The Mustard Seed – Luke 17:1-10
We are all familiar with the mustard seed in the gospels. Jesus used the mustard seed as a parable for the Kin-dom of God (Matt 13:31-32; Mk 4:30-32; Luke 13:18- 19). In these contexts, we learn that signs of the Kin-dom of God can be small, miniscule, tiny and be sown into something wonderful and broad like mustard shrub. We learn that sometimes the Kin-dom is hidden, like a seed in the ground, and that it takes time for it to take root and grow into something meaningful. And we learn that God often exceeds our expectations about what he can do with only very little.
Jesus also used the mustard seed as a metaphor of faith. When the disciples ask that Jesus increase their faith (Luke 17:5), Jesus tells them that if they had faith as a tiny little mustard seed, they would be able to do the impossible: uproot a mulberry tree and have it take root in the sea. In Mathew Jesus tells the disciples that even faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains.
In Luke’s gospel, the saying of the mustard seed and faith is placed within a short series of teachings about discipleship: don’t be the cause of another person’s fall (17:1-2), forgive – again and again even if he fails you 7 times a day and seven times asks for forgiveness, you should forgive, this is Luke’s version of the 70x7 which is the line right before today’s reading. (17:4), even small faith is sufficient (17:5-6), and discipleship isn’t about reward (17:7-10).
I’m sure you have all heard many sermons on the mustard seed – of how God can do a lot with just a little, or of how God’s Kin-dom appears to be tiny but actually has tremendous potential. I really don’t have anything new to add to the metaphor. But I think it was last year, while in Petaluma, I had a picture of a mustard shrub. Have you ever seen one? They can get taller than me. However, because of their familiarity, it might be easy for us to read quickly over the passages about mustard seeds, thereby missing what God might want to be saying to us today about faith and the kin-dom. So, Inspired by a sermon By d Benson,what I would like to do this morning is propose a series of ‘what ifs’, to re-set the scene of the mustard seed and perhaps help us think freshly about what the saying might mean for us today.
What If... Jesus was implying that the faith of the disciples was even less than that of the size of a mustard seed? And still, God could do something with that. …The reality of a mulberry bush being uprooted and planted in the sea is assumed to be untrue for the sake of the argument. Mulberry bushes simply don’t behave that way. The suggestion that is perhaps being made to the disciples is that if faith the size of a mustard seed could accomplish the utterly improbable (moving mountains, or uprooting a mulberry tree and replanting it in the sea), imagine what God could do with even less? It is unclear as to whether Jesus was chastising the disciples for their lack of faith or if he was just trying to reassure them, the point isn’t about how much faith we have (a little or a lot), but about what God does according to his own will, his own purposes, and his own Kin-dom rule. Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes in the face of the utter doubt of the disciples. What if
the mustard seed is really about the power of God in the face of something so small it might as well not exist? Such as 12 men some strong women standing against an empire?
What If... the faith that Jesus is talking about with respect to the mustard seed isn’t necessarily about something we believe God can do but about being faithful in the small things? In many instances when the bible talks about faith, it is talking about faithfulness: active participation in and obedience to God’s covenant with his people that is modeled after Christ’s own faithfulness to the Creator. Faithfulness is about faithful, loving obedience. I find it curious that the saying that follows the disciples’ request for Jesus to increase their faith is about a servant/slave who is doing his job as a servant and shouldn’t expect any special treatment for doing what he was supposed to be doing anyway. The servant/slave was actively doing his job according to the will of his master. He was being faithful. That in itself shouldn’t be remarkable or extraordinary. That’s just what you do. That’s just what is expected of each of us.
I wonder how often we feel disappointed or overlooked when we go about our daily lives being as faithfully obedient as we can be, and no one seems to notice, much less God. And because we feel undervalued, we start to get resentful because we aren’t getting the acknowledgment (or the break) we believe we are entitled to. And then we start getting judgmental about all the other people out there who aren’t doing as much as we are to be faithful, loving disciples. And then we end up being frustrated and bitter and self-righteous. All because we were doing what we were supposed to be doing in the first place – being faithful, obedient servants of Jesus. If you think about it… it the issue of being a prodigal brother.
Theologian David Lose says that faith (or faithfulness) is like a muscle – it needs to be worked, exercised or it atrophies. It becomes rigid stiff and limited in its movement.
What if... Jesus was reminding us that the reward of God’s Kin-dom reign among us might be good enough? And what if Jesus were telling us that if we were more faithful in the small things (more attentive, intentional servant disciples), God might grow a pretty amazing Kin-dom out of it?
What if... Jesus was encouraging us to move forward in faithfulness, even when we don’t see any evidence of it or we do not see the Kin-dom in front of us, or when the evidence we do see is so small it might as well be invisible. There is a powerful scene that demonstrates this idea in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. On his journey to discover and protect the Holy Grail, Dr. Jones the younger (Harrison Ford) must literally step out in faith off the side of a cliff, trusting that something will keep him from falling into the abyss below. There is absolutely no sign of a bridge, or of any other way across, but he steals himself for the step, takes a big breath, scrunches up his face, and does it anyway. It’s not so much that the leap of faith was remarkably heroic that I think is important for us today. Instead, I wonder how many times we allow what we can’t see to hold us back from trusting God to be God. Sometimes we look out over that abyss and don’t see any way across. And that abyss can be anything: not enough money to pay the bills or buy groceries, sensing that God is calling you to something wonderful but not seeing how it can be done, repairing a broken relationship, the difficulty to keep forgiving, or to overcome an addiction. But what if there is a way, even if it is so small, we can’t see it, or so extraordinary that we can’t believe it. What if we stopped limiting the outworking of God’s Kin-dom in our midst to our own imaginations and what we can readily see? What if we trusted that God’s power is beyond our imagination? Might we be just as surprised as if we were to see a mulberry tree uprooted and planted in the sea?
There is a constant call that churches and congregations must struggle with. That is do we step boldly in faith and trust in God? Or do we over analyze everything, panic about where the money may come from or do we hold our breathe and wait for God to do it?
As we move into communion, this meal is a mustard seed meal. It seems small and insignificant. What goes on here sometimes seems invisible. We don’t understand the miracle of it. We don’t see how God can be doing anything with us or in us in these simple elements of bread and juice. Perhaps this meal seems so meaningless to us that it might as well be invisible – a non-thing? But what if this meal was about God’s power and not what we do?
This simple meal. This intentional of taking bread and juice together can be taken for granted. But being world communion Sunday, we know there are places in the world where on a Sunday the piece of bread one receives may be all they have to eat that day.
Last year in the Congo there was an outbreak of the Ebola virus. There is no cure for Ebola and it is easily spread. What would you do as a church if this was what you had to face of a Sunday?
“To begin with, hand washing stands were placed outside each church in Mbandaka. When the time for communion came, the elders prayed over the emblems as usual and then brought them down in front of the pulpit. The ushers dismissed each pew to proceed to the front of the church to wash their hands again and receive an application of hand sanitizer. Then they could partake of the bread and the cup, depositing the empty cup into a bucket, and returning to their pew. The process was smooth and was in no way disruptive to the overall worship experience.” But one can see, almost feel, how sacred a crumb of bread can become.
So, what if in this meal something big and extraordinary is happening. People all over the world are taking part in this same sacrament this morning on World Communion Sunday. People all over the world are coming together as Christ’s body to proclaim the power of his resurrection and the breaking in of God’s Kin-dom among us. People all over the world are being empowered by the Spirit of Jesus to point to this great big mustard plant Kin-dom with branches enough for everyone.
What if in this meal the Kin-dom is sown in us, too tiny to be seen. A planting of grace – of sacrifice and love and new life. Let’s taste and see what the Lord has done. 
And so today…to honor the sacred…to honor the Christians all over the world with their multiple understandings, their different dogma, we will lift the one thing that joins us together, the one bread that makes us one body, we will come up to receive comunion…