6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.
7 “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
The writer Josh Billings once gave the world a wonderful piece of advice when he said that when thinking about life, we should all pay close attention to the humble postage stamp. ‘Its usefulness,’ he said, ‘consists in its ability to stick to one thing until it gets there.’
The problem that most of us have is that we overestimate the challenges we face and underestimate the resources we have. Consequently, we’re beaten before we begin and don’t even try; particularly in comparison to others who seem better qualified.
And yet research consistently shows that those who achieve most in life are usually not those who are most gifted but rather the less privileged who apply themselves and what they’ve got to the challenges they face, rather than complaining that they need more – people who stick to the challenge, whatever it may be.
And the same is true in the realm of the spirit. As I reflect on those I’ve known whose lives have been most productive for God and reflected the joy of his presence, the thing that stands out is that most of them were quite ordinary people who used the ordinary faith and gifts they had, and by God’s grace lived extra-ordinary lives.
One of them was Gladys Aylward, a rather plain, poorly educated parlour maid who believed she was called to be a missionary in China but couldn’t get any missionary society to accept her. So, in 1932, she used her life savings to go to China via the trans-Siberian Railway and began one of the most remarkable missionary lives of the century.
Alan Burgess wrote about her in his famous book The Small Woman, which was made into a highly successful movie, Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman, and recounted amongst other things the way she, single handed, led a band of 100 Chinese orphans across China away from the invading Japanese during World War 2.
To that, one of the many stories about her is how she campaigned to end the practice of binding little girls’ feet – supposedly to make them more attractive, but which caused excruciating pain and dreadful deformities. Eventually, the local governor made her the inspector of feet and she became something of a hero to the common people.
One day she heard that there had been a riot in the local prison, so she rushed to see what was happening and found the soldiers guarding the prison outside the locked gates, while inside came sounds of mayhem. She urged them to open the gates and go in with her to try to restore order. Well. they opened the gates for her, shoved her inside, then locked them again with themselves still safely outside.
Inside and all alone she was confronted by a scene of violent chaos. Convicts were screaming and fighting, bloodied bodies lay dead and wounded, and one huge man wielding a meat cleaver had gone berserk and was racing around taking wild swings at anyone who came near him. He singled out one little man and went for him. The man ran screaming away, then spotted Gladys and hid behind her. The big man bore down on them, his blood-soaked meat cleaver raised over his head, ready to finish them both off, when Gladys, who stood less than 5 feet high in her stockings, pointed her finger at him and said: ‘Stop. Give me that chopper.’
And wonder of wonders, he did. The whole prison yard then suddenly went quiet. She got them to sit down and then began to talk to them. She soon realised that the cause of the trouble was boredom; they had nothing to do throughout the long hours of each day, week after week, month after month, year after year. And so, she promised to talk to the governor and have this changed, which she did, and, amongst other things, became a catalyst for prison reform.
That incident was just one in a life filled with great things for God and humanity, accomplished by an uneducated little cockney woman whom no missionary society would take on.
So why am I starting this sermon by talking about her and people like her. It’s because she epitomises what Jesus said to his disciples in our reading, and also says to us whenever we dismiss ourselves as not having what it takes to do something good for God.
The disciples came to Jesus and said: Lord, increase our faith.’ They clearly were feeling very inadequate for the challenges ahead. But Jesus said: ‘You don’t need more faith. Just use the bit you’ve got.’
The popular modern paraphrase of the Bible called The Message puts it like this: ‘The apostles came up and said to the Master, “Give us more faith.” But the Master said, “You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it.’
Jesus, of course, was using hyperbole here. The custom in those days was for teachers to use vivid language to make a point. So, using faith to literally uproot sycamore trees - noted for having very deep roots - is not the point. What Jesus was saying was that through faith things that seem impossible become possible. And it’s not a question of how big our faith is. The question is whether or not we use it.
So, what is the sort of faith Jesus was talking about? Well, faith is not an ability to generate some sort of spiritual energy that we work up and that then transcends the laws of nature; and its more than the power of positive thinking – important though that may be.
The book of Hebrews says: ‘Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we can't see...’ It means that faith is a spiritual perception of something our innermost being tells us is true. It’s the intuitive understanding that, as the Apostle Paul put it, ‘God is at work in all things for the good of those who love Him and are called to His purposes,’which, of course, means those who seek to discern and do God’s will, rather than their own.
And it’s important to recognise this because our ultimate good, as God sees it, may not always be the pleasant way we want things to be. Faith is acting on that perception and doing what we believe God wants us to do, in the confidence that God’s will will be done, in God’s way and in God’s time.
Life teaches us all that faith doesn’t always mean sunshine and deliverance from troubles. Often, faith means receiving the strength and courage to endure in times of hardship and trouble. And the New Testament is full of this teaching; like 1 Peter 4:12 which says: ‘Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you.’
The point is, whatever life throws at you, that smidgeon of faith in your heart is sufficient for you to meet the challenge and do what God wants you to do – not because faith is some sort of magic potion, but because it is the thing that connects you to the infinite power of God - it’s your hand reaching out to take hold of God’s. And the crucial thing in this is not the size of your hand, but the size of God’s. You don’t need more faith; you just need to use what you’ve got.
However, the next few verses seem to change the subject. Jesus says: ‘Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Won't he rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'"
What does this have to do with the message that even a smidgeon of faith is sufficient to meet life’s challenges? Well, it seems to me that Jesus was reminding us that in our relationship with God, even when we have done our faithful best, we have merely done what is right and proper for us to do. So, we need to get rid of any thought of self-congratulation and the feeling that somehow God is in our debt.
The truth is that God has given us a great calling in life, filled with challenge; and has also equipped us with everything we need to meet to fulfil it. Our call and our joy is to do our duty as faithful servants.
Nothing says it better than Ignatius Loyola’s famous prayer: Teach us, Good Lord, to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward saving that of knowing that we do your will.’
It’s important to pay attention to this because having grown upin what’s known as the me generation, many of us have a strange idea that God is under some sort of obligation to convince us that we ought to be paying some attention to Him, rather than the other way round.
These words are a reminder that faith is not about self-exaltation – look at me, see what my faith has done, look at how my prayers get answered. Rather, faith is about faithfully discerning and doing God’s will. Our joy comes from that alone, and not from pride in our spiritual accomplishments.
And so Jesus still says to us: you don’t have to be asking for more faith, all you need is to use the smidgeon of faith you’ve got. And if you use it in accordance with what God wishes for you, it will be sufficient’. And our reward will be the deep inner satisfaction of knowing that we have done God’s will.