Talk about the kind of faith that can move mountains creeps into conversations both inside and outside the church, and it comes from this saying of Jesus to his Disciples. The words differ a bit from Gospel to Gospel. In Luke, Jesus tells them they can uproot a mulberry tree with faith and in Mark the talk about moving mountains is attached to a different story; but it's there in one way or another in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
It's a great passage to get pumped up about...a wonderful way to gain strength for whatever we have to face... "Nothing will be impossible for you," says Jesus. Great promise. But this is also a verse that has been used harmfully. The verse is normally translated and to read something like the NRSV that I read... "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed" or in the NIV "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed..." In other words, it focuses on the size of the faith.
On the one hand, there is some truth to that. As with any powerful agent, a little bit goes a long way. I discovered that once when I used a jacuzzi for the first time and poured in a nice big dose of bubble bath. The bubbles just kept growing and growing until I thought we were going to be in an old Buster Keaton movie or something with bubbles filling the house and spilling out onto the street. It only takes a tiny, tiny bit of bubble bath in a jacuzzi. Jesus does seem to be frustrated here with the faith, or lack of faith in the Disciples and he could be saying, "You know, if you could manage even the teensiest bit of faith, you wouldn't be having these problems."
The trouble is, when we think about the size of faith, we end up assuming that if our prayers are not answered in the way we have asked that we have no faith. We read this passage and think that if we had any bit of faith at all, we could get what we pray for. The dark underside of this passage is when well-meaning Christians tell people who are suffering that obviously they don't have faith. I have had to deal with the fallout from that sort of Christian abuse in my office on more than one occasion. I’ve told you before about one poor woman who had actually been told by a Christian friend that if she had more faith, her daughter would not have died. She couldn't move the mountain of her daughter's illness, said the friend, because she didn't have even the little bit of faith of a mustard seed. Those sorts of stories make me want to consecrate some holy duct tape and seal some people's mouths shut.
I think there is a more helpful way to interpret the passage. The original Greek does not talk about size at all, and that is reflected in the King James translation which says simply, "If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed." It could be talking about the size, but suppose it isn't. Suppose it is qualitative. Suppose it means having the kind of faith that a mustard seed has. That feels very different to me.
A mustard seed is one of the tiniest of seeds, but it grows quickly into a large plant. Suppose we had faith that could really believe in the far-reaching effects of our tiny little efforts. We are all too often shut down by thinking some version of, "Well, I'm just too small to matter." "What difference can I make? I am only one." "This problem is too big for me." That is not the kind of faith that a mustard seed has. It's own size has nothing to do with the question. It is the seed of a mustard plant, and mustard plants are big. It will grow...that is its nature.
When we have the faith of a mustard seed, we recognize our nature. We are fully confident that we are made in the image of God and therefore the powerful love of God can and will be channeled through us. That's what the disciples forgot in the Matthew story. They thought that because they were only human they couldn't cast out a powerful demon. But that wasn't their true nature. They belonged to God and had the power of God at their disposal. It doesn't matter if we're only one. It doesn't matter if we're small or poor or uneducated or weak. It doesn't matter if we're facing demons. Our power is God's power, and with God all things are possible. We may just be a seed, but we are a mustard seed...and that means big things.
More than that, the mustard seed knows that its destiny as a mustard plant comes at great personal cost. For the seed to become a plant, the seed must be broken apart, and yet the seed has faith that even in its own breaking and death, a magnificent plant will grow. We rarely think like that. When the breaking times come for us, that is when we tend to think God has gone on vacation without us...that we are being punished or abandoned or that people have lied to us about there even being a God. When we are breaking, we often stop believing in the plant that is to come. Not so the mustard seed. The mustard seed gives itself to the ground, to the breaking, to the death; completely confident that something incredible is going to come of it.
It is that kind of faith that is reflected in the passage from Lamentations. In our service on New Year’s Eve when lots of you shared favorite Bible passages, I was delighted to have this one be the first. I don’t think there’s any greater statement of faith from Genesis to Revelation, with the possible exception of Jesus saying from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
The book is called Lamentations for a reason. It is a lament by the prophet Jeremiah over the fall of Jerusalem. We’ve talked about this before. It was one of the most awful moments in Israel’s history, as Babylon laid siege to the city and starved the people into submission. Finally, with the people in the city resorting to cannibalism to stay alive, the armies of Babylon broke through the gates, killed anyone they felt was useless and took all the rest captive back to Babylon.
Not only was it a humanitarian crisis of the first order, it was also the largest faith crisis that Israel had faced to that point in their history. God had promised to dwell in Jerusalem forever. The temple would be God’s house and God would protect it and the city. Well, Jerusalem was torched, and the temple burned to the ground. Where was God? Were God’s promises worthless? Israel was a people who expressed their devotion to God and who received atonement for their sins through the sacrificial system in the temple. What would happen now that there was no temple? Who were they now?
It is in the wake of all of that—in the bleak confusion and shock and grief of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people that Jeremiah speaks. For the first three chapters and 20 verses he blasts God for doing unspeakable things to him and to the people. And then, like a Phoenix from the ashes, verse 21 rises up: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” I find that astonishing.
It was that kind of faith that transformed the exile from the fires of hell to the fires of a crucible that strengthened and formed a people. A very large portion of the Old Testament was written during the 70 years of exile, as the people looked back and tried to make sense of what had happened to them. It was that kind of faith that birthed the courageous figures of Daniel and the young men thrown into the fiery furnace. It was that kind of faith that moved the mountain of obstacles and returned 70 years later to rebuild both the temple and the city. It was the kind of faith that a mustard seed has…the kind of faith that looks not to its own power, but to the power of its Creator for its destiny.
If you have the kind of faith that a mustard seed has, you can move mountains. That makes perfect sense to me, and there are examples of it all over the place. Martin Luther King, Jr. had that kind of faith and shook the mountain of racism to its core. Mother Teresa had that kind of faith and cleared away the mountains of riches so that all could see the face of the poor. They weren't born any different from you or me...it is the kind of faith they had in the steadfast love of the Lord that moved the mountains.
There are mountains ahead of us as a congregation. The one looming largest is our financial mountain. Through faith we moved a foothill last year as we began the year with a deficit of $42,000 and ended the year only $19,000 in the red. This year we begin only $13,000 behind and trust that in the months to come we can toss the rest of that foothill into the sea where it belongs.
But in the middle of 2008 our tenant is moving to their own building. We rejoice with them as they have grown and flourished and have become one of the nations leading schools for children with autism. Our space can no longer offer what they need. But their good fortune leaves us with a gap of $101,000 per year in revenue. To those of us working with the finances, that seems like a pretty big mountain.
You know what that’s like. I know a number of you face financial mountains in your personal lives as well as other mountains of all sorts. Fears about our security, both nationally and personally can be mountains. We have mountains of grief from the losses of our lives, mountains of anxiety about our future, mountains of work that seem only to grow larger each day. You know how when you are up close to a big problem, it fills the screen…you can’t see anything else. That’s how it is with mountains, and we have many in both our personal and corporate lives.
Jesus invites us, in the shadow of our mountains, to remember the little mustard seed—to remember that it’s always hard to see potential until you break it apart in the soil of faith and water it with the love of God. Things you never even noticed suddenly become the most impressive plants in the garden. Things that first look like mountains turn to foothills which in turn become flat, grassy meadows when we give ourselves unreservedly to God.
I invite you to think about ways that your faith might become more like the faith of a mustard seed. Do you expect too little? You are a child of God...dream big. You get what you expect. Does a problem seem insurmountable? Place it in God's hands. Are you so afraid of breaking and becoming nothing that the plant has no opportunity to grow? In Christ, death is swallowed up in victory, and life begins when we stop trying to protect it so much and trust the hands of God. Amen.
Sermon © 2007, Anne Robertson
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