The Increase of Faith

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Habakkuk the Prophet, Russian Icon from 18th Century

A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 6, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-10, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, and Luke 17:5-10.

Hebrews 11:1 suggests “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  But sometimes faith is more than that, and sometimes faith is less.

If someone asked you, “What does it mean to have faith?,” what would you say?  Is faith a feeling?  Is it a habit or a discipline, something that one simply does?  Is faith a thing that is handed down from parents and grandparents, like an old chair or a quilt?  Or handed down as a tradition, something one does to connect oneself to those who have gone before?  If faith the same thing as a fairy tale or a nursery rhyme—a story we tell ourselves when we’re afraid of the dark?

The subject of “faith” comes up in each of the readings we have heard.

The Old Testament reading comes from the so-called minor prophet, Habakkuk.  If his name sounds funny or mysterious, it’s because it carries with it a lot of meaning.  Habakkuk’s name means “to embrace” or “to wrestle,” and this is just what Habakkuk does:  he wrestles with the big questions of this day.  He wants to know why, when he looks in every direction, he only sees violence and destruction.  People are ruining the world and they’re ruining themselves as well.  Habakkuk turns this wrestling, this embracing of difficulties, this questioning into prayer and he puts it all right before God.  The whole Book of Habakkuk has to do with a kind of conversation between the prophet and God.  God answers, every so slightly, but with each almost-answer, God brings Habakkuk a little closer into the mystery of life, the mystery of death (even) and the mystery of faith itself.  God tells Habakkuk that there is a plan to deal with the violence and destruction in the world, but the prophet has a role to play—he is to write the vision of God’s plan, to share it with others, to convey the message of God to those who will hear it or read it.  “The righteous,” God encourages Habakkuk, “live by their faith.”

And so, looking at the faith of Habakkuk, we begin to see some ingredients of a strong faith:  it pays attention to the world (the problems, pains and the pleasures of this world) and then tries to understand the complexities of this world in light of what God has revealed and what God is revealing.  Faith, for Habakkuk, involves prayer, as he talks to God and as he listens for God’s answers.  Faith involves a certain amount of waiting and of watching.  Faith involves trust in God, and living forward in such a way as to show others what trusting in God looks like.  Faith, for Habakkuk, is a very full thing.

In Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, faith is also a very full thing, but for Paul, faith has especially to do with knowledge, with having information about Jesus Christ, understanding that this information is sacred and holy, and then protecting this sacred treasure of teaching and knowledge.  This is often referred to as the Deposit of Faith, that is, the combined force of written-down Holy Scripture plus the oral and gathered tradition of faithful people who have read and prayed and lived and loved in every age.  As Anglicans we believe that this Deposit of Faith was given by Jesus to the Apostles and has been handed down through the line of bishops from the very early church even into the church of our day.  And so faith has something to do with God’s using our heads to organize our hearts.  The eleventh century Saint Anselm of Canterbury had as his motto, “faith seeking understanding.”  By this he didn’t mean to suggest that understanding might replace faith, as though once a person can memorize a few verses of scripture, say the creed and repeat certain concepts, faith is somehow achieved.  Instead, Anselm meant to encourage a kind of active love of God which seeks to know and love God ever deeper.

When we turn to today’s Gospel, it seems like the disciples are pretty clear about what faith “is” and “is not.”  They know faith and they just want more of it.  “Increase our faith!” they ask Jesus.  He replies with the well-known words to the effect that if they had just a little bit of faith, faith even the size of a mustard seed, they could command all kinds of things to happen—in this Gospel, “trees to be uprooted and planted in the sea.”  (It’s in Matthew’s Gospel that faith the size of a mustard seed can move entire mountains.)  But then Jesus goes on with confusing words, especially confusing in our day because the idea of a slave is so repulsive at every level.  Remember that in the first century, slavery was a kind of social norm, a given that simply was not addressed very often.  Jesus speaks of slaves not in the context of moral right and wrong, but simply as an example of a role in which one is serving another, a role in which one is acting in a predictable and expected way.

In the beginning of the Gospel, the disciples ask about increasing their faith.  They ask with the confidence that they know what they’re asking for.  But when Jesus goes on to talk about servants and slaves, about mundane work, about doing the expected, — I think Jesus is still responding to the question about faith.  He is saying that before we look for the miraculous, before we ask that our faith be increased in some supernatural way, we should look for faith to grow in the ordinary things we do.

Jesus is suggesting to the disciples and to us that things are increased not by magic, but by predictable means.  Gardens grow when plants have nutrients and water.  Children grow when they have food and water.  And Christians grow through the sacraments, the major two having to do with food and with water.

At baptism we are given water.  It cleans us, it washes us, it puts us in a stream that flows from the beginning of time; a stream that watered the gardens of Eden, that saved the people of Israel through the Red Sea, that baptized Jesus at the hands of his cousin, John.  With Jesus, water turned into wine, water drawn by a village woman from a well, became living water, water of eternal life.  Water flowed as tears from the eyes of those who watched the crucifixion; water flowed from the side of Jesus.  And through the waters of baptism we are washed of sin, we die to sin and are raised to new life, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.  We are given water, we are given living water.

And we are fed.  The Eucharist is a meal, it is to some extent a symbolic meal, but with our prayers, with our intentions and with the power of the Holy Spirit, this wafer of bread and this cup of wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  Ignatius of Antioch the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the “medicine of immortality.”  Through the eating of this bread and the drinking of this cup, there is healing, there  is a second chance, there is communion—both with God and with the lovers of God from every time and every place.

Like with the disciples, our faith is increased when we are able to live our lives in the grace of God, one day at a time.  We serve and work together.  We learn and practice our beliefs.  We eat and we drink.  This is what it is to be the Church.  This is what it is to increase in faith.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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