— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~17th Sunday after Pentecost~~~
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.”
The car trip down to the beach set the tone for the outing. My father and I played golf together every now and then. I cannot remember exactly why this particular outing materialized but we went to Sandestin, Florida to meet some of his friends and we were going to play golf. I guess it was a business trip for Dad but he took the opportunity to bring me along to play golf with him and his buddies. At that point in my life, I’m thinking late high school, I could hit the ball a mile but which direction was a real question mark. (Now I don’t hit it as far but which direction stays a real question mark.)
But here’s the thing… during the car ride down from Montgomery to the beaches of Florida, my Dad went on and on about how much water there was on the golf course. He went hole by hole describing the hazards in front of you. Hole number one you have water all along the right side of the fairway; so, don’t slice. Hole number two you have a lake in front of the green; so, don’t hit it short. Hole number five has a creek in the middle of the fairway; so, hit it a long way to carry that water. On and on it went. My dad was excited and happy to have me with him but, man alive, by the time we were teeing off the first hole I was a basket case. I must have hit a dozen golf balls in the water that day.
Here’s why this memory surfaced for me this week. This passage in Luke where Jesus tells the disciples – “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.” I have always tended to read this passage as a criticism of the disciples. I have always tended to hear it as Jesus saying to his closest followers, who had just heard Jesus talking about the demands of discipleship and the call to be a forgiving people, as pointing to the shortcomings of his inner circle. Something along the lines of … “oh, you spiritual duffs, if you just had the sense of a common houseplant, the tiniest amounts of faith, you could do amazing things. As it is your helpless.” Maybe not that harsh, but nevertheless a criticism. And I have read it wrong for decades.
What I have come to understand this week by reading carefully a couple of commentaries on this passage is that the Greek form of “if” can cut two ways. One way to use the term “if” in Greek means something like “If I were you… (and I’m not)”– the “if” in this use is contrary to fact. The other way “if” is used in the Greek language can mean something according to fact; so, “If Jesus is Lord (and he is.) In verse the “if” is the second type – and I’m going with the commentaries because “what I don’t know about Greek is a lot!”– is something along the lines of “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed (and you do) you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Read this way Jesus was saying to the disciples and to us – a little faith will make big things happen, and you have the faith you need! Don’t despair.
If my father had wanted to talk like Jesus he might have said – “Son, you got the shots you need to hit what is the majority of the golf course… grass!” And I might have heard “You can do this!” instead of hearing an implied criticism of my inability to hit the ball where I wanted it to go. And maybe a dozen or more golf balls would not have gone to their watery grave.
In all seriousness,
we live in a world that can overcome us
and lead us to despair that our faith and faithful actions
are mere drops of goodness upon an evil sea.
We live in a world with corruption and darkness
that can seem beyond our abilities to make a difference.
We live in a world that seems destined
to break down decent people
and allow the unrighteous to thrive.
Jesus tells us to keep the faith
and it will rise like a seed planted in good soil.
Jesus tells us that we have what we need to make a difference.
Jesus tells us to embody goodness
even when the wrong seems oft so strong
and to trust God to bring to fruition God’s purposes
of love and righteousness and light.
I think what Jesus is saying
with the image of faith the size of the mustard seed
is echoing the psalmist –
Do not fret yourself because of evildoers;
do not be jealous of those who do wrong.
For they shall soon wither like the grass,
and like the green grass fade away.
The LORD will make your righteousness
as clear as the light and your just dealing as the noonday.
There was an inspiring story on the radio a few weeks ago from a professor of Public Health at John’s Hopkins University. The story went this way…
Plenty of research shows that adverse childhood experiences can lead to depression and other health problems later in life. But researcher Christina Bethell wondered whether positive experiences in childhood could counter that. Her research comes from a personal place.
In the 1970s, in a low-income housing complex in Los Angeles, Bethell had a tough childhood. Sometimes she didn’t have money for lunch. Sometimes, when a free bus came through to take kids to church, she would get on it, just to go somewhere else. “In low-income areas and in California in general, there was a lot of drugs and drinking — it was the norm,” she says.
But there were positive things in her childhood too. Her grandmother would come by every few months and tell her that anything she needed was inside her. She was engaged in school; she played sports, and she stayed late to help the teacher clean up.
And there was a woman in her housing complex with an open door to all the kids who lived there. They called her “Mrs. Raccoon,” and she held a birthday party with tea and candy every Saturday for whoever had a birthday that week. “We would just sit there together and celebrate,” Bethell recalls. “She was the sweetest woman — just present, didn’t talk a lot, but she was there. I started just traipsing over as a child — she had these little red berry hard candies, and to this day, that’s my favorite candy.”
…Her study, out Monday (Sept. 9, 2019) in JAMA Pediatrics, found that this kind of positive relationship in childhood may have lasting effects on people’s mental health into adulthood.
Professor Bethell concludes: Getting into the numbers, we found that having higher counts of those positive experiences was associated with 72% lower odds of having depression or poor mental health overall as an adult. We also found that those with higher levels of positive experiences were over 3 1/2 times more likely to have all the social and emotional support they needed as an adult.
What are the lessons people can take from these findings?
Every moment matters. Every interaction with a child has a reaction in that child. Even as we keep working to address the many social and cultural factors we need to address to prevent negative experiences, we should be focused on proactive promotion of the positive. In particular, there’s a need to promote that “through any door” kind way of being — like happened in my childhood [with Mrs. Raccoon]. So that wherever a child goes — to school, early care, walking around their community, to a doctor — they’re met with warm adults who purposely try to see and respond to them and meet their needs for care and guidance (NPR, “All Things Considered,” September 9, 2019).
That is pretty simple, right?
Let us never doubt that we have enough faith
to make a difference in this world.
Let us never doubt that small things
can lead to bigger things.
Let us never doubt that acts of love and kindness
done with faith in the God of all creation
will be a part of God’s kingdom come.
So, let us keep the faith,
even if it is only the size of a mustard seed.