The Kansas landscape is populated by rural communities that consist of a single crossroads with a grain elevator, a gas station, a seed & feed store and a church. I recently read about one such community in western Kansas that had suffered a year-long draught. All the crops were dying. In desperation, Larry Gates, the pastor of the Presbyterian church, the only church in town, announced that the whole community would assemble at the edge of one of the fields and pray for rain. Most everyone in the small town gathered and Pastor Gates climbed up on a tractor to survey the flock. He shouted, “Brothers and sisters! We have come here to pray for rain!”
“Amen!” responded his little congregation.
“Well,” said the minister, “do you have sufficient faith?”
“Amen! Amen!” shouted the crowd.
“All right, all right, then,” said the minister, “but I have one question to ask you!”
The crowd stood silent, puzzled, expectant.
“Brothers and sisters!” shouted the minister, “Where are your umbrellas?”
“Increase our faith!” That’s what Jesus’ disciples were asking him to do for them. It’s what we hope Jesus will do for us when we gather together in this place on Sunday morning. “Increase our faith, Lord!”
But I have one question to ask: What do we really expect when we come to this place?
When Angel Fernando, pastor of an upscale suburban church in Northern California, was asked the question, “Do your people come to church expecting something?” He replied, “Yes, they expect to be out by twelve.”
And, in fact, I had a congregation in Wichita, Kansas whose faith was so strong in that same conviction that they programed the air conditioning to automatically shut off at noon.
Scientists say that we humans only use about ten percent of our brain. And those who are somehow able to access additional brain power are considered geniuses. I have an adjacent theory regarding faith. I tend to believe that most of us access only a fraction of our faith. And I can’t help but wonder what could be accomplished if we used just ten percent – or even one percent – just a mustard seed sized – portion of our God-given capacity for faith.
Albert Einstein, arguably one of the greatest minds ever born, often contemplated the concept of faith, “The problem involved,” he once said, “is too vast for our limited minds.” Born of irreligious Jewish parents Einstein particularly struggled, from an early age, with the idea of having faith in a personal God. “Enough for me,” Einstein said, “is the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.” [“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” Job 38:4ff]
Maybe that’s the faith Albert Einstein was musing about when he wrote, “That deep emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”
Einstein, with his mere mustard seed of faith, yet had a deep emotional conviction about his place and purpose in the universe, along with a world renown tireless work ethic. And that combination was, indeed, enough to begin unpacking the mysteries of God’s marvelous universe.
Jesus was suggesting that faith is not a commodity that needs to increase in size. A mustard seeds worth of faith is more than sufficient, he says. (Willimon)
Even the most humble modicum of faith is enough to do amazing things: move mountains, uproot mulberry trees with bare hands, indeed, perhaps even to unlock the secrets of the universe. The real power comes, not with the size of one’s faith, but with one’s conviction about that faith; and the willingness to act upon that faith.
Mother Teresa once said, ““Be faithful in small things, because it is in them that your strength lies.” [“Whoever can be trusted with little can also be trusted with much,” Luke 16:10]
Or, as St. Augustine so eloquently put it, “Pray as though everything depended on God, work as though everything depended on you.” [“Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” Matt. 21:22]
It’s no coincidence that Jesus follows up his mustard see analogy with a parable implying that servants who are simply obedient in fulfilling their master’s commands (whether they understand them or not) is in and of itself often a sufficient expression faith.
And that the most spectacular feats of might come about simply as the result ordinary folks, like us, performing faithfully those little everyday works that Jesus specifically commanded us to do: offer a cup of cold water to the least of these; preach good news to the poor; reach out in compassion to the outcast; heal the lame, cure the blind, make disciples of all nations, build my church, become my body in the world.
In other words, when Jesus says it’s going to rain, brothers and sisters, you’d better bring your umbrellas!
[“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from y mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Is. 55:10–11]
In one of his books, Philip Yancey describes a school of behavioral therapy that urges a client to act “as if” something is true, not matter how strange or impossible such a request might seem.
“We change behavior,” claims Yancey, “not be delving into the past or by trying to align motives with actions, but rather by `acting as if the change should happen. It’s much easier to act your way into [new] feelings, than to feel your way into action[s].”
Yancey & co. have a lot of success using that technique to saved marriages that have gone sour, where the feelings of love have been lost, or in relationships where couples find it difficult to forgive or even imagine how they might be reconciled.
Indeed, recalling one marriage, Yancey said healing only happened after he told the couple to imagine that their union was over. “After all, resurrection only works on the dead,” said Yancey. “And announcing the death of the marriage was the very thing that brought it back to life.”
When we live our lives “as if” – “as if” we had a mustard seed’s worth of faith and “as if” that was enough; when we live “as if” we, too, had an irreplaceable purpose in God’s vast universe; when we live our lives “as if” we could uproot stubborn problems, remove mountainous obstacles, and launch miraculous enterprises . . . then who knows what we might accomplish together? Or the mighty tree which that tiny seed of faith might someday produce? [“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of thing not seen.” Heb. 11:1]
Fred Craddock recalls a church he was visiting on a Sunday afternoon. As he walked out to his car, a van pulled up in the church parking lot, and a bunch of young people got out. They looked like thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, maybe up to eighteen years old. Ten or twelve young people who belonged to that church. They got out with bedrolls. It was the awfullest looking bunch of kids you’ve ever seen,” said Craddock. “like something the cats would drag in. They were really in bad shape. Fred asked them, “What is this?” And they told him they’d just returned from a work mission. They named the place where they went, in one week, those young people, along with other young people, had built a little church for a community. They were beat. They looked terrible.
They were sitting on their bags out there waiting for their parents to come pick them up. Fred said to one of the boys, he said, “You tired?” And the boy replied, “Whew! Am I tired!” Then he added, “This is the best tired I’ve ever felt!”
“Do you feel that?” Fred Craddock asks us. “This is the best tired I’ve ever felt “. Craddock concludes. “I hope we all get that tired. The best tired there is, called in your Bible: Joy.”
You don’t have to have a great deal of faith in Jesus Christ; a little faith is enough. And that faith is more about dutiful service to the Master than it about brilliant insight to life’s mysteries or heroic self-sacrifice or dazzling theological reflection.
Because the truth is that mulberry trees are uprooted by hard labor and mountains get moved from one place to another shovel full by shovel full.
And deepening your faith is much more about working tirelessly day by day by day for the sake of God’s kingdom in Christ’s name.