uprooted tree“Increase our faith!” the disciples cry out to Jesus.  That seems like a reasonable request.  How many of us have been in the place where we don’t understand, we are discouraged, we seem to very little hope left to meet a great challenge before us?  “Increase our faith!” we too may cry out in a week of failures and frustrations at the highest levels of government, or within our own families.  Jesus answers “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.”  At first I wonder if Jesus is messing with us here.  I like the version of the mustard seed parable in Matthew’s Gospel, where the seed grows into a very large bush and the birds of the air come and rest in its branches.  That’s inspiring.  But why would I want to plant a mulberry tree in the sea?  (In our clergy study group on Tuesday, two Episcopal pastor’s confessed that as children they had actually stood by trees and prayed to uproot them as a test of faith.  Those of us ordained in the worldlier United Church of Christ looked on in wonder.  We know how to get rid of mulberry trees, we just pass a resolution!  Then we wait for some Baptist to get an axe.)

Somehow these two clergy managed to overcome their childhood failures of not having enough faith to landscape the back yard with telekinesis to become very faithful and wonderful pastors.  There must have been a mustard seed within that grew in a different way than a simplistic, literal way that treats God the provider of all we want if we only believe really, really hard.  (That’s the faith of another JC, not Jesus the Christ, but Jiminy Cricket, who sang to Pinocchio, “When you wish upon a star.”)

The real challenge of faith is how to move forward in our spiritual journeys when things don’t make sense or when we seem to be out of control and have no power to change things.  I thought of this while looking at a spider web last summer.  We had been on vacation for a week in Virginia, and an industrious spider had woven a spectacular web between a tree and our car door, using the rear view mirror as a part of the angle.  It was an amazing work of architecture, radiating out from the center, an invisible hand in the air ready to stop an unsuspecting insect dead in flight.      Delicate threads that can be broken with a poke of the finger, yet together strong enough to withstand the wind.  As I marveled at this creation, I felt a little sad for the spider, because I had no choice but to rip apart this wonder.  It was attached to my car door and my only way home was to wreck his or her home.

But that is the lot of a spider, to spin beautiful webs birthing them from their bodies, at whatever angle they can find to catch flies in the wind.  They have no idea if their web is in an attic where it will last for decades or in an important corridor that be used a hundred times when the sun rises.  The big picture is beyond their understanding.  Do they care how many webs they have to weave?  Do they get angry and frustrated when they are destroyed?   And what choice do they have in the matter anyway?  It’s not like they can try another career, like fishing or farming, to survive.  It all seems to work for them as a species, since they survive despite their lack of understanding or control.  I wondered if my life was all that different, just because I have a bigger brain to conceive of my possibilities.  I may be able to sense the danger of flu season and get a shot, or save my money in case my car needs repairs or Congress decides to crash the economy.  I have enormous powers to perceive and plan, and to worry and fuss, but I am in the same situation as the spider, weaving my little webs against uncertainty, with perhaps less faith that I will be successful.  Increase my faith!

The year is 1946.  A 12 year-old girl from Tokyo lives in a Christian orphanage after the war.  CARE packages are being given out with food and toiletries that have come from churches in the United States and the children who have been living under great deprivation are thrilled.  The young girl gets her box, but someone has already stolen everything of value.  All that is left is a packet of Ivory soap and when she picks it up it is an empty husk with the bar missing.  She puts it up to her nose and inhales the scent, and as she tells the story years later, “Suddenly I smelled that there was a whole world beyond my devastated home.  Somewhere out there was beauty and hope.  Somewhere across the great ocean were people who cared enough to send this to me.  I felt embraced and loved by something…someone… that I did not yet know.”

This Japanese woman went to school in a Christian orphanage, was baptized and married.  She and her husband became missionaries sponsored by the United Church of Christ.  After 40 years of service, I attended their retirement dinner and celebration.  They served throughout the Pacific Rim in the Philippians, Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan.  These were all places conquered and pillaged by Japanese forces during the war.  This couple made reconciliation of Asian peoples their primary mission.  They listened to countless stories of Japanese brutality and made apologies on behalf of their people.  They played a major role in gaining recognition of the suffering of Korean “comfort woman” who were forced into sexual servitude by Japanese armies.  Refusing to let the people of their nation look at themselves as victims, they forced Japanese leaders to acknowledge the terrible atrocities committed by their nation.  More importantly, with grace and dignity, they were peacemakers who sought to open the door to God’s grace and healing for hundreds of people.  All this courage and strength came from smelling an empty soap packet, and a sudden epiphany of the world being transfigured by the glory of God.  What a mustard seed!  This life seems much more powerful than uprooting mulberry trees and planting them in the sea.

Now back to those mulberry trees and faith.  The disciples seem to be asking for more faith right after Jesus told them to forgive repentant sinners.  In fact, he challenges them to forgive even if the other sins seven times a day and then repents, they must not tire of forgiving.  So which is more crazy, planting mulberry trees in the sea or forgiving seven times a day?   Or finding God in an empty soap box?  Or continuing to weave webs in the midst of uncertainty?

Some things seem so impossible, but are they really?  Segregation and apartheid ended, the Berlin Wall fell, alcoholics can be in recovery, cancer is survived, same gender couples can marry.  Who knew any of this was possible?  Of course it was not without much suffering, and only in timing that is beyond our control.  But the mustard seed of faith still persists.

Faith is the patience to wait for that seed to sprout and take root.  It can’t be rushed.  As we read in Lamentations:

22The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 24“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” 25The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. 26It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

Let us come to the communion table, and wait quietly for the presence of God.