5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The 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. 7“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’? 8Would 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’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So 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!’”
What I Am Learning:
Last week there was a shooting at the mall in Burlington, WA. Sheryl and Shelby were at the outlet mall, about half a mile away, at about the same time the shooter was targeting and killing people. They were on their way home on Highway 20, having driven right by the mall. Others were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It takes a while for all of this to sink in. Violence is not something that happens on TV, but in the real world, until it is captured and digitized, transmitted and pixelated on our screens.
Of course that was not the only violence that day. There were huge bombs being dropped on the people of Aleppo by the Syrian government, probably with Russian help. A new condo went up in suburban Portland, filling with well-educated and well-employed white hipsters, dispersing the black and brown-skinned folks out of yet another neighborhood.
Personal, interpersonal, institutional and structural violence abounds.
Along with the disciples we might ask, "Lord give us more faith, more hope, more trust and maybe then less pain?"
When the disciples first asked this question there was not less pain and violence than today. They saw Jesus taking on this pain, helping people to envision how God was starting a new thing, the reign of God, to heal all the hurts begin again to be human and humanity.
To be in a world with pain in all of these locations of human experience is disempowering. What, after all, can be done in the face of such pervasive evil?
In the Gospel of Luke Jesus tells us that we are to forgive 70 times 7 times, to keep after the work of reconciliation not as a part of a scorekeeping system, but as a fundamental commitment for what it means to be human. After this, the disciples ask this question.
Jesus seems to give a hard-ass kind of answer. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could tell a mulberry bush to be cast into the sea and it would do it.
Jesus also seems to give yet another agrarian answer with no decipherable meaning.
First, the mustard seed was a small seed of a noxious weed. As the Romans stole, through taxes and tax liens, the land from everyday people, people who once owned the land were forced to work for hire for the Romans. As an act of resistance and hope, they would take mustard seeds in their pockets and sow it in the fields. The Romans would then have to hire more of them to pull the mustard plants. This was a form of resistance to the exploitation of the Roman Empire.
The faith of the mustard seed is a faith that does what we can, without being certain of success.
Second, the mulberry tree is likely a reference to 1 Maccabees 6:34. When the Greek Antiochus Epiphanes captured Jerusalem, they may have believed mulberry juice was a stimulant to get their elephants into a rage to attack the city's defenders. It is a symbol for the power of colonialism, occupation and empire. Jesus says that a small amount of faith is all that is required to send domination into the sea of chaos from which it comes.
A mustard seed of faith is a faith that resists empires, domination cultures, not by trying to overwhelm evil, but by doing the good one can do, in partnership with others.
The rest of the parable reinforces this. Instead of waiting to act until they have enough faith or certainty of success, Jesus tells them to just begin. Instead of trying to do the BIG thing or make the winning play, Jesus encouraged the disciples to do the small things, in partnership with others, that they are capable of doing.
We know this from sports. When a team is behind they must take one play at a time, one score at a time, one defensive play at a time. Only then do they have a chance to win. They must play the game the way they play, not try to become someone else.
This requires two kinds of faith. The first is faith that God is up to something bigger than we can see and that God will accomplish it. Second, is that our small action in community with others can contribute to what God is doing to bring healing and community to the world.
We are not asked to fix everything about the way human beings do violence to one another. We are not asked to change the systems all in one swoop. Jesus does not ask us, his disciples, to make 20 touchdowns in one play.
Jesus pushed back on this request not to be a hard-ass but to help them recognize their agency and power. They already had the faith they needed, they just needed to take the risk of starting.
Jesus challenged them because while God is bringing healing and community to the whole world, they are not God, and they didn't have to be.
We often become paralyzed because we think we need to fix everything. We often fail to see injustice because we make God's work in Christ small - only saving souls for post-mortem life or seeing him as a reformer of religious community.
No! Jesus reveals how God is working in this world of violence, and how he is doing that work.
But we are only asked to take the risk of doing what we can in community with others and trust that it is enough so that when the sun sets behind the reddening sky, we can stop to wonder at and give thanks that we can see it.