The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 22—Year C; Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; II Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10
We have another really bizarre teaching from Jesus today! So, help me with this. The apostles have said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” And Jesus replies with this, “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.” So, let’s unpack that. Here is a mustard seed. How big is this? It’s tiny. So if you have just this speck of faith, this teeny-tiny little bit of faith, you could say to a mulberry tree, you could say to a tree that grows about 30 feet high and whose canopy extends out about 30 feet and which has a really extensive, large, intricate root system, you could say to that tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would do just that. Does this make any sense to you? A) Can a tree with a really extensive root system be uprooted? and B) Can a tree be planted in the sea and live? What’s going to hold those roots in place in the waves? Hmmmm, puzzling.
Hold those questions in your mind.
Jesus then continues, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink?’ Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
This sort of assaults our ears, too. Actually, I do want the slave to come at once and take his or her place at the table, and it’s Jesus’ fault I think that way! He’s always telling us how we should care for the least of these in our society. Just 3 verses before today’s passage, he was talking about how awful it would be for anyone who caused one of these little ones to stumble. Wouldn’t the slaves be some of the little ones? So, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this teaching, too.
Oh, these scriptures don’t make any sense. And that is our first clue. Any time a passage completely stumps us, anytime it just doesn’t make any sense, we need to ask, “Is this a wisdom teaching?” And that puts a whole new interpretative lens onto the situation. Instead of puzzling over a paradoxical passage, we embrace it. Instead of throwing our hands up in the air because it makes no sense, we turn straight into the passage and try to enter the riddle. So, if this is a wisdom teaching, what might Jesus be trying to reveal to us because wisdom is always about revelation?
All that Jesus is saying today comes in response to a request from the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith!” On the one hand, Jesus is saying something simple to his disciples; he is saying, “If you just have a little bit of faith, a smidgeon of faith, you can do the impossible. And, for my followers, the impossible isn’t an extraordinary event, but is simply what ought to happen; it is what one would expect, just like it is expected that a slave would do what is commanded.” That’s one way to see this, but there is something else going on here.
Why did the disciples need more faith? What kinds of things would you need more faith to do? Eradicate hunger, bring about world peace, heal illness, get people in Washington to work together in respectful ways for the good of the country? What kinds of things would you need more faith to do?
What was Jesus asking the disciples to do that they had to ask him to increase their faith? What hard thing had Jesus just asked of them?
Well, Jesus had just told the disciples that “if a fellow disciple, if a sister or brother, if they sinned, if they missed the mark with you, Jesus said that you had to rebuke them, you had to bring it to their attention in a really sharp way, and if that fellow disciple turned around, then you had to forgive them. And if that fellow disciple sinned against you seven times a day, if they hurt you seven times a day, and if they turned back to you seven times, and said, ‘I repent,’ ‘I change my mind,’ ‘I amend my ways,’ then you had to forgive them seven times.”
Oh wow! No wonder the disciples were begging Jesus to increase their faith! What he is asking them, and us, to do is harder than eradicating hunger, or bringing about peace, or healing illness, or getting Washington to work, it’s harder than all of that because what he wants us to do is to forgive, and forgiveness, or the lack of forgiveness seems to be at the root of all of these other intractable problems.
Let’s go back to the mulberry tree. What if that mulberry tree is a metaphor for resentment, which is just another name for what happens when we can’t forgive? Think about how those resentments send their intricate roots throughout the soil and begin intertwining with every facet of our lives. Think of the narratives we begin to weave around that event, the stories we begin to tell ourselves. There is the original hurtful thing that was done to us, but we water that hurt, and nurture that hurt, and that hurt grows into a great big tree whose canopy casts a shadow over everything. And pretty soon, the story of that hurt is all we know. Do you want to know where this goes? Was anybody listening to the psalm this morning? Psalm 137:8-9—“O Daughter of Babylon, happy is the one who pays you back…who dashes your little ones against the rocks.” That is the myth of redemptive violence, and that’s where this goes. Nelson Mandela once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.” But still we cling to it, and we can’t imagine how that tree of resentment could ever be uprooted; it seems impossible to us, but Jesus is saying, “It just takes faith the size of a mustard seed, and it can be uprooted, and planted in the sea, where it can’t live at all.” Just a little bit of faith that you can live without that resentment, just a smidgeon of willingness to let that resentment go, to let that narrative go, to let that storyline change, and the roots of that resentment will begin to loosen, and soon, we begin to see how that tree of resentment can be uprooted, and if we are really willing to release it, then it won’t be able to take root somewhere else.
And the slave only doing what is expected is just Jesus’ way of saying, “Letting go of resentment is not heroic work; this is what I expect of one who professes to follow me. You don’t get a special reward for letting go of resentment; what you get is your life, and in the process, you gain the freedom to serve without calculation.” If you’re keeping score on the hurts, you can’t serve because you are still pouring energy into a narrative that you are constructing, instead of the merciful, gracious, abundant story that Jesus is inviting you into.
That is not to say this is easy; it’s not; it’s hard work, but in the end, it’s a whole lot easier to let go than to hold. Most of the time, that bag of resentment just gets heavier the longer we hold onto it. And which is easier, to expend energy to keep holding that heavy sack of tangled, vengeful, festering resentment, or to release it and let it go? What energy could be set free if we let go? What energy could be set free if we let that resentment be uprooted? What energy could be set free if we allowed the story to change and didn’t cling to the narratives we’ve constructed about the one who hurt us? What energy could be set free if we let forgiveness sink its roots deep in our souls and psyches; what might grow from those roots?
Can you imagine what might shift in Washington if every member of Congress had genuine concern for each other when they miss the mark, and experiencing that concern from their fellow member, the offending member then found themselves free to exercise the virtue of repentance, the virtue of changing their mind? Can you imagine what might grow in Washington if the members of Congress practiced letting go of their resentments and their storylines and sunk roots of forgiveness instead, and not just once, but what if they went through this process repetitively, like seven times a day if that’s what it took? Can you imagine?
Oh, it seems impossible, and so we cry with the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith!” “It just takes a mustard seed’s worth,” is Jesus’ reply which is his way of saying, “It is in your reach. It just takes a small beginning, a willingness somewhere, anywhere, to let go and take that first step away from the practice of resentment and take that first step toward the practice of forgiveness. Start where you are. Start with yourself. Start with your family. Start with your community. And once you start, those ripples will spread far and wide, and pretty soon, together, we will uproot those tentacles of resentment and dissension and hate. Pretty soon, we will see a new tree take root and grow.” Jesus says, “This isn’t optional; this is the work I have called you to do. But don’t despair. Don’t give up. You are made to forgive, and all it takes is a mustard seed’s worth of faith to begin.” Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
October 6, 2013