Mulberry Trees and Mountains
October 3, 2010
Maude was a devout Catholic woman in her sixties. For most of her life, she desired to go and visit the holy places in Rome. But Maude was terrified of flying. She realized that she was not getting any younger, and, if she was ever going to make it to Rome, she would have to do it soon. So she summoned her courage and bought a ticket. When she walked onto the plane, she was wearing her largest cross as prevention against any disaster. As she took her seat, she noticed that a few rows back there were four bishops on the plane, obviously going to some meeting at the Vatican. This made Maude feel better. The flight started uneventfully. But after dinner there was a jolt, and Maude looked out the window to see that one of the four engines had detached from the plane and was disappearing into the clouds. She sounded the alarm: “We’re going to die!” she screamed. The captain came over the PA system and assured every one, that yes, they had lost an engine, but he was confident that they could complete the fight and safely land on three engines. This did not comfort Maude. She continued to yell out: “We’re going to die!” The stewardess came over to calm her. Noticing her cross, she took a religious approach. “Madame,” she said, “Please relax. God is with us. We do not need to fear. Besides we still have three engines and look, we have four bishops on the plane.” Maude responded, “I’d rather have four engines and three bishops.”
Given our choice, I think all of us would prefer certainty over faith. We would like to have something that we know for sure, something we can see and touch, rather than trusting that somehow God will provide. Faith is difficult. That is why the disciples in today’s gospel ask Jesus, “Increase our faith.” Jesus answers, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this Mulberry tree be uprooted and cast into the sea and it would obey you.” This must have been a favorite answer of Jesus because there is a version in another gospel that says: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, be uprooted and cast into the sea and it would obey you” (Matt 17:20).
Now despite Jesus’ attraction to this answer, it is not very clear what he is saying. What does it mean to have faith the size of a mustard seed? Does it mean having a little bit of faith? Well, the disciples already had faith the size of a mustard seed. Why were there not mulberry trees and mountains flying around them? There must be another meaning to “mustard seed faith.”
Perhaps Jesus is pointing to a faith the size of a mustard seed because he wants to contrast it with another kind of faith. Perhaps he associates the mustard seed with the little bit of faith that is required to believe in the dramatic changes in our lives, things as obvious as flying Mulberry trees. Perhaps he points to mustard seed size faith to call us to a deeper and simpler faith. We all prefer the dramatic. How wonderful would it be, if we asked God for something and found that it was immediately given to us? If we were unemployed and prayed for a job, wouldn’t it be gratifying if the phone rang immediately with an job offer? If we were worried about a son who was abusing alcohol and prayed that he would stop, how happy we would be the next time we saw him he told us that he was joining AA? If we were fighting with a deadly cancer and prayed for a healing, how great would it be if our next medical exam showed that we were cancer-free? These would all be wonderful dramatic changes in our circumstances. And do not get me wrong, I think that there are times when faith does operate in this way, when people’s circumstances are dramatically changed. I have seen such marvels and I know they are real.
But the majority of the time, a different and deeper faith is necessary. Usually, when we ask for something, things do not dramatically change. Mulberry trees don’t fly. Phones don’t ring. That is why I think Jesus is directing us to a different kind of faith, a faith that is more subtle and every bit as real. What if you were looking for a job and did not immediately find one, but somehow you received the grace to avoid discouragement and increase thankfulness for and enjoyment of your family? What if your son did not immediately stop drinking, but you found the strength to stop enabling him and at the same time convey to him your unconditional love? What if you did not receive a rapid cure for cancer, but you found the courage to endure the treatment, avoid the bitterness, and discover a sense of peace even in the face of death?
Now this kind of faith is not dramatic. It does not flip nature on its head. It does not send Mulberry trees flying into the sea. But it is the necessary faith on which we survive from day to day. Dramatic miracles can happen. But this deeper faith must happen if we are going to live a full and rewarding life. That is why Jesus ties the little faith of the mustard seed to the dramatic and the unexpected. He wants to remind us that there is another kind of faith where what changes is not our circumstances but ourselves. Faith can move mountains, but it can also move our hearts.
The Faith of Honeybees
October 6, 2013
A honeybee is not very big. As you walk around in the summer, you have to look closely to see the bee moving quickly from one flower to another. If a particular bee were to be suddenly eaten by a bird-of-prey, or washed away in a rush of water, the loss of that bee would not seem that significant. A single bee is not that important.
But bees together have a tremendous influence on our life. They are the glue that binds together our agricultural system. One out of every three bites of food that we eat comes to us through the pollination of fruits and vegetables by honeybees. A bee on a single trip from the hive can visit over a hundred different blooms. To create one pound of honey, the colony of bees has to fly fifty-five thousand miles and visit over two million flowers.
As an example from nature, the honeybee demonstrates how a very small creature can have a tremendous result. Jesus never mentions honeybees in the gospels. But there are several times when he mentions the mustard seed. The mustard seed seems to be what Jesus points to in nature to show how small things can have immense effects. He does so in today’s gospel. He does so in the context of faith.
The apostles say to him, “Increase our faith.” They are speaking for us. They are speaking for us in all the times when we feel that our faith is insufficient, when our faith is too small. Perhaps we’ve lost someone we loved deeply and we question, “Will I really see that person again in heaven?” Perhaps we have lost our job, or our marriage, or our health and we ask, ”Does God really care? Is it even worth my time to ask for help?” Perhaps we look around us and see how much violence and greed and hatred exists, and we say, “How can I believe that God is in charge or that there is any reason to hope for a more just or a more peaceful world?” We know what the scriptures say and we know the promises that God has made to us. But there are times when those promises seem too good to be true. Like the disciples, we say, “Increase our faith,” because our faith is too small.
Now Jesus says in the gospel today that small faith is sufficient. He says that if we have faith the size of mustard seed, however little that seed may be, it still can have great results. But Jesus’ words seem naïve. How can mustard-seed-sized faith be enough? We do not feet that it is enough. That is why we feel we need more faith. How can our small faith be sufficient?
Here is where the honeybee might help. Honeybees do not have power as individuals. But they are a part of a hive, and those hives together are the glue of our agricultural system. So too, when we look at ourselves as isolated creatures, our faith is small, very small. But Jesus tells us is that when we feel the smallness of our faith, then it is time that we draw upon the faith of others. When we become discouraged about the world around us, it is time to look at the people in our life who we love and who can give us energy and hope. If we lose our job or our health, it is not time to go it alone. It is time to draw upon the strength of the people who respect and support us. When we doubt whether there really is a heaven, it is time that we turn to the people around us whose faith is stronger than ours and draw on their strength.
Our faith might be the size of a mustard seed but we are not an isolated plant. We are a Church, a part of a community of believers. As a community of believers, we need to draw upon one another for faith and hope. That is why the honeybee is a useful image. Alone, our faith is much too small. But it is still sufficient. It still has power, because we do not fly alone.
Faith and Duty
October 2, 2016
Do you think more people would believe in Jesus if we could move mulberry trees? Jesus says in today’s gospel, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.” Now if we could do that do you think more people would become Christian? If we could say to people, “I know you don’t have any religious faith but watch this. . .” and immediately a tree would go flying into the sea. Would they believe then? They might.
But they would certainly believe if we were able to say, “My spouse has cancer, and it’s killing the both of us. But I have faith. So I say, ‘Be healed.’” And the cancer would disappear.” Or if we could say, “My son always struggles with self-worth and it hurts me. But I have faith. So I’m going to say, ‘Change.’” And suddenly he becomes a confident and happy person.” Or if we could say, “Our country is divided because of racial differences, and it’s not good for us. But I have faith. So I say, ‘Unite!’” And suddenly racism disappears from our shores. If we could make those kinds of commands and see them immediately followed, who wouldn’t believe?
But you and I know that faith does not work that way. Faith does not give us some magical formula by which we can bring about the good things we want in our lives. So why does Jesus talk to us about mulberry trees? Jesus uses vivid language to seize our attention and to make a point. The point he’s trying to make with the flying mulberry tree is that faith is real—faith can make a difference in our lives. You see, the image is not meant to convert people to faith in Jesus. It is intended for us who already believe to assure us that our faith in him is not wasted. If we have faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed, it can change things.
Now, faith of course is surrender. It is handing over to God our entire lives and all of our needs. It is a surrender that acknowledges that when we give our lives to God, God will not in some magical way give us all that we want. But when we do hand over the people that we love to God’s care, when we do surrender the needs of our lives, that action of faith is real, as real as uprooting a mulberry tree from the ground.
Once we surrender ourselves to God in faith, then the gospel tells us to do our job. That is why after the saying about the mulberry tree in today’s gospel we hear a series of sayings about being servants. Because, once we have placed the people we love in God’s care, once we have surrendered ourselves to God’s love, then we should do what we are expected to do.
The pattern then that comes from today’s gospel is faith and duty. Once we have handed over our spouse and the cancer to the Lord, then we do our duty and live as a spouse who is encouraging, supporting, and loving. Once we surrender our son and his poor self-confidence to God, then we do our duty to be the best parent we can be. Once we tell God how much the racial divisions of our country disturb us and need to change, then we do our duty as a citizen. We try to elect officials and support programs that promote unity, and understanding, and peace.
The pattern of today’s gospel is faith and duty. It asks us to surrender the people we love and all of our needs to God’s care, and then do our job. This gospel assures us that our faith in God’s power can make a difference. We cannot move mulberry trees. But God can. So, does it not make sense to trust that God’s power in our life is real?
The Two Percent Solution
October 6, 2019
The apostles in today’s gospel are worried about their faith. Perhaps they are beginning to realize that when they arrive in Jerusalem, events will lead to the cross. Maybe it is beginning to dawn on them, how much strength they will need if they are to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. Whatever the reason, they are feeling short on faith. So they say to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” They are not confident that the faith they have is enough. The apostles’ fear is ours as well. When we look forward to the challenges we will have to face, the problems that lie on the horizon, how can be sure that our faith will be strong enough to get us through?
One of the blessings of being a priest is that you are able to walk with people through crisis situations. One of the most tragic situations that I’ve ever faced concerned a woman from my former parish of St. Noel. We will call her Sharon. Sharon was 30 years old, married with two small children, 3 and 6 years old. She was diagnosed with an aggressive and deadly form of cancer. For ten months, I visited Sharon as she faced one invasive procedure after another, as her pain increased, and as she in time resigned herself to her upcoming death. In every one of those meetings, I was impressed by the strength of her faith. She would often say, “I know that Jesus is with me, and I’m sure he will never let me go.” When I spoke to Sharon for the last time, a few days before her death, I shared with her what a deep impression her faith had made on me. In all honesty, I said, “Sharon, if I had to face what you have faced, I am not sure I would have had enough faith to deal with it.” She smiled at me and said, “When I was first diagnosed, I panicked. I said to myself, ‘I will never be strong enough to deal with this.’ But, Father, here is what I have learned. If you can pull together even two percent of the faith you need, God will provide the rest.”
I think Jesus would agree with Sharon’s statement. Because in today’s gospel, he tells the disciples that their faith need only be as big as a mustard seed, only a little bit of faith. That will be sufficient. That makes today’s gospel one of confidence and hope. If you are facing a crisis in your family, for which you can see no solution—a marriage coming apart at the seams, a child or a grandchild who has lost their way—Jesus asks to pull together just a little faith. That will make a difference. If you are bereft by the loss of someone you loved in life and can see no future ahead of you, if you look into the future and realize that if you live into your 90’s your health is going to fail, your strength will be reduced, and you will be dependent on others, Jesus says, “Gather together whatever faith you can find, and give it to me. We will face the future together.”
Sometimes we think that our faith has to be like that of Mary and the angels in heaven in order to cope with life. Jesus tells us today that it does not. Our faith need only be as big as a mustard seed. That will be enough, because God will make up the difference.