A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on October 3, 2010.
Lamentations 3:22-26; Luke 17:5-10
Have you ever been overwhelmed by the immensity of the task before you? You have some kind of project to complete, whether it’s remodeling your home or writing a term paper, and you’re just not sure how or if you can get the job done?
I feel that way every spring, beginning about the first of March and until I’ve completed my tax return for the year. As I have mentioned to you before, math is not my strong suit, and while I keep fairly good records, putting all that stuff together is like pulling teeth to me. It’s no wonder I generally wait until the last minute to do it. On the scale of things not fun to do, this qualifies as my very least favorite. I don’t think I’m the Lone Ranger on that one, either.
You don’t think the IRS is listening in, do you? I sure don’t want to give them any ideas for an audit.
I also remember my seminary days. The first day of class each semester, the professor would present us with a syllabus for our studies. I recall looking down the list of papers that would need to be written, books that were required to be read, not to mention the schedule of exams. My thought always was, “He thinks this is the only class I’m taking! I can’t do all this!”
I finally figured out a way of dealing with it so that the first day of each new semester didn’t make me feel like it was April 15 many times over. I decided not to look at the entire syllabus, but to look only at the first week. Then, I determined I would take it a day at a time. Otherwise, I would be overwhelmed by what confronted me and wouldn’t be able to do the work that was required of me, as a student, to do. Have you ever felt that way?
There’s still a sense in which I face that kind of challenge every week. Allow me to explain. Every Sunday night, I go into my study at home and file away the sermon I preached earlier that day. That sermon is now history, done, over. In my computer, I key in next Sunday’s date, the title of the sermon I will be preaching a week hence, and the scripture text to support it. Otherwise, it is a blank screen.
A blank screen! Nothing on it, just sitting there, waiting for my thoughts as they come to me. I know I will leave my sermon preparation efforts to the next day, but on that Sunday evening there is the inevitable feeling of being overwhelmed by the task ahead of me for the week. So, it’s best I leave it alone, sleep on it, and take up the challenge in the morning. Otherwise, I’d be overwhelmed.
One more example… Since grandbabies are on my mind these days, I recall the day when our daughter Emily brought her firstborn son home. She and Raines had put a cradle in their bedroom for little Alex to sleep in. Emily knelt on the floor beside her brand new baby boy and just stared at him in wonder and awe. Then, she began to weep. Not loudly so others would hear. She was not looking for attention. With huge, steady tears streaming down her cheeks, she was overcome by the responsibility of bringing this little one into the world, knowing she was responsible for seeing to his welfare. And she didn’t know what to do but cry.
I don’t know if they’re about to cry, but the disciples of Jesus have reached that point in their pilgrimage with him that they’re becoming overwhelmed by the immensity of the task before them. And Jesus isn’t making it any easier! You’d think he’d lighten their load a bit, considering all he has told them, all he has asked them to do, all he has put on their shoulders. You’d think they might get some sympathy from him. “There, there, boys. It’s not going to be as hard as it seems. Just take it a day at a time and everything will be all right.”
No. He just keeps piling on the responsibilities, telling them how hard it’s going to be.
Listen to this… “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come,” Jesus says to them. In other words, you’re going to make mistakes, it won’t be a smooth road, so don’t expect everything to be perfect. You’ll trip up from time to time. And then he adds, “But woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
And that’s just for starters. How about this? “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.” And how much must they be willing to forgive? Jesus provides the answer. “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.”
I need to tell you that Luke, in his gospel, is not the only one who writes about this. Matthew does as well, except, while there are similarities to Luke’s version of it, they are not exactly the same. Matthew has Jesus talking about moving mountains, not uprooting trees. And Jesus’ statement in Matthew is found in the context of the disciples’ inability to heal a boy of his epilepsy, and in Luke it has to do with forgiveness. Both, the way Jesus tells it, equally difficult. But regardless of the context, the disciples have reached the saturation point. They don’t think they can handle the demands of following Jesus. They are overwhelmed.
That’s when they cry out in distress, “Lord, increase our faith!” “We can’t do this on our own. It’s too much for us to bear. We’re going to need some help. No, check that, we are going to need your help. You’ve loaded us down with burdens too big to carry, and if we’re going to do this thing you’re going to have to hold us up!” “Lord, increase our faith!”
Have you ever uttered that prayer? Come to a crisis point in life when you realize you just can’t do it alone, that you will have to have some help, that the immensity of the task before you is simply too much for you to bear? If you haven’t, chances are you really haven’t lived, and certainly haven’t taken any chances.
Again, you would expect Jesus to have some sympathy for his disciples, but no. “If you had faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Ah, the old mustard seed quote. We’re all familiar with it, aren’t we? You’re probably aware that Jesus’ statement has given rise to a fairly lucrative industry. If you’ve been to the Holy Lands, or know someone who has, you’ve no doubt seen those tiny pendants, the ones made of glass that encase a mustard seed. They sell them over there because of what Jesus said to his disciples. The imagery is unmistakable and unique. So people wear them, ostensibly, as reminders of the faith they ought to have.
And it does have a rather romantic feel to it, doesn’t it? That big, big things can come from the tiniest elements of faith. Oppressive governments have been toppled, civil rights have come about, and tyrants have gotten their due because of movements that started with just a conversation, a small fire in someone’s belly. Mustard seed faith.
Are you familiar with how our church’s endowment began? Sarah Elizabeth Carnahan and her husband Robert, a psychiatrist, were long-time members of this church. In the early 70’s, at some kind of social gathering, Sarah Elizabeth spied her financial advisor. She told him she had some discretionary funds – about $700, as I recall – and she wanted to know where he thought she might invest it. He told her there was a small company in northwest Arkansas that was about to go public. She could do worse than to put her money in that company’s stock.
When Sarah Elizabeth died eleven years ago, we were informed that she had left a fairly small portion of her estate to our church… $500,000. All from her investment in that new company called Wal-Mart.
That’s what we’re talking about! Mustard seed faith… trees uprooted and planted in the sea, mountains moved. It just takes a tiny bit of faith to do really big, big things. That’s what we’re talking about!
But is that what Jesus was talking about? If we will have just enough faith to dream big dreams, attempt big things for God, not settle for the mundane everydayness of just filling in the schedule but go for the gold, we will succeed!? Is success what Jesus is talking about?
If it is, most of us are losers. But before you hang your head in shame, I would ask you to consider this: the kind of faith the disciples ask for, and the faith Jesus essentially tells them is already in them, is not something we can conjure up at will. It is not a reserve that we call upon when the going gets tough. It is a gift not any different from the grace we often talk about round these parts. The kind of faith that changes things, and changes us, is not based on spiritual adrenaline but on our simple acceptance of God’s presence within us, a presence that is fully revealed in Jesus Christ.
We do have it within us to do great things for God – though we might not have a true and accurate picture of what great really is – but it is not something we manufacture. It is God’s gift to us, present in us if we will just see it and use it.
How? How do we discover the faith that is already in us? By looking for and discovering ways that our faith can rise up and be seen. And sometimes, we’re not the ones who do the looking and discovering. Circumstances that come our way do it for us. If that mustard seed faith is already in us, then, it will be shown and it will hold us in good stead.
In 1951 a man named Willard Bishop was sent to Mobile, Alabama to run the children’s shoe department at a major department store. Shortly after arriving, he noticed something he could not live with: black people were not allowed to try on shoes in the department with whites. So Willard called his sales force together and explained that from then on that would change, that black people’s money was the same green as white people’s money. One saleswoman objected, and Willard assured her that her final paycheck would be ready for her by the end of the day. By the end of the day, she had accepted his order and decided her paycheck was more important than her personal feelings.
But Willard suddenly realized he had better tell the store owners what he had done. He called upstairs, and the manager said to come right up. Willard told the man what he had done and how he could not work in a store with that policy, that it was wrong. The man sat in silence, staring at him for what seemed like forever. Willard was unnerved, thinking about his young wife and infant child. Finally, the man spoke. “You have only done what I lacked the courage to do myself. I will abide by your decision.”
Well, the word spread quickly in the black community. The store sold more shoes to black customers, and it didn’t lose any white business. Why? Because white folk were coming to their senses, realizing that the store’s new policy was the right thing to do? No, of course not. This was 1951. They kept shopping there because that store had the best shoes in town. And within weeks, every shoe store in Mobile was forced to change its policy in order to stay competitive.
It wasn’t a politician or a preacher who brought about that gospel change, that uprooting of a mulberry tree, that moving of a mountain; it was a shoe salesman who knew that his vocation was more than selling shoes—it was serving his Lord. It’s just who he was1 because, like the servants in Jesus’ parable, his faith was found while he was on his knees.
I commend it to you and to myself as a worthy way of finding out what it is that God wants us to do… discovering the faith that is in us while we are on our knees. Who knows, in the process we might just move a few mulberry trees of our own, not to mention mountains, and all sorts of big, big things.
Lord, show us the faith that is in us, the gift you have given us in Christ. And when the opportunity comes for us to put that faith in action, may you find us on our knees, ready to pray, and ready to go to work. Amen.
1adapted from George Mason, “A Holy Calling,” (unpublished sermon), October 7, 2007.