Sunday, October 2, 2016
Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ request to increase their faith is this: “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.” Have any of you ever tried to uproot a tree? When we first moved to Omaha, we wanted to plant a garden. We had a big garden out in the country near Stromsburg, and both Pastor Rich and I find gardening very relaxing, not to mention rewarding when you get to eat the delicious produce you worked to grow yourself! So we wanted to have a garden in our new home. Anyway, we did everything we could to find the right spot for our new garden in our backyard. The utilities company came out and marked where our gas, water and electric lines were so we could avoid those spots. We picked the spot that got the most sun during the day, and we measured out a space that we thought would be big enough to grow what we wanted and small enough to manage without making gardening a full-time job. We have a family friend who lives nearby with a tiller, so we called him up, after cutting up the sod to prepare the ground ourselves. He got going, except he didn’t get very far until he had to stop. Something was resisting and blocking the tiller from effectively turning up the soil. You see, our backyard evidently at one time had a lot of trees in it, and even though the stumps have mostly disintegrated, the roots were still there, underground, right in the spot where we wanted our garden. And here we had torn up this whole patch of ground to find that it would not be as easy as we thought to grow things in the spot we’d selected. The roots were going to get in the way. Ultimately, we decided to keep our garden in that spot, and managed to break up most of the roots with a spade and a hacksaw, but it was a much longer day of hard work than we had anticipated to get our garden ready for planting.
Jesus’ answer to the disciples in the gospel this morning is strange: why would anyone want to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea? Trees don’t generally grow in salt water. It’s a strange illustration. Why is he using this image to talk to us about faith? Well, as I did some further investigation, I learned that mulberry trees have complex, deep root systems that are difficult to remove. Faith makes difficult, or almost impossible, things, possible, Jesus is saying. To go even further into the reading we heard this morning, though, Jesus is saying that faith isn’t about us and how strong our belief is – it’s about following him and having our lives point back to him. How does our faith in HIM allow us to let things go, to let things in our lives that need to be dug up or uprooted, so that new life can grow? How does our faith make space for Jesus to plant seeds in us, with good soil free from old, stubborn, persistent roots?
Jesus follows these words to the disciples with an example that would make sense to them but has terrible historical associations for us: he compares following him to a slave who cares for and obeys his master. In a free society that has abolished slavery, we need to modernize the example to get at Jesus’ point. The point is that faith is about following Jesus, listening to Jesus, putting Jesus first, rather than ourselves. So here’s my attempt at a modern-day example of what I think Jesus is getting at: when my brother was a young elementary school student, he hated going to school. My mom tried everything: bribes, threats, punishments, rewards to get him to go willingly to school, but many days it was a battle. One day I remember was particularly bad. My brother, still at the breakfast table, curled his legs around the kitchen chair, wrapped his arms around the chair’s arms, and refused to budge. My mom could not yank him off. My pleas for us not to be late to school fell on deaf ears. My mom ended up carrying my brother, still stuck to the chair, put him in our minivan, chair and all, and drove us to school. (He was clearly not wearing a seatbelt but we lived less than a mile from school and those were different times!). My brother would’ve been too embarrassed to have his friends see him stuck to a chair when we pulled into the school parking lot, so he quickly leaped out of the van and to his class without saying another word. After that day, I don’t remember ever having a problem getting my brother to go to school again.
In our own faith lives, or lack of a faith life, we can be as stubborn as my brother was. We can wrap ourselves around things we love, things we want to protect, or we can cling to other things to avoid simply doing what Jesus asks us to do, which is to follow him. Instead of doing what’s best for us and listening to Jesus, we think OUR WAY is the best. We only want to do what WE want to do. We can be as stubborn, as deep and complexly rooted as that mulberry tree. The hope that Jesus gives us, though, is that even a little faith, a little trust in Jesus that we can let go, faith the size of a mustard seed, can open us to the new possibilities Jesus offers in following him.
We tend to super-naturalize faith: that faith is simply believing that otherwise impossible physics-defying things can happen if we just think hard enough. I used to do this as a kid at the swimming pool – I would close my eyes and step out onto the water and pray and hope that somehow I would walk on it and not sink…was my faith in Jesus not strong enough? Similarly, if we can’t look at a tree and physically see it uprooted and flying overhead to the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, does that mean we don’t have enough faith? With those questions in our minds, Jesus reminds us that even faith the size of a small mustard seed can accomplish great things. And by pointing us back to the master, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, he also reminds us that it’s not about us. It’s not up to how hard our brains are working to WILL objects to move, to allow people to be healed, water be turned to wine, for us to walk on water. Those miraculous acts are demonstrations of God’s power at work in Jesus Christ, not cool magic tricks for us to show off to our friends. Our faith in Jesus Christ is about serving – serving God and serving our neighbor. Our faith is again allowing JESUS to do great work in us and through us, for Jesus to uproot things that we’re clinging to with all our might because we’re afraid to let go and truly follow Jesus above anything and everything else.
What might you be clinging to that Jesus is asking you to have faith and let go of? Ideas about how and what our church should look like or be? Personal disappointments or resentments for times you wanted Jesus to respond in a certain way, and he didn’t? Are you like me, simply too busy with other commitments and involvements that you make excuses for why you don’t have more TIME to pay attention to Jesus at work in your life? Uprooting trees are hard. Letting go is hard. Following Jesus is hard. The good news is that for Jesus, those things are not hard. For Jesus, it’s as simple as loosening our grip on the chair to let Jesus pick us up and put us on the right path. Instead of us taking a hacksaw to those stubborn roots, faith is letting Jesus get rid of those roots in our soil, so that whatever good things he plants can grow and flourish. In the end, faith is simply doing what we ought to have done by following Jesus. Amen.