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.” (Luke 17:5-6)
The old joke isn’t much told any more about how to get to Carnegie Hall… Practice, practice, practice, being the answer.
When it comes to faith, it is tempting to suspect that the same thing is true. How do we get to be good at faith? Well… practice, practice, practice. This is what we suspect the saints have done: practiced whatever aspect of faith it was they were good at so much that they became saintly at it. Francis practiced poverty and preaching to the birds. Mother Theresa practiced changing endless bedpans of those dying in Calcutta, until in sanctified her. St. George must have practiced on something else – maybe squirrels – before he slew the dragon. Practice, practice, practice your faith enough, and you will get good at it!
The apostles seem to be begging Jesus for this punch line when they say to him, “Increase our faith!” This is another way of asking him, “How do we get good at faith?” They assumed that the rabbis, who were good at faith, must have practiced, practiced, practiced reading the Scriptures. The priests must have practiced their secret arts, the cantors must have practiced their incantations. And so all of them were good at the specific aspects of faith for which they were responsible. Now the apostles want to know: How can we get good at faith? What, Lord, do you want us to do? What shall we practice?
And Jesus gives them a quite unexpected answer. He says, “Increase your faith? If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Don’t you think the apostles murmured a little about this? Don’t you think they took offence? Don’t you think they huffed and puffed a little; they snorted: a mustard seed! Well, I think we’ve got faith the size of a mustard seed, Lord! And what good would it do, anyway, to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea?
This mustard seed business is a biblical cliché. And in it we normally think we hear Jesus enjoining his apostles to have a little more faith, will you? We hear it as a put-down, a sarcastic remark that reinforces our image of the twelve stooges that follow Jesus and never get anything right (because they have not yet started taking their practicing seriously). But I wonder if we are hearing Jesus correctly, when we hear his comment about the mustard seed that way? I wonder if he really is telling the apostles that what they need is more faith, as if he was just providing the punch line to the old Carnegie Hall joke.
Remember that Jesus is responding to their plea that he increase their faith. And when Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” maybe he is not saying, “have a little more faith,” maybe he is really saying something else. Something like this: Why should I increase your faith? Your faith, though it be small, is enough, it is sufficient not only to the day but to accomplish greater things than you have yet imagined! Your faith is enough. Your little faith is enough – even if it is no bigger than a tiny mustard seed. It is enough. I am encouraged in this reading of this passage of Scripture for one significant reason: it sounds like Good News to me!
Don’t you sometimes worry that your faith is too small? I do.
Don’t you sometimes worry that you don’t know how to believe?
Don’t you sometimes worry that you just don’t practice enough to be very good at faith?
Don’t you sometimes worry that you disappoint God with your miniscule faith?
Don’t you sometimes worry that God will punish you (or is punishing you) because your faith is too small?
If you do worry like this, you might pray (with the apostles), “Lord, increase my faith!”
If only you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to a mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. And what good would that do?
Such a tree, transplanted by faith into the middle of the sea, would constitute an island. Let’s call it Mulberry Island. And over time Mulberry Island would enlarge its shores so that people could live on it – but only people who heard Good News in Jesus’ mustard seed remark.
None of the residents of Mulberry Island has been sainted. All of them have only a little faith. But they have become convinced by the Gospel that even their little faith is enough. It must be, for it was through their conviction that they arrived on Mulberry Island – there are no ferries to take you there. The residents of Mulberry Island live in what could be described as peace and tranquility, in neighborhoods surrounding the great Mulberry Tree in the center of the Island.
The other plant that flourishes on Mulberry Island is the mustard bush – which is not actually a very large tree, nevertheless many birds do come to Mulberry Island to make their nests in and around the mustard bushes. On Mulberry Island, the people use mustard seeds as currency. Some people have a lot, others have a little, but each finds that she has enough. No one is too poor or too rich on Mulberry Island. Mulberry Island is non-sectarian and non-discriminatory. Because of its origins, there are a lot of Christians there. But they never wear crosses around their necks, as many Christians among us on the mainland do. Their preferred symbol of faith happens to be the mustard seed.
Many of the men will wear on their lapels a little mustard seed that’s been carefully attached to the end of a pin, as a sign of their faith (tiny though it may be). And many women wear earrings made of mustard seeds – like tiny, yellow pearls in their ears. (Some of the men wear earrings, too, and this is raises not an eyebrow on Mulberry Island!)
The clergy on Mulberry Island preach very short sermons, largely because the people on Mulberry Island long ago stopped being anxious about whether or not they had enough faith. They realize that everyone’s faith seems small – small as a mustard seed – but that even a little faith is enough. And a little faith thrives on short, but frequent, sermons.
The real problem on Mulberry Island is that it easily becomes crowded, as new people discover the Good News that even a little faith is enough to lead a happy life, and move onto the Island. After the first wave of immigrants onto Mulberry Island, the original residents began to feel that old familiar anxiety rising in their throats. They thought they had moved onto a near-paradise, where no one is too poor or too rich, and everyone has enough, and the birds twitter away as they make their nests in the mustard bushes that can be harvested for currency, as required.
But as the Island became crowded, those first settlers of Mulberry Island worried that their faith was not big enough, that they’d run out of room, that the new folks might have stronger faith than theirs, and then where would they be?!? Falling back on old habits, those original residents, feeling the anxiety rising, fell to their knees and uttered a prayer they remembered from their past: “Lord, increase our faith!” And as they got up from their knees, they felt a little rumbling in the rocks below them. And they looked and saw they roots of the Mulberry Tree that is at the center of the Island pushing out beyond the shores, further into the sea, and new rocks and new land forming around the roots, as the Island expanded, making room for more people of a little faith.
Geologists do not have a word for this process, that I know of. And relatively few people have ever seen this expansion of Mulberry Island happen, since most people believe that Jesus is scolding them for having too little faith, and therefore never go near Mulberry Island, believing that it is childish to think that a mulberry tree could be uprooted and planted in the sea.
And most people do not notice that there is something missing in the Gospel reading assigned to us today. Most people don’t suspect that the apostles didn’t just grumble among themselves, but actually answered Jesus when he said to them, “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.”
Most people do not believe that the apostles answered Jesus thus: “Oh, but Lord Jesus, we do! We do have faith the size of a mustard seed. Not much more than that (a mustard seed being bigger than a grain of sand, but smaller than a pea or a pebble) but, yes, we can say with true conviction that our faith is at least about the size of a mustard seed!”
And most people do not believe that the apostles joined hands and prayed then, just to see if it would work. And there, in front of their eyes, the mulberry tree was lifted from its terrestrial moorings, and carried some distance into the sea, where it was planted by the Lord, and dubbed “Mulberry Island.”
A few of them must have moved onto the Island then, tending to the first mustard bushes they planted, and establishing the practice of using mustard seeds for currency, for obvious reasons. And every now and then, a few souls discover that although their faith is small, it is enough: enough to do whatever God requires. Enough to care for the needy, to raise children happily, to feed and educate your family, enough to endure trials and tribulations, to weather storms, and to recover from sickness. In fact, even just a little faith is enough to face death when it comes, as it will, as it must. Yes, even a little faith is enough to find one’s way through all these struggles – all of which still take place on Mulberry Island.
And every month or every year a few souls who realize that even a little faith is enough find their way to Mulberry Island, guided by their tiny faith, and a lack of anxiety. And so, by God’s grace, Mulberry Island is growing – albeit slowly, at this stage of the game.
Mulberry Island (where a little faith is enough) is growing: the old tree is stretching out its roots, and rocks and dirt and sand are building up around them to form new shores. Little by little, the shores of Mulberry Island are expanding, so that some day folks like you and me, folks who have only a tiny bit of faith, will be able to hop or skip almost effortlessly right over the teeny inlet of the sea that will some day be all that separates our shore from the shore of Mulberry Island, where a little faith is enough. After all, such a tiny jump – just a few inches, maybe – requires just a little faith, maybe only faith the size of a mustard seed!
And, God willing, by then we’ll be able to join with those early apostles, whose answer to Jesus has been mysteriously omitted from the Gospels, and say: “Oh yes, Lord, if faith that’s tiny as a mustard seed is what’s required to get from here to there, I can supply that. Maybe not much, more, but I can summon up faith that is bigger than a grain of sand, and smaller than a pea or a pebble!”
And won’t Jesus smile then, to hear that we have finally discovered this good news: Oh ye of little faith, even a little faith is enough!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
6 October 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Phialdelphia