Of Mulberry Trees and Mystery

‘I wish I had your faith’. Has anybody ever said that to you? Or perhaps: You have such trust in God, you’re able to be peaceful and calm even when terrible things are happening, you seem to be able to cope – I wish I had faith like that, I’d love the comfort it brings.

Or maybe you’ve said it to someone else: ‘It’s amazing how you believe God will provide for you. You’ve given up everything to serve him, and done things I’d never dream of. He answers your prayers. How I wish I had your faith.’

The disciples obviously felt the same. Immediately before our gospel reading, Jesus has been teaching about forgiveness, how we should forgive anyone who says sorry. But what if they go off and do it again? You should forgive them again when they repent. That’s tough. It’s beyond what the disciples feel they can do. ‘Increase our faith’ they say. Jesus, if you want us to do that, you’re going to need to give us some more of this faith stuff. Over to you, Jesus. Increase our faith. 

In verse 6 Jesus replies: ‘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.’

He seems to be saying that even the tiniest bit of faith can do great things. A mustard seed was proverbially the smallest seed, and yet faith that size can achieve the impossible. As we heard in the Epistle of James, the prayer of faith has great power. James describes how if anyone is ill, the church elders should pray and anoint them, they will be raised up and if they’ve sinned they will be forgiven. James describes how the fervent prayers of Elijah held back and then released the rains, and – here is the point – in v. 17 he was a human being like us. The message seems clear: when we pray in faith according to God’s will and are not selfish, remarkable things can happen.

Maybe we have found that to be true in our own experience. Perhaps you may have had prayers answered which have strengthened your faith and encouraged you to be more ambitious in what you ask of God. Particularly when someone is starting out on their Christian journey, answered prayers give them confidence to step out in faith.

Faith is believing that God will do what he has promised. Faith is trusting in God to supply our needs, believing that God can turn situations around. Faith is taking God at his word and living accordingly. How can we therefore live more by faith?

Let’s pray for people we know, consistently and regularly, believing that God can make a difference in their lives, that even the most hardened unbeliever can be changed. Let’s be confident in the projects we take on: for instance if we’ve genuinely sought God’s will over our reordering project, if we’ve really tried to be humble and listen, then let us have the courage to believe that the plans we have prayerfully decided upon have been guided by God and will come to fruition. Let’s trust God for the future – as key people move on and vital ministries fall vacant, do we believe God will just let that work fade away? No, if we have faith and if we’re each open to his call, God will raise up from among us people to take those ministries further. Do we still believe in God the healer? And if so, where next for our healing ministry?

Throughout the Bible God challenges us to live by faith. Not to be limited in our aspirations by what we can see, what’s normal, but to exercise faith in a great God.

Of course, it’s important to say that faith is not magical. It’s not the case that if we had loads of faith, our every prayer would be answered. And it is certainly not true that if our prayers are not answered the way we like, then our faith must be at fault.

You may have heard of John Wimber, who started the Vineyard Churches and developed a real ministry of healing. Yet he endured a battle with cancer which ended with his death in 1997. I do not think that was a shortage of faith.

God must be God, sovereign and free. Sometimes our prayers will be answered the way we wish. Sometimes they’ll be answered differently, according to God’s plan. Sometimes it’s hard to see any meaning, with our limited perspective. At those times we just have to hold onto the belief in a God who hears, who loves us.

But, there’s also something nagging me. A little inconsistency at the back of my mind, a piece in the puzzle that doesn’t quite fit, the kind of thing that keeps Miss Marple awake at night until she discovers the meaning of the clue. And the thing that’s tapping away at me, the suspicion that there might be more to this saying than meets the eye, is this: Jesus’ answer doesn’t quite the fit the question. It doesn’t completely make sense. I wonder if he’s deliberately challenging our view of faith – what faith is and how it works. I wonder if Jesus is pointing us to something deeper.

Think of what’s happened so far. Jesus has said: ‘Forgive’. The disciples have urged ‘Give us more faith – we need more faith to do what you command.’ And Jesus doesn’t answer their request. At that point he does not give them more faith. If you look at his answer he doesn’t even tell them where or how to get more faith.

He just says ‘if you had even a tiny bit of faith, you’d be able to tell a tree to plant itself in the sea.’ How does that make you feel? I know it makes me feel pretty inadequate. Because walking trees are not part of my daily experience. Are they for anyone here? Have you ever tried that – the whole telling the tree to plant itself in the sea thing? So I guess my faith is smaller than a mustard seed. Where do I go from there? How does that help me?

And why would I want to tell a tree to go grow in the sea anyway? Imagine it your minds – does the tree walk there of its own accord? Like something out of Lord of the Rings? Presumably that’s what those road signs mean ‘Heavy Plant Crossing.’ What earthly use is a mulberry tree in the middle of sea? Wanton destruction is hardly Jesus style. Or is he making some kind of thought-provoking joke?

Taking the Bible seriously by really looking at what it says, I think that Jesus is challenging the disciples’ idea of what faith is. Their request ‘Give us more faith’ assumes that faith is a quantity. As if you can put it in the scales and weigh it! They feel they need more faith to do what Jesus has told them to do. Perhaps they’re even saying ‘We can’t, won’t do what God wants until we have more faith.’ And I wonder if this strange image of a walking tree is Jesus way of saying that you’re putting the cart before the horse. That you don’t wait for faith before you obey, but rather you find faith through obedience.

Just look at what the next parable says. Verses 7-10 are very blunt. There’s no messing about, the message is ‘Do what you’re told’. Get on with it. Do your duty. Just obey – the implication being that God will take care of the rest. Not a fashionable word, duty, but so important!

For instance: Learning to persevere because it is our duty is an essential part of spiritual growth.  Yet many people never do. They are fickle. Keen one day, full of activity and fine resolutions; but another day demoralised and indifferent. They blow hot and cold.

Such a person cannot grow spiritually. It’s easy for the devil to trip them up. For every time it looks as if they’re getting somewhere, the devil just sends some difficulties. They get discouraged, stop in their tracks, and end up at square one.

But if we continue to pray when the heart is dry, if we carrying on singing when the music doesn’t connect, if we persist in serving even when lacking the warmth of love, then our offerings mean so much more to God. And we come out the other side of the desert, standing firmly, less easily cowed. Keeping on going because of duty brings us spiritual growth in the face of hardship.

Duty is liberating too. You know exactly where you stand. For instance, if you make it your duty to go to church on Sunday, wherever you are, then it saves a great deal of decision making. You don’t have to decide each Sunday. You’re not liable to be tempted away. You just make the decision once and then duty carries you through. Duty is an expression of obedience, which is the seedbed of faith.

That fits with my experience. How do I know if I’ve got the faith to do something? Only by doing it and discovering that God is faithful. What happens if I wait for an inner feeling of faith before I act? I might never get round to it. What happens if I just obey and do what Christians are supposed to do? I find that my faith grows. Sometimes I can even use a lack of faith or confidence as an excuse for not doing something, even though I know that I should. Even though God will provide if I just begin to obey. Faith grows as and when we step out of our comfort zone, when we step forward trusting in God.

You may have seen the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? For reasons that are far too complicated to explain, the hero Indiana Jones has to retrieve the Holy Grail from a booby trapped temple. He has a series of clues. Right at the end he encounters an immense chasm. There is no way of crossing. And yet the clue tells him he has to take a leap of faith. He dithers for a while, and then summoning up his courage, leaps from the edge of the precipice – and he lands on a narrow rock bridge. It was there all the time, camouflaged against the walls of the chasm and by an optical illusion revealed as the camera pans round.

That sums up what I’m trying to say. Faith is not a quantity that we wait for before we act, very often faith is revealed as we obey. It is as we make that leap into the place where only God can hold us that we realise our whole existence is held within his loving arms.

Our gospel reading today challenges us to believe in a great God who can do amazing things. Jesus does not let us off by saying: Build up your faith battery, wait until you are turbocharged, then you can serve me. He calls us to follow, do our duty and obey. He promises he will be with us and that as we step out obediently he will provide.

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