Thursday, 30 September 2010

Faith the size of a mustard seed

Luke 17:5-10 (New International Version)
5The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"
6He 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.
7"Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? 8Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? 9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' "

I want to think a bit about faith. Let me tell you a story:

Jean Fran├žois Gravelet, "The Great Charles Blondin", was a famous French tightrope walker and acrobat.
Blondin's greatest fame came in 1859 when he attempted to become the first person to cross the rushing and roaring waters of Niagara Falls on a tightrope.

With a balancing pole, Charles Blondin walked across the 335m long tightrope in only five minutes. He went on to walk across the falls several times, each time with a different theatrical flair. Later crossings were made in a sack; on stilts; on a bicycle, in the dark with sparks flaring from his pole tips; with his hands and feet manacled; and sitting down halfway to cook an omelet!

On one such occasion a large crowd gathered as word went out that Blondin was going to attempt yet another incredible feat. A buzz of excitement ran along both sides of the river bank. The crowd “Oooohed!” and “Aaaaahed!” as Blondin carefully walked across one dangerous step after another -- blindfolded and pushing a wheelbarrow.

Upon reaching the other side, the crowd's applause was louder than the roar of the falls! Blondin suddenly stopped and addressed his audience: "Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?"
The crowd enthusiastically shouted, "Yes, yes, yes. You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world. You can do anything!"

"Okay," said Blondin, "Get in the wheelbarrow....."

No one did!

It’s one thing to believe, it's another thing to take a step of faith based on that belief. Belief must be followed by action if it is to take you where you want to go!

How many sermons can you remember? Be honest…. I can’t remember many. But I remember one in particular one on Ephesians 2:7-9

“In order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

My vicar pointed out that the Bible tells us that faith is a gift from God. At the time I was struggling with my faith, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t work faith up in myself. You know the sort of thing – if I try really, really hard I can have more faith. Bit like saying ‘whatever you do – don’t think about pink elephants’. Some things simply don’t seem possible. I can remember the relief sinking into me as I realised.. its ok.. faith is a gift… it isn’t my fault that I don’t have much faith.

I am a horrible sceptic at times. I know some people have others come up to them and say ‘I wish I had your faith’. No one ever says that to me!

I can be a bit like Woody Allen, who said, ‘I would believe if only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name in a Swiss bank.’

Or another of Woody Allen’s sayings: ‘How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?’

Sometimes, when I heard stories like the one about the tightrope and the wheelbarrow I felt guilty. But I don’t any more. You see I believe that God gives us faith. Perhaps it is only a tiny, tiny amount, like a mustard seed, which was the tiniest seed. But that tiny amount can do amazing things.

I have been inspired by a friend of mine who has improved the public health of the UK without hardly anyone noticing. (Some people clearly have noticed, because he is a bit older than me, and has already received a lifetime achievement award). It hasn't been without sacrifice. He has been threatened by big multinational companies and feared at times that he would lose his house.

He is a lobbyist. Not the sort that stands outside with placards, but the sort that does careful research and meets with people who can change things. He is a politician, in the sense that he is very political, saying that politics is about carefully working through your argument, and seeing things from the perspectives of others, especially those who oppose you.

How do you think our food in the UK came to be labelled with the calories, fat content and salt content? How do you think 'Healthy Eating' became a big issue in our schools? How is it that childhood obesity is now reducing? These things were, in my opinion, achieved by my friend, and of course his friends, and by lobbying and politics.

With a bit of faith, little people like me and you can make a massive difference in the world. For me, I desperately want the Church of England to change. I want it to be radically inclusive, as this is how I see Jesus in the Gospels. I long for complete and unequivocal equality between men and women, between gay and straight people, between married and divorced people. I also want to help save the planet, I want to see the parsonages and churches in our diocese carbon neutral.

Has God given you a tiny bit of faith? I bet God has. Did you know that with that tiny bit of faith you can tell mulberry bushes to go and take a running jump, or to move mountains…. Seriously, it is amazing what can be done. I have been working on a little project myself recently.. for a year, I suppose, and now it is gathering momentum, and all I have done is some research and I have talked to people about it.. at every opportunity. The galling thing is that no one really knows that it is me that has started the ball rolling. There is no glory in it. 

And that leads me to the second part of the reading. So often we get offended if we aren’t thanked and acknowledged, if we don’t get the glory, and if it doesn’t turn out exactly as we envisaged. But that stands in the way of progress, I believe.

I think we all want God’s kingdom to come on earth, sometimes it is our pride that clogs the whole thing up. We need to just see it as something ordinary, that we are like servants, put on this earth to do our bit. And whether that bit is at work or in the home or in the community or in the nation, whether it is to do with spiritual things or material things, all of it is part of our calling, and it is better if we are simply satisfied that the job is done rather than requiring praise from others.

So may you know that you have the gift of faith
And that a tiny amount of faith can move mountains
And may your faith and mine make this world a better place for all


  1. Thank you, Lesley - very thought-provoking (as one who likes to be thanked, even though I never know what to do when I am!)

    I was reminded of a quote which I believe is attributed to Harry S Truman:

    “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

    And yes, always vital to remember that faith is a gift.

  2. Wow - thanks Chris, and great quote!