Let’s start with a question. Rhetorical.
Have you ever tried to imagine what it was like to be with Jesus way back then? You know… walking. Going to towns and villages, listening to him preach and teach. Being present for a miracle healing, or feeding five thousand, or turning water into wine. Just relating to the guy. It’s hard to put ourselves there.
In a very short period of time, Jesus grew famous. He was, in a distant and foreign fashion, something like a rock star… a celebrity… someone who would always attract a crowd whether he wanted to or not… a person with an entourage…called disciples.
I wanted to be a rock star. I think nearly everyone of our generation did – Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Diana Ross, U2, Sting. I expect that members of younger generations want to be rock stars, too… or maybe viral tic-tok-ers. It’s the lure of celebrity, of being rich and powerful, of being talented and graceful and charismatic and the object of unceasing attention… and musical! Truly, the job description no longer appeals to me… but it took a lot of years to get here.
Jesus’ disciples saw all of those attractive things in him – in an ancient first century sort of way. And they shared in that intoxication. I don’t think he was ever fooled or misled by it – he got his thinking straightened out during that period we call “the temptation,” and he dealt with his fame in a clear-headed manner. But his disciples were right in the thick of it – and we can tell from how Jesus talked to them that he knew they needed a lot of work.
In order to make sense of the five verses that comprise our scripture lesson, we’re going to start about 4 passages earlier. Luke has Jesus teaching his disciples, and us, with story after story… saying after saying.
- We go back, to the previous chapter… the story of the dishonest manager; a guy who got caught with his hand in the till. The manager hurriedly made a couple of quick deals that produced instant cash so he could get the boss off of his back. And, as is the storyteller’s prerogative, Jesus praised the dishonest manager for figuring out how to fix his situation quickly and shrewdly… and Jesus pointed out that his disciples and other followers would do well to think things through like that.
- Next there is a direct word to the favorite foils… the Pharisees. Jesus told them that the world could go up in smoke before they would be likely to make any adjustments in their wrongheaded religious thinking.
- Then the third story: the Rich man and Lazarus. The short version is that two characters, a rich man and a poor man, are compared and contrasted. The one who thinks he has it together doesn’t and finds out too late. The one who claims nothing for himself finds eternal peace and joy.
- Then in the last story that leads to our passage Jesus said that everybody messes up – but don’t drag anybody down with you.
The overall intent of these stories is to help right wrong thinking. They point out that wrong thinking does its worst damage to whomever is thinking wrongly themselves. That people we think of as powerful or rich don’t often have it together, and more than not, they are screwed up more than those whom we may not hold in such high esteem.
That brings us to our passage.
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.
We’ve heard of mustard seed faith all of our lives. But the concept has been taken out of context which is why I have placed it in context before talking about it. “Mustard seed faith” has been the focus of essays and devotions, songs and hymns, and not a few sermons. It is one of those Biblical clichés that is sentimental and spiritually romanticized.
Thus… when Jesus told the disciples that,
if they had faith the size of a mustard seed they could do these amazing things
Jesus was doing the middle eastern thing that he does with hyperbole. This time he was making an overstatement by making an understatement. He was close as I know Jesus to have been to calling his disciples stupid.
“Increase our faith, Lord!”
Increase your faith? Increase your faith!?
Jesus spoke these words while looking at a group of people who had left their jobs, who had left their families, who had forsaken their livelihoods, who had left the relative ease and comforts of their former lives in order to follow him, not knowing when they would eat next, or where they would sleep, or what the future would hold. Jesus spoke these words to a group of people who stepped out and had been living by their faith.
Increase your faith?
if you had faith the size of a mustard seed … you pea brains…
…you want to be rock star, don’t you? You want to be a celebrity… someone who can attract a crowd… preach and teach… do miracle healings, feed five thousand, and turn water into wine. Increase your faith!
We can wonder at the disciples’ ignorance. But Jesus didn’t. He offered a corrective right away. He told them another story … about the job description of a slave. We don’t have much experience with slaves, so think of it this way. Think of a first responder acting heroically in a time of crisis. A fireman or police person or EMT or rescue team member. When asked later about what they did they’ll use the same words Jesus used in his illustration…
we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
You see, what Jesus had (and still has) the hardest time getting across to people is that the best thing that we can possibly be is ourselves. If that means becoming a Rock Star or the messiah, then so be it. But most of us are not. Thank goodness.
Most of us are not famous or infamous. I started to write that most of us are not brilliant or hugely exceptional, but, actually, this is a gathering of quite exceptional people. Most of us are not destined for celebrity in the eyes of the media.
But we can live significantly – every single one of us. By the measure of the only One who counts… God. We are asked to be ourselves and humble is part of it… in the right understanding and practice of the word.
Frederick Buechner wrote about this humility:
Humility is often confused with the gentlemanly self-deprecation of saying you’re not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship.
If you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.
True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.
Thinking clearly and rightly and correctly about ourselves is the most critical task in the flowering of our lives. Jesus kept after it with the disciples, even when they were stupid. It continues to be the primary task of all of us who would walk with God.
So… mustard seed faith.
Let’s talk about your faith.
What Jesus said is all you need is a little bit. A mustard seed size amount and you can do amazing things.
That got me to thinking… if we have this little bit of faith, which is all we need, what holds us back, from (as Jesus said) telling a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea – and it happens! That’s hyperbole again, but he makes his point. You have the faith for doing significant stuff. You don’t need any more faith than what you already have.
So what’s holding you back?
Rather than speak for you, I’ll speak for me. What has held me back from amazing manifestations of greater faith?
Here’s what I think it is for me… maybe for you, too.
- What I expect from myself.
- What others have said about me that I have assimilated into my own expectation for myself.
- What I see in others that I want to emulate…
- how I want to appear…
- how I want you to think of me.
All these abstract concepts that I have internalized. They govern my behavior, my appearance, even my thinking.
Last month when my friend Monty came and we played music together I decided to do something bold. I wore flip flops to church. You didn’t even notice. May not be a big deal to you, it was a challenging choice for me. Not because I didn’t think it was alright to do that, but I spent 40 years as a Methodist Minister and I never did that. Except once when I preached in the most prestigious Church in Fiji – Baker Memorial Church – because all the men wore coat and tie… and flip flops.
I have an expectation of what I am supposed to wear on my feet, or not wear, because I have assimilated congregational expectations of what a minister should or shouldn’t wear.
As I read it, Jesus was pretty much free of expectation. He knew what people wanted, if it made sense to him he did it. If it didn’t make sense he carried on with what did. Any of the trouble that came his way had to do with other people’s expectations – and he remained steadfastly free of them.
His life was astonishing, impacting, …miraculous! Being present in the moment and saying what he thought should be said and doing what he thought should be done.
When his followers asked him for more faith? He said,
More? …You only need this little bit