02 October 2010

Faith as big as a mustard seed?

This sermon is based very heavily on one by Lesley Fellows - see http://bernwodeblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/faith-size-of-mustard-seed.html

But since Lesley herself was kind enough to encourage me to blog it, here goes ...

3 Oct 2010 18th Sunday after Trinity CW Proper 22
Faith – as big as a mustard seed?
Luke 17 5-10 & 2 Timothy 1 1-14

The Frenchman Jean François Gravelet was better known as The Great Blondin. He was a tight-rope walker and acrobat who achieved his greatest fame in 1859, when he became the first person to cross the Niagara Falls on a tightrope! Blondin walked the 335 metres across the Falls in just a few minutes.

On other occasions, he did the walk in different ways – I suppose just to show it wasn’t a fluke! He crossed the canyon on stilts, on a bicycle, and blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow!

He was obviously a showman with a sense of humour. When he reached the other side with his wheelbarrow, Blondin asked the crowd: “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?”

Well, the crowd had seen his wonderful achievement and they knew his reputation – the greatest tight-rope walker ever – so they had no doubt: “Yes, of course! You can do anything!”

“OK”, said Blondin, “Who’s getting in?”

And nobody moved!

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Make our faith greater.’” (Luke 17 v5 GNB)

Well, faith is an interesting thing, isn’t it? Nothing on earth (or, I suspect, in heaven) would ever have made me get into that wheelbarrow! You’ll remember that when my wife and son went abseiling a few years ago, I stayed with my feet very firmly on the ground! But as the Letter from James reminds us, faith is more than just theoretical – it shows itself in actions.

The disciples spent all their time with Jesus – and yet they knew that their faith could be greater. It’s a common hang-up, isn’t it?

• How often do people say “I wish I had your faith”.
• How often do we ourselves wish for more faith?

A common hang-up, and a common misunderstanding. We imagine that faith is something we call up within ourselves – something we generate by effort of will: “psych-ing ourselves up! And yet the Bible tells us different.

We read in the Letter to the Ephesians

“For it is by God's grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God's gift, so that no one can boast about it.”
(Eph 2 vv8-9 GNB)

• The truth is that faith is a gift from God.

• And what’s more, according to Jesus, we don’t even need that much of it!

He answers his disciples’ question in a remarkable way:

“If you had faith as big as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Pull yourself up by the roots and plant yourself in the sea!’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17 v6 GNB)

Mustard seeds, I understand, are very small – and mulberry trees rather bigger, and not very mobile!

This understanding of faith as a gift from God is borne out in our reading from 2 Timothy. Paul remembers Timothy’s sincere faith; recognises too that it has been nurtured in him by his mother and grandmother. But he urges him above all to hold firm, to remain in that faith in union with Jesus himself.

I suspect we all have our ups and downs – times when we feel our faith is firm, and others where we wonder if we have any faith at all. But it’s very difficult to hold on to faith on our own.

Saint Paul was by any definition a man full of faith. But he constantly asked for the prayers and support of his fellow Christians. And he was honest enough to admit that his “thorn in the flesh” made him feel desperately weak at times.

He was Saint Paul, for goodness sake! And we’ve already heard about the disciples!

We know that we must remain united to Jesus. It’s a good theory, but in actual fact we need help – the help, encouragement and support of one another when (for whatever reason) holding on to him is difficult; when faith seems too much like a tightrope. That’s why God has called us together as his Church – we need each other.

Paul goes on to give Timothy some specific instructions –

• to keep alive the gift that God has given him;
• to witness to, and hold firm to, the truth of the gospel.

Again, faith is expressed in actions.

• But this is done within the context of the Church,
• with the support of other believers.
• Timothy is not left to sustain or to express his faith on his own.

Sadly, it’s all too easy for us to feel guilty when it comes to faith. We would all say, with the disciples “Make our faith greater”. And we would all admit, as someone else who came to Jesus said: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9 v24b NRSV)

But Jesus tells us we only need faith the size of a mustard seed. I think on most days, in most situations, we could all manage that much!

And the truth is that – in faith – we can all make a difference. We can all play our part in fulfilling God’s purposes – in carrying forward the Kingdom of God.

• It’s not fashionable to believe it these days, but ordinary people can do extraordinary things together – and particularly together with God.

• Sometimes faith just involves recognising that truth and acting upon it; refusing to take on board the negativity and cynicism that so often surround us.

Taking up the image Jesus uses in the second part of our gospel reading, Revd Lesley Fellows writes this about Christian service:

“We just need to see it as something ordinary, that we are like servants, put on this earth to do our bit. And whether that bit is at work, or in the home, or in the community, or in the nation; whether it is to do with spiritual things or material things, all of it is part of our calling.”

• Like Timothy, we have all been given gifts by God.

• Like Timothy we are called to keep alive those gifts – including the gift of faith – and to use them in the service of God and of our neighbour.

May your faith and mine – small as it is – make God’s world a better place for everyone, as we

“remain in the faith and love that are ours in union with Christ Jesus”.
(2 Tim 1 v13b GNB)


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