Lord, Decrease our Faith!

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on October 2, 2022, World Communion Sunday, based on Luke 17:5-10. It can be watched on the Perinton Presbyterian webpage or YouTube or Facebook.]

I am not that much interested in monarchies and kingdoms. Now that I think of it, I have watched every episode of “The Crown” on Netflix and every episode of “Downton Abbey” on PBS. If I don’t much care about monarchies and kingdoms, I like to see how people live. How leaders lead. How servants serve. I don’t want to know everything every member of the British royal family does. But I do have one favorite. Which one? Prince Harry, of course. The one who moved with his American bi-racial wife to my home state of California. I was totally caught up with the death of Queen Elizabeth 2 a few weeks ago. I admire how she understood her place in life. She didn’t earn it; she didn’t seek it; she didn’t pursue it. It was given to her and she accepted it. While my convictions for government are more democratic, and I find the monarchy too classist in so many ways, I liked how she did it. She struck me as authentic.

When the young Billy Graham was preaching to thousands in London every night, she had him come to meet with her at Buckingham Palace several times. While she was the temporal head of the Church of England, she wanted to know more about Graham’s faith. Some leaders of the Church of England thought she shouldn’t meet with this flaming American evangelist, but she wanted to and did. She even had Graham preach to the royal family in the chapel at Windsor Castle where her final service was and where she is now buried. That was royalty with humility, willing to learn from another.

The only kingdom that I deeply care about is the kingdom of God. When I study the leadership Jesus gives to his realm, I am often surprised and always humbled. Consider how Jesus lets his subjects speak to him: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” That is not really a request: it is a demand. If we are going to demand something of the Lord, that is a pretty good demand. Would you like your faith to increase? I would like mine to. Jesus, as he almost always does, answers indirectly, with an image and a story.

First, he gives an image: “The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” The mustard seed was known for its smallness and its pungency. Jesus is saying something like this: “You want greater faith? Good. Then go small. You don’t need the seed of an avocado; a tiny mustard seed is sufficient.” The nature of faith is not measured in quantity, but in quality. The power of the mustard seed is not in its size, but in the stuff within it. Perhaps we should not be asking God for bigger faith or larger faith, but for smaller faith rightly placed.

Smaller is a surprisingly common image in the Bible. The prophet Zechariah says, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.” (Zechariah 4:10 TLB). Jesus uses the image of the mustard seed at least one more time. “He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’” (Matthew 13:31-32) The same point is driven home. God is not impressed by large faith, but God works through small faith rightly placed. Jesus says to his disciples, Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:31-32) The word translated little is micro.

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” Jesus responds to their demand with an image, the smallness of a mustard seed, and a parable. Fittingly, this parable centers around a table, as we gather around a table this World Communion Sunday. Two words are key to it. The first is a word that can be translated in two ways: slave or servant. Some translations use slave and some use servant. I prefer servant, which the NIV and The Message both use. Every slave serves, but not every servant is a slave. The point being made is not about slavery, but about serving. The second word is used just once. It is the Greek word diakonos, from which we get deacon. It is essential to understanding the ministry of Jesus. It is that word that Jesus uses when he declares, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) Jesus, the Lord of glory, the only true sovereign, comes among us as servant. Deaconing is the essential New Testament word for serving and Jesus identifies himself as a deacon, as a servant.

Here is how that word is used in the parable: “Prepare supper for me; put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink.” Jesus is served when his servants are serving. I have a favorite line in the song, “Be My Guest,” from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Life is so unnerving, For a servant who’s not serving, He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon.” That is precisely what Jesus is getting at. As Mother Teresa often said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” When the servants are serving the chief servant, then all the servants are being served.

The little parable ends with a warning about doing anything for the praise of others. So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless servants; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Praising people for doing things can be wonderful and it can be toxic. I like to thank others for doing things well. But if people start doing things with the expectation that they will be endlessly praised, that can become very unhealthy. There is a healthy place in life of doing what one ought to do without any expectation of being praised for it. To do the right thing in the right spirit is sufficient. No gushing praise is called for when one does the right thing in the right spirit.

 “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” Jesus answers with an image, the little mustard seed, and a curious parable about a supper table and servanthood. Small things matter more than we know. It is a good time for us to get this clear. In the kingdom of God, our strength is made evident in our weakness, we serve not with entitlement but with vulnerability, our wealth is not in earthly riches, but in spiritual vitality.

My favorite of the stories that emerged after the death of Queen Elizabeth is this. Every year when a new session of the British Parliament begins, the reigning monarch appears to call the session to order. The queen would appear in royal array, with that jeweled crown, and enter by a grand staircase. In her later years, Elizabeth couldn’t manage that long staircase, so she took an elevator. The first time, the elevator stopped at the wrong floor, the maintenance floor. The door opened and Alice, a cleaning lady, pushed her cleaning cart into the elevator, then realized that she was standing next to the queen. She blushed; the queen laughed. When the elevator arrived at the right floor, the queen insisted that Alice walk into the chamber next to her. What choice did Alice have? She walked in the hallowed chamber of the British Parliament next to the queen and stood there as the queen opened the session. Afterwards, the queen invited Alice to come to Buckingham Palace for tea. And for the rest of Alice’s life, once a year Queen Elizabeth would have Alice come to Buckingham Palace for tea with the queen. Elizabeth wore her royalty lightly. That hardly compares to how Jesus came among us and comes among us. The only crown we find Jesus wearing is a crown of thorns. His coronation is his crucifixion. He reigns in humility.

In a few moments, we will come to the table of the servant, the servant-sovereign, to partake in the meal the servant Lord has provided for all his servants. Queen Elizabeth never had a higher honor than to partake of the servants’ meal hosted by the servant king, Jesus, the only true sovereign. “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” In this small meal, Jesus’ reign is magnified, in all its smallness and greatness. Lord, give us smaller faith rightly placed.

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