Sunday, September 29, 2013

On Faith, Mulberry Trees, and Forgiveness

Luke 17:5-10

It's no small thing, it seems to me, to be able to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea: particularly in the way that Jesus describes today --- with no effort at all.  I know this for while there is no mulberry tree in my back yard there are these things which try to pass as trees lining my fence line which probably started out looking like weeds but whose roots have gone deep by now. There is no way I can uproot them so season after season I find myself cutting them off close to the ground.    And yet, Jesus seems to be saying that it wouldn't take much for me to be able to set aside my trusty lobbers.  Only a little faith is required.

And yet I found myself wondering this week about why anyone would want to waste that gift of faith on uprooting a tree.  It seems that if I were given the power to do that, such unexpected power might be put to better use. (To be sure, I do feel differently after a morning of pulling overgrown weeds and cutting back brush...) And so I got curious as to why the disciples were so vehemently begging Jesus to increase their faith.  And I went back a verse or two and discovered that just prior to the disciples' outburst Jesus had been teaching about forgiveness.  What Jesus says there is this:
"And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’"
Seriously.  Now that is something I do need help doing.  That may, in fact, be something worth using up that "faith the size of a mustard seed" on.  And yes, forgiving can seem a whole lot like pulling up a stubborn tree, roots and all, and tossing it into the sea.  It can be that hard.  Which is why, I expect, when the disciples hear Jesus' command to forgive the same person seven times over in a given day, they find themselves begging for help.

Because as you well know, forgiveness can be difficult.  For all the gifts it promises, it is no small thing to let go, to move on, to work at restoration, to begin again.  Forgiving can feel like giving in, like giving up, like forfeiting principle or pride.  Forgiving can mean admitting I, too, was wrong.  And if I'm honest?  I haven't done nearly enough of it.  No, my usual means of living and being is to step away from the one who I perceived wronged me.  All too often I find that if I do not distance myself altogether, I at least build up my defenses enough so as to ensure I won't be hurt again.  Maybe that's why the story I offer now stands out so clearly in my memory.

It was sixteen years ago this past summer.  I had traveled to Philadelphia as a voting member to our Churchwide Assembly.  It was my first such experience where I would not be seated in the visitor section and I was excited to go.  I can remember rising early in the morning all summer long, reading the reams of paper which outlined the business which was before us.  I can remember also looking forward to the fact that I would be rooming with a wonderful friend from seminary --- one whom I had known since day one of Summer Greek.  She and I had been assigned to different regions of the country so we had not seen each other much since graduation and ordination nine years before, but we had kept in touch and hers was a friendship I valued.

On the agenda for that particular assembly was a major ecumenical agreement.  Sitting in the assembly hall on that first night I can remember sensing that something major was afoot when right at the beginning there was debate on the rules of the assembly.  Indeed, if we didn't know it it already, (and apparently even with all my careful preparation, I was one of those caught by surprise), it soon became evident that this assembly was going to hold some drama.  And my old friend and I found ourselves on opposite sides of the question.

Most of that week we didn't see much of each other as we when we weren't in session I expect we were connecting with those who agreed with our differing perspectives.  I know I was.  When the agreement failed to garner its needed 2/3 vote, I was surprised to find myself heartbroken.  My friend and found ourselves together again for a few moments back in our hotel room hurriedly packing up before our trips to the airport.  I am not proud to say that in those moments, exhausted and grieving, I said some things I shouldn't have.  I remember the look of shock and surprise and pain on my friend's face like it was yesterday.

It seems silly now --- to have a friendship put in jeopardy by such as that was -- but at the time?  It didn't seem silly at all.   And it was easy to ignore the rift between us in the months and years to come as, unlike the example Jesus offers now, we were not working and living in the same place.  Still, my heart hurt over it, until finally, one or the other of us sent an email, cracking the door open just a little bit.

It was sometime after that when we were together again that we were both able to admit the other was more right than we could or would before. Indeed, I expect our mutual forgiving found its beginning in our belief that our friendship mattered more. 

It didn't take much.  Not much more than a mustard seed size step in fact and in the end it was easier than uprooting a mulberry tree and tossing it into the sea.  And of so much more value.  We were able to do so because our care for each other was somehow larger and more important than what had severed our friendship for a time.  Sometimes forgiveness happens because of that.   And sometimes forgiveness is offered and shared because that is what we are simply made to do, as Jesus tells his disciples and all of us today.  We do it because we are supposed to do it.  We forgive because we have been forgiven and we who are made to be in relationship with each other --- if we have any hope of staying in relationship with each other --- we must do the same.  Like the slaves who are just doing what they are supposed to do when they serve their master supper, you and I are only doing what "we ought to have done" when we crack the door open and begin to make amends with one another.  And just like with my old friend?  What is behind Jesus' promise today is the certain truth that the relationships we share with one another matter more than whatever would keep us apart.

And it only takes a little faith to get us there.  Sometimes all we have to do is crack open the door.

  • As I think about the disciple's plea today for help with forgiving I find myself thinking of those with whom I have experienced brokenness and have opted for distance instead of healing.  How about you?  What does it mean for us to 'do what we ought to have done' as Jesus says today?
  • Why do you think Jesus says it only takes 'faith the size of a mustard seed' for this to be so?  What does that mean in practical terms? 


  1. It doesn't take much, just a little, and do what you're supposed to because all will be well.

  2. One party believes that preventing the Affordable Care Act is worth shutting down the government; the other party believes that it is better to endure that shut down than to abandon it. Belief is a strong and unyielding master.