Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 22)

Text: Luke 17:5,6
The apostles said to the Lord, "Make our faith greater." The Lord answered, "If you had faith as big as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, "Pull yourself up by the roots and plant yourself in the sea!' and it would obey you’.

Faith the size of a mustard seed

A small congregation built a new church on a piece of land left to them by a church member. Ten days before the new church was to open, the local building inspector informed the pastor that unless the number of parking spaces doubled, they would not be able to use the new church. Unfortunately, the new building had used every square centimetre except for a rather steep hill behind the church.

In order to build more parking spaces, they would have to move that rocky hill. Undaunted, the pastor announced the next Sunday morning that he would meet that evening with all members who had "mountain moving faith." They would hold a prayer session asking God to remove the mountain from the back yard and to somehow provide enough money to have it paved before the scheduled opening dedication service.

At the appointed time, 24 of the congregation’s 300 members assembled for prayer. They prayed for nearly three hours. At ten o’clock the pastor said the final "Amen". "We’ll open next Sunday as scheduled," he assured everyone. "God has never let us down before, and I believe he will be faithful this time too."

The next morning as the pastor was working in his study there came a loud knock at his door and a rough looking construction foreman entered. "Excuse me, Reverend. I’m from a Construction Company. We’re building a huge shopping mall. We need some fill – in fact, heaps of fill. Would you be willing to sell us a chunk of that rocky hill behind the church? We’ll pay you for the dirt we remove and pave all the exposed area free of charge. We need to do this now to allow it to settle properly." The little church was dedicated the next Sunday as originally planned (Source unknown).

Wow. When you first hear this story it’s easy to say that this is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he said, ‘If you had faith as big as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Pull yourself up by the roots and plant yourself in the sea!’ and it would obey you’. In other words, through faith we can move mountains. But is that right? Is that a correct conclusion?
Was it their ‘mountain moving faith’ or the length of time they spent in prayer that in the end gave them what they were seeking?
Were those 24 people super heroes of faith and so moved the mountain?

The disciples were facing their own mountains that needed moving. In the previous verses Jesus had been talking about the effect that sin has on our lives. Firstly, Jesus warns that anyone who causes another person to sin would be better off if a huge rock were tied around his neck and thrown overboard somewhere in the deepest part of sea. The disciples were worried about this and quite rightly. Who hasn’t caused someone to sin? Who hasn’t said and done things that have caused others to be hurt, fell alienated, angry, hateful, and unforgiving?

If that weren’t enough Jesus goes on to say more. "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in one day, and each time he comes to you saying, ‘I repent,' you must forgive him."

It’s a difficult thing to talk to someone – rebuke someone – whose lifestyle does not reflect their position as a child of God. Jesus goes on to say even more. When a person says he/she is sorry, Jesus says there is to be no limit to the number of times we are to forgive that person. Very possibly he could be asking for forgiveness for the same or a similar sin over and over and over again. Jesus says in no uncertain terms, ‘You must forgive him’.

That kind of forgiveness goes right against our human nature. That person who keeps on offending us doesn’t deserve forgiveness and yet Jesus pronounces some dire consequences on those who can’t overcome their need for revenge and be forgiving.

The disciples had a problem - you might say they had their own mountain that needed moving. They recognised their own sinfulness and their failure to live up to their calling as people who belong to God and disciples who claim to follow their master and do his will.

So they come to Jesus with all this on their minds and say, "Make our faith greater! Give us a greater amount of faith so that we will be able to do the things that you have asked of us". They felt that an increase in their faith would enable them to move the mountain of sin that was getting in the way of their faithful discipleship.

And what does Jesus do - how does he answer their prayer?
Does he lay his hands upon them and pray and give them more faith?
Does he snap his fingers and grant them a double dose of his Spirit and faith?
Does he give them ‘mountain moving faith’ so that they could remove all obstacles that got in their way?

No, he doesn’t - instead he says to them, "If you had faith as big as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, "Pull yourself up by the roots and plant yourself in the sea!' and it would obey you". The point Jesus is making is that they have already been given faith. Even a tiny faith the size of a mustard seed is enough as far as God is concerned.

The size of faith doesn’t matter because God is the one doing the moving.
If it is my faith that moved the mountain, then the bigger the mountain the more faith I would need to move it.
The bigger the obstacle the more strength I’d need to climb it.
The more serious the illness a faith even greater would be required to overcome it.
The more serious the sin the more faith I would need in order to have it forgiven.

That kind of thinking kind of makes sense, but that’s not how faith works. In fact, faith doesn’t do the work at all. And thank God for that.

God is the one doing the work through faith. Think of faith as the key that opens the door to God acting in our lives. If I have a bigger key ring than you do, does it matter? The size of a key ring doesn’t matter – key rings don’t open doors but it’s that little key on the ring that opens doors. Even a little faith opens the door for God to move the mountains and trees and even our hearts.

So, what Jesus is saying to his disciples, who asked for their faith to be increased, is that even if they have the smallest amount of faith they can do great things. Even the smallest faith can grasp what God has and is doing in our lives;
even the smallest faith is able to recognise the ways that God is able to make changes in lives and in our world through us.

We have all met people who have lived through very difficult times, and no doubt many of us have thought about the great faith they must have had to come out of their troubles as well as they have.

We may even have said to them - with respect and admiration, ‘I don't think I could have faced what you have faced. I admire your great faith.’

In response to this I have heard people say, ‘My faith is no greater than anyone else's. I just didn't know what faith I had until I needed it. God helped me, if it wasn't for him I wouldn't have made it.’

Jesus didn’t need to increase the size of the faith of the disciples. They already had faith. He assures them of that and states that, even though their faith may be small, God can accomplish great things through them. And we know that he did. They went on to share the Good News about Jesus even in the face of some strong opposition, being brought before rulers and judges, being imprisoned and killed. Didn’t Paul says when he was recalling some of the difficulties he had to face as an apostle, "I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me" (Phil 4:13). He doesn’t talk about how great his faith in God was, but rather he talks about what his faith was focussed on.

There are times when our confident, perhaps even over confident faith, is brought crashing down because of what is happening in our lives.
There are times when our faith seems so trivial and weak in the face of gigantic threats to our health, our family, our self-worth.
But no matter what size and strength we consider our faith to be at any given moment, faith as small as a mustard seed (and that’s pretty small) is able to uproot a mulberry tree (which has an extensive root system, and plant (not dump) it into the sea and still expect it to bear mulberries.

Years ago I was asked by the parents of a child who was severely intellectually disabled whether their child would have enough faith and understanding to come to Holy Communion. My answer: ‘I wasn’t particularly concerned about understanding. Their child may never be able to express what she believed in words. But as far as God is concerned a faith the size of a mustard seed is all that is needed for him to be able to do great things in their child’s life.’ What a joy it was for all those at church, especially the parents, to see the outstretched hands of this child, waiting for them to be filled with the love of God through the body and blood of Jesus in the sacrament.

Praise God that in spite of our sins he has given us faith – even faith as small as a mustard seed. And God working through the faith he has given us will defeat the devil’s temptations to sin, he will help us overcome the obstacles we face when forgiveness is required.

God working in us through faith can move mountains and trees and even our own hearts for his glory. Faith is powerful, because the Christ in whom faith believes is powerful. Faith, even one that is described as being the size of a mustard seed, relies on Jesus, his love and strength. This kind of faith enables us to rise above the most threatening circumstances. To repeat Paul’s words, "I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me" (Phil 4:13).

Let’s not twist all this around in order to convince ourselves that now we don’t need to take faith and prayer and the study of God's Word seriously. But realize that you already possess more than enough of what’s needed to change your life, your heart, your family, your community, even your world.

In summary, today we are being asked not how much faith do we have but rather what are we doing with the faith that God has already given us?

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
7th October 2007
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

More Sermons

Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.
All material written by Vince Gerhardy is copyright, but permission is freely given for limited use.
Please e-mail for permission, or with questions or comments about this web site.