Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
(Luke 17:5-10)
October 6, 2019
Patricia Marks

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. +

As I stepped out of my house early one morning last week, the air was cool, the sun was shining, and a breeze danced through the bushes. I walked to the back under the rays of sun filtering through the long-leaf pines. The birds were joyfully greeting the day in a myriad of tunes, tones, and languages; squirrels were happily scampering across the back fence, and a shy rabbit was hiding in the long grass. It was beautiful!

I found myself quietly saying the old Celtic prayer

One thing I have asked of the Lord,
this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life;
to behold the beauty of the Lord
and to seek Him in His temple.

This, I thought is the house of the Lord; every seed that spirals past me is a promise of a blossoming new life to come. But then I began to think of some dear friends who are not well, and my long list of things I need to do.

And I felt very much like saying with those apostles, “Increase my faith so that I can fix everything!”  So if that has ever happened to you, come with me as we travel backwards in time and join those apostles. Listen to them clamoring! “Increase our faith!” they say again and again.

I can imagine Jesus, standing there, shaking his head at them, at me. How can he make us understand? So he says, “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.”

Well, didn’t they have faith? Weren’t these the ones who heard a voice saying, “Follow me,” and dropped fishnets, oars, and everything else? Didn’t they leave father and mother, family and friends?

They were, after all, fishermen, used to difficult times, used to the sun blazing in their faces and the wind bedeviling their backs. They spent days pounded by winds and drenched with waves. And in doing that they showed their own kind of faith, trusting that they would catch enough food to feed their families, trusting that fish lived even where they couldn’t be seen.

Then when Jesus called, they went. Sounds like faith to me.

Let me pause for just a moment to tell you a story about faith, the faith of someone named Belva Lockwood, who was born in 1830.  She was the first woman to complete law school, the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court lawyer, the first woman to appear on official ballots in the 1884 presidential election. As a child, she was taught to take the bible literally. So when she was ten, she decided to test the miracles. Walking on water didn’t work; neither did raising the dead in a local cemetery. So, trying a third time, she decided that if an adult with faith as big as a mustard seed could move a mountain, she could move a small hill.

And . . . she focused, she concentrated, she tried . . . and tried . . . and tried. But it didn’t happen. Well. Here’s what she said later, after an energetic and life-changing career: “I have not raised the dead, but I have awakened the living!”

In short, it isn’t moving the hill or throwing a tree into the ocean that counts, it’s doing something worthwhile. I think that Belva Lockwood learned something that the apostles also needed to learn. They knew how to shade their eyes from the sun; but they hadn’t learned to open the eyes of their heart wide to the blazing glory of the promise. They knew how to grit their teeth and deal with stones in their shoes and fishing barbs in their hands; but, I think, they hadn’t learned to deal with the pride in their hearts that made them want to be all-powerful.

So as they follow Jesus to Gethsemane, to Golgotha, the lessons get more and more difficult, even though there are marvelous miracles along the way–a demoniac healed, lepers made clean, thousands of people fed. But there’s more, because as we walk with those apostles, it gets even harder as we realize that it’s our own lives that need turning around. We need to take up our cross; we need not to save our life but lose it. We may not be Jonah, trapped in a whale’s belly, but we must repent, or we’ll be like a barren fig tree. And all of those are barbs in the heart– our heart.

Because if you really are an apostle: if your heart cries out against injustice and poverty, if you give a hug to the untouchable and bread to those dressed in rags; if you brave a crowd to speak the truth; if you reach out as Jesus did to the poor and lame—it’s then that it will happen.

You’ll become a mustard seed. A tiny, tiny seed that in Jesus’s day had a double reputation. It was an invasive weed, so farmers were constantly pulling it up. That will happen to you—in Jesus’s name, you will face hostility and argument. But if you persist, you will have the potential to become a tree that shades all who take refuge under it.

What you will not be doing is tossing deep-rooted mulberry trees into the ocean for no better reason than to make everyone gasp in amazement at your power.

But why a mulberry tree?  What is its significance? Ancient Greeks dedicated the tree to the Goddess of Wisdom because it was smart enough to wait to blossom until danger of frost was over. More to the point, there’s a buried reference: the mulberry tree also symbolizes death. So it seems as if what the apostles are effectively asking for is not just enough faith to follow Jesus, but the power to root out death itself.

Which, of course, Jesus himself will be doing.

That’s why when the apostles, when we insist—“Increase our faith!”—I imagine Jesus just shaking his head. You either have faith or you don’t; all we need do is be faithful followers no matter how tired we are, no matter what our day has held. No one ever said that was easy.

That, I think, is the point of the rest of Luke’s passage, about the role of the servant—Luke uses the word “slave,” which is difficult for me to come to terms with. But bear with that for a moment.  A slave is a captive, owned by someone else; underpaid, overworked, and obedient to a master. And essentially, that is a description of real apostles. They are “owned” by Jesus, obedient to him, because they have given themselves to him and followed him. They have, in fact, done so through faith.

In the world’s eyes, they receive no payment, no gratitude, no praise. They don’t have the power to toss trees into the ocean, but in reality, they have received the greatest gift of all. Listen to what Paul says in our reading from Timothy:

join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.

The apostles have followed Jesus, because in him they have been given the Son of God.

What more do they need?

What more do we need?

In His Holy Name. Amen.+