Rector of Christ Church Greenwich
Delivered on Sunday, October 2, 2022
The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” He replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’” (Luke 17:5-6). I don’t know about you, but I often feel spiritually inferior when I hear something like this read aloud.
For most of us, faith is no easy task. We suspect that others have more faith than we do. The English novelist E.M. Forster described one of his characters as having faith with a small “f.” Most of us suspect that our faith is of the small “f” variety. After all, we haven’t experienced any burning bushes, lightning bolts, blinding lights like Moses, Elijah, or St. Paul.
When Matthews recounts this story, he has Jesus even more dramatically say, “…if you have faith as small as a mustard see, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20). Of course, Jesus was speaking euphemistically as he was prone to do. Faith may accomplish great things, but usually it usually does not relandscape our yard or our countryside.
One of my mother’s favorite authors was Somerset Maugham. As a young, impressionable man, he read Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus, attended church twice a Sunday, and listened intently to the vicar preach. Having been assured by his uncle that faith can move mountains, Maugham decided to put God to the test. One night before going to bed, he prayed and asked God to remove his stutter. He awoke convinced that a miracle had occurred, only to discover that his impediment was as severe as ever. His faith was crushed. If only every prayer came true.
Faith is like trust. We have all learned to trust throughout our lives. We have trusted in heroes and some have failed us. We have trusted in governments, and some have misled us. We have put our trust in ourselves and called it faith. We have put our faith in money and found that it fails to satisfy. So, we keep searching for a more robust faith.
Some would say that we should not doubt, but I would encourage you to doubt even more. We Christians must be absolutely rigorous in our thinking so that we can discern the truth. A healthy skepticism can ensure that we do not settle for a flimsy set of beliefs that will wash away like the sand in a storm.
We long for a faith that puts us in touch with God and one which can also help when we or someone we love is very ill or deeply troubled or suffering from a loss. But faith is not like saying, “abracadabra.” Joan Chittister notes, “The problem is that we are not sure that we have faith in faith.” Like one of the figures in Mark’s Gospel, we are apt to say, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)
Many of us have full lives, but we sense that something is still missing. We find ourselves envying people with a strong faith, who have a hopeful, positive outlook. We see the difference that it makes in their lives, and we want that for ourselves. We want to be calm, joyful and less anxious. We long to live by faith and not by sight alone.
Faith helps us to know that in all situations God has our back. No matter what we can get through God is with us. Faith is thus the absence of fear. The world is a fearful place, and our heroes, government, money, and our own strength cannot dispel our fear. When the woman with the flow of blood for many years touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, he said, “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34). By faith we also long to be healed and made whole.
Peter Drucker was a pioneer of management consulting. He was also a person of faith. In his 1949 essay on Soren Kierkegaard, Drucker wrote, “Faith is not what today is so often called a ‘mystical experience,’ something that can apparently be induced by the proper breathing exercises or by prolonged exposure to Bach… It can be attained only through despair, through suffering, through painful and ceaseless struggle.” Real faith is hard won. It often comes after life has broken us open. Some of you know what I mean. But just a little faith – like a mustard seed – can change how we see and respond to life.
Today, is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi – the world’s most beloved saint. One of my favorite stories about Francis is that he was invited to the home of a rich man, who heard about Francis’ amazing faith. The rich man treated Francis to a wonderful dinner and after dinner the saint went to the guest bedroom. The rich man spied on Francis through a keyhole to observe the saint. He watched all night as Francis knelt and prayed and saying over and over again, “My God and my all. My God and my all.” Finally, the rich man went to his room and fell asleep. When he awoke, and met Francis in the morning, the saint was shining like the sun. The rich man had never seen anything like it. He converted, gave away his wealth and became one of Francis’ followers. You see faith is not so much taught as it is caught.
If you are seeking faith, but struggle with skepticism and doubt, I suggest these four things:
- First, worship every Sunday with us. It will reorient you with God and turn you inside out. You will arrive focused on yourself and leave focused on others. You will get to know people whose faith is contagious. Everyone here is looking seeking faith.
- Second, read some Scripture each day. You can’t accomplish anything by doing it just once or twice a month. You can’t learn to play a piano, study Swahili, or diet or try to give up smoking once a month. You need a daily discipline. So, read the New Testament slowly and meditatively each day for five or ten minutes, and it will transform you.
- Third, if you’re skeptical, read C.S. Lewis. He was a believer who became an atheist and then developed a deep faith. He was incredibly bright – one of the world’s experts on Renaissance English literature – and he reasoned his way to a deep Christian faith. His books Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters will help you overcome your doubts.
- Lastly, practice Christianity. Get involved in some hands-on service to those who are down and out. The Bible says that “Faith without works is dead.” Get to know a few people who are struggling and help them. You will meet Jesus as you do.
While we work on our own faith, what about the faith of our children and grandchildren? We live in a community where people believe that hard work and excellence should be rewarded. If our children excel at school, in a sport and in some extracurriculars, they should get into a good college. If they do well, they will graduate, get a good job, perhaps pursue a master’s degree and get an even better job, then marry, start a family, join a club and take nice vacations.
But we’re seeing lots of young people who have done this. They have worked incredibly hard under great pressure and have a good job with a great salary, yet they feel empty inside. There’s a void, and they are struggling on the inside. How can we alter this trajectory?
We can alter it by an infusion of faith for there is a dimension to life that can only be discovered by participating actively in a Christian community, where we surround ourselves with people who are striving to live similar values and put their faith into action. We cannot instill faith in our children by overprogramming them or replacing church with Sunday sports.
A marriage infused with faith operates differently. A job infused by faith becomes a platform for serving others. God’s antidote to our disappointments and everything that makes us so fragile, so human, and so needy is faith for it overcomes our anxieties and our inadequacies.
Faith is a choice. You may be surprised to hear this, but when I was in seminary my faith wavered. In seminary, you delve into the Christian beliefs in a very academic way, and if you don’t say your prayers, you can lose your faith. I had a classmate whose faith went up and down like a volatile stock. After witnessing this, I decided to stop questioning the Nicene Creed and chose instead to accept these truths as foundational for my faith. In time, my faith became strong and stable as if I had built it on a rock-solid foundation. If you want to anchor your beliefs, trust the creeds and place your faith upon these time-tested beliefs.
Of course, faith is always a gamble. If you cast your lot with Jesus, you may still suffer from illness, have an accident, or face a major setback. Eventually, you will die as all people die. But in the meantime, you will live a life full of hope, peace, and joy. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Of course, faith is a risk – but one I would never risk living without.”
Jesus won’t burst into our homes and force us to follow him. Instead, he says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” God will come into your life only if you open a door. I heard a man say, “It took me a long time, and my life was nearly destroyed, before I was able to hear God knocking at the door of my life, and I opened it to him, and that made all the difference.” If God has opened a door to you this morning, cleared up some misunderstanding or inspired you, I hope and pray that you will open that door and step through that threshold into a larger, broader, more generous-spirited life of faith. Amen.