Luke 17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" 6 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. 7 "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? 8 Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 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!'"
The prayer seemed right for the moment. "Please Lord, grant me faith." It had come from the least expected voice in the room, Jill.
This thirty-something, single, successful business woman was the youngest and "least churched" daughter of the woman in a coma around whose bed we were standing. Her mother, her mentor, her "Rock of Gibralter" was lying victim of her own genetics, gently dying of a burst blood vessel deep within her brain. Her mother's intellect and feelings were now in God's hands. Only her brain stem, strong heart, and respirator driven lungs were keeping her alive, and this but for a short while. Absent a miracle, the machinery would be disconnected the next day.
We had gathered around the hospital bed, after a long and emotionally exhausting day. As was our custom, we circled around, holding hands. Including the patient, the beloved of God and of us, in the circle, we prayed ourselves into the watchful night. I would gather petitions from the conversations of the day and try, difficult thought it might be, to mold them into prayers. It was a task that required long periods of silence, and it was in the midst of those that the timid voice of the normally confident Jill rose like a bloom in the desert. "Please Lord," she implored, "grant me faith."
It would not have seemed so out of place, given that Jill had hardly graced the doors of a church, by her own admission, since she moved away to the big city some years earlier, except that she had done well and had not time nor seeming need for God. No time, that is, until the crisis hit, and she seemed lost and alone, even among family and friends. Her prayer was so quiet, so desperate, yearning and longing for some power not her own to fill her in that moment. "Please . . . " Pleading for her Lord.
The disciples wanted faith. Well, to be specific, they wanted more faith. What they needed more faith for, we are left to guess, though Jesus response gives us a glimpse of a clue. They wanted to do miracles. They wanted a little of the magic formula that Jesus used to work the power of God. They wanted something that would make the crowds go "Ahhhh" and think they were something. They wanted to move mountains, or at the very least Mulberry trees. They wanted.
Today, no less than years ago, those who claim to follow Jesus want more of whatever that stuff was. Crowds are hungry to at least see, if not perform, miraculous deeds of power. We want to see the evidence that faith still works its charm over nature. We want to distract ourselves, and when crisis hits, perhaps we can marshal the energy and the force of will to conjure such faith in ourselves. We have seen the possibilities, not pausing to think about the power of the parlor trick on a grander scale. And so we convince ourselves that with just enough faith we can do for ourselves, with God's help of course. Yeah, we want some of that. We desire it deeply in our hearts. And so, along with our deep desire comes deep disappointment when we hear the answer to our request. Jesus says, "no."
Mind you, he does not say no to our desire for faith, per se. Instead he says no to our desire to have a faith that serves us. He says no to our desire for a faith that makes us look good and powerful to the world. And it isn't that faith is not powerful. No indeed, Jesus confirms that it is, so much so that even a little bit, even so much faith as the tiniest of seeds, would be enough to uproot a tree or move a mountain. But such faith is not for us, not for our needs, not for our moments.
We are servants, Jesus says. We are table waiters. Whatever we do, in whatever moments, are at the request of our master. Even when we are weary from doing all we can, more will be required of us until we are spent and then, only then, are we rewarded, only with what we are due for the day. This answer would be surprising, even cruel, taken by itself. God, as a slave owner and task master, is not necessarily the image that would inspire me to follow out of anything but fear. It is certainly not the image I would expect out of a God who is said to love humanity deeply, and one who would call all of his disciples to life giving, self-giving love.
But there is something more to the question that Jesus asks. "Which of you would say to your slave, come sit while I serve you?" We assume that the answer is none of them. But consider Jesus himself. What did he do on the night before he died? He, the master, stripped to his waist and served his disciples by washing them. Then, in a bold move, he served them a meal where he was both host, and servant, both distributor of the feast and the meal itself. His own body and blood were their food, and the bread that was broken was baked on a cross. The blood ran freely down his own brow for their sakes. "Which of you?" Jesus asks. We know the answer, Lord, we know you do it for us.
It is this love that offers such service to us, and inspires such service in us, Jesus' disciples. It is for this very offering of our selves that faith is required. It is not for us to GET something, but for us to GIVE something (our very lives) that the Holy Spirit breathes faith into our being and into our communities of faith. It is a faith that embraces our life and holds us even in the face of life's frailties. It is faith that gives us courage and sustains us, even when we are required to give more than we thought we had. If it was this faith that the disciples asked for, Jesus' answer might have been other than it was. But they . . . but we . . . but I still have much to learn before my prayer, my request, can be turned to serve the one who so lovingly serves me.
I worried about Jill, at her mother's bedside that night. What faith was she asking for? Had she succumbed to the false stories of our society, that with faith a healing miracle would be hers for the asking? Was she impatient with the anticipatory grief of her father, and the fact that I, the pastor, was not praying more specifically for a miracle? It would not have been the first time I encountered such, though I was always understanding of the impulses of such desires. When the moment was right, I sat with Jill alone in the ICU waiting room. I asked her what faith she needed, what faith she prayed for. Her answer was living testimony to the strength of the Body of Christ, even for one so distant.
"I guess I need the faith to let mom go," she said honestly, forthrightly. I said nothing, letting her talk, nodding my head. "I need to trust in God's promises and right now, that's just hard for me to do. Not because I don't think God will keep them, but I wonder if he will keep them for me, you know? I need faith to go on living, even after mom is gone. There are people who will need me, dad for one, and I want to be able to be there for them, but that seems hard when right now I don't feel like much of a person at all. I guess sleeping here in the ICU is a part of that. I'm not asking for a miracle. I just want to know that there will be life and light at the end of this long dark tunnel. I just don't see it right now. So, I figured, God could help."
God did indeed help. Jill's faith came in fits and starts. It started with leaning on the Body of Christ to carry her through the funeral. They sat her down, weary from the hard work at the hospital until her mother's death, and waited on her and her family with the hospitality which made them famous. Her journey continued through her finding her own church family to help her through the grief (thanks to a friend in a distant city). God found Jill where she was hurting and led her to know his supporting hand. Her journey was not easy. The journey of grief never is. But it was faithful. That is, it was full of faith. It was full of trust in the one who has known grief and death himself. It was full of a desire to be for her own future daughters and sons the same kind of giving serving presence that her mothering God had been for her, and this through her mother and so many giving others. God heard and said yes to her prayer for faith. And Jesus was right, even a little goes a long way.
Just so, God grants faith to the body of Christ on earth, so long as that faith is strength for our serving, not strength for our wanting. And at the end of the day, though we may be full of faith and grace, yet we too say, "we are only worthless servants, we have only done what we ought to have done." Yet, I have the feeling that only we might think we are worthless. Indeed, God has shown us that we are worth much more to him that we are to the world around us. He spent himself completely for us. And in doing so, inspires us to trust his serving way as our way.