Let’s go back, way back, in the story of our faith to that time right before the exodus from Egypt. Our ancestors in the faith, the Israelites, had been living in Egypt for some 400 years. Their numbers and prosperity had increased over the centuries since they fled a famine in their native land of Canaan, and all was well. Until there arose a new king over Egypt, as we are told in the Book of Exodus, and then things began to get bad and then worse and then insufferable for those Israelites who had previously enjoyed years of flourishing and fruitfulness.
The current Pharaoh was a cruel man, and in order to curtail the proliferation of the Israelites, he enslaved them, making their lives miserable with brutal stipulations and rigorous demands. Scripture again tells us that their lives were made “bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.” Pharaoh’s objective appears to have been a sadistic desire to assign impossible tasks so that the Israelites would suffer.
As if the requirement of torturous labor were not enough, Pharaoh eventually decreed that the Israelites would no longer be given the necessary straw to produce their required quota of bricks. They would, instead, have to gather the straw themselves and still produce the mandated quantity. For Pharaoh, the ruthless tyrant, whatever the Israelites did was never enough. The goal of their labor could never be achieved. The impossibility of its adequacy was part of the abuse. Little wonder that the exodus from Egypt, directed by God and led by Moses, was such a welcome blessing.
Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites was on an unimaginable scale of cruelty. Underlying it all was the fearful anxiety of a despotic ruler for whom nothing was ever sufficient. And tragically, such rulers still abound today as modern echoes of Pharaoh. But even though we may not literally be held in captivity in a foreign land where incessant demands for labor are judged as perpetually inadequate, in our day and age, in a culture that is supposedly free, isn’t there still some resonance for us in the story of the Israelites in Egypt? I dare say that we live, to some extent, in a metaphorical land of captivity. We can’t avoid the pressures of a taskmaster culture, where no matter what we do, it really is never sufficient. In bondage to a taskmaster culture, do we then transfer our anxiety to our life of discipleship?
Now, think of those disciples of Jesus whom we encounter in today’s Gospel. Is it possible that we, as followers of Christ, find ourselves in their position of wanting more faith? Like them, do we yearn for Jesus to increase our faith because we worry that ours is insufficient to fulfill the work to which God calls us, a work that seems endless?
Picking up in the Gospel narrative as we do today does little to shed light on just why the apostles are asking for more faith. But backing up in the Gospel, we find that Jesus’s disciples are no doubt feeling a bit overwhelmed by the demands of following him. Jesus cautions that anyone who causes another person to stumble in their faith would be better off having a millstone tied around his or her neck and thrown into the sea.
And what Jesus says about forgiving a brother or sister who sins seems unattainable. Even if that person sins seven times a day and repents seven times a day, he or she must be forgiven each and every time. It is hard work being a follower of Christ. It is tiresome. The expectations from God might seem unreasonable or as if God is asking for the impossible. How are we to measure up to Jesus’s standards of charity and good will? How are we to be as forgiving as Christ would have us be?
Which one of us has not, at some time or another or perhaps everyday, felt overwhelmed by the realities of being a disciple of Christ? Is it not natural to feel that the odds are considerably stacked against us in proclaiming the Gospel? We are all probably weary from hearing the statistics of what has been dubbed church decline. The truth is, it’s real, and it’s a legitimate source of anxiety for those of us who care deeply about the church, to the point that we, like Jesus’s disciples, want to cry out, “Lord, increase our faith!” And the implication of that plea, of course, is that we simply don’t have enough to accomplish all that God desires of us and to stem the tide of secularism.
There are plenty of people who are actively hostile towards the church and who are—often for good reasons—deeply suspicious of the church. Laboring in God’s vineyard can feel like an uphill battle, laden with concern about how to reach unchurched people with the good news. And it is tempting to exclaim, “Lord, increase our faith!” because if only we had a bit more, we might have a fighting chance of succeeding in our commitment to spread the Gospel.
The mission field is full of potential land mines against which our meager faith is so valiantly fighting. We are endlessly short-staffed in our efforts to preach peace and work for justice. Corrupt governments routinely squelch attempts at helping the suffering, poor, and oppressed. When yet another mass shooting has occurred in an American city, we seem to be incapable of finding ways to curb violence in this nation and elsewhere in the world. And on our very doorsteps, the number of people addicted to drugs and who have lost homes and who worry about their next meal only increases, exponentially it seems. If only our faith itself could expand exponentially to keep up. Like the disciples, we can understandably plead, “Lord, increase our faith!” Increase our faith so that we can make things better. That’s all we need. . . just a little more faith.
At the end of the day, the plight of Jesus’s disciples is ours, too, isn’t it? Our world is captive to sin, and we are captive to the anxiety that we are not up to the task of fighting against it. We desperately long to follow Christ, with all our heart and soul and mind, and yet we still stand helpless before insurmountable obstacles to faith. We appear to have been given a futile task. And so, we must measure up. We must produce the ever-increasing quantities of faith so that we can meet what God demands of us as Christ’s followers in the world. We are racing against the clock to turn out more and more bricks while having to gather the straw to make them as well. And it’s tiresome. And it seems like a cruel assignment.
Except that in this way of seeing things, God is just another Pharaoh. If we succumb to this view that, in our lives of discipleship, what we do is never enough and that we are in an interminable battle against statistical trends and rampant secularization, then we have failed to grasp something absolutely essential about the nature of God. The God we worship and adore is the God who liberated the Israelites from Pharaoh, and this is the same God who has freed us from bondage to sin and death in the redeeming acts of Christ. God has and still is releasing us from the grip of fear and anxiety that what we do and who we are is never enough to serve him.
What if, instead, we came to see that what God has already given us is ample enough to bear fruit in the world? After all, even faith the size of a mustard seed can work wonders. It might be that our own fretful cry for an expansion of faith becomes not a request for more and a bit more and yet still more, but rather a trusting cry for God to open our eyes to see how we have already been adequately equipped by God for ministry, and to see that what we have been given is truly sufficient. It is enough.
Could it be that in the wondrous providence of such a liberating God the tiny mustard seeds of our labor in the mission field have the potential to bear enormous fruit by God’s gracious hand? Could it be that we are not being called to seek endless surpluses of faith but to place our confidence in a God who can work miracles with mustard seeds?
If we trust and are not ashamed of the testimony of Christ, then the church still does have something profoundly good to say to people who are frustrated with her and even hostile to her. A God who works wonders with mustard seed quantities can purge and transform sinful histories of the church in order to bring new things to pass. Such a God can surpass our understandings by prompting the seeds of great change in the small acts of ordinary kindness and good will of faithful disciples. Such a God can cleanse and empower a church, however broken and humbled by its stained past, into a means of healing for all who are suffering and for all who are in bondage to sin and death.
Far from being a domineering taskmaster, the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the loving One who is working with us and through us in our tasks of discipleship and who is on our side. We are not “worthless slaves” in our relationship with God but rather servants who serve him because we can do nothing else, and we should seek no reward for that service except rejoicing in what God is empowering us to do.
A trust that God can “purge this land of bitter things” and make it sweet is far from foolish, no matter what some may say. And so, even in a world subject to fear, and precisely in those situations where we doubt whether we have been endowed with enough or whether we are enough to measure up to what God’s kingdom needs, think of that little mustard seed. That tiny, minuscule, seemingly insignificant little mustard seed. Even faith the size of that small seed is sufficient. For the God who is on our side and who frees us from bondage, it is enough. It is always enough.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
6 October 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia