Increase Our Faith

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on October 3, 2010.

If there is one place in all the gospels where I think we can identify ourselves with the apostles, this is it: the apostles said to Jesus, “Increase our faith.” Amen!

And it doesn’t  help when Jesus goes on to raise the stakes and tell us, “If you had faith as big as a mustard seed. you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea and it would obey you.’”  You know, I can get along pretty well and not worry too much about my faith until someone says something like that and then I know it’s all over. Not that I’ve ever tried, of course.  I don’t even have a mulberry tree available.  But if I told one to uproot itself and fall into the sea, I know it wouldn’t happen. So how much faith have I got?  Half a mustard seed? A tenth of a mustard seed? There’s another version of this story in which .Jesus says, “You could say to this mountain, be uprooted and cast in the sea and it would be done.”  And that only makes it worse.

On the other hand, there’s no record Jesus ever uprooted a mulberry tree or a mountain and cast it in the sea. So let’s not worry first about that part of it. Let’s just look at our faith and why we have this feeling of insufficiency about our faith. Do you have that feeling?  I think you aren’t alone. What’s wrong with our faith? What do we want from it?

Let me tell you a story. A long time ago, Ingmar Bergman made a movie called “The Seventh Seal.” It’s the story of a knight who is seeking faith, and he has gone on crusade to the Holy Land thinking that he can find faith there but he hasn’t found it. As the film begins he has come back home to Sweden and death has come for him but he talks death into playing a game of chess. They will play at chess for the knight’s life, and the knight has no chance of winning but he hopes to get some answers before the game is over. A little later he goes into a church and kneels down to make his confession.   Unknown to him, it isn’t a priest in the confessional booth but death who is waiting for him again. The knight begins to make his confession by saying, “I want to talk to you as openly as I can, but my heart is empty.”  Gradually, death then draws him into a conversation in which the knight says, “I want knowledge.”

Death responds: “You want guarantees?”
Knight: “Call it whatever you like. Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should he hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises  and unseen miracles?”
Death makes no reply. There is complete silence.
Finally the knight says: “Why can’t I kill God within me? Why does he live on in this painful and humiliating way even though I curse him and want to tear him out of my heart?  Why in spite of everything, is he a baffling reality that I can’t shake off. Do you hear me?”
Death: “Yes, I hear you.”
Knight: I want knowledge, not faith, not suppositions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out his hand toward me, reveal himself and speak to me.”

I don’t know a better, more honest description of our problem than that.  But notice what the knight asks for: knowledge, not faith; knowledge, guarantees.  But the knight is a modern man in medieval armor.  The middle ages had other questions.  The demand for knowledge is our question, a result of living in a world where science has seemed able to give us definite answers.  Allo the data in my computer is a matter of 1s and 0s, yes or no, no shades of gray or room for doubt.  And that approach has given us all the wonders of modern science, the good life we live, and has left us increasingly unable to deal with the aspects of life that don’t fit that formula: teen-age pregnancy, homelessness, hunger, frustration with government, a rising tide of ethnic divisions, civil wars, urban unrest, the falling apart of human relationships which depend on faith – on faith, not 1s and 0s on a silicon chip.

Increase our faith.

But why would we not trust faith when lack of faith is so clearly destroying us?

As the movie goes on and the knight continues his journey he falls in with a family of three, Josef and Mia and a baby. Josef is a juggler and he makes a living performing at village fairs and they are on their way to the next village. They share a meal together and then set out to go through a dark forest where they camp for the night.  During the night, death comes for them all but the knight upsets the chess board and in the confusion Josef and Mia and the baby escape while the knight goes off with death.

Now that’s a very obvious parable, and it says exactly what needs to be said. The knight, this modern man unable to believe, acts on the faith he can’t feel and gives his life to save others. But what then is faith?  Faith is a sense of the nature of life, a feeling for something other, something more, something deeper, something that can’t be proven or demonstrated or calculated but something which, all the same, has more to do with the things that matter than all the things we can demonstrate.

I want you to notice this Fall how week by week the gospels are asking us to evaluate our priorities. Early in the year, we followed the events of Jesus’ life, and then we had some stories about Jesus healing and teaching and calling disciples, but now as we come toward the end of the year the gospels are relentless in forcing us to ask fundamental questions.  Stewardship is an issue, wealth and poverty, heaven and hell. Mostly we are hearing stories that Jesus told:  Dives and Lazarus, the wasteful steward, the publican and pharisee. These are stories about priorities, stories about the meaning and purpose of life, stories about stewardship,  about what we do with the life and gifts God gives us. And the word that shapes our response  is faith: a sense that this life has an eternal dimension and that our actions here have eternal value. And that sense is measured by actions toward others– most simply by love, by helping a family get through a dark forest,  by sacrificing ourselves for the sake of others,  by giving of ourselves for those in need. It’s not a sense of security at all.  It’s not an ability to explain the Nicene Creed and the Trinity, but an instinctive response to need, to others, to relationships, and to an eternal relationship with an eternal source of life.

Toward the end of the Seventh Seal, just before the knight and the family set out through the forest, we see them sitting on the ground sharing a simple meal: some strawberries and a bowl of milk. The knight says: “I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light. . . .  I’ll try to remember what we’ve talked about.  I’ll carry this moment between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk. And it will be an adequate sign.  It will be enough for me.”

Finally, it seems as if he has learned without knowing it what faith is – it’s a relationship deep enough to trust in. Something worth dying for. Something deeper than any creeds, any formulas.

“Increase our faith.” In one sense, there’s no way to do that. There either is or isn’t that sense of the holiness of life and the primacy of love, but in another sense you can deepen your faith because faith is above all else love, relationship.  You can deepen it through spending time in relationship with God,  by setting aside daily time for prayer and Bible study, and by being a part of God’s community, God’s church, on a regular basis, involving yourself with the Christian community Sunday by Sunday and other days as well.

Faith is relationship and we build each other up in a way that transforms not only our lives but our whole community. And then miracles happen. Greater things by far than moving mountains and mulberry trees. When John the Baptist sent to ask Jesus if he were the messiah, Jesus made no effort to move mountains or mulberry trees, but he said, “Go and tell John what you see and hear: The dead are raised up and the sick are healed and the poor have the gospel  preached to them.”

That’s the evidence still and it’s all around us. I see it here every week.  I remember once a church school child saying God’s house is like her house because it’s a place of love and warmth – and my faith was powerfully renewed.  But that’s what happens here.  The sick and the lame and the old are being cared for and food is being offered for the hungry and the gospel is being preached and children are being taught and love is being made known and we are building each other up in a faith that increases week by week and makes our lives worth living.

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