I’d like all of you to turn your faces to the window and concentrate on the large tree between the church and the Marston La Rue House.
Did it move? Well, let me try again.
(Squeeze eyes, grip podium)
Oh, well. I have to confess that every time I hear this passage, every time, I try to move a tree with the power of my mind. This plan has yet to work. Not one branch has wavered, not one root has become unhinged from the dirt that surrounds it. I find this all very frustrating.
When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, they were frustrated, too. They did not ask Jesus to increase their faith out of some selfless piety. They asked Jesus to increase their faith because they had just heard Jesus say, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
This teaching was too much for them, as most days it is too much for us! They did not want to have to forgive people who had hurt them, especially people who had hurt them a lot.
So, they ask Jesus to increase their faith-as if faith was a something that could be measured-as if faith could be used up and then replenished like gasoline in an automobile.
But Jesus reminds the disciples that faith cannot be measured in quantities. To have a gallon faith is not better than having a pint of faith. Faith, in fact, is not about us at all. Faith is about God, not about our capacity to believe. Jesus tells the disciples that if they had the faith of a mustard seed, they would be able to uproot a local mulberry tree and toss it in the sea. Obviously, none of us have the capacity to move a tree just by thinking about it. God, however, can move a tree.
How many of you were around for Hurricane Isabel? I was living at the seminary in Alexandria at the time. When I awoke the morning after the hurricane I was shocked to see that giant trees, trees whose roots had stretched deeply, were knocked over as easily as playing cards. In Richmond, the damage was even more intense. In the lush Maymont Park, the carcasses of dozens of overturned trees littered the grass for almost a year.
For God, moving a tree is as simple as creating a big wind. For us, not so easy.
So, faith is not about us willing God do so something through the power of our own piety, but realizing that God can do things greater than we can even imagine. God can even uproot us in places we are stuck and fling us into a new life of freedom and joy. This part of the passage is about expanding our horizons, opening our minds, coming to terms with a limitless, powerful God.
And then, before we can get too excited about all this, Jesus turns a corner.
In the second part of our gospel reading today, Jesus tells a parable about a slave and a slave owner. This parable is extremely, nail bitingly, glance around at your neighbor uncomfortable for us. First of all, it addresses slavery, which in our country was the most shameful part of our past. Secondly, Jesus encourages rude behavior! We are in the South. We thank people. I sometimes write thank you notes for an event before I actually go to the event. The idea of not thanking someone who has worked all day for you and then cooked is shocking!
When we think about this passage, it is helpful to remember the context of the time. In Jesus’ time, slavery was not a race issue-it was a political and financial issue. A person could be placed in slavery when his country was conquered by another country. A person could also sell himself into slavery if he was deeply in debt and needed to buy his way out of the debt. None of this makes slavery acceptable, but in Jesus’ time, it was a part of the system that was taken for granted. So, when Jesus uses a parable about slavery, he is not endorsing slavery, simply acknowledging that it exists and using slavery as a metaphor his listeners will understand.
So what does this metaphor mean? To Jesus’ listeners, the idea of thanking a slave would have been laughable. Slaves had jobs to do-their whole purpose in live was to do these jobs, so to commend them would be silly. I do not think that self-esteem was a big issue in Jesus’ time.
Jesus is reminding his disciples that, as followers of Jesus, they have jobs to do, too. Yes, their God is a mighty God who can uproot trees and transform lives, but that same God also calls us to responsibility. When it comes to forgiveness, Jesus is telling his disciples to “just do it.” He’s telling them not to expect to be coddled by God or thanked for doing what they are supposed to be doing.
While these images of faith and slavery seem radically different, they are two parts of the same point.
God is God. We are not God.
God can do amazing, nature defying, life changing things. If we step back and let God do these things, all we have to worry about is doing what we’re supposed to do. We are not responsible for controlling the universe, or making miracles happen. We are not responsible for changing the lives of others. We are responsible for our own lives and how we live them-living with integrity, kindness, honesty, forgiveness, love.
If we acknowledge that we already have a mustard seed of faith within us, then all we have to do when we are worried about something or someone is to pray. We are called to pray and wait for God and do the work God has given us to do without complaint.
When we do manage to do what God has called us to do, we don’t wait around to be praised, but we go on with our lives, knowing we have done the least we can do to live lives worthy of God.
So, we live in the tension of faith-of trusting in an endless God, while still navigating our own small lives. We live in the tension of dreaming big dreams and praying big prayers, while still taking out the garbage every day. The life of faith is both incredibly expansive and freeing, and limiting-as it provides us boundaries to live healthy and holy lives.
This tension is also a kind of freedom. By trusting in God, rather than ourselves, an enormous weight is lifted off our shoulders. By responding to God’s call when we hear it, we always know we are doing what God wants us to do. Living out this tension offers us a life without anxiety-knowing that we are each fulfilling our own small role and that God is taking care of everything else.