Lord, Increase Our Faith

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:1-10

Faith in Christ Serves Others with Humble Gratitude - The faith that connects us to Jesus finds countless opportunities to serve people near and far. Such faith relies on Jesus’ power, but our service often brings challenges and disappointments. In today’s Gospel Jesus encourages us to serve without the prospect of reward. With content and humble hearts we do our duty to the Savior who served us with his life and death.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied aroundtheir neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” 

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” He replied,“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”


In recent years, we have closed many of our church services with these words of encouragement: “Live in harmony with one another.Serve the Lord with gladness.” And we should. But those things are far easierto say than to do.


Today, Jesus teaches us with pictures. One picture is of faith that is as small as a mustard seed — so small that you can barely see it, as it sits in the palm of your hand. A second is of a mulberry tree, fully grown, its roots sunk deep into the ground.


Roots as deep as our own love of ourselves, our pride,our desire for honor and recognition. These take root and grow like great trees in our sinful hearts, too large and strong for us to uproot and toss away, on our own.


Today, Jesus also shows us what it looks like to be a member of his family. He shows us our duties of Christian love and service, toward our neighbors, and toward God.


The challenges of living as a Christian may leave us crying out,with the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith!” But Jesus helps us see that our strength to live as his children does not depend upon how large our faith seems to us. Our Lord gives us the strength, as he leads us to respond in love, to the love he has already shown to us.


Following Jesus and being part of his family, means urgently,constantly looking out for each other. Jesus warns us, “Watch yourselves!” We owe one another a duty of love, to pay attention to what we are doing! Are our words, and our actions, building up our brothers and sisters in Christ and encouraging them — or are we somehow causing them to stumble, leading them into traps of sin and doubt that could hurt or destroy their faith?


Nothing could matter more. Jesus tells us that even suffering an unspeakable death would be better, than carelessly — or deliberately — doing or saying things that hurt someone’s else’s faith. Notice that Jesus speaks of causing “one of these little ones to stumble.”Every one of his beloved children is dear to him, loved so much that he gave his own life on the cross, to save that person. Nothing is more serious, nothing causes our Savior more pain, than for one of them to be lost.


Forgiveness is one place where we need to “watch ourselves.” We can do real harm to another person’s faith, by being harsh and unforgiving to a brother or sister in Christ who has done us some wrong, and who is sorry. When Jesus gives us the example of a person who sins against us seven times in a day, and seven times repents, he is painting a picture of free and generous forgiveness, of Christian love that keeps no record of wrongs, that forgives over and over.


Forgiving comes hard to us. And when we hear Jesus asking us to forgive without limit, we may be quick to go on the defensive: to say, “But what about the other guy? How do I know he’s even sorry? How do I know I won’t get hurt again?”


Here, Jesus is not asking us to focus on “the other guy.” Jesus has plenty to say to “the other guy” about repentance, in other places in Scripture. But right now, Jesus is not shining the light on someone else. He is warning us, “Watch yourselves!” As we remember that we ourselves have been freely forgiven by God for all our sins, Jesus encourages us to forgive others in the same way — just as we ask God to help us do, every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer.


Jesus’ disciples knew themselves well enough to know that they could not do these things, based upon the strength of their own faith. And so, they asked Jesus to make them stronger. “Lord, increase our faith!”


See how Jesus answers them. “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”


Picture in your mind, a little child holding a few of those tiny mustard seeds, and a fully grown tree, nearby. She can throw those seeds at that tree as long as she wants. But the tree is not going to fall down. It most definitely is not going to fly up in the air for several miles and come down in the middle of Lake Michigan. Not even if those are really high-quality,top-of-the line seeds! Not even if someone gives her bigger seeds to throw. So, if that tree does suddenly take off like a rocket, something else made it happen.


In this simple way, Jesus shows us that the power of our faith does not depend upon how big or how strong our faith feels to us, on any given day. That power can come only from God, who saves us, who created faith in our hearts in the first place, and who preserves us in faith. Jesus is giving us a gospel encouragement, to trust in God’s promises to help us.


Living faith produces fruits of love. We saw this in our epistle reading from Second Thessalonians today, as Paul thanked God for the believers he was writing to, “because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing.”


As we think about how hard it is for us to change the way we act, to mind our words, to forgive others— perhaps we might see these as some of the spiritual “mulberry trees” in our lives that need to be uprooted and cast into the sea. And now Jesus is about to show us another of these “trees” that sets down deep roots and grows in our sinful hearts: our desire for special recognition and honor, as we serve our Lord.


But Jesus makes uprooting these “trees” possible for us. Not by our own strength; not by how “big” our faith feels to us; but by the strength God gives to us, who trust in him. Faith responds to God’s free forgiveness, by freely forgiving others. In the same way, faith responds to the salvation Jesus won for us, by expressing itself in service, freely rendered.


Jesus shows us the example of a man who has a servant.The servant’s job during the day is to work in the fields, and then in the evening, to prepare the evening meal. When Jesus asks them, “Will [the employer] say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?”, everybody listening understood that the answer would be, “No, of course he won’t.”


Perhaps we can relate to that situation a little better, if we consider a more modern example. If people are working in a restaurant, even though theyhave been working all day cooking and serving, the manager is not going to tell them to sit down and relax after closing time — not until all the cleaning is finished, and everything is made ready for the next day. The workers don’t get to clock out until the day’s work is done. And if we were the employees, we would not be expecting any special recognitions or rewards, just for doing things that are part of the job.


Jesus challenges us to apply that same attitude to our Christian lives.  Is there any one of us who does not like to get recognition, honor, compliments, goodies?  But Jesus turns this attitude upside down. “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” This is the honest answer of humble servants who know that they are not owed anything.


Looking out for the faith of others, forgiving others— these are not extra, extraordinary things, for which we should expect some sort of extra pat on the back, some big reward. Consideration for others and forgiveness are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, living as a community of people who believe in Jesus and follow him. Jesus has already poured out these gifts on us, beyond measure. He wants us to treat each other the same way, loving one another as he has loved us.


Even though we are servants, who can’t possibly manage to do “everything we have been told to do,” we have already been given all things! Not only are we not owed anything. We have already been given more than we could ever ask or imagine.


We have been given the kingdom of God by Jesus, God’s own Son, who humbled himself and came into our midst “as one who serves;” as the one who,“for the joy set before him … endured the cross, scorning its shame”


We find a beautiful example of how God gives us power to respond to all that Jesus did to serve us and to save us, in our Old Testament reading. David gave thanks to God for the preparations that had been made to build the temple in Jerusalem. He prayed, “Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you.”


On that day, David was “serving the Lord with gladness!” David’s overflowing joy began with what God had done; and that joy returned to God through service, offerings, and songs of thanksgiving, not just from David, but from a whole community of believers.


That loving, unselfish service, was a fruit of faith. And so we also pray, “Lord, increase our faith!” We bring this prayer to our loving Savior with full confidence that this is a God-pleasing request, that Jesus wants to grant and that he will grant, as he feeds our faith through his Word.


Lord, increase our faith! Lord, bless us with hearts that rejoice in being set free to reflect your love, as we embrace our duties toward each other and as we serve you, with gladness! Amen.

This sermon was preached by senior seminarian Karl DeMarce.

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