A Sermon from Sherborne

Mustard seeds and mulberry trees

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 6 October 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


From this morning’s Gospel reading [Luke 17.5-10]: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 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.”

There is an ancient mulberry tree in the Vicarage garden – so ancient that its trunk split open decades ago, leaving what is now a dried-out hollow. Yet somehow it still summons up the life and vitality for remaining branches to leaf and then fruit every year. Some years ago a gale removed its largest and loftiest limb, and the rest has to be propped-up. In its prime it must have been a magnificent sight.

I strongly suspect that it has been there since the reign of King James I [1603 – 1625]. James was determined to kick-start an English silk industry, rather than rely on French imports, and ordered the planting of thousands of mulberry trees to feed the silkworms. Up and down the country vicars and rectors were ordered to plant at least one mulberry in their gardens. The clergy, being obedient, did as they were told. The clergy, being devious, planted black mulberries, which produce delicious fruit but are disliked by silkworms and in any case produce an inferior silk. Ours is a black mulberry.

So what is Jesus’ reply to the disciples all about? It’s about faith. The immediately preceding verses show Jesus giving the disciples some pretty tough teaching about what it means to follow him – not least the need to forgive your brother even if he sins against you seven times in a single day. Not that ‘seven times’ sets a limit to the forgiveness we are expected to show. Matthew, who (unlike Luke) would have been there at the time, remembered the count as ‘seventy times seven’!

The disciples begin to realise that all this will require more faith than they think they have. So they ask Jesus to increase their faith. He quickly responds that it is not more faith that they need, but faith in a great God. The tiniest amount of faith in a great God, even if it is no bigger than a mustard seed, is enough. For Jesus, faith is like a window. It doesn’t matter how large or small the window is. What matters is the God your faith is looking out on.

This is important. Good, sincere Christians sometimes treat faith as a commodity. “You can’t baptise babies, Rector. They don’t have faith.” But who just three verses earlier in Luke 17 had said “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 any one of these little ones to stumble”? Jesus. Who rebuked the disciples in the very next chapter for ordering people not to bring infants to him, with the words “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs”? Jesus. These are the Lord’s words, and they are not to be ignored.

Worse still are the pious words spoken by the same good, sincere Christians to someone who is very ill. “If you had enough faith, God would make you better”. Wonderful. To heap guilt about a lack of faith onto already great suffering. This is heresy. If you are looking out on a God of love and power, you will be made whole. That won’t necessarily mean physical healing. God is not a machine, dispensing a chocolate bar of healing when the coin of faith is put in the slot. God is more about wholeness. I had a parishioner at Wroughton who was diagnosed with leukaemia as a teenager. She was a girl of great faith, as were (and are) her parents. To their prayers were added those of all the local church family, and many beyond. That didn’t prevent her from dying just before her 21st birthday. But she had long been made whole. When I visited her to do my priestly stuff, she radiated a calm and a peace which were palpable. When she died her parents found a list of “things I want to do before I die”. Every one was ticked. That is the kind of faith which will uproot mulberry trees!

The Greek of Luke 17 tells us that Jesus referred to the συκαμίνῳ tree – a sycamine tree. That is, indeed, strictly, a species of mulberry. However, comparative Hebrew/Greek translations of other texts indicate that the sycamore was often given the same name in Greek. The sycamore was regarded as a particularly deep-rooted tree. As one commentator puts it, “to uproot a sycamore and transplant it in the sea was a double impossibility. But faith in God is a power that takes impossibilities in its stride.” [G B Caird]

Jesus had another go at the notion of faith as a commodity which can be measured and traded in the second part of today’s Gospel. The parable of the master and his slave is a warning against the book-keeping mentality which thinks it can run-up a credit balance with God. The slave and his labours both belonged to the master. A full day’s work was no more than the slave’s duty. By definition, the slave’s work could never constitute a claim on his master’s gratitude. Nor did it put the master in the slave’s debt.

In the same way, we are not gathered here today to gain credit or to seek reward. We are here, or should be, out of sheer gratitude to God for all he has done for us in Jesus Christ. We can never put God in our debt.

By the last Sunday of this month we will have reached in our Gospel readings the next, 18th, chapter of Luke. But it will also be Bible Sunday, so we won’t hear the parable which Jesus aimed, as Luke records, “at those who were sure of their own goodness and looked down on everyone else.” It is the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector. I hope you remember it. They have both gone up to the Temple to pray. The pharisee boasts of his spiritual credit. The tax collector would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. Who went down to his house, justified and forgiven? You know the answer already, even if you don’t know the parable. It was the tax collector. To those of us who are professionally religious, with funny collars, and to those of us who are constitutionally religious, and try never to miss a Sunday, that is an urgent warning. To those of you who are here because you know your need of God, and his forgiveness and his mercy, it is a most wonderful promise. And for that, thanks be to God.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 06/10/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne