Faith as a Mustard Seed
Here is a copy of Fr Duncan’s sermon for Sunday 2 October – 27th Sunday (Year C) – Trinity 16.
Luke 17: 5-10
Whenever I preach, I like to introduce a little bit of history and context in my sermons. Today lends itself to this because the gospel text we have heard, Luke chapter 15, is of great historical importance.
When you visit the Holy Land, and particularly when you get out into the desert and visit Qumran, you realise quite quickly that a huge portion of Israel and Palestine is basically an archaeological dig site. When I was last there, in February of this year I visited some excavations in Hebron which is in the occupied Palestinian Territory. I was reminded of the discovery of Richard III remains under a car park in Leicester back in the UK which happened not long ago. It was huge news of course, but in Palestine and Israel discoveries that are thousands of years old, and which underpin the 3 Abrahamic religions, are made on an almost daily basis, and often don’t make the news anywhere!
The discovery of original texts is something of a Holy Grail for the archaeologists who work out there, and our gospel today appears in a number of ancient source texts. These manuscripts are often fragmented and do not necessarily contain complete texts in the correct order we understand. But when experts decode them, and piece together the puzzle, we receive and record God’s revelation to mankind as it was presented almost 2 millennia ago.
Papyrus 75 is not a particularly dramatic name, but in it is our gospel text; and crucially, Papyrus 75 it is often considered by experts to be the most important New Testament papyrus manuscript to be discovered so far. So far matters, because the Holy Land will most definitely produce more treasures as important as this one which was written in 175 AD in Egypt, discovered in 1950, and donated to the Vatican in 2007 and has since been transferred to the Bodmer Library in Geneva where it is kept in the vast, hidden archives under temperature, and humidity controlled lock and key. But you can see it online, so look it up on Google.
So what is the text all about? Well, we know Jesus is on his travels southbound towards Jerusalem. By this stage he was probably south of the beautiful Lake Gennesaret, which we know as the Sea of Galilee, and that he was approaching Samaria, the central region he visited during his ministry.
Just before today’s reading commences, Jesus has just given some very hard words to the disciples, warning them about temptation. He utilizes a phrase we know today when he warns that it would be better to have a millstone around the neck and be cast into the sea than cause others to sin.
It was no doubt quite scary for the disciples to have the Messiah standing in front of them and reminding them of the weight of responsibility their calling carried, so it isn’t surprising that the disciples ask about faith. “How do we increase our faith?” they ask.
Jesus attempts to explain this difficult question by conjuring images for the disciples to ponder. You will notice that this is a technique Jesus continually uses; metaphor explains the often deeply theological and abstract ideas that go hand in hand with following him.
Here, he uses 2 seemingly unrelated things, the mustard seed and the sycamine tree. He has used similar ideas before in his teaching; earlier in Chapter 13 he speaks to us about the Kingdom of Heaven. When asked what it is like, he speaks of a grain of mustard seed that a man plants in his garden. A strong tree grows, and the birds make their homes in its branches.
The type of mustard seed found in the Holy Land is very small and black. So small in fact that you can hardly see an individual seed unless it is against a white background. But this tiny seed can grow into a tall, strong tree.
In our passage today Jesus tells the disciples that “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, ‘Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
The sycamine tree has very large and deep roots, and in Jesus’ time it was known as something of a pest. It was very hard to kill; the blistering sun had little effect on the tree as the deep root structure trapped water far underground. People would chop it down or try to dig it out and still it would re-surface.
So to grow our faith, to become closer to Christ, we have to deal with the root cause of our problem. And we know that Jesus has just spoken to the disciples about sin and temptation. He had focused on ideas linked to anger and bitterness, so it’s no surprise that he uses the sycamine tree; many people got very angry with this pest of a tree in their back garden.
But unless we deal with the root cause, unless we begin to allow ourselves to be healed and shaped by seeing Christ in the people we meet, we are going to be placed in metaphorical chains.
It is impossible to like all the people we have dealings with. But as a church, we should think carefully about how we love one another. Jesus is clearly telling us that our faith can only grow when we deal with some of the deep rooted behaviours we cling on to that are negative and destructive.
As a follower of Jesus, I am called to model a kind of behaviour which I sometimes find hard. It is easy to let anger and even hatred pervade our lives, and I know there are times when I have done this. But I seek to live my life in the light of Christ and in a state of grace. My faith has been shaped and grown through a cycle which involves self-discipline and I meet our Lord at the sacrament of the altar, I go out into the world to try and proclaim his word by living my life as a prayerful offering, I carefully consider my actions every day and reflect on both the good I have done, and any harm I cause. I say my prayers, and I am reconciled to God through sacramental confession.
So I choose to be a mustard seed. I am tiny in God’s world, but I seek to put down roots that will allow others to nest. To do this I choose to love others. Even when they are a pain, or disorganized and chaotic, which I find very difficult. Even when they can’t keep up with my frenetic brain. Even when they are just a bit dull. Even when they have fundamentally different views on deeply held personal values I choose to try and find a way to live as the Gospel calls me and love them.
If you want to grow in faith, if you want to love and serve Jesus Christ, you also must find a way to listen and fully engage with his call on your heart.
I want to close by speaking of consequences. I mentioned that Jesus so often explained ideas using images. When we really look at the context of this passage and get behind the text we see how sophisticated and differentiated Jesus’ teaching actually was. As well as being a pain to get rid of, the sycamine tree was infamous in the Middle East for other reasons. It had a beautiful looking fruit, tempting to eat, but it was incredibly bitter. It grew everywhere, it survived where water never fell, and it grew fast. And in ancient times in the Holy Land, if you needed a coffin, it would almost certainly be made from sycamine.
So Jesus is telling us that there are consequences; consequences when we succumb to temptation, the bitter fruit awaits. There are consequences when we allow sin into our lives; think of the deep roots that are so hard to destroy. And ultimately, there are consequences for our future lives that follow when we die.
I would urge you to consider how your behaviours and actions have consequences for others. I have heard people here use words to describe each other which are simply un-Christian and unacceptable in any community, let alone a part of the Body of Christ. I pray that we all can reflect on the messages, often buried deep under the texts that are contained in the sayings of Jesus Christ.
And I pray that we can learn to love each other well. Loving each other means we try to accept each other’s imperfections and that we consider sensitive ways to challenge them when they are unacceptable. It means we speak with humility and honesty about who we are in the sight of God and it means we avoid engaging in conversations which are hurtful. It is a big ask, but it should be an expectation we have of each other in this church.