Sermon Seeds: Increase Our Faith
Sunday, October 2, 2022
Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost | Year C
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Lamentations 1:1–6 and Lamentations 3:19–26 or Psalm 137
Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4 and Psalm 37:1–9
2 Timothy 1:1–14
Increase Our Faith
In and With: Like Clay (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
Jesus is having a conversation about seeds and trees in response to a simple yet complicated request from his disciples to increase their faith. It’s simple because the ask is direct and narrowly focused. It’s complicated because it revolves around faith, and that’s always complicated. Seeds can also seem to be simple. They’re small in size, and Jesus references the smallest known seed during his time. They have a narrow focus and function. If you plant a seed, it will grow into some plant, shrub, or tree. A seed, like our faith, can exist as it is, but is intended to lead to so much more.
The passage opens with this plea from the disciples; context is essential to understand why Jesus responds in the way that he does. You may have read the previous passage in worship the previous Sunday as the Gospel reading from the lectionary. In the first verses of chapter 17, Luke recounts Jesus warning against the dangers of stumbling. In fact, his warning was about causing someone else to stumble even more than stumbling oneself. It’s a text about mutual dependency, support, accountability, and forgiveness in just four relatively brief verses. He calls the disciples to it, and their response to that teaching is a cry for help in fulfilling it, “Increase our faith!”
The exclamation point signals the intensity of the challenge the disciples experienced upon hearing Jesus’ instruction. They don’t ask for clarity, because his words are simple and easy to understand. The challenge is living them in a world and a community that isn’t conditioned that way.
Jesus warns his disciples that it is impossible to avoid stumbling (skandala). Momentarily, Luke’s audience might take this as their own stumbling, but 17:1 quickly shifts to causing another to stumble. A millstone around the neck is a radical punishment metaphor for causing one “little” one to stumble (17:2). This recalls the little children of 10:21, who know their parent and know they are God’s children; that is, the “little flock” in 12:32, to whom God gives the commonwealth as fulfillment of promises to Abraham, and Lazarus from the preceding parable. Anyone familiar with Scripture might remember skandala that caused Israel to fall away from God. Suddenly Jesus turns to forgiveness. Failing to forgive is an instance of skandala (17:3–4). Does 17:5 skip to another issue, or is faith(fulness) the condition for avoiding skandala? Repeatedly, Luke dramatizes faith(fulness) as action. The apostles’ request implies a profusion of faith(fulness) beyond what they already have; Jesus reduces what they presume they have to less than a mustard seed (17: 5–6).Robert L. Bradley
Seeds need particular conditions to grow. The soil and the surrounding environment have to be conducive to that seed’s development. A water supply is necessary for growth, but too much water can overwhelm the seed and stunt development. Oh, and the seed has to die.
A plant isn’t a seed, and a seed isn’t a plant. In order for the seed to become the next thing it’s supposed to be on its lifecycle, it has to die to its current state. It has to crack open and let the life within itself spring forth. The seed doesn’t get a choice in this, but the choice would be to remain the same as a seed or to submit to radical transformation in order to become what it was created to be.
The tree, in this case a mulberry tree, exists on the other side of that choice. It’s the result of a seed that has flourished, spread and grown tall as it benefits from wide roots:
In Jesus’ culture, to uproot a mulberry tree was practically impossible. The mulberry tree was a good-sized tree, upwards of 35 feet, three stories high. More importantly, it had roots like no other tree, spreading 40 feet in all directions. You didn’t want to dig a cistern or vat to store rainwater within 40 feet of a mulberry tree because the roots would head right toward the water and penetrate into the cistern. The roots of a mulberry tree were so extensive and so powerfully entrenched that, according to the rabbis, they would stay in the earth for 600 years. To uproot a mulberry tree was a seemingly impossible thing.Don Sunukjian
The comparison between the small yet promising seed and the mature, flourishing tree surely was made with intention. In Matthew’s account of this teaching, the mustard seed remains the seed but the tree doesn’t need to be uprooted and replanted; the mountain needs moving. A mountain does not form from a tree; it’s an elevation in once flat ground that occurs as a result of a massive shift under the surface of the earth. Mountains, like trees, depend upon underground activity, but a mountain serves as a correction and safeguard rather than the birthing of new life.
Both Matthew and Luke’s accounts encouraged their audiences to shift their expectations of the messianic promise. Luke particularly addressed the expansiveness of the kindom of God to include the excluded, the marginalized, the silenced, and the unnoticed.
The portrayal of Jesus and his witnesses as prophets constitutes an important part of Luke’s overall agenda: to assure his audience of “the certainty of the things [they] have been taught” (Luke 1: 4). Although they have received Christian instruction, Luke’s audience seems to be questioning some of its central claims.[ 17] This is perhaps understandable, as their times did not much resemble the expected messianic age. They believed that the messianic age had been inaugurated with the advent of Jesus the Messiah, the Anointed One eagerly awaited by many first-century Jews. Most Jews, however, were not expecting a messiah like Jesus.Jocelyn McWhirter
Trees may be uprooted during natural disasters; it is not a typical practice to remove trees from the roots in order to replant them. That’s an extraordinary action. On the other hand, mountains move. That’s what they do; that’s how they are formed. Matthew isn’t necessarily challenging his hearers to do the impossible, he’s suggesting their actions can drive the most magnificent of existing and natural processes. It’s still miraculous, but it is as expected. Matthew wrote to an audience who expected the messiah to come to them if not in the way that Jesus came. Luke wrote to expand the audience of those receiving Christ’s entry into the world. He suggests something also possible but daunting in the ways that prophets often challenge their hearers to do the hard work of transformation and new life.
That tree once lived in the small confines of the seed. They are connected and mutually dependent. The tree needs the seed to give up its life for the tree to be born; the seed needs the tree to grow for the seed’s purpose to ultimately be fulfilled.
What if we had faith, like the mustard seed, to give up an easy path of life in order to pursue the harder path of transformation and new life in Christ. This past spring, I spent a lot of time in New Orleans. I can’t say I encountered a mulberry tree, but there was certainly evidence of trees with long lifespans. Walking on old streets lined with even older trees, I could see the roots breaking through the pavement. Each step on the uneven ground served as a tangible reminder of the strength of those roots to anchor the tree in the earth and to carry the weight of the world above it.
Roots spread and grow and tangle with the roots of nearby trees. The roots remain separate and distinct, but they form a network that can be stronger together or that can compete for precious resources. The prevalence of forests in nature signals that the former is the plan and the latter is an aberration. Jesus’ teaching invites us to live in interconnected community…like trees planted by the water.
We don’t grow roots that intertwine to stabilize and strengthen our behaviors. We do have practices and behaviors that uplift and support, build up and facilitate our collective and individual flourishing. That way of being together isn’t miraculous or even extraordinary. When we embrace our mutual dependency and accountability, as Jesus stated in concluding this lesson, “We have done only what we ought to have done!
Increase our faith.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“The human soul is not defined by the unpredictable and vacillating protestations of society, nor is it accountable to the politics and prejudices of human history. Rather, it is responsive to a vision of justice that stands above the biased considerations of a nation at any given time. The soul is inextricably bound to the transcendent “moral arc of the universe, that bends toward justice”–a justice that is nothing other than the perfect justice of God.
It was perhaps that conception of the human soul that Abraham Lincoln invoked in his first inaugural address, stating that he hoped that the nation would be “touched” by “the better angels of our nature.” In effect, he was suggesting that a nation has something analogous to the human soul–a vital moral core that propels a nation, as it does a human person, toward its highest aspirational self. In the case of a nation, that would be a future in which all human beings are treated with equal dignity and, therefore, respected as the divinely created beings that we all are.
This brings us to the question: What has corrupted the very soul of America, resulting not only in routine violence against Black lives, but also in preventing people from simply reaching for their best selves and treating others, no matter how “raced,” with decency and compassion? The answer: whiteness itself.
As I have argued in previous texts, whiteness is not a biological or an ethnic given. Rather, it is a socially construction demarcation of race that serves as a badge of privilege and power. It fuels white supremacy, which in turn exists to protect it. White supremacy is the network of systemic, structural, and ideological realities that protect the “presumed” superiority of whiteness by granting certain privileges to those raced white and not to others. These are the privileges of social, political, economic, and even personal entitlements, such as claiming space and “standing one’s ground.” It is in this way that whiteness signals social relationships of power. It defines the relationship between those who represent the “privileged dominant caste” (signaled by whiteness) and those who represent the “subjugated caste” (signaled by Blackness).” — Kelly Brown Douglas, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter
For further reflection
“There is nothing impossible with God. All the impossibility is with us when we measure God by the limitations of our unbelief.” — Smith Wigglesworth
“I discovered a version of the sinner’s prayer that increased my faith far more than the one that I had said years earlier…In this version, there were no formulas, no set phrases that promised us safe passage across the abyss. There was only our tattered trust that the Spirit who had given us life would not leave us in the wilderness without offering us life again.” — Barbara Brown Taylor
“In a way that I haven’t yet figured out how to fully articulate, I believe that children who get to see bald eagles, coyotes, deer, moose, grouse, and other similar sights each morning will have a certain kind of matrix or fabric or foundation of childhood, the nature and quality of which will be increasing rare and valuable as time goes on, and which will be cherished into adulthood, as well as becoming- and this is a leap of faith by me- a source of strength and knowledge to them somehow. That the daily witnessing of the natural wonders is a kind of education of logic and assurance that cannot be duplicated by any other means, or in other place: unique and significant, and, by God, still somehow relevant, even now, in the twenty-first century.” — Rick Bass
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite participants in your faith community to plant seeds and replant mature plants that have outgrown their pots/containers. Online worshippers may find it particularly engaging to do this in their homes while the sermon is delivered.
Brawley, Robert L. “Luke.” Gale A. Yee. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Sunukjian, Donald R. “Mustard Seeds and Moving Mulberries.” The Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 8, no. 1 (March 2008): 120–34.
McWhirter, Jocelyn. Rejected Prophets: Jesus and His Witnesses in Luke-Acts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Lamentations 1:1–6 and Lamentations 3:19–26 or Psalm 137
Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4 and Psalm 37:1–9
2 Timothy 1:1–14
1 How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
2 She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering
and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations,
and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
4 The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter.
5 Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the LORD has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
6 From daughter Zion has departed
all her majesty.
Her princes have become like stags
that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
before the pursuer.
19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How could we sing the LORD’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4
1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
2 I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
2 Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
4 Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
1 Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
2 for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.
3 Trust in the LORD, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
4 Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
6 He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
7 Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
2 Timothy 1:1–14
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,
2 To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
8 Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12 and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13 Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 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.
7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”