Updated: Oct 11
I sort of can’t believe that I’m going to tell you all this story, because, well it’s super embarrassing. But, it’s a memory of mine that is deeply connected to this particular Gospel reading, and we’re celebrating Saint Francis. So, here it goes:
One time, I tried to heal a dog.
My friend brought her newly adopted dog, Sophie, to a mutual friend’s house. Sophie had a leg that didn’t work. It hung limply from her side and got in the way as she moved. So, the plan was to have it amputated in just a couple of days, to liberate her from her discomfort.
At the time, I was new to reading the Bible in any great depth, and the words of this passage, or its version in Matthew, were fresh in my mind.
So I got down on the floor with Sophie and I placed my hands on her and I began to pray for God to heal her leg, to make it as sturdy and as strong as her other three legs. I asked God to let her spring up onto all four legs and begin running around.
I could picture that moment in my head so clearly. This dog. This wonderful, sweet, newly adopted shelter animal, popping up after a miracle healing to run around the room to everyone’s astonishment.
Now, if you’re thinking to yourself that this is an adorable story about a youthful misreading of Scripture, I should probably tell you that I was not 12 when this happened.
I was like 23.
I was full of a new convert’s enthusiasm, and I was testing out my faith and my understanding of Scripture. I was so excited about what I had found in the Bible that I wanted to live some of that out, to see what that relationship with God looked like.
Of course, I did not heal Sophie that day, at least not physically. We can certainly bless animals with our love and attention, but it is God, and not us, who can choose to miraculously heal someone.
(So, I promise that I’m not going to try to heal anyone’s pets during the blessing of the animals, just in case some of you are worried.)
It is today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke that made me believe that I could heal Sophie, because today’s Gospel is a dangerous one.
It is perhaps one of the most dangerous in all of Scripture because it suggests that incredible divine power is available to us, if only we have enough faith.
If only we have just a little faith–faith as small as a mustard seed–we could command a mulberry tree to be uprooted and to go find a sea somewhere to replant itself in. Or in Matthew’s version of the same discourse, it’s a mountain that we could order around.
With just a little faith, Jesus seems to be saying, you can bend the world to your needs, you can send trees and mountains to do your bidding. You can heal a Pitbull named Sophie.
From there, it is no great leap to intuit that if things are not going our way, if the world has not bent to our will, then the problem is us. After all, if we only had faith, faith as small as a measly mustard seed, the world would do our bidding. So, if things are not going well for us, it must be our fault. That has to be it, doesn’t it?
Isn’t that what Jesus is telling the Apostles who ask him to increase their faith? Isn’t that the simplest, most straightforward reading of this passage?
As I read and thought and prayed about this piece of scripture from Luke’s Gospel in preparation for preaching today, what I kept coming back to over and over in a number of different ways was the idea of faith, and petition, and what we do when God doesn’t seem to answer our prayers.
I thought about all of the times in my life that I had gone to God in prayer and had come away disappointed–like my prayers to heal Sophie–hurt because I thought the problem with my prayers was my lack of faith.
That is the danger in this straightforward, literal reading of this passage, with the system of beliefs that it produces. It suggests that our relationship with God is transactional, that we are entitled to God’s power through some magic sufficiency of faith. This kind of belief can only be sustained if things continue to go well for us. It commodifies our faith, and it places too much power in our hands. In a way, this theology subjects God to our will. We order God, or God’s power, around:
Move that tree; flatten that mountain; heal this dog.
But, that’s not faith at all. It’s not faith when we put our debit card into an ATM to withdraw money that we already know is there. It’s not faith when we use that money to buy a sandwich. That’s commerce. God is not a cosmic ATM.
Harmful and damaging theologies flow from this line of thinking.
This passage is dangerous.
But it’s there, in The Bible, in our lectionary. It contains the words of Jesus. We have to pay attention. So what do we do with it? How do we live with it?
Well, I think the first thing we do, and it's generally a good practice any time we meet a passage of Scripture often quoted on its own: we look at it in context. To whom is Jesus speaking these words in Luke’s Gospel? What came before it?
If we look at the words that came just before today’s passage, we’ll see that the Apostles have been asking about community and Jesus has been telling them that if another member of the community sins and then repents, they have to forgive the sinner, even “if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘ I repent,’ you must forgive.”
And what do the disciples say to Jesus when he tells them that? “Increase our faith.”
Jesus has basically said to them that they must have unending patience and grace for those they share community with, and the Apostles have recognized that this is really, really hard. This is a big ask, and they say “Whoa, Jesus, we’re going to need a little more faith to make that happen.”
Then Jesus tells them the bit about the mustard seed.
In that context, knowing the whole story, doesn’t it seem like maybe, maybe, this is not an assurance of unearthly power if only you believe the right things in the right way?
Doesn’t it seem like, maybe, Jesus is actually trying to reassure the Apostles that they already have enough faith?
Don’t worry beloved, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you could move trees or mountains. You already trust that God is with you, so you definitely have enough faith to forgive each other, to love each other, to be in community with each other. Even if you have to do it all day, every day.
Now, I’m sort of with the Apostles on this one. There are some days that I’m not sure that I have enough faith to keep forgiving people for all the evil of the world, for all the cruelty. That is a lot of grace. Every day would have to be full of forgiving.
Do I have enough faith for that? I almost think I’d be better off trying to heal another dog.
Here we might get a little reassurance from today’s first two readings. They were written in the shadow of the Babylonian exile, when people were ripped from their lands and carted hundreds of miles away from everything they knew. It is clear in today’s readings that there is still a lot of grief and a lot of pain. It is doubly clear in today’s psalm that forgiveness has not yet occurred, and yet…
And yet, the psalmist and the author of Lamentations are still in conversation with God. Despite everything that has happened in their lives, they are still praying. That is faith. The trust that God is in the darkest, most difficult moments of our lives, holding us, hearing our prayers.
Faith is trusting that God accompanies us even when we have nothing to show for it.
That is the difference between the false, damaging beliefs born of literal readings of ‘faith the size of a mustard seed’ and the more nuanced, life-giving theology that we get when we have more context for Jesus’ words.
With the damaging beliefs, our inability to heal a broken dog, the evil of a broken world, is a condemnation of our lack of faith.
But the life-giving belief is that God is with us, God is sustaining us amid the evil we have created
This is the faith that Jesus is assuring the Apostles that they already have. God with us, always. Full stop.
Yes, it’s hard. It is hard to have faith when a community member is asking us for forgiveness over and over and all you want to do is yell at them. It is hard to have faith when the healing or the deliverance doesn’t come. It is hard to have faith when our world is crumbling around us, when everything we know seems to have been taken away.
To survive all that we would need faith that could flatten mountains, faith that could move trees from land into sea.
But the Good News. The Good news my siblings in Christ is that we already have that faith.
Imagine what we can do with it.