October 13, 2019
“Moving Mulberry Trees”
Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel Lesson read from Luke 17.
My dear friends,
Sometimes we hear people talk about, or maybe you’ve lamented about how challenging it is to be a Christian today. I get that. The world has changed. The nation has changed. Increasingly, it is our children and grandchildren – young people – who are walking away from the church or choosing never to affiliate because the Church is seen as old-fashioned, irrelevant, judgmental, or hypocritical. None of those are true, of course, but it’s what they tell themselves so they don’t have to attend a church. Yet, remember there is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9). Our world is not that different from the world of Jesus’ first disciples. Sure, we have cool stuff like cell phones and Wi-Fi and Uber, but fundamentally people are still people. And what do people struggle with? Forgiveness and faith.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples that they would need to forgive others, even if they had been wronged, seven times in a single day. That was pretty counter-cultural. Religious experts had been teaching you only ever needed to forgive someone 3 times and that’s it. Jesus wasn’t talking about some teaching for ½ full churches or theology lectures, but a way of life for people. Forgiveness is the stuff of everyday relationships, not just “church.”
And it is hard to forgive. The roots of bitterness run deep and last long, like tree roots — like mulberry tree roots, stubborn and strong. No wonder the disciples responded to Jesus’ challenge to forgive with the words, “Increase our faith” (v. 5).
When His disciples said, “Increase our faith!” Jesus did not say, “Sure, presto! You have greater faith!” What He did say was, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Huh? A Mulberry or sycamine tree was known for its strong, deep root system and is celebrated for its shade and juicy fruit. The flip side of that would be a grain of mustard seed, the smallest known seed at that time. So…how is this supposed to work?
So, how do we understand Jesus’ words, “faith like a grain of mustard seed”? How can faith uproot and send deeply-rooted mulberry trees flying into the sea? You understand this is “hyperbole,” right? Hyperboles are exaggerated statements not meant to be taken literally, like I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” It’s like when Jesus taught that if your eye or hand cause you to sin, get rid of it (Matthew5). Jesus isn’t advocating self-mutilation, he used powerful language to make a point. Same thing here.
Okay, so what’s the point? The point is that all of this is best to understand forgiveness and faith in terms of our relationship with Jesus. “Faith like a grain of mustard seed” is simply yet perfectly trust in Jesus, a trust that abides in Him, depends on Him, and lives every day in Him. It is only in Christ that we move mulberry trees of life, even the deeply-rooted ones like bitterness or anger. Or loneliness. Or grief. Or guilt. Or doubt. Or addiction. Moving the Mulberry trees of life is possible only as Christ lives in us.
“Faith like a grain of mustard seed” says that I can forgive because I live and make decisions inside a strong relationship with Jesus Christ. “Faith like a grain of mustard seed” says I already have what I need to live my Christian life, and it’s not the “stuff” of this world. I have Christ, or better, Christ has me! The One who came and died for me, the One who broke through death and came to life for me, the One who called me in Baptism and made me His own — my relationship with Him makes seemingly impossible things possible.
So, in Christ, I confront the person who has “offended,” and this is an area where we’ve gone wrong. People are so quick to point out perceived offenses and perceived wrongs, but no one is quick to offer forgiveness. Faith can confront wrong, but also then I can and should offer forgiveness. I do the hard thing and share my faith with my neighbor. I make time to give/pack food for the hungry when I thought I was too busy. I drop a quarter in an LWML mite box, believing it will make a difference. I hold the hand of a neighbor in the hospital, even if they’re not my favorite neighbor. I phone a friend or family member who has become distant. Faith is a living, breathing thing to be used every single day…days filled with moving Mulberry trees into the deep by faith and faith alone.
So, in Christ, our church takes on a new kind of ministry mindset, especially in light of the time in which we live. We see our community – all the people around us that don’t come here – not as the enemy or a battle field, but as our mission field. And underneath it all, the lore you live and serve with others, you hear mulberry trees moving — hard things, seemingly impossible things, happening because Christ lives within us and is at work in us wherever we go.
The Lutheran Women’s Missionary League has always lived by mustard seed faith. Little gifts, mites, combined across our synod, make big things happen in mission across the world. Christ has been moving mulberry trees through the LWML since 1942. The women of our church have shown us what it means to move mulberry trees with just a little faith, making the seemingly impossible possible after all.
A painting by Vincent van Gogh is titled “The Mulberry Tree.” He painted it in 1889 while in voluntary confinement at an asylum in France. He had a mental breakdown of sorts, so he confined himself. It was at this time and place where Van Gogh painted “Starry Night,” worth more than $100 million. I’m no art critic or expert, but the mulberry tree van Gogh gives us is impressive. It is strong with bushy foliage, and, in his painting, rich with tones of yellow and gold. It is rooted in rock and set against a deep blue sky. That’s what a good artist does; they take an ordinary item like a tree and give it character, beauty, strength, and even joy. That’s what God does with us; ordinary people doing the seemingly impossible by faith.
May that be our attitude the next time we say that it is difficult to follow Christ, even in this day and age of ½ full, supposedly joyless aging churches. What appears to be hard, and even impossible like bringing the young people back or reaching our immediate community, may be just the thing we need to do as we live with Christ day-in-day-out. And because Christ abides with us and within us, the difficult thing can be done with joy. It may not be easy, but it is possible in Christ.