Unpacking ‘Faith’

by Barry Pollard

(Based on Luke 17:5-10; Hab 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Ps 37:1-9)

It has been a busy few weeks for Keri and me. We had a social calendar, something we don’t often have, and it was pretty full. We have travelled away to celebrate a son’s 40th birthday and then our wedding anniversary, we have farewelled and welcomed monarchs, and in the last few days farewelled a dear member of the church family, Ruth Lee. Quite frankly it has been a tiring and, occasionally, an anxious time.

You know, often our anxiety and tiredness can become our focus, spoiling our appreciation of the experiences we have just had. But when I take the time to think about it I usually find that, in nearly all those circumstances, the good things actually outweigh the bad (not-so-good) things. And this is the case in the time period I have just described.

So what could be a good thing that came out of the loss of dear Ruth, you may ask?

Consider the wide view. Verily I tell you: we will all die. Despite the most amazing medical interventions these days, the best we can do is delay the inevitable a little. But in the end we are all destined to depart this world. Knowing and accepting that, Ruth had a pretty good innings (if you’ll allow a cliché or two). 93 beside your name is an impressive entry in anyone’s scorebook. If we think about the woman we all knew, the stories told about her at her memorial service were indeed testimony to her true character and faith! If you had seen the church and St Francis House filled with her ‘visual ministry’ contributions (as Joan called them) you would have been amazed. It made us all appreciate the huge impact a very small person can have on a church and community. Ruth was a quiet little lady who just got on and did things, often great things, and often for others. We have cause to be very grateful to have shared Ruth’s life here in Tairua.

So that is a good thing! And there is more, which I’ll come to shortly.

Now, the point of this chat is to reflect on the Scriptures we have heard today, try to make sense of them, and work out how to apply them in our lives.

Our Gospel reading brought a measure of relief when I first read it as I started my prep. Only five verses. Sweet! But I read the verses, re-read the verses, pondered each one, re-read them, read before and after them, then realized that actually I didn’t have a lot of leeway here. In the end, not only the brevity of the reading but the tone of the verses gave cause for concern.

You have heard them! Jesus was speaking directly and bluntly.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Show us how to increase our faith.” A good question!
The Lord answered, “If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘May you be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you!

In Matthew’s Gospel it’s a mountain that can be moved.

To have faith, Jesus says, is awesome!

But I hear his response to their question as a criticism. It is as if Jesus is saying, “You have good cause to ask me that because actually you don’t seem to have a lot!”

If we stopped there I imagine it would be cause for even greater concern for us. It was the apostles who were asking the question. They had been in the very midst of Jesus’s ministry, had prayed with him, had witnessed his miraculous healing power, and seen the effects of that ministry. Surely they of all people should have developed their faith.

But is faith a ‘thing’? Is it a commodity of some kind that we can possess? Is it something we either have or not have?
The Oxford Dictionary defines faith, in the context of theology, in this way:

  • Belief in religious doctrines, especially such as affects character and conduct
  • Spiritual apprehension of divine truth apart from proof (Hebrews 11:1)
  • System of religious belief (like the Christian or Jewish faith).

These definitions certainly apply. But do terms like “faith-walk” and “faith-journey” better describe what faith might be. Walks and journeys assume going to a destination. Does a faith-walk ever actually end in the achievement of faith? Or is it more like the way or method of walking and journeying that is the important bit? That sticking to the task. That turning of our attention and effort to the Lord.

But according to Luke’s version of this exchange, Jesus doesn’t explain further. He then tells the apostles:
“When a servant comes in from ploughing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, ‘Come in and eat with me’? No, he says, ‘Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later.’ And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not.” 

These verses I interpret as a description of a good servant, one who has multiple roles within the household, who is expected to ‘get on with it’ until all those jobs are done. Can you see that it is like saying faith is something that comes with application to task and getting on with it? This is amplified in verse 10: Jesus says, “In the same way, (as the servant he was describing) when you obey me you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.’”

This is also a pretty good guide to our faith. If Jesus is our Lord and Master, surely, then we are the unworthy servants. I think it means we are to acknowledge our place in his plan. We are not on an even plane with God, he is above, we are below. And as to our behaviour and responses: we are to do our duty, whatever that is, just getting on with it.

So let’s go a little wider.
I have often heard Keri say to me that nothing is random. Everything has a purpose and is connected. I know that when the lectionary was compiled the readings listed for each day are supposed to have a connection. I can hear the preaching team groan! I know, sometimes it is beyond all reason to see those connections but the Holy Spirit is here to help us, and I give thanks that today’s readings do fit a theme.
The reading from Habakkuk came in two parts. In the first, Habakkuk is complaining to the Lord that his world is violent and corrupt, that people love to fight and argue, and that good is outweighed by bad. In the second, the Lord responds. The key point the Lord makes is that to avoid falling into the ways of the world, the disharmony and fighting, we need to live by faithfulness to him.

The circumstances Habakkuk found himself in are not dissimilar to those we find in our world today: Russia and Ukraine in Europe, the US and China in the Pacific, the youthful ram-raiders across the country, and so on. God’s answer to Habakkuk is the same one to us, hence the instruction to write God’s response on stone tablets so we wouldn’t forget it. God even told Habakkuk it wouldn’t happen immediately, adding to the need to make sure the correct message was sent out and remembered.

Faithfulness to God! This is how we are to live.
What does that look like? How do we do it?

A thought came to my mind not long after coming back to the Lord a decade or so ago. I was pondering the 180 degree turn I had just made and I couldn’t account for it. I had been in the wilderness for more than forty years, had opposed the church and church-goers with the same zeal that Saul the Pharisee had, had studied and believed in an evolutionary ascent of man, and was really as far from faith, the type of faith that Jesus talks about, as one could be. Yet, something inside me had broken. I was deeply uncertain about my past, but pretty hopeful about my future. I realised I was disposed to change. I needed help!

Disposition describes a mindset that meshes with the concept of belief and faith. Positively, it is willingness or openness to accept new inputs. So I knew I was disposed to change for good. I was open and ready. But I also knew I couldn’t manage it on my own.
Shortly thereafter, I was blessed to be part of a home group that met weekly, and through thoughtful and intimate teaching and discussion, and inclusive open prayer, I began a journey that has had a huge impact on my life and the relationship I now have with the Lord.
I am not saying I have no difficulties or doubts, or that I have a perfect prayer-life, or any of that. I’m just saying my head and heart are turned towards God these days. I am always weighing up the situations I am in and looking for better ways to deal with them. And I hope you are too. So to that end, let’s continue.

Our other reading, Psalm 37, holds some of the keys to what Jesus is saying in the Gospel. Think about it. This is what I hear the psalmist saying:

Don’t be like the wicked
Trust in the Lord
Do good
Take delight in the Lord
Commit everything you do to the Lord
Be still in the presence of the Lord
Stop being angry!

There are overlaps but each point could act as a guide to how we build faith in the Lord. It isn’t one thing, it is many things. But we all have to start somewhere. Each could be a focus for intentional behaviour. Each could be a reinforcement to how we build faith.
Think back to dear Ruth. She lived by these guides. She was certainly remembered by many at her memorial service as having done so.

It is timely, too, that we weigh the life Queen Elizabeth.
At the outset I mentioned the change of monarchs. I am surprised to admit that this has had quite an effect on me. The late Queen had indeed been a constant in my life. She was the only monarch to reign in my lifetime. In the latter years I have come to understand and appreciate her life of dedicated service and her motivation to act so. From the moment of her father’s death and her accession to the throne, she acted selflessly, guided by prayer, committing her actions and the people she was responsible for to the Lord. Let’s hope and pray her son will model his behaviour and monarchy on similar principles.
Elizabeth openly confessed that she was a prayerful person. She encouraged others to pray for her. This admission that in her own strength she couldn’t rule her realms and dominions is pretty humbling. She needed help, just as we all need help.

In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus used the example of the hard-working servant, the idea that we are just to get on with things, expecting little or no acknowledgement for our efforts, seems harsh these days. In our time and country we are not slaves. We can choose our life paths. We have been brought up to expect words of praise and reward for any and all of our efforts. Nearly everything we do is transactional. If I do this, I get that. But Jesus is saying that we are to operate in a different way, a way that focuses on duty.

Our duties are spelled out in various forms and places in the Bible, but could be summarized by loving God and loving each other.

Just as the Queen responded to duty in her life, we should respond to duty in ours. Just as the Queen turned towards the Lord to be effective in carrying out her duties, so we should. Queen or commoner, we have been assured that Jesus will never forsake us nor leave us. We can all rely on him, in all things. He is the strength we all need to ‘get on with it’.

So as I conclude, let us take heart again in the words of the Collect for the day: God our shield and our rampart, it is your strength, not the size of our faith, that supports us in all life’s difficulties; may we be content to simply serve, and, when our labours are done, all gather as equals around your table …

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