Faith in Context

Rev. Sarah Buteux
October 6, 2013
Luke 17:1-10

You can watch and listen to the sermon on youtube or here.


“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.” -Reinhold Niebuhr


If there is one thing politicians like to do, besides shut down our government, it’s take their opponent’s words out of context. And if there is one excuse politicians favor, besides completely shifting the blame to their opponents, it is that their words have been taken out of context.

If you have the stomach to follow politics, you learn pretty quickly that not only is context everything, but the complete lack thereof can be used to excuse anything as well. We’ve seen entire campaigns built around words like, “We built that,” taken out of context, just as we’ve seen careers come tumbling down around words no amount of context could ever justify.

Words like:

“It depends on what your definition of, “is,” is” (Bill Clinton). Remember that one?

“Our founding fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery” (Michelle Bachmann). I wish.

"When I get (to Washington) there’ll be three agencies I'll end: commerce, education... and…. oops” (Rick Perry).

I’m thinking that no amount of context will ever redeem comments like those or pretty much anything ever said or texted by Representative Anthony Weiner. No, context couldn’t save those folks, but that doesn’t mean it’s not both important and regularly distorted in politics.

Well, thank goodness we don’t have the same problems in the church, right? It would be such a shame if people took the words of famous theologians or the Pope or, God forbid, the Bible, out of context. That would be horrible. That would be dangerous. People could get hurt! Can you imagine?

Of course you can, because we do. We do it all the time. We do it pretty much every Sunday, in fact. Thanks to the lectionary, we read these little snippets from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament every week.  We read just enough to teach you a little something but never really enough to give you the whole picture.

Which, incidentally, is one of many reasons you might want to spend some time reading this book on your own, why you should definitely come to Chip’s class after church today, and why I spend so much time in these little sermons trying to give you a bigger and broader picture of what’s really going on in and around the stories we read together. The Bible is not an easy book to understand, so it is vital that we read it carefully, making every effort to keep its words in context when we do.

And let me tell you, this morning’s reading is no exception. I mean if this is all you had to go on – these 5 verses about having faith the size of a mustard seed and seeing ourselves as nothing more than, “worthless slaves,” – I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to toss your Bible right out the window.  These words have the potential to do a lot of damage and a cause a great deal of misunderstanding. Let’s take the three verses about the mustard seed first.

Does anyone have any idea how big a mustard seed is? This is not a trick question. They’re small, really small, like even small for a seed small. So I want you to imagine that you’re holding a very small seed between your thumb and forefinger and listen again to these words from Luke’s gospel.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 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.

Now, think about the size of your imaginary mustard seed, that tiny little seed you’re holding right here, and tell me: how do those words make you feel? Honestly…how does it feel to be told that if you had even this much faith, this tiny, miniscule amount of faith, that you could perform a miracle -a fairly useless miracle, let’s be honest- but a miracle nonetheless?

How do those words make you feel?    … Sad. Depressed. Angry. Scolded. Inadequate. Not good enough. Lacking. Faithless.

Me too.

The last time I preached on this I actually brought in a little bonsai tree and a bowl of water. Anybody remember that? I asked if anybody felt they had enough faith to get the little bonsai to uproot itself and throw itself into the bowl, and apparently none of us did.  As a congregation, let it be known, that we completely failed in our attempts at miraculous landscape design. Apparently none of us had faith the size of mustard seed back then, and I dare say none of us has a faith like that right now, and yet I don’t think Jesus would want any of us to sit here this morning berating ourselves because of it.

After all, this is the gospel we’re dealing with; the good news for goodness sakes, and the good news my friends is that faith, faith is not what you think it is, if you think faith means believing in something really, really hard until all your wishes come true. That’s the gospel according to Jiminy Cricket, not the gospel according to Jesus Christ, and it’s Jesus Christ who is talking to us this morning.

No, the word for “faith” here in this passage, is actually “pistis” a Greek word that is better translated as loyalty. When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, they weren’t asking him to help them believe harder in his divinity or his power.  They were asking Jesus to increase their loyalty to him, their devotion, their fidelity, their ability to follow his teachings.

And Jesus responds, essentially, by saying, come on you guys, when it comes to faithfulness, loyalty, fidelity… you can’t increase these things any more than you can measure them. Faithfulness of this sort doesn’t come in sizes. If your sense of fidelity is the size of a mustard seed than you’re as faithful as you need to be because when it comes to being faithful, you either are, or you’re not.


I mean, think about this with me for a moment. You can’t be just a little bit loyal, can you? No, not really. You’re either loyal or you’re not. You can’t be just a little bit trustworthy.

Would you hire a babysitter if someone told you she was trustworthy most of the time? I hope not!

You’re either trustworthy or you’re not. You’re either faithful, or you’re not. You can’t be just a little bit loyal or trustworthy or faithful anymore than you can be just a little bit pregnant. [1] Trust me on this because I know; you either are, or you’re not.

Jesus’ point here is that size doesn’t matter.  And for the love of God, don’t you go taking the fact that I just said that out of context.

This isn’t about working yourself up to a level of faith that’s even this big, because faith doesn’t come in sizes.  You either have it or you don’t.

Likewise and for the record, no one can make a mulberry tree jump into the sea and, not for nothing, but why would you want to?

No. Go ahead and let go of the whole idea of working yourself up to the kind of faith that can break the laws of nature and work miracles, because the whole mulberry tree thing, at least here in Luke, was never meant to be taken literally any more than those verses about removing the plank from your own eye before you mess with the speck in your brothers. There weren’t people walking around in the first century with two by fours lodged in their eyeballs.

This is hyperbole, exaggeration employed for the sake of making a point. Jesus is being sarcastic. He is gently scolding his disciples, telling them that this isn’t a matter of increasing their faith or their loyalty to him. This is simply a matter of doing what they’ve been told to do, which, if they are loyal to him, they will just go ahead and do.

That’s actually what the second half of the Jesus’ remarks amount too; all that stuff about masters and slaves. “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” asks Jesus. No. If you’re a slave, you do what you’re asked to do simply because you’ve been asked to do it.  You don’t quibble, you don’t question, and you certainly don’t ask your master to help make you more obedient.

One can only imagine where that would lead.

No, you’re either obedient or you’re not. You’re either obedient or you’re in trouble. You do the work set before you because that is the work you are expected to do, and when you have done it you don’t say, “hey look at us, look what we just did.” No, you say,  “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

And yeah, I’m not crazy about the word “worthless,” or his use of slavery as a metaphor for faithfulness. I readily admit that even to my ears that sounds wicked harsh and, frankly, totally inappropriate coming from the mouth of Jesus; until you take a step back and remember what exactly Jesus is commanding his disciples to do and recall just how quick he was to do it himself. That is, Jesus’ words sound totally inappropriate until you read them in what? Until you read them in context.

If you go back to the beginning of this chapter and look at what it was Jesus said that caused the disciples to ask him to increase their faith in the first place, all of this starts to make a heck of a lot more sense. Because once you go back to the beginning you realize this isn’t about having enough faith to believe the impossible but about having enough faith to do something that often feels impossible. Verse 3:

Be on your guard! (said Jesus) If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times (in that same day) and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

“O Lord, increase our faith!” said the apostles.

And can you blame them? “Help us do this,” they begged, because forgiving like that… now that’s hard. Forget about uprooting trees, if there is any act in life that requires faith it is forgiveness. I’m not talking about faith in some idea or doctrine or creed. I’m not talking about believing really, really hard that something is right or true.  I’m talking about faith in God’s justice and trust in God’s mercy. I’m talking about placing our need for vindication, justice, satisfaction, and revenge in God’s hand. I’m talking about having enough faith in Jesus to go ahead and do the last thing we want to do simply because he has asked us to do it, trusting that he wouldn’t have asked us to do it if it wasn’t of ultimate importance.

I mean let’s be honest, forgiveness, more often than not, feels … wrong. Why should you forgive someone who has hurt you? And why would you ever forgive someone who has hurt you over and over again. It makes no earthly sense at all, and because of this sometimes you have to go ahead and put as much earthly distance between yourself and people like this as you can.  I’m not advocating that anyone stick around just to be abused.

And yet Jesus still asks us to go ahead and forgive these people, to at least get to a point where we bear them no ill will, because here’s the thing: forgiveness might not make any earthly sense, but this earthly life is not all there is. Friends, we have all of eternity ahead of us, ahead of all of us, and you don’t get to bring your grudges into the kingdom. You can’t. It simply doesn’t work that way.

No, with God’s help, you get to leave your hurt, your pain, and your anger at the door. You don’t get to love some people in heaven and not others. You either have to learn to love everyone the way God does or come to terms with the fact that you still haven’t learned what it is to love at all. You can’t forgive some of the people most of the time or most of the people some of the time.  You need to forgive all of the people all of the time.

You either forgive or you don’t.
You’re either faithful or you’re not….
because forgiveness….
forgiveness is a non-negotiable in the kingdom of God.

Dear ones, we can’t be at peace with our Creator until we have made peace with all whom he created, just as we can’t be truly fed at this table, until we are reconciled to eating here all together. It’s a hard truth. All things considered, uprooting trees with Jedi mind tricks might actually be easier. It’s just not, in the end, what Jesus is asking us to do.

This is the word of the Lord… in context.

May God add his blessing and grant us the faith to hear and respond to his Holy word.


[1] Many thanks to David Ewart, for pointing this out, and for the lovely comparison to pregnancy. The ideas expressed in this sermon are nothing earth shatteringly new.  I’m also indebted, as always to Sarah Dylan Breuer at , Anthony Robinson , Fred Craddock by way of several commentators, and all the good folks writing for “Feasting on The Word” this week for the ideas expressed in this sermon.