On impossible possibilities


Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost 

Sunday 6 October 

Lamentations 1.1-6 

Psalm 137 

2 Timothy 1.1-14 

Luke 17.1-10 

On impossible possibilities ©Sue Grimmett 

Mustard seeds and mulberry trees? Which is it? It seems Jesus is not averse to  mixing his metaphors. As we have journeyed through this Season of Creation  and recognised this last Friday the feast day of St Francis, it is timely to unpack  some of these comparisons to the natural world Jesus was so very fond of  employing, and see what they have to say to us in our time. 

Jesus begins here warning of the need to care for “the little ones”, the ones who  are just beginning in the faith, or who do not yet have the physical or spiritual  resources to follow the way faithfully. The admonition then to forgive is related there will be others in this family of God who will hurt us or take a path that is  damaging to the community and the message of the gospel. There will be those  who say they believe Jesus’ message of peace but whose lives echo the same  judgement, violence and self-interest that have always robbed us of our  humanity. To this Jesus says we must forgive and forgive again. Once again we  are confronted with what can feel like the impossible task of the Christian, the  task Jesus never lets us deny or water down: to love our enemies and do good  to those who hurt us. The hardest part of course is that sometimes those who  hurt us are those close to us; in our churches and in our families.  

I am quite sure the disciples hearing Jesus’ words were also thinking of such real  and confronting examples of those they need to be ready to forgive because  they respond with a sense of their own inadequacy and need for help.  

“Increase our faith!” they cry. Help us, because this all seems too hard and the  bar impossibly high. 

But Jesus, while recognising that faith is required, disputes their idea that it is  the quantity of faith that matters. Being some kind of super believer will not  help us here, because faith is really not about us.

Faith is the product of people who open and respond to the initiating work of  God in their lives. Faith is the result not of superior believer power but  surrender; not of religious certainty but of vulnerability. 

Jesus tells them that they need only the tiniest seed of faith because ultimately  it is not down to them. 

It is important to note that earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus had told them the  parable about the kingdom of God being “like a mustard seed that someone  took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the  air made nests in its branches.“ 

This is the vision Jesus is casting, and it is a vision that St Francis, perhaps more  than any, understood. Once the mustard seed of faith is sown in the  vulnerability of the human heart where God can nurture it, it grows into a tree  of welcome. It offers a safe haven for all, from the weakest to the strongest,  from the spiritually mature, grounded and rooted in prayer and living out of  love to the hypocritical and foolish, clinging to rules and their own self importance…. and for the rest of us who may be a mixture of both at any given  time. The thing that unites us is that mustard seed of truth that is the  transformative power of the gospel.  

The truth that we do not need to compete and strive for more, because we  already have everything we need.  

The truth that we can accept one another, because we are ourselves accepted  and enough.  

The counter-intuitive truth that God can actually use and indeed find necessary  who and what we would fear, avoid, deny, and deem unworthy. St Francis was  one such who was denigrated as foolish in his time, and yet became an icon for the spreading tree of radical hospitality that grew from his commitment to  Christ, his renunciation of status and wealth and his single-minded commitment  to love. 

We too are called to such love, and the witness of St Francis is that such love is  possible because we have all we need. Recognising that we have all we need is a  subversive act in a world that accords value based on our status as consumers. Believing that we really are enough can lead us to the challenge of letting go of our attachments- to power, status and material possessions as St Francis did so  thoroughly. Sometimes the risk of venerating saints is that we venerate in them  what we do not expect of ourselves. As Dorothy Day said about official saints,  their status allows us to “dismiss them too easily” when really they are a  disturbing reminder of who we could all become in our own way. Perhaps we  would do well to heed the words attributed to Francis that the way to begin is  by doing what is necessary; then to do what’s possible, and suddenly we may  find ourselves doing the impossible.  

The mustard seed idea can liberate us to trust in God that the small amount of  faith we have truly is enough, and that the Spirit will use all of us- even those  parts of us we feel are inadequate or unworthy. But what are we to make of the  symbol of the kind of faith that can uproot a huge mulberry tree?  

The mulberry tree in Jesus’ metaphor is uprooted from where it has always  been planted and replanted in the sea, a place where it has never been, a place  where no one would ever expect it to grow. The sea is always moving, changing,  and is often a symbol in the Bible for chaos. This tree, whose roots go in the soil,  is not thrown into the sea but planted there in the deeps. Change is the one  constant of the human condition, and sometimes it can be hard to imagine  thriving in new conditions. But Jesus is saying that we need to be prepared to  leave behind some of our old destructive patterns and take up the holy dare to  be more, to love more, to forgive more, trusting that God is with us, wherever  we find ourselves. Clearly Jesus sees greater potential in his disciples than they  see in themselves, and the post resurrection time of the early Jesus movement proved him right.  

We are being called continually by the Spirit to reconceive who we are and who  we could become. Letting go of that which is familiar and known can be hard,  even when we know our old ways of being have not helped us. The Psalmist  who weeps by the waters of Babylon wonders how they could ever again sing  the Lord’s song in a strange land. And yet that is always what we are called to  do. The world moves on, and all creation seems to be crying out in struggle, but  the Spirit is always calling us to see the new thing God is doing and becoming. We are called to sing the Lord’s song of hope and peace in times where there is  only anxiety and division. We are called to live differently, planted in a turbulent  climate to be agents of grace and authors of creative possibility. 

In whatever challenge before us, we are invited to be people who are known for  our fidelity to love and forgiveness, and to become that spreading tree of  generous hospitality that disarms hostility and brings reconciliation. We receive  the gift of faith when we open ourselves to the God who journeys with us and  hear the assurance that we are enough. It is God who nurtures the seed of faith  in our hearts and lives, and as we honour that gift, we may find we can flourish  in the most unlikely places, becoming a greater gift to the world than we  ourselves could have ever thought or imagined.