Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
In today’s second lesson—a letter from an older, experienced person to a younger one, the author says that he is sure faith lives Timothy, this younger believer, because it lived in his mother Lois and his grandmother Eunice. I am curious about that idea. How does one inherit faith? Is faith like an heirloom quilt or an antique desk, getting passed down from one generation to the next? How, exactly, does it transfer from one person to another?
Faith is described as a “gift of God that is within you” and “a good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” Faith, in this sense, is not a tangible item or even an abstract idea we have to “get.” It is a living, breathing, embodied reality. It’s not a list of concepts we believe or a catalogue of stuff we have to do. At the heart of it, faith is resting in God’s lap with our head on God’s heart, and the absolute certainty that that is where we belong.
So how did Timothy receive this faith from his relatives? Maybe they were like my parents, who read devotions with us kids after supper every night, sang hymns on long trips in the car, and prayed with us before bed, and who still pray for each of us kids by name every night. Maybe it was like that. But what about people whose parents do not express faith so overtly? Do they not get faith then? Or is it possible that faith is transmitted in a different way?
What if Timothy came to faith by watching his mother make extra servings of food so they’d have some to share with the neighbors who were going through a tough time. Or from hearing his grandmother speak up for a person everyone else was badmouthing. Maybe neither of them mentioned that they were doing these were things because of their faith in God, but Timothy made that connection for himself. Perhaps he watched his mom and grandma trying to be respectful of each other’s feelings while they were in the middle of a fierce disagreement and he saw God in that moment. There are many ways to communicate faith to the people around us, and not all of them are specifically “church-y.”
And yet, in spite the fact that faith is not a package someone else can hand us, I truly get why Jesus’ disciples in today’s Gospel reading ask for more. “Increase our faith!” they beg. And why wouldn’t they? Lately Jesus has been telling them how difficult and demanding it is to follow him: “Take up your cross and follow me,” for starters. He has said that the rich need to share what they have with the poor. He has told them that following all the rules exactly will not guarantee them a better place in God’s kingdom. No wonder they feel ill-equipped to be his followers. How can we blame them?
But Jesus explains to them that faith can’t be measured in terms of having more or less. He insists that either we have it or we don’t. It’s like being unable to say you are “a little bit pregnant.” Either you are or you are not. Either you have faith or you don’t. And if all we have is a tiny little bit, that’s all we need. And those disciples did have a tiny little bit, because that’s what created the yearning in them to have more. All of you here today have a little tiny little bit, or you would not be sitting here.
Faith comes to us by what we call “the means of grace”—among them, the Sacraments. As Lutherans, we don’t believe that there is anything magic about the water we use for baptism or the bread and the wine we use for Holy Communion. It’s just bread. It’s just wine. The water comes out of the tap. These things don’t create a super-shield around us that protects us from bad things or makes us radiate goodness. But in some way, God uses these ordinary things to touch us, to claim us, to instill in us a little teeny tiny seed of faith, whether we are conscious of it or not.
One of the reasons we baptize infants in the Lutheran church is precisely to remind ourselves that baptism is God’s work, not ours. Similarly, something powerful and mystical occurs when we share simple bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus. In these ordinary substances, God comes to us, draws us closer to God’s own heart, to one another, and to our sisters and brothers around the globe. I don’t pretend to understand it, but I know that it is so.
The Sacraments nurture the mustard seed of faith that was planted in us by the Holy Spirit. But God isn’t restricted to using what we call “holy things” to cultivate faith. God sees the whole universe as holy, so sometimes our faith blooms when we aren’t even looking. Sometimes treating strangers with hospitality, or our co-workers with integrity, or telling the truth when it would be easier not to, or refusing to participate in systems that cause someone else pain can nurture faith in us. We may not think that just showing up at our jobs or schools and treating others with respect and kindness is a big deal, but it is holy and powerful stewardship of your heart and soul.
Every day as we honor the people and places and circumstances God has placed in front of us and on our hearts to care for, we grow in faith. We live into the assurance that “God has not given us a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power and love and self-discipline.” The Holy Spirit works through our daily interactions to water, weed, and fertilize our faith. And God sends helpers—some who love us dearly our whole lives through, and some who are sent by God simply for a season. Timothy was encouraged in his faith by his mother and his grandmother, and each one of us are accompanied and helped along by others God provides for us on our journeys.
Who has done that for you? Who has tended to the mustard seed of your faith? Was there a specific teacher or friend or public figure or role model who inspired your faith? Do you credit a certain author or artist, musician or family member who watered and fed your faith? Who prays for you?
Take a moment now to think of that person or those people, and to thank God for them.
Let us pray. Trustworthy and amazing God, we give you thanks for creating us, and for entrusting us with the unexplainable and remarkable treasure that is faith. We praise you for assuring us that even the littlest, tiniest kernel of faith is enough because you love us, and your Holy Spirit will keep on tending to our faith. We give you thanks for those people who have embodied your love and grace and nurtured our faith. Help us to be like Lois and Eunice in our own contexts, cultivating in one another the kind of trust in you that leads people to find their home with you.
~Pastor Susan Schneider