Sunday, October 6, 2019
And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you"
We hear a lot of talk these days about how difficult it is to be a Christian. The world has changed. The nation has changed. Increasingly, people are walking away from the church or choosing never to go near a church because we’re seen as irrelevant, judgmental, or hypocritical. The more secularized we become as a nation, the less impact we as Christians seem to have.
There’s talk about the challenges of living in “a post-Christian world” which can lead to timid, fearful, even disciples with doubt in who Jesus Christ really is and can do for us. Truthfully, our world isn’t that different from the world of Jesus’ first disciples. Their world has been described as a pre-Christian world in which people did not know Jesus or His teachings or His mission.
I’d like to suggest a new phrase, “pre-Christian” which may be a better description for our world today, a lot better than “post-Christian.” It says that Christians are not participants in a dying institution but a movement. It says that people are watching us, wondering what makes us tick. To call our world “pre-Christian” is saying that we can still have an impact on them by showing them the way we live. It says that our stories and songs matter and that our everyday life means everything to the way the world sees Jesus Christ.
This is exactly what was happening with Jesus and His first disciples in Luke 17. Jesus was constantly teaching about everyday values and practices. And here He is telling His disciples that they would need to forgive others, even if they had been wronged, seven times in a single day. He wasn’t talking about some institutional health here but a way of life. He was referring to the simple but challenging act of confronting another with their sin and voicing forgiveness. This is the stuff of everyday relationships.
It’s hard to confront, though, isn’t it? And it’s hard to forgive. I was relating to someone the other day that I had offered my apologies for something, and it was like this “if I had done anything wrong I apologize”, and the response I got was “Why did you apologize?” you did nothing wrong. We can’t control others, but we can offer a heartfelt sincere way to make things right. I knew I did nothing to offend this person, but where does the healing start? Bitterness always seem to run very deep and last extremely long, like tree roots, like mulberry tree roots, stubborn and strong. No wonder the disciples responded to Jesus’ challenge to forgive with the words, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). They could’ve said, Good Lord! You expect us to forgive like that and that often? Now that’s challenging! We need greater faith for that! Give us greater faith, Lord!
It was one of those teaching moments. So, when His disciples said, “Increase our faith!” Jesus didn’t say, Sure, presto chango! May you have greater faith! No, what He said was, If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.
Jesus doesn’t explain His response. Luke, who records Jesus’ words, doesn’t interpret them either. You have to admit, it’s quite an image though. With just a little faith, Jesus is saying, faith as small as a mustard seed, the faith you have right now, you can uproot a thirty-foot mulberry tree and plant it at the bottom of the sea. I can imagine a Christian saying to a mulberry tree, Pull up your roots and head for the ocean, tree! You will be the first mulberry tree successfully transplanted to the ocean floor! Then we’d see, a mulberry tree flying off to its new home, 4000 feet below sea level!
So, what is Jesus saying here? For one thing He’s saying that it’s not helpful to measure our faith. Jesus’ disciples were doing that with their request, Increase our faith! In other words, Jesus, give us more faith, heroic faith, enough faith to do the hard thing in hard times. Jesus’ response says that it isn’t helpful to make faith a measurable possession. We say that, don’t we? If only I had enough faith! If I could just believe enough! Or, negatively, we say, I guess I just don’t have enough faith! Notice how the weight of those statements is on us. Can we believe enough? Can we trust enough? Do we have enough faith to make things happen?
So, if faith isn’t to be measured, how do we understand Jesus’ words, faith like a grain of mustard seed? How can faith send mulberry trees flying into the sea? I believe that Jesus’ concept of faith puts the whole matter of faith into our relationship with Him. Faith like a grain of mustard seed is simply trust in Him, a trust that abides in Him, depends on Him, and lives every day in Him. It’s only in Christ that we can move mulberry trees, even the deep ones like bitterness or a lack of forgiveness. That’s possible only as Christ lives in us.
In Latin there are two words for faith. The first is fides, which might be said to be measurable. It’s faith that certain things are true. Fides says, I believe that … that God created the world … that Jesus was born of a virgin … that Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead … that the Spirit brings life. Our creeds are examples of fides.
The other word for faith in Latin is fiducia. This is relational faith. It’s trust in the Lord, being rooted in the power of God. Fiducia was Martin Luther’s preferred word for faith. You can hear fiducia at work in Paul’s familiar words in Philippians 4:13, I can do all things through Him [Christ] who strengthens me.
So, faith like a grain of mustard seed says that I can forgive not so much because I have enough faith to do it, but rather because I live and make decisions inside a strong relationship with Jesus Christ. Faith like a grain of mustard seed says I already have what I need to live my Christian life and witness: I have Christ, or better, Christ has me! The One who came and died for me, the One who broke through death and came to life for me, the One who called me in Baptism and made me His own. He makes seemingly impossible things possible.
So, in Christ, I confront the person who has wronged me, and I offer forgiveness. I do the hard thing and share my faith with my neighbor. I drop a quarter in an LWML mite box, believing it will make a difference. I hold the hand of a neighbor in the hospital, maybe not my favorite neighbor. I phone a friend who has become distant.
So, in Christ, our church takes on a new ministry, knowing that it’ll be a stretch, simply because it’s what Christ would have us do. So, we see our community not as the enemy, but as our mission field. And underneath it all, you hear mulberry trees moving, hard things, seemingly impossible things, happening because Christ lives within me, because Christ lives within us!
The Lutheran Women’s Missionary League has always lived by mustard seed faith. Little gifts, mites, combined across our synod, make big things happen in mission across the world. Christ has been moving mulberry trees through the LWML since 1942. What a model they are for Christian discipleship! If our congregations are the soul of the LCMS; if our pastors, workers, and missionaries are the beautiful feet of the LCMS; if our seminaries and universities are the mind of the LCMS; if Lutheran Hour Ministries is the voice of the LCMS; then the LWML is the heart of the LCMS. The women of our church have taught us what it means to move mulberry trees with just a little faith.
In another gospel Jesus talks about moving mountains with mustard seed faith. Here it’s the mulberry tree that gets moved. Either way, the message is the same. In our relationship with Jesus, we have what’s necessary to do difficult, even seemingly impossible, things. And why should that be so hard to believe? He has moved us from death to life, from being orphans to being His, from guilt to cleansing, from conflict to reconciliation.
A painting by Vincent van Gogh is titled “The Mulberry Tree.” (He painted it in 1889 while in voluntary confinement at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. The mulberry tree Van Gogh gives us is impressive. It’s strong, gnarly, abundant with bushy foliage, and, in his painting, rich with tones of yellow and gold. It’s awe-inspiring, rooted in rock and set against a deep blue sky. For van Gogh, an ordinary tree took on the character of beauty, strength, and even joy. Yellow was his color for joy. If you look at the TV in the narthex there is a picture of this tree on one of the slides for LWML Sunday.
May that be our attitude the next time we say that it’s difficult to follow Christ. What appears to be hard, and even impossible, may be just the thing we need to do as we live with Christ day-in-day-out. And because Christ abides with us, the difficult thing can be done with joy. It may not be easy, but it’s possible in Christ. May it be said of us, Those were the days when Christians moved mulberry trees! Amen.