"Increase our faith!" the disciples say to Jesus in this morning's Gospel. Jesus replies with the parable of the mustard seed (Luke 17:6). A little faith can have a huge impact. These are encouraging words to people in small congregations, small religious communities around the world, because small numbers of faithful people can make a big difference in the world. Yet when numbers are down, or when we feel overwhelmed by life's odds, many feel they are failures. Today is a good time to examine our thoughts and feelings about being like the mustard seeds in God's dominion.
Jesus' words are meant to encourage his disciples. The message of faith's victory is consistent in the Bible. The Scriptures are full of examples of the potency or strength of small groups of faithful people, and the power of small or insignificant people. David slew the giant Goliath with a slingshot, against all odds (1 Sam. 17:50). In Acts, when the first followers gathered in small clusters and prayed and shared all things in common (Acts 2:43-45), great numbers are said to have become followers. Timothy is reminded by Paul that even though he is young, he is able to be a leader in the community (1 Timothy 4:12). Paul refers to himself as the "least," describing apostles as the "off-scouring of the earth" (1 Corinthians 4:13). Despite small numbers, youth, or lack of status or prestige, the faith of these people can make extraordinary things happen -- even though no mulberry trees are recorded as jumping into the sea. Each could be said to possess faith the size of a mustard seed.
"Littleness" or "minority" is embraced as a vocation by some Christians. For instance, followers of St. Francis are reminded that they are "little brothers (or sisters),friars minor." Being part of a small group in the church or world does not mean that that group or individual is missing something. Smallness is in many ways a gift. Small groups can take on tasks or living situations that are outside the scope of larger institutions: small groups of Christians living in neighborhoods that are predominantly non-Christian can witness to the power of Christ in a different way. Small groups of concerned Christians can embrace social outcasts, showing the love of God in a particular place and time. Change in our churches and other social institutions generally comes from the fringe, a dedicated minority that won't go away; the embrace of the church has become more generous, more inclusive over the years because of the voices and experience of little people on the edge with great faith.
Being small also means that a group doesn't have to get it right all the time. It is easier to change tactics, to adopt a different focus, or simply to admit an error and mend one's ways in a small group. The small mustard seeds of faith scattered throughout the world generally fall in places and situations where people are struggling to make sense of what it means to be human in the world.
Everything is different now that the United States has gone to war. We struggle with fear, anger, and confusion. We want to do the right thing. Each of us has been given a measure of faith (faith the size of a mustard seed is sufficient), and now is the opportunity for us to commend the faith that is in us. In the words of the prayer attributed to St. Francis (Book of Common Prayer, p. 833), each of us in our small way can be an instrument of God's peace. "Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair hope; where there is darkness light; where there is sadness, joy..."
In effect, Jesus turns the disciples' request around on them. "Increase our faith," they ask, and he points out to them that they have enough already. In spite of their fears, anxieties, they have what is needed, and each of his hearers is encouraged to take their rightful place in the exercise of spiritual authority.