Sermon - 6th October 2013
Faith the size of a mustard seed
Scripture - Luke 17:5-10
Rev Andy Braunston
What is faith? We’re all here in church so presumably we have some ideas about what faith is. Those of us who are Christian – as opposed to those of us who are exploring – would say that we have faith. So what is this thing that we have?
It’s hard, isn’t it to try and define faith. When I was in my early to mid-teens I started to go to Mass – I knew I was a Catholic but had no idea what that meant as my parents didn’t go to church. I went for a few weeks and quite enjoyed it. One week the priest got to the door before me and quizzed me. On discovering that I didn’t go to a Catholic school, hadn’t made my first Holy Communion or made my first Confession I was summoned to the presbytery on Monday evenings. For the next few months I embarked on my life-long pilgrimage in the Christian life as Fr Stuart explained the Christian faith to me. He was in his 70s and was quite traditional and we worked through the penny catechism which, in those days cost 25p so inflation had already started to take its toll.
The catechism is a series of questions and answers about the Christian faith. Earlier generations of children had to learn it by rote – thankfully I didn’t but some answers stick with me. One question was “what is faith” and the answer is:
Faith is a supernatural gift of God, which enables us to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.
What do we think – does that sum up what faith is for you? Leaving aside the without doubting bit, I didn’t think this was a bad definition but I think I would want to expand it a bit now. But, the catechism continues with the question: How are you to know what God has revealed?
I am to know what God has revealed by the testimony, teaching, and authority of the Catholic Church.
- which even then I thought was rather too clear cut!
I think there are two views of faith – they can complement each other so they are not necessarily opposites – maybe they are different ends of a spectrum. On one end is the idea we’ve seen from the Catechism. Faith is about belief and ideas. It’s about agreeing to a set of ideas, or things, that God has revealed. These things will include the idea that God created the world, that God sent messengers to teach humanity, that the record of these messengers in the Bible is, in some way, inspired by God, that ultimately God sent Jesus as a manifestation of Himself to teach us but that humanity put Jesus to death. God, however, raised him from the dead and that intervention shows the power of God and the light over darkness and death. We are called to follow Jesus’ teaching so that our world becomes lighter and more dedicated to life and love. It includes the idea that we can best follow Jesus and live according to his way in the community of the Church. Does that sound familiar to you? Does that sound like what faith is often seen to be about?
At the other end of the spectrum, however, is the idea that faith is about trust. To have faith in God is to trust him and to remain faithful to him. Just as we trust a lover or partner, just as we seek to remain faithful to the one we love, so faith in God is like that – we trust that God wants the best for us, that this best may not always be what we want, but is always what we need. To remain faithful with God is about seeking to follow him, to live according to His standards in a world which has such different values and which treats people so badly.
These two perspectives on faith aren’t mutually exclusive – who here prefers the first perspective – the idea that faith is about what we believe, the traditional Christian understanding of God and the world? Who prefers the second perspective – the idea that faith is about trust and faithfulness to God? I like both and try to hold both in a sort of creative tension.
In our Gospel reading this afternoon we hear the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith and he gives this rather surprising answer. I think he confounds them a bit – the mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds they would have known. It’s as if Jesus is saying that we don’t need much faith to make surprising things happen. I think he’s also saying it’s not about measuring faith in physical quantities – after all faith isn’t something that can be weighed or measured – that first definition from the Penny Catechism spoke of faith as being a gift.
I think Jesus is saying that if we trust and remain faithful to God we can achieve miraculous things – but there again I think you know that. After all, we have amazing stories of faith here:
- This week a newer member of our congregation told me of her coming to faith in God when she was at the lowest point in her life. She was in immigration detention and facing being sent back to the country she had fled from. Many of the people in Yarl’s Wood were desperate: some turned to traditional African spirituality, she turned to Christ and that gave her hope – things have got better for her since then as she’s turned her life around.
- Then there is a guy who’s been coming for just over 18 months now who is daring to believe that God not only loves him but loves him and his gayness. He’s taking his tentative steps into a new life without fear and without guilt. It’s a step of faith, a step of trusting that God isn’t going to reject him.
- Then there are those of you who have made huge decisions around changing your work as you feel called to something better – I think of Steve who started to work a self-employed translator this time last year and that decision has really paid off, or Anne who went back to University to train to be a nurse and she’s loving her studies and placements, or Walt who is making a new career from his IT skills. All these people took steps of faith – they trusted and have found new patterns of work and life.
- And there are those who live with pain and illness but whose faith sustains, comforts and strengthens them in the darker moments. Lee and Margaret live with dreadful pain all the time yet their faith in God is fierce, nurturing and fruitful.
All of us have faith – all of us give some intellectual assent to a set of ideas about God – whether we do so without doubt, or whether we should do so without doubt, is a different sermon. All of us also trust – we may trust another person – a friend, a lover, a family member – we all try to trust God.
As a congregation we’re in an exciting and challenging time. We have our vote next month on whether or not to leave the Metropolitan Community Church and explore, more fully, the United Reformed Church, we have our money worries as a church, we worry about whether the Home Office and Courts will believe our asylum seekers, we worry about how effective out outreach is as a congregation – yet through it all we need to trust. Just as in a relationship we only need to simply trust the other – and be trustworthy ourselves – we need to trust God for our present and our future just as we thank him for our past.