“The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "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.”
Jesus said things that ticked people off. Sometimes we forget that about him...you know, the whole fact that everybody got sick of him, turned on him, and crucified him. Often we, just like people 2,000 years ago, expect (or at least prefer) a far more complacent and underwhelming Christ figure than what is revealed in scripture. If Jesus isn’t getting under your skin, you might not actually be paying attention to what he’s saying to you.
Such is the case with today’s gospel. Know that it is totally acceptable if your initial reaction at today’s gospel was to scoff or roll your eyes. “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘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.”
Really? I can talk to trees and they’ll pick up and walk to the sea? All I need is just a little faith?
That’s troubling, isn’t it. Maybe you have a different track record, but when I talk to trees they just stay there. I have never witnessed something as dramatic and implausible as inanimate objects coming to life and doing what I command them. Even it we sidestep the trap of taking Jesus’ words as literally true, he still posits a radical claim that we probably have not seen proven true in our lives.
And if I haven’t seen literal or figurative trees uprooted and planted in the sea, than I assume it is because I do not have faith even the size of a tiny mustard seed...which makes me feel as small and unimportant as, well...a mustard seed.
So, where’s the good news in these first few lines of today’s gospel?
Let’s start a few lines earlier. After all, if you come across something in scripture that seemed wildly inaccurate or troubling, the best thing to do is look for some context to make sense of what’s going on.
The disciples’ demand for Jesus to give him more faith comes in response to Jesus’ teaching regarding forgiveness. In the preceding verses Jesus says, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (Luke 17:3-4).
What’s your initial reaction to that teaching? Probably something like, “You really expect me to be able to forgive someone even if they continually make my life a living hell? You’re going to have to give me superhuman spiritual strength to be able to do that!” Or, in other words, “Lord, increase our faith!”
Jesus’ reply is that superhuman spiritual strength is not a requirement for forgiveness. All that is required is the tiniest faith that God has first forgiven us. If we believe, even in the slightest way, that we are forgiven by God for no other reason than that God loves us, then we have an unlimited supply of forgiving words and actions to share with others.
True forgiveness of another person is impossible without faith and trust that forgiveness is what makes the spiritual world go round. God’s love and forgiveness deserve a place on the periodic table of elements because they are the atomic building blocks of our lives.
The great news is that you don’t have to wait until you feel like your faith is stronger than ever before you extend forgiveness with others. You can forgive even if you have the slightest inkling that the whole idea of God’s forgiveness and love is actually true. In fact, it is in the sharing of love and forgiveness that your faith grows; which takes all the air out of the idea that forgiving and loving others requires an impressive or gargantuan faith.
If you are someone who has not realized or embraced God’s forgiveness, there are a few ways to dip your toes in that water. You’ve done one already. You have joined with other sinner-saints to confess your sins and hear the promise of God’s forgiveness. Later, as we celebrate the Eucharist, you can take time to savor the sight, smell, taste, and texture of God’s forgiveness in the bread and wine. Back home, in your daily life, you can read the pages of scripture and be reminded of God’s love and forgiveness. You can pray for an awareness of your forgiveness. You can trust that others are praying for the same thing for themselves and for you. And you can pay attention to the world in which you live. Really notice the trees, grass, leaves; the laughter of children, the taste of good food...take it all in and recognize that they are all gifts given to you by a good and gracious God who delights in you.
A person who has even the faintest experience of having been forgiven can turn around and forgive others. Forgiveness does not require a superhuman amount of faith. It simply requires the desire to share something good and life-giving with someone else.
If you’ve watched the news this week you likely heard about one powerful instance of forgiveness in Christ’s name. Earlier in the week a woman named Amber Guyger was sentenced to ten years in prison for shooting and killing an unarmed man named Botham Jean. Amber mistook him for an intruder, even though she had mistakenly entered his apartment, thinking it was hers. At her sentencing, Botham’s 18-year old brother Brandt made a victim impact statement. To summarize what he said would be wholly inadequate, so please watch the entire the video of his statement (have some tissues ready). Suffice to say, this is what is possible with faith of any size.