with effort and voice the one thing he would return to was the one thing he needed; “To be loved is all I need.” We can’t be loved by fixing ourselves. We can’t make ourselves more worthy by being more faithful or praying more earnestly. After all, Jesus came to heal the sick, not those who have made themselves better, not those who have become more loveable. He came for those who feel unloveable—for people like you and me. For people who need something powerful, something more powerful than they can attain on their own, something that actually doesn’t have anything to do with us at all. The disciples asked for more faith, and Jesus told them no, what you need is death and resurrection—mercy and forgiveness. What you need, you can’t do yourself. They asked for more faith, but Jesus said to them and he says to us today, what you need is me, and I’m right here. Body broken, blood shed, right here, right now. Jesus says, “I am here, and I am what you need.”