Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday 6 October
2 Timothy 1.1-14
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.