Sermon for Sunday 2 October 2022
Trinity 16 (Prop 23) Year C 2022
To understand today’s gospel reading, you need a bit of ancient horticultural knowledge.
Jesus tells us that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we would be able to say to a mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey us.
What exactly is going on in this metaphor?
It’s actually far from clear what sort of tree Jesus is talking about. The word Luke uses here is sykaminos. It is usually thought to mean a mulberry tree, and to be quite different from the sycamore tree which in Greek is sukamorea. The problem is that both these terms get mixed up with each other in ancient texts.
To add more complexity, in the Old Testament the word used today for mulberry is also used for a sort of fig tree. So, to cut a very long, and slightly boring linguistic story short, it’s not impossible this alleged mulberry bush could in fact be a species of fig tree renowned for having very deep roots.
If it is a fig tree rather than a mulberry bush, the metaphor is actually intensified. Not only is the tree uprooted, but it’s a tree specifically known for having deep roots and to be difficult to dig up – an even more striking image for us to think about.
What does this saying of Jesus’ teach us about the character of faith? I have a suspicion it is probably one of the most mis-interpreted and ill understood portions of the entire New Testament.
For all too often, its meaning is boiled down to the assertion that if you have faith, God will give you whatever you ask. People who read it like that argue once you’ve got God on your side, anything is possible, even the seemingly unlikely or unfeasible.
It doesn’t take much experience of life to realise that simply isn’t the case.
It seems to me there’s a lot more going on here in this complex image of a tree being uprooted.
First of all the uprooting is prompted by merely the tinyest amount of faith. We are told you only need faith the size of a mustard seed to accomplish this remarkable feat.
Could it be Jesus is teaching us about the power of just a little faith to accomplish something significant. It’s not about God giving you what you want, but about the power of his gift of faith to us. Faith is something that can have an effect completely out of proportion to its perceived size.
Many communities of faith worry they are not big enough to make an impact, yet it strikes me the point of faith is that you do not need to be wealthy, powerful or an enormous organisation to make a difference. Faith is that attitude of life that lets God work through you.
Think of the number of small parish communities that run food banks. Think of the number of ordinary people whose faith prompts them to visit the sick or housebound, to run youth groups, or work with the homeless. Think of the way in which faith comes together with music, art and poetry in choirs, schools, and community projects in ways that transform the lives of those who take part.
Faith is the capacity to see God present in all things and all people, and to trust in his power to transfigure our world no matter how powerful, wealthy or significant you are.
But I think there’s something else going on in this image of the uprooted tree and specifically where it ends up. Why on earth would one want it to be planted in the sea? What use is that?
Is it possible that one of the things being pointed to here is also the way in which faith, rather than giving you what you want, actually has a tendency to upend our existence, to disrupt, and leave things in the last place you expected them to be.
If we live by faith we should expect to be surprised by where God leads us and what he needs us to do – it rarely ends up being where we wanted. As we grow and develop as a parish, there may be new horizons God is calling you to explore – roles and vocations you’d never imagined you’d be any good at – or ways of serving your local community that you’d never thought might be for you.
They may feel as unlikely as finding a mulberry tree uprooted and plonked in the sea. But by the power of God’s gift of faith in you, you will see his presence in you changing and transforming the world around us. And once we realise that, we might cry out to the Lord with those words we heard the apostles today utter to Jesus: “Increase our faith!”
Fr Peter Anthony