Luke 17:5-6: The apostles said to [Jesus], “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.”
A long time ago, when my husband Charlie and I owned our first home, I decided that I wanted a birch tree in our yard. I’ve always loved birch trees, with their white bark and bright yellow leaves in the fall.
So, Charlie and I went to a garden store and picked out a lovely birch clump about seven feet tall. The clerk asked if we wanted it delivered. But we said “no.” Back then, we were young and strong, so we decided to move it by ourselves. The first clue that it might be harder than we thought was when one of the employees used a backhoe to lift the tree into my pickup.
When we got home, we managed to transfer the tree to a wheelbarrow. Then together we started pushing it around the house. But the root ball was so big that, halfway there, it fell off the wheelbarrow. And there was no way to lift it back. Because it was so heavy, the two of us had to roll the tree very slowly across the grass to the spot I had picked out in the yard. It didn’t help that we both started laughing hysterically and couldn’t stop.
Eventually, with a lot of pulling and shoving we finally planted the birch tree. Where we thought it would stay forever.
But a few years later after we had moved, a storm with straight-line winds went over our old house, destroyed the garage, and pulled the birch tree out of the ground. It was even on the evening news—with the local TV weatherman standing in the front yard. I was reminded of that story when I read today’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus says, “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.”
The metaphor Jesus uses is kind of bizarre. Mulberry trees can grow very tall with deep roots, so you can’t just pull one out of the ground. Plus, I’m a gardener and I know that uprooting a large tree would likely destroy it.
Sometimes life can be like that. When faced with an unexpected crisis or major loss, it can be hard to have faith that somehow you will make it through. To not feel like your heart and soul are being uprooted. Wondering if you will survive.
Faced with the death of a loved one or serious illness, a sudden career change or crippling depression, it’s normal to have doubts. To wonder if God is with you. To feel alone. To be overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. To feel like you are that mulberry tree, pulled up and thrown into the sea. Many of us grew up thinking that faith means the absence of doubt. And that faithful people should never feel afraid. But fear is a normal part of life, especially for those willing to take risks and try something new. A new relationship. A new job. A new place to live.
Jesus knew what it was like to be afraid. Just after the passage we read today, Luke tells us that Jesus turns his path towards Jerusalem. He begins his journey to the cross, to his death. He must have felt fearful about that.
When the disciples asked Jesus how to increase their faith, Jesus knew their future would bring experiences they could never dream of. Together they would face his crucifixion and resurrection—events would change their lives forever.
Yet, for many of us, when Jesus says to the disciples, “If you had the faith the size of a mustard seed,” it’s easy to read those words as a criticism. As if Jesus is saying, “It’s too bad your faith is so small. If you really believed, your faith could do miracles.” Almost like magic.
But what if Jesus is actually saying the opposite. What if we read this as an encouraging remark? Or as we Lutherans like to say, to hear it as Gospel instead of Law. What if faith isn’t really about believing the right things? What if faith means belonging to God? What if faith is most present when we see how we belong to one another?
In his book Future Faith, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (who spoke at our synod's clergy retreat last month) talks about the struggle we Christians face today in terms of keeping our faith alive and relevant.
He tells the story of a young woman named Alyssa, who grew up in a typical Midwestern Lutheran congregation.
Her memories were compelling. For her, as a teenager, church services seemed boring. Alyssa also vividly remembers feeling like her questions were not welcome. When Alyssa raised issues about things she didn’t understand, the pastor and others told her that she should have faith and “just believe.” So, Alyssa stopped going to church.
Later in life, after a number of personal crises, Alyssa decided to give her faith one more chance. She found a Lutheran church in Santa Fee, NM. A congregation that welcomed her questions. That didn’t expect her to have everything figured out. That invited her to be part of a community where people walked side by side in their journey of faith. For Alyssa, that’s where she finally felt connected. That’s where she found a sense of belonging she had not experienced before. That’s where she felt accepted for who she was, with all her questions and doubts.
I like to think St. Mark’s is that kind of community. That for us, faith is more about belonging than believing. A distinction that is significant. Some theologians compare it to two ways of keeping a herd of cattle together within a field. One way is to build a fence to keep them in. Where, like for some Christians, everything and everyone is contained within set boundaries, rules and doctrines. The second option is to dig a well in the middle of a field. Any rancher knows that cattle are always drawn back to water. Even without fences to keep them there. Like us Christians, who are drawn back to the waters of baptism, the center of our belonging.
For on the day you were baptized, the pastor sprinkled a few drops of water on your head—not enough water to even satisfy a small seed—but enough to plant God’s grace in your tiny heart and life.
Those drops of waters came with a spoken promise: “Child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Magical-sounding words that welcomed you to the family of God. Of course, it’s not really magic. But it is God’s grace. Grace that brings us together. Grace that makes our faith grow. Grace that gives us a place to truly belong. Grace that welcome us as people redeemed and righteous in God’s eyes.
The sacraments we receive are reminders that faith is not something we do on our own. God uses the simple elements of water, and wine and bread to create faith within us and among us in community. To show us that we are not alone. That we are surrounded and protected by a great cloud of witnesses—faith-filled people who pull up mulberry trees of fear and plant mustard seeds of belief and courage. That we are joined together in our life journey, in following our faithful God.
That is our witness here at St. Mark’s. And that is the faith we carry with us this week into our lives out in the world. Even when we feel doubt. Even when we feel afraid. Our God leads us forward together. Amen.