“What is needed is trust.”

A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
October 6, 2019

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and
light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all
our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you
would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save
us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see
light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

If you had faith
Small as a mustard seed within you,
So says the word of the Lord.
If you had faith
Small as a mustard seed within you,
So says the word of the Lord.

Then you could say to any mountain,
“Get up and fly, get up and fly.”
Then you could say to any mountain,
“Get up and fly, get up and fly.”

And then the mountain would fly away
Fly away, fly away.
And then the mountain would fly away
Fly away, fly away.

“Si tuvieras fe, If you had Faith.”
Translated by Rory Cooney

Just in case you are paying too close attention, please ignore the fact that the Gospel of Mark speaks of the “mountain” and the Gospel of Luke of “a tree.” Let us not allow a small detail like that to prevent me from using a great song to illustrate a point. After all, I hope that it grabbed your attention!

Sycamore roots

The disciples approached the Lord and made a request of him, “Lord increase our faith.” What a fascinating request! It tells us two very important things. First that they were aware of faith—and they had it, at least in some form, and appeared to understand how very important it was for them. They liked it and wanted more of it! Secondly, they had reason to think that Jesus had the power—and even the willingness to help them.

Jesus did not respond in the way that they expected. He did not perform an act of magic. He did not wave his hand or snap his fingers and say “There, I just increased your faith by 1,000 percent.” Instead, as he often did, he gave them a confusing and unexpected response. It is another of those sayings which caused them to ask, “What does this mean?” It forced them to do the hard work, to search for meaning and for direction. In responding to them in this way, Jesus showed himself, once again, to be the best of teachers. He gave his students the tools which they needed to find an answer for themselves.

As anyone who has served in the ministry of educator knows, students will always remember answers which they discover for themselves—even if they remember nothing of what the educator shared with them. Why? Because they do the work. Because they look deep inside themselves. Because they reflect on their own experience. Because they have an epiphany, a breakthrough, a moment of insight or revelation.

What were the building blocks which Jesus gave his students? He used a primary concept or tool, “Faith.” He then added a qualifier to that primary tool, the “mustard seed.” He then gave them a challenge or an insurmountable obstacle, “the tree.” He concluded by giving them a shocking outcome, “uprooted and planted in the sea.”

Jesus intentionally turned the tables on them by starting out with the very term they had used, “faith.” He appears to have used that term in a way that they were not expecting! In fact, he challenged them to explore what the word even meant for them in the first place.

A casual reading seems to suggest that they were looking for “answers.” Their poor heads were exhausted from too much thinking. They wanted an easy out. They wanted a kind of reference source, like a book, that would make things easy for them. “Tell us how to know what to do in every challenging situation that we find ourselves. This is a hard test and we want the answer book. We want the sheet that gives us the answers—not so that we do not have to do the work to solve the questions (as truly lazy students wish) but so that we will know that we have come up with the “right answer.”

But were they thinking of faith as a kind of intellectual check list? Were they thinking of a statement of faith or a creed? Yes to A, yes to B, yes to C. Check the items off the list one by one. The correct answer is “E:” Yes to all the above! Were they thinking that faith is a matter of intellectual consent? “Much of this does not make any sense to us, help us to agree to this list of things which we should believe!”

Jesus presented “faith” in a new way. Rather than viewing faith as an “intellectual assent” to a laundry list, Jesus described something which sounds much more like “trust.” Now that is a surprise! “Faith is trust.” Imagine for a moment the look of consternation on their faces as they reframed the question in this new way, “Lord, increase our trust!”

They no doubt remembered a comment which Jesus had made at another time, “Fear is useless, what is needed is trust.” They might have also remembered that question Jesus posed to someone who asked him to heal a family member, “Do you believe?” It would be hard to forget the reply which that question provoked, “Yes, I do believe, help my unbelief.” Jesus challenged his disciples to ask themselves hard questions. “Do I trust? How deeply do I trust? Am I willing to trust? What will it mean for me if I really trust?”

They examined the first tool, “the mustard seed.” In that time and place it was an ingredient which suggested the “tiniest visible thing” that one could imagine. Without a microscope, it is hard to imagine anything smaller. The mustard seed is so tiny that it has to be looked for carefully to even find it. If one has a handful of them, they seem visible. But an individual mustard seed, a single mustard seed! Without my glasses, I doubt that I would see one at all—and even with them, it might be a challenge!

The mustard seed could seem inconsequential. It could seem so small and insignificant that it would be useless. What value could a single mustard seed have? It would be easy to dismiss it! That is just the point. If one has even the tiniest amount of trust that one can muster (pun intended), it might just be enough.

Here is the rub! Rather than allowing his disciples to continue thinking that the trust that they had was worthless, Jesus invited them to think that it might amount to something after all. He presented them with a challenge. “What do you have to lose by giving trust a chance?” It is an infinitely pragmatic question. “Why not give it a try? If you try trust and it does not work, you will not have really wasted much time, energy or effort. But what if you try it and it does work?” Wow, that could be life-changing!

Trust–especially at the beginning, can be fragile. It can feel like a tiny mustard seed. It can easily be overwhelmed by the obstacle of fear! It can be so easy to think (even if we never say the words out loud), “My trust is too tiny and too small to ever amount to anything. When I find myself if difficult situations, it will not be adequate. It will not sustain me. I am afraid that if I trust I will be hurt and disappointed. It also means that I have to give up control! I have to admit defeat. I have to say that I am not able to solve problems on my own. I have to turn it over to God. How do I know that God will come through for me? It means that I have to make a ‘leap of faith.’ I do not know if I can trust—or if I want to trust! I may be too afraid to really trust! What will happen to me if I risk trusting?”

To drive home the point, Jesus gave them an obstacle! Some scripture scholars suggest that the best translation for the “tree” is sycamore rather than mulberry. So, a tiny insignificant seed is contrasted with the tallest and strongest tree that one can imagine! Even worse, sycamore trees have the strongest and most fully developed root systems. To grow so tall, they have roots that may be twice as long underneath the ground. In fact, the Rabbis commented on this in Mishnah 7: “A tree may not be grown within a distance of twenty five cubits from the town, or fifty cubits if it is a carob tree or a sycamore tree.” The explanation seems to be that if a sycamore tree gets too close to a well, the roots will cause the wall of the well to collapse!

Try to uproot a sycamore tree? It is almost impossible! Was that tree referred to in the first Psalm a sycamore? “Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved.”

What an illogical comparison this must have seemed to those disciples! Jesus told them that something which they thought was useless, worthless, and inconsequential was actually so powerful that it had the capacity to move what they thought was an impossible obstacle—and to do something even more incomprehensible—to plant it in the sea!

I can imagine what they might have thought when this became clear to them. “Well, that is not me! I do not have that kind of faith. I do not have that kind of trust. I am not that kind of a person. That rules me out. If the sycamore trees in my life need to be planted in the sea, I am out of luck. Someone else will have to do that.” I think that this is the reason that so few people are able to view this saying as an affirmation  of hope rather than a put down–they think that it might possibly be true for a few exceptionally holy people–but not for them. So, it is no surprise that some people explain this passage as a way of Jesus “putting the disciples in their place” because they did not have enough faith.

What if there is another possibility? What if this passage was intended to be a powerful word of encouragement—and not a “put down?” What if this is Jesus way of telling us, “Your faith, your trust is stronger than you think. You think it is worthless and inadequate. What if you are wrong? What if your faith, your trust is more than sufficient for any situation, for any problem, for any crisis that you encounter?”

What if we removed that “if” at the beginning of the sentence—and changed the rest of the sentence into an unabashed affirmation “You already have faith, even if it appears to be small as a mustard seed. You can say to this sycamore tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

But there is an important caveat. Our faith, our trust is like a muscle. No one from the outside will be able to make it stronger or to increase it. Only we can do that! It is by trusting and by choosing to believe–over and over again–that our faith and trust increase. If we begin by turning small things over to God, we will quickly progress and will soon be able to turn ever bigger things over to God. In doing this, we will discover the power of God at work in our lives.

Rather than encountering happy “coincidences,” we will see God acting in our lives. Why? Because we will come to realize that God loves us, that God cares for us, and that God truly wants what is best for us. That is the message which Jesus addresses to us-and not only addressed to those clueless disciples some two thousand years ago.

It is not magic! If we ask God to uproot a sycamore tree, God will probably give us a saw to cut it down, and then a spade to dig up the roots. God may ask us to borrow our neighbor’s donkey to help yank up those thick roots out of the ground! God may challenge us to reach out to others for guidance, love and support—experience, strength, and hope. God may remind us that we are not alone—but rather are part of a community of faith. God may invite us to realize that we, in turn, are able to assist others with our time, talents and efforts. We may be called to be part of the solution for someone else—or for our community at large.

If we are willing to take the risk of trusting in God, though, as the Spirituality of the Twelve Steps tell us: we will come to realize that “God will help us if we ask.” We will discover that God is, in fact, “doing for us what we are not able to do for ourselves.”

There is another hymn which I remember from my childhood. I will not sing it to you but will conclude by sharing the lyrics of the first two verses:

‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His Word
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know, “Thus saith the Lord!”

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
Oh, for grace to trust Him more!

I’m so glad I learned to trust Him,
Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend
And I know that He is with me,
Will be with me to the end.

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
Oh, for grace to trust Him more!

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