Proper 22c, October 2, 2016

October 3, 2016

The Power of Faith

Luke 17:5-10


5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “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. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”


I was fortunate to hear a good story one day last week about a woman who went from pretending to be a radio announcer in the one bathroom of her overpopulated childhood home to become the owner of one of the largest media companies in the country. She became the first African American woman to own a publicly traded company, and it all went back to when she was 8 years old and her mother gave her a small transistor radio. I heard this story on National Public Radio, and it was told by a guy who has a podcast that highlights the way people turn ideas in to businesses.


Cathy Hughes is the woman’s name, and the most interesting thing about her story to me was the way in which she acquired her first radio station. She had been working in radio for a few years and she had developed a very successful music program in the Washington, DC area. She was hired by another station to help them improve their programming, and they wanted her to help recruit new investors. She said she would do that, but she said she wanted to be compensated with some stock in the company. One of the owners of the company said in an offhanded way that if she was smart enough to own her own company then she should get one of her own.


She took his words to heart and that became her pursuit. She found a station that was in trouble, and she went in search of a loan. She was denied by 31 banks, but the 32nd bank was willing to loan her the money, and she made it work. At one point, she and her son had to live at the station, but she turned it around and that became the first of her 58 radio stations.


Jesus wasn’t offering business advice when he told his disciples of the power of a mustard seed amount of faith, but I think the way Cathy Hughes built her company is a clear portrayal of the power of faith. She believed in herself and in her idea of how to run a radio station. Her faith enabled her to remain focused on what she believed could happen regardless of the way things seemed to be going.


I’ve heard faith defined as the ability to put your whole trust in something and to act on it. That’s what Cathy Hughes did, and it clearly paid off for her. I consider her exercise of faith to be inspiriational and instructive, but it isn’t a perfect portrayal of the kind of faith that Jesus was talking about. The faith that Jesus revealed and encouraged is the rarest form of faith there is, and it’s never been easy for any of us to get our minds around the kind of faith Jesus wanted his followers to exhibit, but it’s real and it’s powerful.


I may be reading more in to this exchange between Jesus and his disciples than is there, but I’m hearing some exhasperation in the voice of Jesus when he responds to the disciple’s request for him to increase their faith. The disciples asked him for more faith, and Jesus responded by saying what they could do if they had a miniscule amount of faith. I may be wrong, but it sort of sounds to me as if Jesus was saying that if their faith was increased it might then become the size of the smallest seed in the world – which of course turns out to be a powerful amount of faith!


I think the gospel writers often used the disciples to illustrate the wrong way to think about matters of faith, and this is one of those occasions. I think the mistake the disciples were making was that they were confusing faith with power. Jesus responded to their request for more faith as if they were asking for more ability to do amazing things.


Jesus didn’t want to underestimate the amazing things that could transpire if they had faith, but he didn’t want them to be confused about the way powerful things unfold. Amazing things could happen if they would learn to exercise faith, but that is a far different thing than just having the power to do what they wanted. I think it’s easy for any of us to understand their request for more ability, and I’m sure they felt like they were asking for a good thing, but this is tricky business. The desire for more power can lead people to become less attentive to the power of God – to have less faith in God. The more we trust in our own ability the less dependent we can become on God to do the transforming work that needs to be done.


Jesus wants us to know that when we have faith in God we are engaged in an endeavor that can change the world in powerful ways, but he didn’t want us to get caught up in some sort of power trip. Immediately after telling his disciples how the smallest amount of faith could enable them to speak with unimaginable authority – he went on to tell them how subservient they were to remain.


What a contrast! In one breath Jesus told his disciples that their faith would provide them with the authority to speak in ways that would change the face of the earth. And in the next breath, he tells them that they are to see themselves as servants who are only doing what is expected of them when they work endlessly for nothing.


This endeavor of living with faith is tricky business. It is an undertaking that puts us in touch with the root source of true power. The smallest amount of faith is incredibly empowering – world changing. But we are never to assume we have any authority whatsoever.


There’s a tricky balance to obtain here, for I believe that God wants us to fully engage in the work of making this world a more hospitable place for everyone. We are to do everything we know to do to enable all people to experience fullness in life, but we can never assume that we have the ability to change anything. We are to be fully engaged and relentless in our efforts, but we don’t need to think too highly of ourselves and our capacity to get things done.


Cathy Huges didn’t go to bank after bank assuming she could make them give her a loan, but she wasn’t going to quit asking until there wasn’t anyone else to ask. There’s a certain power that comes to us when we have faith, but it’s an illusive form of power. It’s not the kind of power you have when you hold a powerful office or have access to tremendous resources, but in a significant way the power that accompanies faith is the most transformational form of power that exists.


To have faith in God is to have an absolute form of trust that things are going to turn out right regardless of the way things seem to be going. The image of the servant or slave not counting on getting a break seems sort of harsh, but I don’t think Jesus was wanting us to think of God as a heartless master. I think the point Jesus was trying to make was that we are to maintain an attitude of perfect diligence in our effort to serve God.


Jesus wants us to understand that remarkable things can occur when people have the tiniest amount of faith, but having faith is not just an internal spiritual exercise. Our faith is to be connected to our feet. God places concerns on our hearts, and we are to go where that internal voice tells us to go for as long as necessary.


Cathy Hughes didn’t go to 31 banks in search of a loan because she knew that she would one day create one of the most significant media companies in the country. She got up day after day and did that because she was empowered by an idea that wouldn’t die.


As followers of Christ we have been granted access to the greatest idea that has ever been conceived, and the idea is that there’s nothing more eternal and powerful than the love of God. According to this idea, our wellbeing only depends on how well we can allow the love of God to flow through our lives. It’s sort of a simple idea, but if we trust in this truth it will define everything that we do. We don’t need more faith. We just need to have faith in the right thing, and if we will do that then there’s nothing that can stop us from doing the world changing work that God will empower us to do.


We have no idea what can come of our efforts and we shouldn’t ever think we know what can come of our work. Our only charge is to do what we can to show our love for God and our neighbors. There’s really no telling what can come from such work, and that’s the most beautiful thing about this relationship we can have with God. It’s bigger than we can imagine.


Our challenge is not to seek more faith. Our challenge is simply to have some faith in this beautiful message that Jesus Christ brought us. We are to trust that God’s love is the most powerful force in the universe and to somehow share this good news with everyone we encounter every day for the rest of our lives. That’s all we have to do — then we can rest.


Thanks be to God for this truly empowering idea.




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