When Bruce and I first moved to Minnesota, we became acquainted with an invasive plant called buckthorn. European Buckthorn was introduced to Minnesota by landscapers who liked its appealing look. It often came under other names, such as black dogwood, alder dogwood, arrow wood, or Persian berries.Though it is sometimes called a dogwood tree, it is not related to North American dogwood species. Buckthorn has become an invasive nuisance in North America, partly because it blocks the sun from native plants, but also because it spreads quickly. Buckthorn bark and berries have a medicinal use: they are very effective laxatives, and the berries provide the harshest laxative effect. That’s the problem with buckthorn: birds like the berries, but they can’t digest the seeds. Buckthorn propagates through bird droppings.
As I considered today’s scripture passage, I was reminded of buckthorn. Like buckthorn, mustard weed also propagates through bird droppings, because birds cannot digest the seeds. Mustard weed was ancient Palestine’s version of buckthorn: a nuisance plant that was difficult to get rid of. Mustard plants grew rapidly, and could easily be more than six feet tall. They sprang up in the middle of wheat fields, and blocked the sunshine from the growing grain. It didn’t do much good to pull up the weeds, because birds would just drop seeds somewhere else in the field. Mustard seeds are tiny, but their impact on Palestine’s agriculture was huge.
In today’s passage, Jesus begins by comparing faith to a tiny mustard seed, but he goes on to explain that it isn’t how much faith you have that matters. It’s how you use it.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of amustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” – Luke 17:5-10
If you’re thinking this saying about faith and mustard seeds sounds familiar, you’re right. We also hear Jesus make this statement in the Gospel of Matthew. But Matthew puts Jesus in a different setting than Luke does for this teaching. In Matthew 17, Jesus has just cast out a demon that the disciples couldn’t get to budge. When they ask him why they couldn’t get rid of the demon, he tells them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
But here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is answering the disciples’ request for increased faith. Jesus had just been teaching them about forgiveness, and the importance of forgiving. Perhaps they realized that the kind of forgiveness Jesus was asking them to offer required more faith than they had. At least the disciples understood that faith wasn’t something they could manufacture on their own. They had figured out that it doesn’t develop by following a “Greater Faith in Thirty Days Plan.” They knew that faith is a gift from God.
Jesus says it doesn’t take much faith to do great things. The tiniest amount of faith can plant a tree in the ocean, or move a mountain from one place to another. In Matthew’s version, it sounds like Jesus is chiding the disciples for having so little faith, but here in Luke, we get a little different slant.
Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples how to get more faith. He doesn’t give the disciples a discipleship plan, or assign them each a faith journey partner, or ask them to write in their faith building journals. They might have been expecting a miracle, but they don’t get that, either. Instead of waving a magic wand and saying, “Poof, have more faith,” Jesus says, “It doesn’t take much faith to do what you need to do.” In other words, “You have plenty right now.”
You have enough faith. It doesn’t take much. God has already given you all the faith you need.
Have you ever noticed how Jesus often manages to avoid answering questions that are put to him, by answering a different question altogether? This used to annoy me, particularly when I really wanted to know the answer to a question myself. Wouldn’t it be great, on those days when you feel like you need a little more faith, to look up Luke 17:5-6 and have the instruction manual right there in front of you? But instead of answering the question, Jesus goes off on some tangent that doesn’t even seem related to the current topic of discussion! It took me a long time to figure out why Jesus does this so often throughout the gospels. This passage is just one more example of Jesus telling the disciples they are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking for more faith, or bigger faith, the disciples should have been finding opportunities to act on the faith they already had. Instead of treating God like a short order cook who could be expected to slap a scoop of faith onto a plate, they needed to be living into the faith they’d already been given. To show the disciples how they’d gotten it backwards, Jesus tells a parable. And to understand the parable, we need to understand what slavery meant to the disciples who heard the story first.
Even though it was against Jewish law to own another Jew as a slave, slavery as an institution was quite common throughout the first century world. Slavery was the most common means available to get out of debt in that time. It was like taking out a loan with yourself as the collateral. You could sell yourself to another, to be that person’s servant for a contracted period of time, and use the money to pay off your debts. Once your agreed period of service was done, you were free again. Slavery was an institution that was taken for granted, and it apparently crossed common boundaries between social and economic classes. But the distinction between slavery and freedom remained clear. As a slave, you were bound to obey the authority of your master. And as a master, you were not beholden to your slave for the service that slave provided to you. As Jesus tells the story, he draws on the social construct of the day, assuming a small landowner with only one slave who works in the field as well as in the house (jobs that would be divided among several servants in a larger estate), a slave who does his duty, and expects nothing from his master in return for his labor. Jesus says, “Would you tell your slave to eat first, before serving you? Of course not. Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Serve my dinner, and then you can go eat yours?”
Then Jesus does something between verses nine and ten that we might miss if we aren’t careful. Up to this point in the story, Jesus has had his listeners identifying with the master of the house. Suddenly, he changes the viewpoint of his listeners to that of the slave. “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” In other words, being faithful and obedient to God doesn’t make God owe us anything. It’s what we are supposed to do. We need to be more faithful, serving with no expectation of praise or recognition, in true humility. Our obedience is by no means a way to gain honor, and good works aren’t something we do in order to receive a reward. We obey and serve because Christ calls us to follow him in obedient service. He gives us plenty of faith to do this, but it’s up to us to be faithful followers.
Not only does Jesus switch us from “master” viewpoint to “servant” viewpoint, asking us to identify with the humble servant who does what he’s asked to do without expecting any special reward, Jesus makes an even bigger shift. Notice how the pronoun changes from “I” to “we”? Once again, we are reminded that we can be believers in isolation, but to become true and faithful disciples, we must live out our faith in community.
Faith depends on this idea of community, because, when you get right down to it, faith is bigger than believing. The Heidelberg Catechism characterizes true faith not only as certain knowledge, but also as a “wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit create in me through the gospel.” Faith is trust, and trust requires relationship. As we put our trust in Jesus, we give up any illusions of depending on ourselves only, and we recognize that faith cannot be measured; it can only be lived.
We don’t need more faith; we need to be faithful. And it’s also possible that we need a different kind of faith. Maybe what we need is the kind of faith that, like mustard weed, spreads contagiously wherever it is dropped, grows persistently, and cannot be easily destroyed. Maybe what we need is the kind of faith that is willing to enter the process of Christian character formation with humility, spiritual discipline, and patient trust. When we understand that faith is trusting God, we can begin to live out that trust through discipline and humility, becoming true servants of God who do the work God gives us to do.
What work is that? How can we be faithful servants who trust our Master?
Next Sunday, we will receive new members to this congregation. As we do so, we will promise to uphold one another through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.
We promise to pray for one another, and with one another. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of us decided to meet together regularly to pray with each other for the needs of this congregation, this town, and Christ’s ministry among us?
We promise our presence. There’s a popular quote that floats around the internet. The percentages vary, but the most common version goes like this: “Ninety per cent of success is showing up.” No one seems to know who said it first. Most people ascribe the original quote to Mark Twain, but Woody Allen’s version, “Eighty percent of life is showing up” comes pretty close, too. The point is simple. You have to be present to participate in the full life of the Body of Christ. It isn’t something you can do via e-mail or text. It isn’t something you can pencil into your calendar, and erase when other events crowd into your time. Your presence among the people of God is not only important for you, it’s important for the rest of us.
We promise our gifts. Not only our tithes and offerings, but our spiritual gifts help to build up the Body of Christ. We have each been given a variety of gifts, and using them is part of our discipleship. It’s how we follow Jesus.
We promise our service. Not to be thanked, not to be recognized, not to receive honor, but because God calls us to serve.
And we promise our witness. This promise was added to the membership vows just a few years ago, to remind us that we are called to be witnesses to God’s work among us in the person of Jesus Christ, and his continued work among us through the power of the Holy Spirit. No one is asking you to stand on the street corner and preach. But as followers of Jesus, we are called to tell others the good news that God loves us so much he sent his own Son, that whoever believes on him will have eternal life.
Trust God. Be faithful. Have a contagious kind of faith that can’t help but share the good news. This is discipleship.
Recently, someone interviewed Christian author, educator and pastor, Eugene Peterson, who is probably most famous for his version of the Bible called The Message. Peterson is now eighty-one years old, and he shared his opinions about what it takes to become a devoted follower of Jesus. He was asked, “As you enter your final season of life, what would you like to say to younger Christians who are itchy for a deeper and more authentic discipleship?” Peterson answered, ”Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place.”
Go to the nearest, smallest church, and stick it out for six months. Here we are, smack dab in the middle of New Ulm, Minnesota. We have plenty of faith. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed, dropped where it can take root, to do what God is calling us to do. God is calling us to be faith-ful, to trust him, to do the work he has given us, as obedient servants. God is calling us to promise our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness as we live out our faith together in this community we call ‘church.’ As we do that, we may discover that our faith does, indeed, grow – not because of anything we do, but because of the One we trust and obey. Amen.