Faith of the Mulberry Tree

Posted on 06 Oct 2019, Pastor: Adam Yates
  • Luke 17:5-10

    The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “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.

    “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

My friends, our reading from the gospel this week necessitates a disclaimer before we begin. Jesus does not support slavery. This should be a self-evident statement and given the history of our faith being used to justify the enslavement of free people, and the use of passages such as this one to coerce enslaved people, it bears repeating. Jesus does not support slavery. Yes, Jesus does occasionally use it in metaphor in his teachings, no it is not a particularly helpful metaphor to us today, in the context of our country’s history with enslavement, the way that history reverberates through our contemporary world, and the ongoing reality of slavery in the sex trade in this country and in slavery practices around the world. Yes, it is possible to explore and reclaim some of the meaning and theology in sayings such as this one, and you better be ready to put on your big kid pants if you’re going to do it, because that is some heavy work. No, I’m not going to attempt to address that this morning. Jesus does not support slavery. End of disclaimer.

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Our story from Luke is about the disciples’ request that Jesus increase their faith, but as I hear it, there is one question that I find myself coming back to again and again. I wonder how the mulberry tree felt.

“The Mulberry Tree” Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

I mean, there it was, minding its own business, doing whatever it is that mulberry trees do—probably mostly pushing its roots into the ground and photosynthesizing—when it gets told to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea. If I were that mulberry tree, my response would have been along the lines of, “umm, you want me to do what now?” Because, you know what? Mulberry trees are very good at doing their thing in the ground, where their roots can anchor them down and hold their branches high in the air. Mulberry trees were not meant to grow in the middle of the sea. It is not their natural habitat. They don’t float.

But the mulberry tree does not question this command. [Yes, I recognize mulberry trees don’t have mouths, but you know what I mean.] It simply gets up, roots and all, and against all odds and all expectations, goes and plants itself in the sea.

I hear this story, and I cannot help but wonder at the faith of the mulberry tree. There it sits, separated from everything it knows how to do, way outside of its comfort zone, supported and sustained in the midst of the waves by nothing other than faith in the one who called it there.

I consider the faith of the mulberry tree, and I cannot help but ask what it is that holds us back from acting in faith in the same way? Because while the illustration of the mulberry tree is metaphorical, the magnitude of what is asked of it is not. For Jesus does call us into momentous work. Jesus does call us to feed the destitute, the homeless, and the lonely, and not just feed them, but enter into community with them. Jesus does call us to welcome the immigrant and refugee into our land, even when it isn’t politically expedient. Even if others will label us as being too political. And Jesus calls us to proclaim the Good News and offer absolution for the forgiveness of sins. Even when we have been wronged against many times.

Actually, that last one is where this whole story began. Jesus had just commanded his disciples to forgive without ceasing. His disciples were like, “what if we’ve been sinned against seven times in one day?” Jesus says, “then you must forgive them seven times.” And his disciples were like, “Wow, gees, that’s a lot. You know, Jesus, if you want us to do that, you’re going to need to give us more faith.”

So often, in the face of what Jesus calls us to do, in the face of who Jesus calls us to be as disciples, we hesitate. Something holds us back. We are afraid to start pulling up our roots and go plant ourselves in the sea.

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When my mom was a little girl, she wanted to be a prophet. I don’t know why. I suppose it seemed like a good job to her. Perhaps she was hearing Jesus call her to something. Whatever the reason, she wanted to be a prophet. But as she went to Sunday school class at church, she kept seeing drawings and other pictures of prophets from the Bible. And she began to notice something. My mom began to notice that in all the depictions that she was being shown, the prophets all had beards.

The child who would become my mother wanted to be a prophet. She wanted to be a prophet until the day that she came to the conclusion that she couldn’t be a prophet because she wouldn’t be able to grow a beard.

I tell you this story because it makes me think about hagiographies. For those not familiar with the term, hagiographies are the stories of the lives of the saints that have been collected and compiled into cohesive narratives over the years. They are a stylized form of writing that pull together all the extraordinary things that the saints did or experience, all the legends the people told about them, and leave out all the ordinary bits. All the day-to-day parts. All the less-than-extraordinary pieces of their lives. All the portions that made them human.

Hagiographies are fascinating to read, but I’ll be honest, they have always made me feel sad for the saints. They make me sad because part of becoming a saint is having your humanity obliterated by legend. The final act before your sainthood is becoming a holy caricature of the person you once were.

But the real problem of hagiographies is that they absolve us. They absolve us of the responsibility to be holy ourselves. They absolve us because the stories they tell are of people who were not like us, people who were born different than we were, people who had some amazing capacity for faith that we do not, people who were spiritual superheroes capable of things that mere mortals like us could never attain. The problem of hagiographies is that they lead us to believe that the saints were not exactly the same as you and as me.

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Jesus calls to us. Jesus calls to us to do the work of discipleship, and it is momentous, it is scary, it seems to be greater than our capacity. And we are not saints. We tell ourselves that we are not the same as they are. We hesitate because we don’t think that we are capable of the holy and amazing things that they were. We question ourselves because we don’t have a beard.

So, we cry out to Jesus. Please, give us a big full beard! Please, make us holy like your saints! Please, increase our faith! Then we will not be afraid. Then we will be able to do what you ask. Then we will not hesitate to respond to your call.

Jesus’ response is simple. You don’t get it! It doesn’t matter how much faith you have. Even if you have only as much faith as this mustard seed, you can do all that I call you to do and more.

We ask Jesus to give us more faith and Jesus snaps back, “it’s not about you! It is about God!”

Faith is not something that can be measured or quantified. It cannot be compared, either to one another or to the saints. It simply is. And even if you could, it wouldn’t be important, because what matters is not the quantity of faith. What matters is not something that is within you, it is not something that you have any control over, or even something that depends on you in any way.

What matters is that faith is sufficient. Any faith is sufficient. And faith is sufficient because the one in whom we have faith is sufficient.

Increase our faith, we ask of Jesus. But we do not need more faith because God is sufficient. Because Jesus is sufficient.

My friends, Jesus calls us out into the world to do big and momentous things. We have all that we need to do this work because all that we need is Jesus. All we need is God. All that remains now is for us to get up and do it.

Jesus is calling us. Even if our faith is as small as this mustard seed, we would have all that we need. And are we not so much greater than this mustard seed? It is time for us to pull and shift and lift our deep roots free of the hard soil that holds us down. Jesus is calling us. It is time to go and let our roots be washed in the waves, anchored firmly by the one who calls us there.

Preached by Adam Yates