The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
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.”
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed!”
How many times have we heard those words, and how many times have we wished for mustard-seed faith so we could, you know, uproot mulberry trees and plant them in the sea?
I used to have a mulberry tree in my back yard when I lived in Washington, DC. It was fine most of the time, but when the mulberries got ripe they would fall from the tree and leave big, purple blotches on our sidewalk. And when they got too ripe they would ferment, and the squirrels who ate them would get drunk, and then they would fall from the tree. I can’t tell you how many times Christy said to me, “If only you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could tell this mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the Potomac River, and it would obey you!” It was embarrassing on so many levels: the purple stains, the drunken squirrels, my apparent lack of faith. I don’t think I preached on this passage the entire time I was in Washington. But now I’m here, and I don’t have a mulberry tree in my back yard. I don’t even have a back yard. All I have is a tiny little back deck, hardly big enough to plant a mustard seed. Problem solved! But it’s not, is it? I still wonder what Jesus meant when he said these words, and I wonder why I can’t seem to conjure up enough faith to move mountains or mulberry trees or much of anything else for that matter. Is it me? Or have I misunderstood Jesus’ meaning?
I’m indebted to a scholar named Chelsey Harmon for reminding me that one of the ways to translate this verse is to say “faith as, or like, a mustard seed,” rather than “faith the size of a mustard seed.” In fact, the little Greek word that stands between faith and mustard seed in this verse is usually translated, “as,” or “like,” and almost never translated, “the size of.” So it makes me wonder: if Jesus actually said, “faith like a mustard seed,” what kind of faith does a mustard seed have? Chelsey Harmon writes, “A grain of mustard seed knows its end and purpose,” that is, a mustard seed knows what it is and what it’s there for. You plant it in the ground and it is going to become a mustard plant. It’s in its DNA. So, what’s in the DNA of a disciple? What is Jesus looking for when he puts us under the microscope? Well, one thing certainly is forgiveness.
In the verses just before today’s passage Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” And then he says, “If he sins against you seven times in a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” And this is the point at which the disciples say to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” It’s the way some people say, “Lord, give me strength!” when they are faced with a difficult challenge. The disciples could have said, “Lord, give us strength, because that’s what it’s going to take to forgive our fellow disciples seven times in a single day!” But instead they say, “Increase our faith!” Maybe they thought it sounded more religious. Maybe they thought Jesus would appreciate that.
But he doesn’t. To him it sounds like the most preposterous thing in the world, which may be why he answers in such a preposterous way. “Increase your faith?” he says. “Why, if you had faith like a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea!’ and it would obey you.” And the disciples must have looked at the mulberry tree, and then looked at the sea, and then wondered why they would ever say such a thing. It’s preposterous! But so is asking for more faith when Jesus is simply telling you to do something that is in the DNA of discipleship. Forgiveness is not an option for us; it’s essential.
Some of you know that my brothers and I have picked up this tradition of asking each other at the end of a visit, “Do I owe you any money or any apologies?” It’s a good tradition, and as I’ve mentioned it through the years other people have adopted it. My friends Chuck and Joe—my regular backpacking partners—have adopted it. At the end of every annual trip Chuck will say: “Do I owe you guys any money or any apologies?” And Joe, who is our backpacking bookkeeper, will usually say, “Yes, Chuck, you owe Jim $37 for gas and you owe me $21 for groceries.” But after we get that sorted we turn to apologies, and usually there aren’t any to be offered.
But this year was different. This year I was haunted by the memory of something that happened back in the late eighties. Joe and I were in seminary together. I was serving as the pastor of a little church out in the country and he was the part-time youth minister. One night he and his wife Sylvia drove out to the church parsonage, had supper with Christy and me, and then stayed overnight in our guest room so we could all get up and go to church the next morning. But I was up earlier than anybody else and needed to get to church sooner. So, I went out through the back door to the garage, raised the garage door, got in my car, and backed it out into the driveway. But in my haste I forgot that there was already a car in the driveway, Joe’s car, and I backed right into the driver’s side door.
I got out and looked at the damage. It wasn’t bad, but there was a noticeable dent. I came back in and made my miserable apology to Joe and Sylvia, who were just sitting down to breakfast. Joe came out and had a look and he was gracious about it, as always. It was an old car. They were planning to trade it anyway. What’s a little dent between friends? And we never mentioned it again. But in the last few months I remembered that moment and began to wonder: did Joe have to do something about that dent, take it to the body shop and get it fixed? Or did he leave it as it was, and get a little less for the car when he traded it in? What I’m saying is, I began to wonder if I owed Joe some money. And that made me nervous. Because if it cost $500 to fix that dent back then, and if I adjusted for inflation, I would owe Joe about $1,300 dollars. But if I didn’t bring it up we could leave things just as they were and I wouldn’t owe him anything. And that’s the option that began to haunt me.
From the time I picked him up at the airport I felt like there was this unspoken “thing” between us. He wasn’t aware of it. He was as friendly as ever. But for me that thing just kept getting bigger and bigger, and so, the next day, when we had stopped for a rest break during our hike, I said, “Joe, I think I may owe you some money.” And then I reminded him of that dent in his car, and how all I had offered at the time was an apology. Well, Joe could hardly remember the car, much less the dent. He laughed and said, “Don’t worry about it! That was a long time ago.” And I breathed a sigh of relief and we went on our way.
It didn’t occur to me until after I got home that he had never actually said, “I forgive you.” And it didn’t occur to me until last week that I actually needed to hear him say it. So, I called him, and left a long voicemail message, and he called me back, and we talked for a half hour or more, but when it sounded like he was bringing the call to a close I said, “Did you get my voicemail?” He said, “No, I just saw that you had called so I called you back.” So, I brought up the whole painful subject again and told him what I needed to hear, and even before I finished he laughed and said, “The fact that I didn’t even remember that incident is a pretty good clue that I wasn’t carrying a grudge, but if you need to hear me say it then here it is: I forgive you!” And apparently I did need it, because as soon as he said it I felt a load slide off my shoulders.
This should be in our DNA as disciples, this ability to forgive each other. And it might not hurt us to realize that sometimes our brothers and sisters need to hear us say it. But Jesus thinks that something else ought to be in our DNA as well, and that something is obedience.
Just after he talks about mulberry trees obeying the command to plant themselves in the sea he asks, “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!’” (Luke 17:7-10).
Maybe Jesus is still thinking about forgiveness. Maybe he’s wondering, “What is it with these disciples? I tell them to forgive one another but they won’t do it. They call me ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’ but they don’t seem able to obey a direct order. They say, ‘I can forgive, but I can’t forget,’ which may be only another way of saying, ‘I can’t forgive.’” Maybe the problem is not with forgiveness but with obedience. Maybe we are simply refusing to do what Jesus has so plainly told us to do.
I went to sailing school in Deltaville last week, and even before I got there I knew there might come a time when I had to obey my instructor no matter what. His name was Clay. He was in his early thirties with a beard and long, brown hair pulled up into a topknot. Come to think of it, he kind of looked like Jesus. I was on his boat with two other students and Clay was trying to teach us what to do when someone falls overboard. Now, when someone falls overboard it’s an emergency situation, especially if the weather is rough or the water is cold. You’ve got to get that person back on board as quickly as possible. I knew that, but when it was my turn at the helm and Clay threw a boat cushion over the stern and yelled, “Man overboard!” I didn’t know what to do.
I know what I wanted to do: I wanted to put on the brakes, stop the boat, and then back up and get him. But you can’t do that in a sailboat. You have to work with the wind. And the wind was being difficult that day. I made one failed attempt to rescue the boat cushion. And then I made a second failed attempt. On my third try Clay told me what to do: “Bear away,” he said, which means to turn the boat away from the wind. I did it. I didn’t even think about whether it was right or felt right I just did it. I trusted Clay to know what he was talking about. “Now get on a beam reach,” he said, which is sailing with your boat broadside to the wind. I did that, too. After what seemed like forever he said, “Now tack to a broad reach,” which is like taking the exit ramp off the interstate and clover-leafing around until you’re sailing almost downwind. I did it. And after a minute or so he said, “Now head up to a close reach,” which means turning back into the wind. I did, and as we approached the boat cushion on the leeward side he said, “Now ease the sheets,” which means letting your sails flap, and when I did we slowed to a stop beside the boat cushion, and the wind began to push us toward it, and one of the other students was able to reach out and grab it with a boat hook. The whole thing worked like a charm, and after a little more practice I was able to do it myself.
Do you see what happened when I stopped trying to figure it out and just did what Clay told me? Can you imagine what would happen if we stopped trying to justify our reasons for not forgiving and just forgave? When you plant a mustard seed in the ground it doesn’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out what it is or what it’s supposed to do: it simply does what’s in its DNA. I think Jesus wants that for us. I think he wants us to have faith like a mustard seed. Not faith the size of a mustard seed, faith like a mustard seed. I think he wants us to trust him enough to assume that he knows what he’s doing, and I think he wants us to obey him so unflinchingly that if he tells us to forgive our fellow disciples seven times in a single day then that’s what we do: Forgive them. Seven times. In a single day.
Jesus says, “When slaves have done everything they were supposed to do they don’t expect to be thanked. 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!’” But he also suggests that when the work is finished those slaves, too, will be invited to the table. And so, on this Worldwide Communion Sunday, he invites us to gather as one family seated around one table, and receive from his own hands the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
—Jim Somerville © 2022