“Getting” Great Faith

The River Tummel at Pitlochry - Scotland(Creative Commons Image by Neil Howard on Flickr)

Dear Working Preachers,

Little faith or great faith? How do we tell the difference? What are the criteria? Who gets to decide? I ask these questions this week because it seems hardly accidental that the Canaanite woman’s “great faith” (15:28) follows Peter’s apparent “little faith” (14:31). Of course, everybody wants more faith, right? “More” is certainly better than some, or average, or little. A central question posed by this passage is, “What made her faith great?” which elicits a follow up question, “How can my faith be greater?” or something along those lines.

“Faith” is one of those words that makes me nervous when it comes to preaching. In fact, it’s usually on my top-ten list of words that I encourage my students to think twice about using in their sermons. “Faith” is a term we frequently throw out there, with little thought or regard as to what it actually signifies. Like “gospel,” “grace,” and “sin,” these words are apt to be catch-alls or go-to topics. As if we all know exactly what they mean. As if there is a universal definition for each. As if every biblical text says the same thing about each. When in doubt, talk about faith and that will connect with people.

But I am not sure that it does.

Faith is as individual as the woman in this story. Why is her faith great? Is it because she is persistent? So, if I am more persistent — and about what, I might ask — will my faith be greater? Is her faith great because she names her plight, she is honest, she names her need? Is her faith great because she asks for help? Is her faith great because she gets Jesus to change his mind? Is her faith great because she recognizes who Jesus is? Is her faith great because she thinks Jesus can do something to help her daughter? Is her faith great because she rebuts Jesus’ proposed boundaries? And then is faith the willingness to go past these boundaries, set either by others or those we place on ourselves?

I worry that the story of the Canaanite woman’s faith will become one more simplistic sermon about the benefits of faith, or an appeal from the pulpit to have more faith. And when we generalize her and her situation, she becomes mere example and is once again enclosed by the boundaries already placed around her.

Hers is a story of the complexity of faith.

Something seems to be key in putting these two stories side by side yet the juxtaposition of Peter’s “little faith” and her “great faith” sets up a troubling set of criteria when it comes to adjudicating faith — of others, but especially our own. A lot of how we talk about faith indeed ends up being about measurement. Life’s consequences are attributed to whether or not someone had enough faith, whatever the circumstance may be. “Just have faith!” Well, how much? It doesn’t seem like a little will do. And how do you get more? Are you stuck with what you have? Are we genetically disposed to a certain level of faith? I suspect that these are the kinds of issues about faith with which our parishioners struggle — and which they may likely hear in the Canaanite woman’s plea.

And preachers are not immune to such struggles. If we are honest, how much do we attach achievements in our ministry to the status of our own personal spiritual well-being? If we feel less than confident about the strength of our faith, is it then that we begin to see what’s wrong, what’s failing, what needs attention? And when our faith is strong, how do we know? What does that feel like? Is that when everything appears to be going well? How do we tell when we have little or great faith? What is the measuring stick? Can anyone else sense our “faith status”? Will we be exposed? We seem to think so. So we pretend. Put on a good face. We have to, that’s part the job, but it’s exhausting, isn’t it? Who tends our faith, its strength or weakness, especially when it’s part of our calling to tend the faith of others?

A sermon on this passage could be an honest discussion about faith, not in general, but giving permission for each one of us to think about our faith, where we are, here and now. And the preacher might give herself permission and time to do the same. Perhaps we acknowledge the fluidity of faith and that different circumstances will call on different features of faith.

Maybe the Canaanite woman’s story is not about what faith is, some sort of definition for all times and places, but what faith looks like in action. We might create a sermon that is less a point to proclaim and more an exercise in possibility. Name all of the reasons why her faith could be considered great, and then ask, what do you think? What resonates with you, today, and why? Then we are demonstrating the dynamism of faith. That faith is not a static statement of status quo confessions, but lays claim on how you are in the world, how you choose to be, how you decide to live, in each specific moment of your life.

In this regard, faith is not a fixed collection of beliefs but a state of being. Your faith is great, not because of what you do, but because of who you are.