Our gospel reading for tonight is not a neat, tidy story – instead the words are captured under a subheading that reads, “Some sayings of Jesus”. Oh, you know, what Jesus always said or some inside joke that we’re allowed to overhear, but this kind of eavesdropping never allows for explanation or context. So, we have two sets of words that may or may not have been said in relation to one another and Jesus may have said them once or maybe so many times that his disciples knew to roll their eyes at the beginning of these stories.
The disciples yell out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”. It is a plea and prayer that has been prayed countless times over the centuries by people just like these disciples – people afraid, jealous, restless and people who hope for something more for their lives. With Jesus standing right there in front of them, they went straight to the source in hopes that their lives would be all they had dreamed – and those disciples dreamed of some big dreams. And so they asked or demanded really, “Increase our faith!”.
The battle cry of the fearful.
It is no wonder that the disciples are begging for more faith – they have seen unbelievable, miraculous healings happen as a result of faith. There was the woman who threw herself at Jesus’ feet during dinner and covered his feet with her tears and silence. Jesus answers her bold humility with the words, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” And the women who pushed her way through the crowd simply to touch the cloak of Jesus in reckless hope that she might know healing, and Jesus responds to her with the words, “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace.”
I imagine the disciples, the ones in Jesus’ inner most circle, were experiencing some frustration and envy as they watched people run up to their Rabbi and receive life-altering or life-saving healing and then the affirmation that it was faith, their very own faith that had made them well. The demand for more faith seems like a reasonable request from the men who had been at Jesus’ side.
One afternoon, not too long ago, while feeling fearful about the future I tossed out a question to my daughter, “Micaela, where should we live next year?” Without missing a beat, like she was waiting to be asked, she yelled back “Underwater!”
The disciples, feeling fearful yelled out to Jesus “Increase our faith!” and he, with a similar helpfulness of my little one yelled back, “Mustardseeds!” And these nonsensical conversations might be as logical as we can get in the conversation about faith. If we have faith, can we get more? If we have faith, can we lose it? If we have faith, how do we know we have enough faith – can we measure it, contain it, label it and wield it to our will?
Mustard-seeds are teeny, tiny little seeds with the potential of growing into brilliant, bold and somewhat obnoxious plants. Jesus says if the disciples had faith the size of the mustard-seed they could uproot a mulberry bush and in other gospel accounts its entire mountains that can be moved with faith the size of a mustard seed. Jesus does not say, “If only you had faith the size of a mustard seed” as if to point out the inadequacy of the disciples, he simply states “If you have faith the size of the tiniest seed”… Jesus is telling the disciples that they have the gift of faith already, they are equipped with enough faith already. The demand of “increase our faith!” is superfluous to the life of a disciple as they have been given faith to uproot mulberry bushes and move mountains.
But Jesus did not call the disciples to a life of super-natural landscaping, but called them for another purpose, they are following Jesus for reasons so much more powerful and transformative than using a force of faith to move pieces of nature like magic tricks. And that purpose leads us to Jesus’ second saying tonight.
It is a harsh telling of the relationship between master and slave. Jesus points out that the slave should enter the house at the end of the day and fix dinner before being able to eat and drink himself. And then Jesus turns the story onto the disciples, “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!’”
“Worthless slave” is a rude label; it hits the ear in a very different way than “beloved child”. Yet I believe this term is leading us to think about what we are called to do, much more than who we are. Uprooting vegetation may not be the work which ushers in the kingdom of God to our lives and the lives of those around us…but living and giving and thinking like a “worthless slave” may get us closer to understanding our place in this world, our place at the table of mercy.
The Greek word for servant, or slave is “DooLas”, which Pastor Scott pointed out at Bible and Brew that word sounds an awful like doula…the clean and clinical definition of a doula is: a woman whose job is to give advice and comfort to a woman who is giving birth. But I think the more realistic definition of a doula is one who willingly sits in the blood and guts, the stink and the stains, who hears the screams and suffering, the one who urges for pushing and discomfort and the one who welcomes in new life. The life of a doula, the life of the slave Jesus talks about and the life of the Christian is a life meant to serve a purpose completely outside of one’s own interest.
That sounds like a ticket to martyrdom, and it could be…it could also be a ticket to freedom from fear and faith in God. What does it look like to be a worthless slave serving a profoundly worthy purpose?
Perhaps it looks like a member of congress or the senate serving the people that elected them by going to work, taking a huge political loss so that they can be the civil servants they promised to be.
Perhaps it looks like concerned voters writing letters to their elected leaders explaining what a life of a worthless servant could do for the greater good, and most importantly for those who are without paychecks, social services, libraries, museums and national parks and forests.
Perhaps it looks like a renewal volunteer spending days or weeks chucking wood so people they may have met, or people they will not know can be warm this winter and stoke the community fires with ease and wood abounding.
Perhaps it looks like being with another who is sitting in the blood and guts of life, suffering and screaming, it could look like bringing comfort and light and welcoming in new life for those who are laboring.
I do not believe it looks like uprooting mulberry bushes, although we could if that was the task for the worthless slave…we could, because we have been given faith. Through Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit we are given the free, substantial gift of faith – and it is enough to do what is asked of us as beloved, called and worthless servants, serving at the will of an all-loving and ever-giving God.
Increase our faith! Is a familiar prayer because the life and struggles before us are difficult and call for faith. Do not be afraid to do what God is asking of you…as Jesus healed the sick and gave sight to the blind, as Jesus raised the dead and broken open systems of oppression, so also with us are we called to usher in life, as a doula, as a doolas, as a servant. We cannot measure faith, we cannot contain it or label it and we are not given the gift of faith to bend it to our will…rather it is a gift, given to us by the Holy Spirit, and it is a gift that wields us to the will of God, the giver of life, the giver of faith.