One of the funny things about wearing a priestly collar in public is that people tend to tell you way more about their lives than perhaps they should. As soon as a person realizes you are a priest, the flood gates open and all of a sudden you are the guest on the “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Church But Were Afraid to Ask!” Show. I get questions about how one becomes a priest, what being an Episcopalian means, and what kind of Christian I am. But mostly I get confessions. People will confess they used to go to church, but once they became an adult, they had a hard time believing everything the church taught them as a child. People will confess that they were raised in the church, but when a terrible tragedy hit, they felt abandoned by God and could never go back. People will confess that they miss going to church, but that they always feel like they do not belong when the go to church – that everyone in the church seems to have their lives figured out except them.
What is interesting to me about those conversations with non-church goers or lapsed Christians is that they seem to think that their struggles with faith make them ineligible for church membership. Perhaps that is true in some denominations in our country. But one of the primary reason I became an Episcopalian was because the Episcopal Church not only made room for faith struggles, but expected those struggles. Almost every time I have raised a question about a Biblical text in Bible Study, instead of someone explaining the answer to me, the response is almost always, “Yeah, that is a hard piece of scripture.” Almost every time I have been with a grieving family who is on the brink of questioning their faith, no one in the room challenges them. Usually someone says, “I could totally see how you would be doubting God right now.” And almost every time I have been in a class about theology, the creeds, confirmation, or baptism, someone has asked, “What if I can’t believe that part.” Never once has that person been told they do not belong if they cannot believe – in fact, usually the person is praised for naming the lack of faith we have all have had at some point in our spiritual journey.
I think that is why today’s Gospel lesson feels so real. The disciples and apostles have been following Jesus for weeks, and Jesus has been handing them a lot of heavy stuff. Jesus has told them to give up their possessions, to forgive those who wrong them, to take up their cross. I cannot imagine anyone looking at the stark life Jesus describes and not calling out, “Increase our faith!” How else can we be all Jesus wants us to be without increasing our faith? Surely we have all had those trough moments – in the face of our mortality, at the betrayal of a friend or spouse, in the midst of anxiety and stress – when we too cry out to God, “Increase our faith!”
What might be helpful to do is talk a little about what we mean when we say faith. Marcus Borg talks about two different kinds of faith: faith of the head and faith of the heart. Faith of the head is claiming something about God or the human condition. This kind of faith is more about what we believe. When someone says they have lost their faith, they have often lost this faith of the head. They no longer believe something taught by holy scripture or the church. In the Episcopal Church, we do not get too upset about this kind of faith struggle. Instead, we see faith as ever evolving and growing. Questions are at the root of a deep, mature faith. Borg would argue that God cares very little about what beliefs are in our heads – if we believe the right things. Borg knows that you can believe all the right things and still be in bondage, because, “Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”[i]
Unlike faith of the head, faith of the heart is a little different, according to Borg. Faith of the heart is characterized by three things: trust, fidelity, and vision. To have faith of the heart is to put a radical trust in God – to rely on God for grounding and safety. Faith of the heart is also characterized by fidelity – an understanding that we will be faithful in our relationship with God and God with us. Faith of the heart is finally characterized by vision – a belief that reality is life-giving and nourishing instead of threatening or hostile. “To live in faith requires ‘a radical centering (of our lives) in God that leads to a deepening trust that transforms the way we see and live our lives.’”[ii] So when the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, they are not necessarily asking Jesus to help them believe certain statements about God to be true (that faith of the head). Instead, they are asking for faith of the heart – to get help in trusting God, remaining faithful in their relationship with God, and seeing life as God-given and gracious.
Now one would hope that Jesus would hear this request from the disciples and come back with a loving response – a pastoral word of encouragement that makes them feel affirmed in their fears and doubts. Unfortunately, that is not what Jesus does at all today. Instead he tells an abrasive story about masters and servants, which is basically Jesus’ way of saying, “You want your faith to increase? Then get out there and do the work you have been given to do.” Instead of assuring and coddling the disciples, Jesus sounds more like that old Nike ad that says, “Just do it!”
I do not know about you, but Jesus’ words are not all that comforting today. I have sat with someone who is overwhelmed by the disappointments of life, and never once did it occur to me to tell them to just go out there and do the work they have been given to do. I have counseled people who are facing death, divorce, job loss, or shame, and I have not told a single one of them to stop complaining and just get back out in the world doing what God has called them to do. I myself have had moments when God felt absent, and I probably would have deemed any counsel to “Just do it!” as insensitive or unfair – to just trust that God is there anyway and get back to work. Where are we supposed to find the strength to be faithful – to trust, to be loyal, to hold on to the vision of God’s goodness – when we feel completely unable to “Just do it!”?
As I struggled with Jesus’ harshness today, I remembered Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Paul says to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Paul’s words this week help me see how we get back to the work Jesus wants us to do. In Paul’s encouragement, he is confident that Timothy can “Just do it!” because he knows Timothy’s identity. Timothy is the grandson of Lois and the son of Eunice. These women have taught him everything he knows about Jesus. They have been through the depths of despair themselves, and yet they are faithful witnesses of God. Timothy is not just a man fighting for faith – Timothy is known by God, and comes from a long line of people who have walked with God. Timothy’s heritage is a heritage of people who have gone before, who have shown him the way through their lives, and who have encouraged him. Now, you may be thinking, “Yeah, except my Grandma was a Southern Baptist who disagrees with what I believe, or my Mom stopped going to church ages ago.” Whether biological or not, we all have grandmothers and mothers of our faith. Maybe they are friends or fellow parishioners. Or maybe those mothers and grandmothers are the matriarchs of our faith. Regardless, we are all rooted in something bigger than us – something with much deeper roots that can ground us when we feel like we are flailing in our faith.
When I first read our gospel lesson this week, I thought we had been cursed with the wrong lessons – especially for those of you who brought friends today. But the more the lessons unfolded, the more I realized they might be the perfect lessons. We all struggle with faith – certainly of the head, but more importantly of the heart. But as Paul reminds us, we come from a long line of people who have gone before who have struggled as we do, and who leaned into their identity as beloved children of God in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We are encouraged today because we have seen the fruit of “Just doing it!” We have prayed for someone struggling this week. We have called or visited a friend who needed encouragement this week. We stood up to a bully this week. We gave money to support ministry this week. We did something seemingly inconsequential, but those small, everyday acts of faith are powerful, and they are how we answer Jesus’ call to “Just do it!” – even when we did not think we could.[iii] Paul and the Church remind us that we can – we can do those acts of faith because we are surrounded by matriarchs and patriarchs who encourage us along the way. We all have those moments when we just want Jesus to increase our faith. Today we are encouraged by doing – and eventually our faith increases in spite of us. Amen.
[i] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 30. Argument about Borg presented by Br. David Vryhof, “Lord, Increase our Faith!” October 7, 2007, as found at http://ssje.org/ssje/2007/10/07/lord-increase-our-faith/ on September 28, 2016.
[iii] David Lose, “Pentecost 20C: Everyday Acts of Faith,” September 26, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/09/pentecost-20-c-every-day-acts-of-faith/ on September 28, 2016.