By The Reverend H. Frederick Gough, KSMA
St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
“And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, Be rooted up and be planted in the sea, and it would obey you.’”
“If you had faith…” Such a small phrase to encompass so great a lack. The disciples have asked Jesus to increase their faith. It’s a challenging kind of request, and we shall see how Jesus met it.
In preparing this sermon, I turned to my library, as I often do when confronted by a text of such profundity. “What do more eminent divines than I have to say about increasing our faith?” I wondered. So I looked and looked. I found books on church history, books on prayer, books on “the faith” or doctrine, books on the Bible, all kinds of books, but not one that tells you how to get faith or how to increase it.
Seminaries, Sunday Schools, Prayer Groups, you name it, cannot teach us how to have faith. Jesus, Himself, does not say to the disciples, “OK guys, here’s what you do to have more faith…” It is important for us then to consider what He does instead. He doesn’t refer to His library. I should have noticed that. He doesn’t establish a new Department or Board to ponder the matter. Church hierarchies might note that. No, He holds out before them an apparently far-fetched possibility.
“If you had faith,” he says, “as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, Be rooted up and be planted in the sea, and it would obey you.” Given the fact that mustard seeds are about the size of a fleck of dust, and the fact that sycamine trees, which are a type of mulberry, the morus nigre or black mulberry, get reasonably good sized, as much as 20 feet high, Jesus is telling us that a little bit of faith goes a long way.
But that doesn’t really tell the disciples or us how to increase our faith. We were subjected some years ago to an ad campaign on television for a particular type of credit card. In these ads or commercials various celebrities articulate a good deal of meaningless drivel while posed in settings of luxury. All of the ads in the series conclude with the line, “…Master the possibilities.” I mention these ads simply because that memorable concluding line furnishes, I think, such a vivid contrast to the meaning of faith.
Because faith, as I see it, is just the opposite of mastering the possibilities. It is rather, surrender to the possibilities, the very acceptance of possibilities of which we are not master, and submission of our wills to the Power which does, in fact, master all the possibilities. It is the peculiar paradox of Christianity that its real power in the world lies in surrender of worldly power, and in acceptance of or surrender to possibilities beyond the world’s understanding. That sounds a bit ethereal, perhaps, but on a more pragmatic level, Was it within the world’s understanding do you suppose, that a dedicated enemy of Jesus Christ would reverse himself, and in a matter of days become dedicated unto death to the proclamation of that same Jesus Christ the Son of God and Saviour of the world as did the Apostle Paul?
It was that same Jesus who said, “With God, all things are possible.” Certainly, Paul’s life became a matter of lived faith, a day in, day out acceptance of the possibilities God provided, as the Epistle of Timothy reminds us. Where we might see a threatening mob Paul saw future Christians, maybe even choir members. Where we might focus on the prison bars, Paul converts the jailer. Real changes in his perspective on life, wouldn’t you say?
And that, I think, is a reflection in a Pauline mirror of the real nature of Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request for more faith. There is no pat answer, no steps A, B, and C. He holds out the far-fetched example of willing a tree into the sea. But watch what He does with His life! The blind see. The lame walk. The dead rise. “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Finally, the crescendo of a swelling symphony of faith – the surrender to the possibility of resurrection. So Jesus’ answer to the disciples and to us was not in words but in His example.
The establishment and increase of faith is not then some kind of treasure hunt where by we finally turn over the right rock and become entitled to put an “I found it” bumper sticker on our cars. It is rather, I believe, something which most often starts small like a mustard seed, and grows as we push the limits of our surrender a little further, and a little further. Even Paul retreated from time to time as he put it, “The good I would do, I do not…” One writer calls faith “the thrust of a soul into a future always hidden,” which captures the aura of the exploratory nature of faith rather nicely, the imagery of pushing out the frontiers of our understanding of God’s possibilities a bit more each day.
What are God’s possibilities for each of us? What are His possibilities for St. Barnabas’ Church? I cannot tell you. Certainly, there have been times in my life when the future seemed very bleak indeed, and without a God to whom to turn I’d have been without hope. The more of His possibilities I accept, the better life turns out for me. As for St. Barnabas’ – well, I grew up in a church which once looked very unprepossessing – white frame building about this size set in a town smaller than Dillon. The Yankees filled it up with sick and wounded for a while, and most of the parishioners ran away. A hundred years later it had a thousand members and thirteen daughter parishes, churches ranging from 200 to 800 members themselves. Ah, the possibilities – God’s possibilities are always there for us.
Perhaps our question as a congregation might be, “Does our hundred years of explosive exciting growth start now, or did it begin ten years ago and we only have ninety years left to find seats for all those other people? And for us as individuals – if we remain the masters of our possibilities, we must remain the prisoners of our imaginations. Do we dare to thrust our souls into futures always hidden? For some, that means teaching Sunday School. For some, that means having a troubled neighbor over for coffee and maybe admitting their presence helps your own loneliness. For some, it may be revealing our vulnerability to someone at work, admitting that we believe in God and not in our own mastery of all things.
Some of those things don’t sound terribly exotic or even very daring, yet they are indeed thrusts of the soul into a hidden future. So often we don’t make those thrusts or take those steps. We’re afraid we’ll mess up or look silly. “If you had faith as a grain of mustard see…” If we start, even with little steps, moving into the realm of God’s possibilities, then His power will redeem our bumbling, His imagination will carry us far beyond moving mulberry trees. Jesus didn’t give an answer to the disciples’ request in so many words. He lived His answer in the steps He took on the dusty roads of Palestine, in the steps He took up one last hill to a cross, steps which pushed back ever farther in His life the power of the world’s possibilities, making room for God’s possibilities. With that answer, with His example, and with His abiding presence, so can we.
Thanks be to God!
By The Reverend H. Frederick Gough, KSMA