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Planting Trees in the Sea

October 4, 2016

“Planting Trees in the Sea” Luke 17:1-10 © 10.2.16 Ordinary 27 C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

On an October day in 75,000,000 BC, two rodents named Jim Bob and Betty Sue scurried for the cover of some rocks to avoid a thundering herd of duckbills. The stampede could only mean that a T. Rex or a six-pack of Velociraptors was not far behind. All the more reason to get out of the way before the two mammals became an hors d’oeuvre for a carnivore.

That evening the two sat in their den, with CNN—Cretaceous Network News—on the tube. There was the usual talk about how for the umpteenth straight day the weather was cooler than normal. That was followed by a piece on continental drift and a telescope image of a large space body that was heading for the planet. But Jim Bob wasn’t paying much attention. Betty Sue noticed his mood and curled up next to him. “What’s wrong, honey?” “Oh, I’m just tired of this rat race. Every day we run from this, hide from that. When do we get to stop playing second fiddle to a bunch of dinosaurs?” Betty Sue, ever the optimist, held her mate’s paw and offered a word of hope: “I know you’re feeling down. I do, too, sometimes. It sounds impossible now, but I believe one day all this will be ours; the mammals will inherit the earth.” Jim Bob wasn’t convinced: “Dream on, baby. Dream on.”

Fast-forward to just two thousand years ago and another conversation about the impossible. Right now, if hope were oil, the disciples would be a quart low. They were ready to throw in the towel on the business of following Jesus. What he asked was simply impossible. Who could be so circumspect as to anticipate the effect of actions on the faith of others? How could anyone bear the burden of protection of the weak and vulnerable from exploitation? What sort of love must it take to forgive so constantly and freely, and what kind of bravery must be required to rebuke a fellow believer who sinned? We join the chorus of the disciples: “Lord, increase our faith!” We can’t do it!

Jesus responded with an answer that is at once criticism and encouragement. On the one hand, he chided his friends for their blindness to the potential within them. But on the other, he assured them that no matter how meager their spiritual resources, they were in touch with a God who does the impossible. Instead of their inadequacies, let their focus be on the generosity of God, the power of God, the grace of God. It didn’t matter how small their faith might be as long as they believed in a big God. Faith no more significant than a tiny mustard seed would enable them to uproot a mulberry tree and fling it into the sea. Faith is like so much else that packs a punch in small packages. The atom with its potential for good and ill. A little box with an engagement ring inside. The key to your first car. A baby or a puppy that brings great challenges and lots of love. If the disciples lacked anything, if we do, it was and is the essential connection to the incredible potential of the Spirit within every believer. The faith that enables the impossible is, simply put, openness to God.

But why did Jesus choose a mulberry as the centerpiece of his answer? I think it was because in his day it was commonly said that the black mulberry could not be uprooted. The rabbis taught that the tree had a root system so complex it would take 600 years to pull it up. Yet, Jesus said, a mustard seed faith in a sovereign God could yank up such a tree and plant it in the ocean.

To believe such a statement is a challenge we modern-day disciples face every day as much or more than those of old. Aren’t there times when you and I start to give up on following Jesus? Don’t you wake up some mornings and wonder if you can make it through the day? Are you ever like I have been more than once in my life, convinced that you’re born to lose, to be inadequate, to be the victim of upbringing and environment? Like Hamlet, we fall under attack from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Despite our desire to be faithful, we fail over and over, lamenting with Paul that the things we want to do we don’t do and the things we shouldn’t do, that’s what we do. We can’t work and play well with others. We put obstacles in their paths that thwart relationships. We hold grudges and remember past faults, which we bring up at just the right time to humiliate and manipulate another. We find ourselves using our power not to build up the church or aid the vulnerable but merely to get our own way. And when someone does us wrong, we can neither forgive nor confront. “Lord, increase our faith!” we cry. “The roots of this tree keep holding on!”

Yet Jesus assures us that we already have what we need to do the impossible, because we are in covenant with an amazing and powerful God. What is required of us is faithful service to this God and patient endurance, as we are sustained by his Spirit. The impossible comes about when courageous people act on what they believe and set out to do what can’t be done. We find a way to cope with those complex and deep-rooted problems of personal life by resolutely acting on the belief that God is able to take care of them. Injustice is rooted out and oppressive systems are dismantled when people of faith venture out and try to change things.

How absurd! How can a relatively small cadre of committed people bring peace or work for justice in a society, in a world, enslaved to greed, lying, violence, and hatred? Words like “naïve” and “idealistic” could be and are readily applied to folk who steadily chip away at the problems that like trees refuse to budge. How unrealistic the vision of a day when there will be no more hunger, pain or death! How hard to find joy even in adversity, the presence of God in the midst of pain and difficulty! But it is the tenacious faithfulness of those who consider themselves to be just ordinary servants fulfilling their calling that will bring in the kingdom and do the impossible.

I invite you to recall Jim Bob and Betty Sue Rat. No one in their situation would have agreed with Betty Sue; they would have insisted that dinosaurs would go on forever. But indeed, mammals did inherit the earth; you and I are, after all, mammals. And some of the dinosaurs—we now call them birds—depend on us for food at the feeders in the back yard. That which was small and insignificant accomplished the impossible, despite the odds.

It was the determination and adaptability of the mammals that enabled them to assume rule when so much ancient life was forcibly removed from the scene by the impact of an asteroid and changing global conditions. It was the persistent flow of water and blowing of wind that ate away the rock to form the Grand Canyon. It is the faithfulness of God’s people to a great big God with a powerful dream that can make the impossible happen.

“Lord, increase our faith.” Jesus answered not by turning up the volume or filling their cups. Instead, he urged an ever-deepening relationship with a God who acts in amazing ways. He called for a fresh perception of the possibilities of trust in such a Sovereign. And he said that the way they would discover the faith within them, their potential for amazing accomplishments, was by acting faithfully in the Master’s service. No matter how fragile and halting the faith, such commitment would cause to be born in them new courage, new insight, new hope.

That is the word to us as well. The apparently impossible is accomplished by ordinary people convinced of the power of God. It’s done by folk rooted as deeply and broadly in faith as the mulberry is in the earth. It’s achieved by people who faithfully serve, even in the smallest of ways, until the tenacious trees of sin, injustice, and hatred are all planted in the sea, engulfed by the waves, never to be seen again.

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