Proper 22(C): Mustard Faith
By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly
My grandmother was an extraordinarily good cook! She canned green beans in the summer, she made homemade fried apple pies with apples from the orchard, and she opened up a veritable restaurant at major holidays, making sure that no guest of hers would ever have wonder if there would be enough food.
My childhood summers were spent at my grandmother’s house—along with just about every day after school—and it was during these special times that she transmitted to me the sacred art of cooking. While we may think it unusual now, my grandmother was not unlike most women of her generation, in that she never followed a recipe and refused to measure anything—ever! But after each savory dish and every freshly-baked confection had been prepared, came the moment—the moment when my grandmother took out two forks and she and I conducted the holy and solemn taste test!
Warm, flaky crusts; tender, juicy cuts of meat; perfect casseroles. And yet, no matter how delicious or how perfect a dish was, my grandmother always saw room for improvement. “If it just had a little of this…” or “If only I had used a pinch more of that…”
Although we may not do it when cooking, I think that all of us are guilty of the “if only’s” from time to time. “If only I made a bit more money, then things would be okay…” or “If only I could get to the gym more often and lose that extra 20 pounds, then things would turn around…” or “If only I had a better job, then maybe I could catch a break.” Although these thoughts may give us some degree of comfort, and while they may even contain some degree of truth, we often allow them to seep into our lives of faith, as well.
Here in Luke’s Gospel, even the disciples aren’t immune! “If only I had a pinch more faith, then I could live up to God’s commandments.” Or “If only I had a smidgen more trust, then I could get rid of my anxiety.” And we can’t really blame the disciples; after all, for weeks we’ve heard Luke’s Gospel tell us of all that being a follower of Jesus entails. We can’t help but ask ourselves: if Jesus’ hand-picked followers can’t get it right, where do we stack up?
After all, who among us hasn’t felt the way the disciples feel: overwhelmed by the demands that are placed on us in order to be “good Christians,” not sure we’re up to the task, and frankly a little worried about what exactly we signed up for in the first place? And after hearing Luke’s Gospel over the past several months and reading today’s passage, I suspect that more than a few of us are thinking, “Well…maybe this whole disciple thing isn’t for me after all.”
Need time to bid farewell to family and friends? You’re unfit for the Kingdom! Love your parents and spouses and children and siblings and life itself? You can’t be Jesus’ disciple! Not sure about giving up all of your possessions? Sorry, the Kingdom isn’t for you.
Can’t uproot trees and cast them into the sea using nothing but your faith? Sorry, you don’t have enough faith.
When we place our lives of faith on a scale or a rubric, looking for a particular quantity or degree, we will always come up short. For many churches, this text comes in the midst of a stewardship campaign. Nowhere are we more susceptible to placing our lives of faith on a scale or rubric than during pledge season! When we reduce stewardship to an amount or a percentage of our total budget, we come up short! Think about it: If I asked you precisely how many minutes I need to spend in prayer per day; or precisely how often I need to come to church; or precisely how many hours I need to spend serving others in order to be a faithful Christian, you’d probably think I was crazy! These are not quantitative questions! So it is with our faith and our generosity.
Of course, every institution has a financial reality that must be accounted for, but the primary goal of the Church is to make Christians more faithful and more generous—and these are not questions of rubrics or percentages or degrees; they are questions about a way of being! And even the simplest things, done in faith, or the smallest acts of generosity can have an enormous impact!
Imagine the congregation that will hear your sermon. Consider all of the good done every week by the people in your pews. Invite the congregation to imagine with you. Then imagine what last week would have been like if all of that never happened. What would our lives be without all of the wonderful deeds of faith and generosity done by our communities of faith?
What Jesus is trying to convey to his disciples—both then and now—is that having faith and being generous aren’t about quantities or rubrics or degrees; they’re about allowing ourselves to be completely transformed by God. We are, as Jesus says, “worthless slaves,” not because we don’t have value and worth before God, but because God owes us nothing! And that means that we are called to the banquet of the Kingdom of God, not because of our labors or our status or our merits, but because of who we are! And more importantly, because of the One to whom we belong! Imagine what might happen if, instead of acting as though faith and generosity were measurable in quantities or the number of miracles or percentages, we were transformed into the reality that even the most ordinary acts can be blessed by God and made extraordinary!
Far too often, Christians are made to believe that a deed of faith means a mission trip or building a new school or sending armies of volunteers and supplies to rebuild in the wake of disasters. Don’t get me wrong—those things are extraordinary deeds of faith, and they are incredibly important. But important deeds of faith and generosity are also right here in front of us—showing simple kindness in the grocery store, remembering to be patient when things don’t go our way, and being mindful of the fact that everyone is entitled to a bad day every now and then.
Little by little, what we believe to be tiny, mustard seed-sized deeds of faith, add up! And before we know it, mountains are moved; trees are uprooted and cast into the sea; and we discover that what we have long imagined to be impossible turns out to be possible with God! Although we may be tempted to think of mustard seed as those small round pellets that come in our spice racks, in Jesus’ time, mustard could actually be dangerous! The thing about mustard—particularly wild mustard—is that it is incredibly difficult to control! And once it takes root, it can take over an entire area—polluting and eroding even the most well-managed gardens and fields. It was the first-century version of Kudzu!
To paraphrase the New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, mustard seed isn’t just any weed. It’s an invasive and dangerous plant that takes over everything. It’s the kind of thing that you would want only in small and carefully-controlled doses—that is, if you could control it at all! That’s the kind of faith that Jesus invites us to live into—the kind of faith that can’t be controlled and managed and contained.
William Stafford was one of 20th century America’s great poets. In his poem, “The Way It Is,” Stafford likens faith to a thread. Listen to his words:
There’s a thread that you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it’s hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
The faith that we have been given is a gift. We make a mistake when we spend all of our time trying to measure it or shield it from harm or worry that others may have more of it than we do. Our call is to use it—wherever we are and however we can. Because even the smallest deeds of faith can grow beyond your wildest dreams!
 David Lose, “Everyday Faith,” Preaching Commentary, WorkingPreacher.org, September 30, 2013, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2773.
 Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 17:5-10,” Preaching Commentary, WorkingPreacher.org, October 6, 2013, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1785.
 John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 1993), 278-279.
 William Stafford, “The Way It Is,” in Leading From Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, ed. Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 11.
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies), where he is currently completing a doctorate in Biblical interpretation and proclamation. In his elusive moments of spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking–though not at the same time! He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org.