The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,
you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. —Luke 17:5–6
he protagonist in James Wood’s novel The Book Against God is a preacher’s son who loses his faith, becomes an atheist, and begins writing—well, he begins writing a Book Against God. He calls it his big, bad, BAG: B-A-G: Book Against God.
His father is a priest in the Church of England, and the now faithless preacher’s kid sees one of those monumental Anglican cathedrals in his native land and says:
As we crossed the broad apron of grass in front of the cathedral, I reflected that the monks and masons who built it so long ago could not have foreseen a time when many or most of its visitors did not believe in God. Yet perhaps they did foresee a time; for what was the purpose of this sheer enormity except as a kind of insurance against the skepticism of futurity? Here we were, unbelievers at the end of the twentieth century, still bowing our heads before its size, and throughout Europe were these great flying buildings which lasted longer than God, flying like the flags of countries that had disappeared.
Christianity has given the world the most beautiful buildings—Chartres, Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul’s; the most exquisite music—Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, and Mozart; and the finest exemplars of humanity—St. Francis, Sir Thomas More, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa, but all or most of that is behind us now. Europe’s cathedrals are empty, Bach is shunted aside for Beyoncé, and modernity laughs at eccentrics willing to die for something as trivial as faith.
Who could have guessed 800 years ago that the buildings would last longer than God, flags flying over countries that no longer exist?
What’s happened to our faith? You don’t need much of it, after all. Jesus says that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could command a large tree rooted solidly in terra firma to transplant itself in the Mediterranean. It’s an odd image, but Jesus must have intended it to be odd, so that we’d remember it. In Matthew’s version, Jesus’ claim is grander still; in Matthew, Jesus claims that with mustard-seed-sized faith we could move mountains.
Jesus talked about mustard-seed-sized faith, of course, because he thought mustard was the smallest seed indigenous to Palestine. It’s not, but Jesus was a preacher, not a botanist, so let’s cut him some slack.
Let’s look at what he might be trying to say. Where is your faith? Jesus might want to ask us. You don’t need much of it. If he’d known about Arundhati Roy’s 1997 novel, he might have said, “Ours is The God of Small Things. God doesn’t need much to work with, so give God what you’ve got.”
This morning I want to suggest that when it comes to faith, we have at least two options—we can put large faith in small things, or we can put small faith in large things.
Maybe that’s why the cathedrals are empty—We’ve given up on putting small faith in large things, and instead put large faith in small things. Maybe we have huge self-confidence. Maybe after friends, family, colleagues, and God have disappointed you often enough you come to the conclusion that the only reliable reality in the universe is your own ability. Like Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley, you start the day by looking in the mirror and chanting, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
Maybe we cruise around for a while under our own power in spectacular professional accomplishment, but then through no fault of our own, or perhaps by some dazzling ineptitude of our own making we come crashing back to earth. Then what?
Or maybe you’ve placed huge faith in a small spouse. Maybe you’ve allowed Hollywood’s film industry or New York’s publishing industry or L.A.’s music industry or some high school infatuation to convince you that to be happy in life all you need is love, to quote the most famous musicians of them all, so you place all your huge faith in life’s great romance, but you find to your astonishment that the person you are married to is no saint nor hero nor Superman nor Wonder Woman but just another human being as flawed as you are. What if you placed all your hopes and dreams on love, but that love disappoints?
Now, I understand the temptation to put huge faith in the love of your life. Perhaps you are like me: you are married to a life partner than whom none greater can be conceived. Perhaps she/he is perfect. I know all about that temptation. Still, if you expect your spouse to be your divinity, or your savior, or your comprehensive meaning, you’re going to stress your marriage.
Marriages where one of the partners is divinized do not generally do well. I call it ‘Messianic Marriage.’ That is what happens when you expect your partner to solve your problems, fix your flaws, end your every unhappiness, save your soul, and lead you to Paradise. Messianic Marriages don’t often work very well.
Or what if the largest thing you can think of to place your faith in is your country? That’s something to think about on Independence Day Weekend, isn’t it?
What if like Jesus’ contemporaries you placed all your faith in the magnificent, eternal city, the invincible Roman Empire and its formidable military might? It might almost be eternal, but not quite. It might last a thousand years, but in the end it crumbles and disintegrates, literally and figuratively, from within and from without, and then is no more. What if you place huge faith in a small nation, and it too disappoints?
When he was still Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali won a gold medal as a light heavyweight at the Rome Olympics in 1960. He was 18 years old, but even as a teenager he’d already gained a fairly wide reputation as a cocky motor-mouth who would say exactly what he wanted, nothing more, nothing less. No one told Muhammad Ali what to say; he was completely uncensorable.
So, a Black man from the American South who would never parrot pleasant, patriotic platitudes for the sake of appearance: what a perfect target for a Communist reporter in 1960, the hottest days of the coldest war.
A sports reporter from the Soviet Union started following Mr. Ali around for a good part of the Rome Olympics, poaching for unflattering comments about race relations in America.
But Mr. Ali would have none of that. He told the Russian reporter, “Tell your readers we got qualified people working on that, and I’m not worried about the outcome. To me, the U.S.A. is still the greatest country in the world, including yours.” Back home, in the White House, President Eisenhower high-fives Veep Nixon.
Not that long after Cassius Clay returns home from Rome as an Olympic deity, he goes into a restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, where they refuse to serve him because he is the wrong color.
Mr. Ali would later tell people he was so enraged he threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River. As it turns out, the truth is he actually lost his gold medal, but the Ohio River is a better story. Don’t put huge faith in small things; fallible, temporary, human realities can disappoint you.
Jesus asks us to put small faith in large things—in God, The Way, the universe, in that which will outlast our lives, our marriages, even the eternal city of a thousand years. If you put your faith in the right thing, you see, you don’t need much of it. It can be as small as a mustard seed and still be powerful enough to move mountains or transplant trees into the ocean.
Our faith, you see, needn’t be significant, only its object. If faith’s object, goal, and end is eternal, errorless, and effulgent, then faith itself can be meager indeed.
Look, I doubt there’s a person among us who is proud of her faith, who is self-satisfied with his walk with God. There are days when we look out at this breathtakingly beautiful but perpetually wounded world and think that there can be no explanation for its existence but a gigantic cosmic blunder. There are days when we listen to Jesus’ impossible demands and think him a beautiful dreamer but hopelessly out of touch with the way things really work. There are days when we sing the hymns at church and cross our fingers through most of them.
But when we distrust our faith or give up on our faith, perhaps we’re misunderstanding what faith actually is. If we persist in thinking that faith means believing the right things, then there will never be enough of it to please ourselves or God. If we persist in thinking that faith means giving our intellectual assent to seemingly impossible propositions, we’ll always be disappointing ourselves and God.
Faith has nothing to do with wrapping our heads around improbabilities like the virgin birth and the resurrection of the body and the infallibility of the pope and the inerrancy of Scripture. In fact, faith has very little at all to do with your head. Faith is not what you give your head to; faith is what you give your life to. Faith is not intellectual assent; faith is a way of life.
As Marcus Borg puts it, “You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged.”
Do you remember a few years ago when the correspondence and journal of Mother Teresa of Calcutta were made public? We all thought Mother Teresa of Calcutta was one of the most faithful Christians in the world; how else could you devote the entirety of your life to those the rest of the world so completely rejected?
But then many years after her death in 1997 the Church released 50 years of her letters to her own Confessor, and it turns out that for all of those 50 years, for the entire duration of her ministry to the poor of Calcutta, she experienced towering doubt.
She felt that Jesus had completely abandoned her, that God was silent, and the universe empty of deity. She had not heard from God or meant her prayers for 50 years. In these letters, as someone put it, Mother Teresa “doubts everything except her work.” But it was enough, because “her work was the kingdom of God itself.” With faith the size of a mustard seed Mother Teresa built the kingdom of God in the gutters of Calcutta.
Eliezer Wiesel died yesterday. He was 87 years old. To him we owe our knowledge of the enormity of the holocaust, especially his book Night, his memoir of Auschwitz.
Despite all he’d witnessed and experienced, Elie Wiesel never gave up on God. Sometimes his faith was all but invisible, but it was still there. He wrote: “If I told you I believed in God, I would be lying; if I did not believe in God, I would be lying.” Sometimes all you’ve got is faith the size of a mustard seed. Sometimes, it’s enough.
Listen to the way Luther put it: “Faith does not require information, knowledge, and certainty,” he said, “but a joyful bet on [God’s] unfelt, untried, and unknown goodness.” Think of faith as “a joyful bet,” and discover how little of it you really need in order to move mountains.
I heard this on the radio going to work one day, right after they played a Faith Hill song. You know who this is, don’t you, she sells millions of records every year; People Magazine once called her one of the most beautiful people in the world, and they happen to be right about that.
Faith Hill is married to another famous country music singer, Tim McGraw, who is apparently the son of the accomplished Major League Baseball player, Tug McGraw, with whom he has had an uneasy relationship over the years. Tim and Faith’s marriage is one of the most scrutinized unions in the world, always rumors of a break-up, but so far as I know, they’re still together after 20 years.
An interviewer asked Tim McGraw how he managed to get through the ups and the downs, the highs and the lows, the controversies of an uneven life, the pressure of celebrity, and Mr. McGraw instantly replied: “Faith.”
Now, gentlemen: that is the right answer. In more ways than one. If someone asks you how you make your way through life’s difficulties, just answer with your wife’s name. Just say, “Well, Kathy.” I think that was probably a very wise answer Tim gave. But he probably meant it more definitively in the larger sense.
Faith is not certainty or knowledge; it is a joyful bet on the goodness of God. Faith is not what you can wrap your head around. Faith is what you give your heart to, and if you give your heart to Jesus, all heaven will break loose upon you, the kingdom will come to your little corner of the world, and with faith the size of a mustard seed you’ll move mountains or transplant trees into the ocean.
So we can put large faith in small things, or you can put what little faith we have in the only reality in the universe worthy of our allegiance. And what wonders we’ll see if we give our hearts over to the God of Small Things.
James Wood, The Book Against God (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003), p. 179.
Robert Lipsyte, “Ali: 1942-2016,” Time Magazine, June 20, 2016, p. 31.
Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (Harper San Francisco, 2003), 30-31.
John Caputo, in an interview with Amy Frykholm, “A Restless Search for Truth,” The Christian Century, December 24, 2014, pp. 30-33.
Martin Luther, quoted by Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: knopf, 1993), p. 276.