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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Luke 17:5-10 “It’s a Small, Small Faith”

James McTyre

Worldwide Communion Sunday

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

You saw the title of today’s sermon, “It’s a Small, Small Faith,” and what did it remind you of? Walt Disney’s song and ride, “It’s a Small World.” Some people have called it “the most annoying song ever written.” No, no. The most annoying song ever written was the closing hymn a couple of Sundays ago. Man, did I get an earful as you were going out the door. Sorry. My bad. But in its native Norwegian, it’s a real toe-tapper.

I don’t know if “It’s a Small World” is really as annoying as people say it is, but I do know it’s going to be in your heads now, like a virus. All I had to do was mention the title and today at lunch, you’re going to be hearing it in your mind, over, and over. And over. It just sticks.

Walt Disney built a place called the Magic Kingdom. He called it “the happiest place on earth.” It’s undeniably one of the best-run, happy places ever built. Especially if you’ve got kids, it’s the place where dreams come true. It’s a kingdom filled with magic.

Sometimes we confuse faith with magic. We confuse the power of faith with the power to work magic, the power to make our own little magic kingdoms out of the world. And then, when the magic doesn’t happen, when we’re not the happiest people on earth, when our dreams don’t come true – we figure there must be something wrong with faith… or with us. Jesus said that with even the tiniest seeds of faith, we can work miracles. You can work miracles, with whatever amount of faith you have, large or small. Leave the magic to Disney. Celebrate your small, small faith.


Jesus said, “If you had faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree to pull itself up, roots and all, and to plant itself in the ocean. And it would!”

That’s Luke’s version of the story. The Apostle Matthew’s version is like Luke on steroids. In Matthew’s telling, Jesus says, “If you told this MOUNTAIN to move, it would.”

This is one of those scriptures that just “sticks” in peoples’ heads. It’s part of our culture. You hear people, religious or not, talking about “moving mountains.” (Sorry, Luke, but nobody but gardeners talk about moving mulberry trees. Not such a universal image.)

This is one of those things I wish Jesus had said another way. I think he meant it to be encouraging. I think he meant it to say, “You don’t need me to increase your faith, you just need to use what you’ve got.” That’s encouraging, and that’s how I think Jesus meant his saying to be taken. But in my experience as a pastor, that’s not what sticks in peoples’ minds. What I’ve found sticks in peoples’ minds are a couple of annoying ideas. (Not annoying to me; but annoying to people who have this verse running over and over in their heads.)

First, the idea that if you have faith, you can do magic. The idea that if you have even the tiniest faith, you can perform amazing feats of superhuman strength. The idea that if you believe in Jesus you have supernatural powers not available to everyone else.

I wonder if one of the disciples hung around after Jesus and everyone else left. I wonder if the disciple stood there staring at the mulberry tree – or the mountain – saying, “Move!” Just to test what Jesus had said. And I wonder what that disciple thought the next time Jesus said anything. “Jesus was wrong about the mulberry tree. And now he thinks loving your enemies is going to work, too?” I know people who have either given up on faith, or are annoyed by faith, because they heard something about moving mountains and their faith hasn’t given them the promised ability to create their own magic kingdoms.

The other thing that annoys people about this saying is that they take it as proof that they don’t have even a mustard seed’s worth of faith. They think they believe, they think they have faith in the power of Christ, they pray – maybe a little, maybe a lot – and nothing changes. If all you know about faith is that if you have even a tiny pinch of it you can move trees and mountains, then the fact that your prayers didn’t cure someone’s disease, didn’t get you what you wanted, didn’t move a mountain, a tree, or a shrub – is proof that your faith must not be very good. When God was handing out faith, you got the defective packet. Your prayers weren’t poetic enough. You THOUGHT you had faith, but apparently, you didn’t really, truly believe with you whole heart and mind and soul. You let doubt creep into your mind, and because of your own weakness, your faith won’t work.

I think both of those interpretations of this scripture are wrong. That faith is like magic, and that failures of faith are your own darn fault – I think both of those are about as far away from Jesus’ message of encouragement as you can get. If you get either or both of these ideas stuck in your head, your faith is discouraged. Discouraging faith was NEVER what Jesus meant to do.

I think what Jesus was trying to get across to us is that if you have even small, small faith – and if you let that small, small faith roll around, over and over and over in your head (and in your heart), that faith – not you and your powers, necessarily – but that faith is enough. That small, small faith can do great things. Just the tiniest bit of inspiration can work miracles. Just the tiniest bit of faith can work miracles on you.


If faith isn’t magic, and if it doesn’t depend on your skill or your confidence, how does faith work? Is there some secret formula to faith that some people just “get” and some people don’t?

If you put this saying about faith moving mulberry trees back in its context, I think what Jesus is saying comes clearer. I think Jesus is saying faith is not a tool. Faith is not a possession. Faith is not something you can measure. Instead, faith is an attitude. Faith is an attitude.

Jesus doesn’t just walk along one day and see a mulberry tree and tell his disciples, “If faith the size of a mustard seed you had, move that mulberry tree, you could.” Reminds me of Master Yoda levitating Luke’s fighter. Faith is not The Force. Jesus is not a Jedi. No, the context for this saying is Jesus telling his disciples that they have to forgive people who sin against them. He tells them, “If someone mistreats you, or sins against you, seven times in one day, and then comes and asks forgiveness, you have to forgive them.” And they say, “Lord, increase our faith!” Wrong answer. It reads like their response really annoys the heck out of Jesus. It reads as if he’s spitting back at them, saying, “What? You think forgiving is hard? If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” And then he goes on with the rest of the passage, “When the servant comes in from plowing… [and] when you’ve done all you should, say, ‘We are merely servants. We have merely done our duty.’” Jesus is shaming the disciples for thinking their faith isn’t enough.

It doesn’t matter how strong your faith is. It doesn’t matter if your faith makes you the happiest person on earth. It doesn’t matter if you like following the commands of Jesus. Show a little faith in God’s faith in you. Celebrate the tiny bit you’ve got instead of wishing you had more. Faith isn’t measured by achievement or acclaim or respect. Faith is an attitude. Faith is an attitude that says, “Here I am, send me.” Faith doesn’t say, “Oh, gee, Lord. Could you wait until I get in shape? Until I lose ten pounds and read my Bible a little more?” Faith says, “I may not be much, but if God wants to use me, I’ll go.”

I wish we could get out of our heads the virus of an idea that with faith, we’re supposed to perform miracles. The word of emphasis there is, perform. As if faith, or miracles, are some sort of performance, done to make people or God say, “Ooh, ahh.” I think it’s truer to Jesus’ teaching to say, with faith we can participate IN miracles. We don’t perform them, we work with them. I think it’s truer to Jesus to say, with faith we can see miracles as miracles. In faith we can see miracles as miracles of God, not just coincidence or dumb luck. In faith we see miracles as God’s gifts, not our accomplishment. Because they aren’t our miracles. They’re God’s. And praise be to God we were awake enough, we had attitude enough, to be present, to see them for what they are.

Moving trees and mountains? That’s a parlor trick. Forgiving someone who sins against you seven times in one day? That’s a miracle. Being thankful, being grateful for the little miracles that no one else sees, seeing these miracles as proof of God’s love and kindness – that’s a miracle. And anyone, ANYONE, with just a little faith can do that. No matter how much or how little faith you have, you have enough faith to see miracles. No matter how strong your faith, you have enough to take part in miracles. Even the weakest faith is still faith. Instead of wishing your small, small faith could build magic kingdoms, celebrate that you have any faith at all. Work on an attitude of obedience to that faith, and by faith you will see – you may even be – a miracle.