Luke 17: 5-10
Our passage includes a mulberry tree. As a preacher it’s good to make some sort of illustrative connection to some part or lesson of the scripture which helps the listeners to better understand, imagine, or remember the story. So the mulberry tree. As a child I grew up on a mini forest. What we called the woods. The woods, on our northern property line, was followed by a farm lane. On this edge there was a mulberry tree. Our mini forest was mostly tall not fruit trees like oak and poplar. This was the only fruit tree. I remember climbing its short scrubby trunk as a young child and eating its mulberry fruits. But only once. It wasn’t very good. It makes sense for Jesus to suggest throwing the mulberry tree into the sea.
Have faith like a mustard seed—at least in its size. And throw a tree into the water. We have the tendency to do two things with this. Either think of it as some sort of magic. Like Harry Potter. Of course in the Bible this is called a miracle which sounds less—magical?—and is to demonstrate the power of God. In this we might imagine that with just a little dash of faith we can “do cool stuff too!” If only we have just a little dab of faith—then we could move a tree—or some other large object in need of moving—just like that .
Or another variation that I have heard is that when we have faith—even just a bit like a mustard seed—that we will roll up our sleeves and do the work. A little bit of faith translated into a lot of elbow grease or sweat of our brows and we are set. Last weekend there was a work day to get the soup kitchen in order. A certain Jerry O demonstrated such elbow grease scrubbing above the stove. Move the tree, no problem, just give me a saw and gloves. Which, admittedly, sounds a lot like a general admonition not to be lazy. Though useful perhaps not a particularly notable learning.
Why was Jesus talking about mustard seeds? Remember, the disciples had said “Increase our faith!” The reason for this is Jesus says just prior to this that sinning is bound to come but make sure it isn’t caused by you. And secondly if someone sins against you repeatedly—even in a single day—you must confront them (which is difficult) but also forgive if there is repentance (which, is also difficult). It is in the face of this difficult teaching that the disciples entreat Jesus to increase their faith. To this urgent request Jesus breaks out what seems to be an affront to their faith, these disciples have left everything to follow him. He says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed.” Ouch. “If” but since you obviously don’t…is what I hear. It sounds like I said to Jacob—“If you had the strength of a tiny little baby you could throw this pulpit up into the balcony.” Maybe I would even say it in a sort of mocking big brother impersonating a baby voice. “If only.”
Despite it sounding like a belittling it is noted by two commentators I read, that the implication of the Greek is “If you had (and you do) the faith of a mustard seed.” Which when, I think about it still might not really be a compliment. A mustard seed is still pretty small. Of course, they were probably not only teacher and student but also friends, so perhaps this is Jesus teasing them while making a point. The point is that with just a touch of faith and the power of God notable things can happen.
The point is that with just a touch of faith—faith the size of a mustard seed—and the power of God notable things can happen.
So with faith we can move the mulberry tree. As noted we had a mulberry tree.
Neither we nor Jesus ever ended up getting rid of that mulberry tree–as far as I know. My dad did, however, cut down many trees over the years. This was a very considered and practical task considering which trees were beginning to die but still in good condition—not wanton destruction. He is a carpenter and we heated our home with a wood stove.
The trees we cut were big trees. No goofy little mulberry. Incidentally this task also required a fair amount of faith—or something that may illustrate faith. If a tall tree is going to fall the correct direction with great precision so as to not destroy other trees it usually needs to be pulled. It is type of act of faith to be in the tractor pulling a tree with a cable that is shorter than the tree. Since I was often the tractor driver I began to appreciate applied geometry—this visualizing of distances and angles remains perhaps my only strong point in math. We would hook our not particularly long cable as far up the tree as possible (propping an extension ladder against the rounded body of a tree while sitting on the uneven ground of the forest floor is its own kind of faith or skill or foolishness). We would then attach the cable to the medium sized tractor. Given the height of the tree and the length of the cable the tractor was definitely within the fall zone if it didn’t move. Faith was required in our planning and analysis of distances and weight of the tree, it was required in the tractor that it would move, required that the person who was watching my dad saw would pass on the indication that pulling would not pinch his saw would be quick enough to pull and then get out of the way—and yes, probably a bit of faith in God’s providence (this was probably most active in my mom as her husband and kids did what was rather dangerous).
But now is a new era of tree cutting. As all the kids were no longer around and more critically he no longer had access to his father’s tractor, he needed to devise a way to direct trees with cables with his not off-road van. He does this by an elaborate system of a very long cable/rope and pulleys. Apparently he can pull almost any tree on their 3 acre property from the driveway. He even recently pulled a many hundred pound log up out of the valley using this system and plywood as skids—I feel pretty confident that this challenge is half for fun and half because it’s useful. In this there is less need of faith in the abstract, somewhat esoteric, trusting sort of way and more of the planning and work. This may be an illustration of the version—if you have faith you will roll up your sleeves.
I started by saying there are two ways I have typically heard this passage talked about. The first is to fully trust in God in a way that may at times seem to exempt us from the work. Though there are times for this, this doesn’t seem to be the whole story. The second is that faith means we put our shoulder into it and do the work. This also doesn’t seem to quite sum it up. When the disciples say “increase our faith!” Jesus says you have faith! In this there is both a trusting in the power of the God but also the need to do the work. And there is work to do. And there is the power of God. These are not mutually exclusive.
In the love feast and communion that will follow we will practice these things. We will wash each other’s feet as a sign of our service to one another and to the world. We will wash the feet of the Body of Christ—this body, which is filled with the Spirit. We will eat and drink the body and blood of Christ which unites us with the Risen Christ but also with one another and Christians across the world who celebrate communion today. The practices are both spiritual and material but also don’t stop with this morning but continue out as we serve one another and our world in the power of the Spirit with the faith of a mustard seed.
There is work to do.
There is the power of God.