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Sermon: If You Had It…

September 26, 2010

Luke 17:1-10

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.

Really?  Do you believe that?

I don’t think the difficulty in believing this statement lies in the fact that the mustard seed is so small and how could such a little bit of faith accomplish that much.  I think we would have a hard time believing this statement if Jesus said, “If you had faith the size of the planet Jupiter, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Go take a swim in the ocean.’”  The size of our faith is not the issue.  It seems both impossible and absurd to think that a mulberry tree—or any tree, oak, apple or pine—could obey us or even hear us if we gave it a command, no matter how big our faith.  Jesus was simply being ridiculous, wasn’t he?  This doesn’t seem to be a matter of faith, but of possibility and impossibility, and what Jesus described is impossible.  Right?

There are certain things in this life we assume to be inevitable, things like death and taxes.  We assume that the sun will come up in the morning and disappear in the evening.  We assume that when a cup slips out of our hands it will drop down to the floor and not lift up toward the ceiling.  There are certain natural laws that we have come to accept as inevitable, and those things don’t ever change.  The mulberry tree will not be uprooted and cast into the sea.  It doesn’t work like that.  Right?  (But at least we can be thankful that we only have Luke’s version of this saying before us today, because Matthew and Mark tell us that by faith an entire mountain can be cast into the sea!)

Yet there it is, in black and white.  The words of Jesus have been recorded, cherished and passed on by generations of Christians:  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.

That certainly sounds like the Jesus we know.  Jesus did seem to think that his disciples should be doing remarkable things in his name.  Peter, for one, had divine visions and healed a blind man.  Another apostle, Phillip, was transported mysteriously and instantaneously from one place to another.  The early Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, grew like a wildfire on a California hillside.  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.

Yet, this same Jesus frequently uses extreme language.  He uses hyperbole, which isn’t to be taken literally.  The purpose is to make a point by using absurd images.  This statement about the mustard seed and the mulberry tree certainly seems rather absurd.  If any of you have ever seen a mulberry—or any other tree, for that matter—running around on its roots, please raise your hand.  Anyone?

Or there is the possibility that this is one of those idioms in the original Greek or Aramaic that does not translate properly into English.  An idiom is a descriptive statement that simply doesn’t mean what it says literally.  For example, if you said your recent paycheck was chicken feed, you aren’t telling us that your employer pays you with a 50-pound bag of pellets.  You’re saying that you don’t get paid very much.  And if I talk about the fat cats on Wall Street, I’m not saying that my favorite animals get lots of table scraps in New York’s financial district.  I’m saying that bankers are rich.  In 2,000 years, people might not understand what we mean when we write about chicken feed and fat cats.  Is that what Jesus is doing?  Is this a strange idiom?  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.

I have to say that I have some serious reservations about the literal truth of this particular statement.  It doesn’t seem possible that Jesus really meant this.  Yet, I do take Jesus seriously, and so I need to take seriously the possibility that Jesus meant exactly what he said.  So the first place I start is with this notion of faith.  Jesus said that if we had even a little bit of that faith—just about the size of a tiny seed—then we have enough for some powerful things to happen.  I can buy that.  I can go along with the idea that faith is powerful, that faith can accomplish great things.  My entire life and career is based on that idea, so I can run with that.  But is faith enough to be able to accomplish something that is otherwise impossible, in this case a mulberry tree that obeys my words and runs out to sea?  And really, I don’t even have enough faith to get my kids to obey me, and that seems a lot less trouble than getting a tree to uproot itself.

But that brings us to the second point where I think I can understand what Jesus is saying.  Faith—large or small—is not confidence in what I can do.  Faith is a sure trust in what God can accomplish.  The basics of my faith are that God loves Creation—including me—that God works for good for Creation—that’s what we call grace—and that God sent Jesus to this world to share God’s love for us in a very concrete way and to be an agent of God’s salvation.  That is what I believe, and that is what I have faith that God is doing and accomplishing.  My faith, even if it is only as big as a mustard seed, is not in my own authority over a mulberry tree.  My faith is in God’s authority and ability.  Yet even then, I have a hard time taking this statement literally.  After all, we don’t have any record of any of the apostles or anyone else ordering mulberry trees around.

Maybe then we just don’t have enough faith, not even a mustard seed-sized grain.  Is that possible, that faith is so hard to come by that we don’t have it?  Jesus did say that “if you had faith the size of a mustard seed.”  Maybe we don’t have it, and neither did the disciples.  Maybe faith is such a difficult thing to obtain, that none of us really get it?  That would certainly make this text a little easier to swallow.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Jesus is saying.  Are you familiar with the use of the verb “were” in English?  People, for example, sometimes say “if I were a fly on the wall I’d really know what they were talking about in there.”  In this case, the verb “were” is used to indicate a condition that is not fact, that is not possible.  You can’t literally be a fly.  That only happens in the movies.  I can say “if I was a taxi driver,” because that could be true.  After I am fired from this job for preaching terrible sermons about English grammar, driving a taxi is a possible career option.  “If I were a fly” and “if I was a taxi driver.”

It just so happens, that in Luke’s gospel this morning, his Greek grammar describes something that is already true.  When Jesus says, “if you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” in the Greek it is really saying “if you had faith the size of a mustard seed and you do have it.”  Jesus was telling the apostles that they already possessed enough faith to order a mulberry tree into the sea.  They already had enough faith in God to enable the impossible and absurd act of walking a mulberry tree right into the ocean.  So that little grain of faith is not hard to obtain because we already have it.  If you had faith the size of a mustard seed—and you do!—you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.

I’m not sure I like that idea.  I much prefer the idea that I’ve perhaps got a little faith, maybe only the size of an atom.  You know, enough faith to keep me coming to church each week, enough to crank out a sermon now and again, but not too much faith.  If I have too much faith, God might expect something from me.  I’m not really sure I’m ready for that.  But unfortunately, Jesus said it, and he can’t take it back now.  I’ve got faith at least the size of a mustard seed, and it changes things.  You have faith at least the size of a mustard seed.

You know, it doesn’t feel like I’ve got faith enough to uproot that mulberry tree, and frankly, even if I did, I wouldn’t be bothering with mulberry trees (though I do have an overgrown banana tree in my backyard I’d like to remove).  But if I truly had faith the size of a mustard seed—and I do—enough to do something amazing and world-changing and impossible, what would I do?  What would you do?

I do know that in 1888, a dozen or so people gathered for worship in the Southern Pacific train depot on the docks and started a Methodist church in San Pedro.  Then, not too many years later, a small group founded the Grandview church.  I do know that in the early 1900s, James and Emma Toberman started a small infirmary and home for single women in memory of their son Homer.  I do know that 12 to 15 years ago, a few people got together and decided they were going to serve a hot meal to hungry people once a week downstairs in the Friendship Hall.  I do know that one bishop in India decided to help destitute young women from the lowest caste have a chance at dignity and a real future.

I guess what I don’t know yet is what I am going to do.  What are you going to do?

If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…

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