In Lewis Carroll’s second children’s novel “Through the Looking Glass” there is a conversation between Alice and the White Queen.
The Queen says: "I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day." "I can't believe that!" said Alice. "Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes." Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Believing in six impossible things before breakfast – sometimes it seems that that’s the way the world thinks about faith; and sometimes we may think of it that way, also. There is much, when thinking and speaking of God, that doesn’t fit a narrow modern, analytical, critical, and scientific outlook, and so some people paint God and faith and the Bible with the category of believing the impossible.
Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel don’t help us any, either. After the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, he said to them: If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you. It sounds like Jesus is rationing or doling out faith, and then expecting us to do silly things, like commanding trees to uproot themselves and be thrown away. Why would anyone want to believe that…if that is what faith is about? I know I am being overly literal here, but to make a point.
In fact, faith – as Jesus means it, Christian faith – is not about believing impossible things, just for the sake of believing them. Instead, Christian faith is about giving God our full attention and loyalty – heart, mind, body and soul – and then living in such a way that the reality of God’s love and truth will find a practical expression in what we do and what we say out in the world. Another way of saying it is that faith is more like a muscle than it is like an idea; and just like a muscle, the way to increase faith is to exercise it.
That’s why Jesus gave the disciples such an abrupt and slightly irritated answer when they asked him to increase their faith: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
By this point in Luke’s Gospel the disciples had been with Jesus long enough to have been present for healings and exorcisms, and all manner of confrontations with religious authorities; you’d think they would have had lots of faith by now. But Jesus has also been making it very clear to the disciples, and to anyone else who cared to listen, that being his follower is, as the saying goes, not for wimps. So maybe it’s understandable that the disciples felt they didn’t have enough faith; but Jesus was telling them that they had all the faith they needed to do really great and good things for God – even if their faith was a small as a grain of mustard.
Faith, as I said before, is like a muscle and it must be used and exercised on a regular basis or it will atrophy. Faith has to find very concrete expression in the way we live day-to-day if it is going to grow and flourish and make more of itself, and more of us. It certainly starts with our experience of God, our relationship with God – but then, if we are giving God our full attention and loyalty – our faith will be exercised in ever-widening circles, like the proverbial ripples in a pond when a stone is dropped into it.
What are some of the ways we put our faith as Christ-followers into practice? We think of corporate/community worship, of course - and prayer and Bible reading; but throughout Christian history there have been practices that have helped Christians become stronger and truer disciples, and the world around them has been the beneficiary. Some of these practices may seem to be merely common sense – but that’s only because they took root and shaped so much of the Western world into a civilization where Christian values were the norm, even if they weren’t exercised by everyone. And now as our society is increasingly secular we can’t take these practices, and the values they convey and imbed in us, for granted. We Christians need to consciously and conscientiously be practicing our faith out in the public square, as well as at home and at church.
So what are these practices that flow from being in touch with God and being a follower of Jesus? Some of them you’ll recognize, and some may surprise you:
- Forgiveness – not just asking for it from God, but asking for it from others, and offering it, as well.
- Managing our household life – the way we keep our schedules, use our time; busyness, simplicity; the way we spend, invest and save our money; clutter and the sense of enough.
- Hospitality – is about the way we welcome a stranger or guest into our midst, and then are willing to allow that person to become the host, the one who welcomes us.
- Honoring the body – as Christians we follow a Risen Lord, a God who came to us in the human life of Jesus, and we celebrate the Holy Spirit who dwells within us a in a temple; we are, therefore to respect and care for our bodies as part of God’s good gift.
- Keeping Sabbath – in the Old Testament no one was to work non-stop, without a rest or break; Sabbath was a time to recognize our human limitations, and to rest while trusting in God’s goodness. In our 24/7 world that will not stop for us, we have to choose to stop and honor God in ways that are both restful and re-creative for us.
- Telling the truth – this is not just about being factually accurate, but about being honest with ourselves and those around us about how things are - the state of the world, and being a trustworthy and reliable witness.
- Healing – this was such a central part of Jesus’ life and ministry, an expression of God’s gift of life. The practice of medicine and health care, as well as laying on of hands for healing prayer, are all part of Christian healing.
- Transforming our world – caring for creation, doing justice, peace-making, serving others, protecting the vulnerable and oppressed are all rooted in Scripture and the nature of God.
- Shaping communities – civic and church communities – through roles, rituals, laws, agreements, shared commitments and institutions for the common good.
- Dying well – as Christians we know that death is not the end, that there is hope and life with God still to come, and so we can let go of life here with dignity, with calm, and with the ability to comfort one another.
- Celebration and joy – even in the midst of difficulty, there is gratitude and a celebration of life, an enjoyment of what is, rather than a lament for what there is not.
All of these, in their way are part of the practice of Christian faith; they are done again and again, privately, publically; sometimes with others, and sometimes alone. There are other practices that we could add to the list, others that might speak to you, but this is plenty for now. As we live and act and speak and do each of these things our faith will be exercised, that muscle will grow stronger, we will have grown in our loyalty and love and attention to God; and in the end, we will find that we have been living God’s life, right in the midst of our very human, very flawed, but very beautiful world. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 6, 2013