Saturday, October 2, 2010

Luke 17:5-10

Mustard Seed Size Faith
03 October 2010

During the time we lived on Guam Cheryl and I were fortunate enough to spend two weeks vacationing in Cairns, Queensland, Australia.

I could go on for hours about how wonderful Australia is and how much we enjoyed our time and the people there. (It was a much needed break from the pressure cooker we were in.) One of the surprises to us were the beaches in this tropical paradise. All of the swimming areas are protected by a series of nets that go out into the ocean for perhaps 20 or 30 meters.

Now you might think that the nets are there to protect people from crocodiles, sharks, or barracudas.

And I suppose they may discourage those creatures. But they are really designed to keep the box jellyfish from coming in contact with swimmers.

The box jellyfish is about the size of a thumbnail and nearly impossible to see in the water. Each fish has about 25 tentacles. And each tentacle has about half a million little harpoon shaped needles which inject venom into its victim. The venom from some species causes itching and mild pain. But the poison from some varieties can be enough to kill a man.

Just the smallest prick from a box jellyfish – often invisible to the eye – is enough to kill a big man.

Small object – big impact.

Or maybe you know of people who have used Botox for cosmetic purposes. What most people don't realize is that a mere speck of pure botulinum toxin—the key ingredient in Botox—is powerful enough to kill an adult.

Small object – big impact

In our scripture this morning Jesus gives a small object – big impact object lesson – albeit a bit more silly than box jellyfish – or even botox.

Look with me at Luke 17:5 “The apostles said to the Lord, “Show us how to increase our faith.”

The context is a discussion that Jesus is having with his disciples about avoiding sin – and the impact of sin. He goes on to say, however, that if someone repents of their sin there should be radical forgiveness of a kind that we can't even quantify.

The disciples appear to be a bit overwhelmed by this teaching and they turn to Jesus and ask for an increase in their faith –- an increase in their allowance -- presumably so they could do what Jesus was asking of them.

Verse 6 “The Lord answered, ‘If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘May you be uprooted and thrown into the sea,’ and it would obey you!”

In the ancient word a mustard seed was proverbial for something really really small.

Elsewhere Jesus talks about his kingdom as being like a mustard seed which when it grows big provides a roost for large birds. It may look small to you now but the impact will be big.

The mulberry tree was one of the largest trees in the middle east. Huge (and messy) -– and their roots and shoots creep all over the place. It's really hard to get rid of a mulberry.

So, the apostles ask for more faith. But Jesus' response sounds a bit like he didn't quite hear the question right. I'm guessing that the disciples were thinking he should have turned up his hearing aid.

How exactly does Jesus respond to their request – which seems reasonable enough.

Does he say, “I want you to dig deep within yourself so you can discover the inner strength of faith that lays hidden within your being”?

Or does he send them off on some kind of epic quest – a trip to Mount Doom to dispose of the ring or an adventure to gain a secret key or rescue a maiden – all a pretext for character development.

Or does Jesus give them some kind of secret formula for faith? Follow these three steps and you'll get more faith.

No – instead he gives them a small object – big impact illustration.

Eugene Peterson's Message paraphrase of verse 6 is outstanding.

“But the Master said, ‘You don't need more faith. There is no “more” or “less” in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, “Go jump in the lake,” and it would do it.’”

Of course, Jesus is being a bit hyperbolic.

There is probably no good reason to command a tree to uproot and jump into the sea. But that's not really the point.

Jesus is using a common form of ancient oversize humor. He gets them laughing.

As he is talking, the apostles are all picturing how silly it would be for a huge tree to pull itself from the ground and to start running along holding its roots up like a skirt.

The point isn't that we should go about practicing faith by creating spectacles –- putting on a silly show -- by telling trees to uproot –- rather that WE SHOULD EXPECT THAT EVEN SMALL FAITH CAN HAVE A BIG IMPACT. (key idea)

You see, the disciples were asking Jesus to fill their gas tanks with more faith. But he was telling them how to get more miles per gallon on the fuel he had already given to them. Half a gallon will be enough if you drive the way I'm telling you.

We tend to think that we need a lot of spirituality and maturity –- or we get reluctant to try anything significant. And then if our tanks aren’t full we're tempted to think that the whole God thing isn't working. We have doubts and struggles –- things get messy along the way. We stall out.

This is an indirect way of blaming God for not giving us enough faith – or spiritual fuel.

But look again at how Jesus encourages his disciples to get with his program. They don't need to wait around for some kind of epiphany or super duper spiritual experience. They don't need a secret Jesus decoder ring. They don’t need MORE faith!

The way that Jesus phrases his response implies that the disciples already had plenty of the necessary faith. He is saying that they had what they needed. They just weren't using it.
The disciples didn't need more faith – they needed more faithfulness.

We tend to think in big and grandiose terms. And as I've worked with people from around the world I've come to realize that this is especially true with Americans.

We are inclined to think that big works best and that if you're not doing something really big brand and flashy it isn't real faith.

If we're doing something grand we feel important. But if we are acting in faith in small ways – on a mustard seed level – then there isn't much audience validation.

So we say, Lord, fill me with real faith so that I can dazzle the millions of people watching me on TV or at least on YouTube!

If I can't be in the big leagues I'm not sure I want to play.

God you need to give me more faith so I can make more of an impression – or if we're noble, to have more of an impact on the needs of the world.

Now, Jesus certainly is not suggesting that we should avoid big acts of faith. Only that when we define faith is such grand terms then we feel like we can never measure up – then we'll never be ready to have enough faith to do what God wants done. We want to do big impression things, so we want big faith.

I suspect that was what the apostles were thinking when they asked Jesus to help them develop faith.

They wanted to know which conference and training program they should attend. They wanted to know which program to follow -- which rally would change their spiritual batteries.

But instead of sending them on a life changing epic quest or enrolling them in a leadership development program –- he simply suggests that they exercise the little faith they already have –- that they do something with it – because even a little has big impact.

You'll be able to tell the trees to go jump in the lake.

Now, having said all of this, we also need to recognize that there is more implied in Jesus' answer.

It is a bit subtle.

If a teeny tiny amount of faith can move a big tree how much more can we expect to happen if we have walnut size faith or basketball size faith.

Small faith = big impact
Big faith = huge impact

Big isn't the enemy. Small isn't better. Size isn't really the point, contrary to the email in my spam box.


The first is Proportion or perhaps DISPROPORTION -– because we're trusting in a big God we can expect big things in disproportion to the amount of trust we exercise.

That is, we're always going to end up with a result that is bigger than, and in excess of, what we have put into it.

You see, in some ways this isn't about the disciples at all. It's about God himself – the object of the faith.

When we hesitate it's not really that they we’re sensing our own inadequacy but that they were not sensing God's adequacy.

The children sing a song: “My God is so big –- so strong and so mighty there's nothing my God cannot do.”

If we’d started reading at the beginning of the Gospel we would have already heard already heard this message in the very first chapter of Luke – 1:37 “For nothing is impossible with God.”

Then in Matthew 19:26 we read, “Jesus looked at them intently and said, ‘Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”

This is about the nature and power of God -– which he graciously allows us to tap into by faith.
If you take even a small mustard see size step forward, trusting in God, he can use it in great ways. To you, it looks like nothing – but to a powerful God even a mustard seed is a great asset. Small object – big impact. Disproportionately so.

Secondly, this discussion is really about the nature of faith – rather what it looks like – practically speaking.

That is, the second word is: FAITHFULNESS

Check out the story starting at vs. 7 --“When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, ‘Come in and eat with me’?

No, he says, ‘Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later. And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not. In the same way, when you obey me you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.’”

Exercising faith – whether big or small isn't a matter of putting on a show and making bold statements and claiming big things on TV – rather it is the humble, invisible, routine, day-in-and day out business of serving.

The disciples were asking for faith – - Jesus was saying if you act faithfully you've already got it. It’s not so much about having big ideas for God – lots of faith as it is about living faithfully with what you’ve got.

Now, of course this sounds better in a sermon than in real life. Because in real life serving day in and day out can be extremely wearing.

Hard work -- no one giving out achievement awards or bonuses

There is no glamor or romance in humble service.

No limelight -- just day in, day out work -- duty.

It’s like when you start to think about having children. It sounds so great -- exciting -- and full of warm fuzzys.

When people find out it’s going to happen then everyone is excited and affirming.

But then come the sleepless nights, the days you miss work to take care of a sick child, the terrible twos, the spent diapers on whining children, the isolation if you’re a stay at home parent. Maybe your spouse doesn’t notice how much you’re doing -- or seem to care.

You end up having to put off a lot of the things that interest you so you can care first for the family.

But you carry on because you know that’s what you need to do. You faithfully do what you’re called to do -- trusting that it is all going to be worthwhile -- at least eventually. (And it is.)

So, here we are this morning -- a mustard seed size church where some of us are already wearing two or three hats. Yeah, it’s still exciting and the newness is fun.

God is going to bless it -- probably in ways we can’t imagine. But like in life in general -- the blessing is related to faithfulness -- faithfulness in the small things -- the small routine or even mundane things done in humbleness without whining or bickering.

Like Christ himself – as described in Philippians 2
“In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

So, where are you in this story? Are you standing over with the clueless disciples begging for more faith?

Or are you on the other side – so busy being faithful with what you've got that you not so interested in asking for more? You don't need it!

There is a certain paradox here. As we act faithfully we grow in our faith and capacity to trust God.

There was a story in the San Franciso Chronicle two weeks ago about pediatrician Dr Joanne Jie-eun Jeung. Joanne, a Korean-American, graduated from Harvard, then went to UC Berkeley to get a masters degree in social medicine -- and then across the Bay to UCSF to get her MD.

Her husband Russell is a professor at San Francisco State.

They made the newspaper because they have chosen to live in a troubled gang-infested mostly immigrant East Oakland neighborhood as a part of New Hope Covenant Church.

This a small church which is literally transforming that community. (See the link on my blog last week.)

The Jeungs could have gone to the suburbs and set-up a nice safe medical office, made lots of money -- and made all their relatives proudly envious of their success.

But they’re intentionally living in a place where bullets occasionally fly and bad people wander the street in front on their home.

The newspaper article states:
“The last thing they want for their (preschool) son is a sense of entitlement. ‘You can tell your kid about equity, but we're trying to model it,’ said Russell Jeung, who is Chinese American. ‘With my education, I was brought up to be competitive, not compassionate. I value compassion more and that's what I want for Mathew, who will go to public schools...’”

I know their pastor, Dan Schmitz. He also organized some of the neighbors to sue a slumlord who had created a squalor environment by ignoring maintenance issues.

We’re talking about a situation where raw sewage ran into the building, rats ran rampant, mold was common.

The tenants split a $1 million settlement and the apartment building was rebuilt.

The Juengs and the church have also organized neighbors to drive out crack dealers. They set up a preschool for the neighborhood. They do tutoring. Joanne works with a lot of mental health issues.

She and Russell -- and the New Hope Covenant Church, aren’t a part of some high profile social movement. I’m surprised that the newspaper even figured out that they were there. They tend to fly under the radar.

They're really a mustard seed size operation. The church only averages 81 in attendance. But through their faithfulness they have been used by God to not only transform the lives of individuals who are meeting Christ but also of their entire community.

Their influence is way greater than their mustard seed size.

Small Church – big impact.

Might it be with us – and you, as well.

There is an affirmation of faith printed in the bulletin. I would invite you to take a glance at it – then in a minute we're going to join together and read it in unison.

We confess our fear and failure —- the sin that prevents us from fully participating in God’s kingdom and agenda. Our faith seems so terribly small. However, we confess that it is enough —- that even the smallest faith is enough to join in God’s song of grace. For we are trusting in someone so powerful that even mustard seed size faith gets things moving. We are trusting in you Christ Jesus —- the Son of God, Savior of the world, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords!

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