Pentecost 20 C: Every Day Acts of Faith

Luke 17:5-10

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I have to admit that I feel for the disciples. (Even more than usual!) In recent passages Jesus has been asking some fairly extraordinary things of them – to give away their possessions, to forgive those who wrong you…countless times, to take up his cross, and more. No wonder then, they ask for more faith. They feel inadequate to the tasks around them, insufficient to the challenges, unable to imagine accomplishing any of what he is asking. And after a week like the one we just had – with shootings, stabbings, injustice, hacking, and more – I suspect lots of us feel the same way. Like we need more faith…just to get through, let alone to make a difference.

But then something interesting happens. Because when the disciples recognize their need and ask him for help, for more faith, you’d think Jesus would both welcome and grant their request. But he doesn’t. Instead, he almost seems to rebuke them. “If you had even a speck of faith…,” he begins, implying that they actually don’t have faith even the size of a mustard seed. What kind of way is that to respond to the disciples’ earnest, even heartfelt question?

But what if the question the disciples ask isn’t only earnest and heartfelt, but also problematic, even a little wrong-headed? Maybe then Jesus’ sharp retort was just what they needed – maybe just what we need – to orient them to the miraculous presence of God all around them and the totally-sufficient faith they already have.

Here’s the thing: servants aren’t invited to the table with the landowner; they eat when their work is done. Nor do they deserve great thanks simply for doing their job; they just do it. That’s more what faith is like, Jesus seems to say – simply the willingness to do what needs to be done. Faith is not, in other words, some kind of scarce resource that needs to be saved, spent, added to, and all the rest. Moreover, faith isn’t always heroic. Indeed, it usually isn’t, but instead is simply and humbly doing what needs to be done, big or small, great or mundane, just because it needs doing.

This isn’t the first time Jesus has hinted at this. At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has already named as faithful a woman’s desperate confidence that if she only touches him he will be healed (3:48), a centurion’s concern for a sick servant (7:9), and a woman’s gratitude at being forgiven (7:50). Soon he will also call faithful a Samaritan leper who returns to thank him for healing (17:19) and the plea of a blind beggar for sight (18:42). And so it perhaps shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus challenges the disciples’ perception about faith by pointing them to the far from illustrious or noteworthy hard work and service of a servant performing his duties. Faith is found not in the mighty acts of heaven but in the ordinary and everyday acts of doing what needs to be done, responding to the needs around us, and caring for the people who come our way.

So here’s my question, Dear Partner: do our people know and believe this? That Jesus would call so many of the unnoticed things they do each week faithful? Showing up for work and doing a good job. Listening when someone needs to talk. Getting the kids off to school. Sitting with someone in the cafeteria who looks like they could use a friend. Volunteering at a local homeless shelter. Voting even if the field of candidates seems discouraging. Balancing the books for your business or community group. Writing a thank you note to someone who has done a kindness. Cooking supper. Praying for a neighbor who is having a hard time. The list could go on. And that’s the point. None of these is any big deal, and yet it is just these kinds of acts that occupy so much of our lives. And I suspect it wouldn’t cross the minds of most of our people that they are acts of faith.

Somehow, an “act of faith” seems like it needs to be significant or costly or even extravagant to merit God’s attention. And that misperception isn’t really new. Martin Luther, writing 500 years ago, once even extolled the virtue of a father changing diapers (emphasizing father because that was so extremely rare, and probably considered unbecoming, at the time): “When a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other menial task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool…God with all his angels and creatures is smiling” (LW:45:50).

I realize that some of our folks may wonder what difference such “small” things make in light of the major challenges and problems in front of us. Perhaps we wonder that ourselves. If so, perhaps this exercise may help both parishioner and preacher alike: Pass out 3×5 cards and ask your people to write down just one helpful thing they did this week and quickly collect those cards. Then put the stack behind your back and ask them to imagine what the world would have been like last week if none of the things named on the cards had been done. Pause to let that sink in, and then ask what the world might look like next week if they offered even more such simple acts of faith. (You can do this verbally, of course, but something about seeing those acts of faith represented visually may make a bigger impact.)

Dear Partner, I think this Sunday could be just the time to lift up these everyday, ordinary things as acts of faith as honorable, God-blessed, and important…and by lifting them up multiply them. Because when you see that our everyday and ordinary acts of faith have significance, you have renewed energy to do even more.

Look, when we read the headlines and see news of more shootings, more injustice, more war, it can seem like there is no hope. Yet all around us signs of hope – of God continuing to love and care for this world – abound, even and especially through the simple, ordinary, even mundane acts of faithfulness our people are already doing. And this week we get to tell our folks that, contrary to how it may feel at times, they are so totally enough and their faith is more than adequate to the tasks at hand. It’s an important, faith-creating message, and I’m grateful for your willingness to share it. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,