Leading up to our Gospel today, Jesus has a long series of parables and sayings that are rather difficult. We have heard several of them over the past few weeks, like the parable of the dishonest manager, and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The lectionary has also skipped a bunch to move us along: the saying about the millstone, the huge number of times we are to forgive somebody, adultery, justification. All of these are very challenging sayings and stories. In this section, which is about two or two and a half chapters long, it is pretty much just Jesus talking. The disciples can’t get a word in edgewise. And Jesus takes on the big three sins, the temptations that humanity often has: lust, greed, and pride. He takes them head on. He goes right after it. So it is not too surprising that when we get to the Gospel today, the first chance the disciples actually get to speak, they appear rather exasperated. After all these difficult sayings they say, “Increase our faith. How can we possibly do any of this? Increase our faith if we are going to have any shot at it.” It is a very understandable response. It is a prayer I have all the time, Lord, just increase my faith.
Jesus replies with a very interesting response: 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. Now all we have here are the words, the text. The problem is that communication is more than words. I think we are learning this as a society in the past few years as we have moved towards email and text messaging as our primary ways to communicate. So much gets lost when all you do is read words because communication is more than that. Communication also includes tone and facial expressions. It is really easy when you are just reading words to misunderstand what somebody means.
I have to wonder if something like that is happening here. My own understanding of this passage and the understanding of many other people, is that Jesus is rebuking the disciples. They say, “Lord, increase our faith”, and Jesus is frustrated with them. “If you just had the faith of a mustard seed, you little, worthless. . . . Don’t you get this, yet?” It is a biting frustration which Jesus does have at times.
But I wonder if that is really what he is saying? Luke doesn’t tell us anything about what is going on inside of Jesus at this time. It could be, if we read it with a slightly different tone, if we understood him to be speaking with compassion and mercy and grace and love as he does most of the time, maybe what he is saying to “Lord, increase our faith,” is why? Why? If you had the faith of a mustard seed, which you do, then you can say to the mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. If you had the faith of a mustard seed, which I have seen in you because you gave up everything to follow me, then you can transform this world. Maybe rather than rebuke, what Jesus is offering them is encouragement.
Our Epistle today comes from a time in the life of Timothy in which he is losing some of his faith. Paul is in prison and Timothy is losing faith over this. This is not how he understood it was going to go. If Jesus had the power to resurrect the dead, why are you, one of his greatest apostles, arrested and in jail? That’s not the way things should be, and Timothy is beginning to lose his faith. Paul is writing to him to encourage him in his faith. Remember that faith of your mother and your grandmother, the faith of Eunice and Lois. Remember that faith you had when we laid our hands upon you, empowering you with the Holy Spirit to do this work that you are called to do. Remember that mustard seed of faith that you have. It’s going to be enough, if you have a mustard seed of faith, which you do.
As I look around this room today, I know every single one of you has at least a mustard seed of faith. Do you wonder how I know that? Because you are here today. That’s a mustard seed of faith. You showed up. As I look around this room, I see a lot of you, most of you, perhaps all of you who have more than a mustard seed of faith. But all you need is that mustard seed. And with that mustard seed we can transform this world.
There is one other time that Jesus talks about the mustard seed: inside the mustard seed is contained the entirety of the Kingdom of God. That is all we need, and you have it. We live in a time in which everyone is anxious and worried about people losing faith, but maybe we need to recognize the mustard seed that is still there, and have the trust, the confidence, the faith that the mustard seed is going to be enough. With that mustard seed the Kingdom of God is still going to break in, with that mustard seed this world will be transformed.