Preached on October 23 at Douglas UCC by Rev. Andy DeBraber:
Matthew 17:18-20: 18And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
We tend to think of this mountain-moving as some kind of magic: have enough faith and in an instant the mountain will disappear from one place and appear in another. Yet even a biblical literalist, while saying that God could do that if God wanted, cannot say she’s ever seen it happen.
We have instead been reminded this month of what we have seen happen by the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington D.C. A mountain is moved stone by stone, shovelful by shovelful. The quote from King on which the monument is based comes from his “I have a dream” speech on the national mall in 1963, when he said:
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
Through the hard work of a myriad of God’s people, that mountain has been at least reduced to a hill. With our continued work, one day may it be fully moved.
Yet, we may argue, I am no Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s right. You are you. Stepping into the Divine Energy that exists always and everywhere means being yourself, doing what’s natural to you, even as we grow into newer skills and abilities.
Take Mary Manning, for instance. Born in the year King gave his rousing speech, this 21-year-old Irish grocery store clerk heard about the great injustice of apartheid in South Africa and a plea to combat the racial crimes there by not buying products from South Africa. So, as a store clerk that day, she rang up all her customers goods except the fruit that was imported from South Africa. Customers complained, managers came, she was fired.
Other clerks in the store then joined her in not selling South African produce. Soon, clerks throughout Dublin and Ireland wouldn’t sell the racist fruit. The country, through what began as one woman’s simple action where she was, came to know the true cost of cheap produce. Eventually, the company stopped selling the apartheid-produced fruit. Ireland banned the import of South African goods. Three years after standing up for justice, Mary Manning got her job back. And all of Ireland learned the power of one person’s commitment to act in solidarity with those who are oppressed. Ten years later, in 1994, apartheid in South Africa was dismantled, thanks to Mary Manning and many like her throughout the world and the courageous actions of those in South Africa.
And, as you know, she didn’t act alone. Not only did the store clerks join her, but others supported her while the protest continued and she had no job, giving her lodging, food, and money.
What we’re talking about here is faith. In our continuing series, “Becoming Like Children: A Joyful Path,” we’ve covered the topics of God, Jesus, the Bible, and Inclusion. Now faith. Or, as the TCPC Curriculum puts is, Discovering Divine Energy.
Faith, or Divine Energy, can be a slippery topic. Synonyms include trust and power. We can see that trust and power playing out with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement, with Mary Manning and the anti-apartheid movement.
Too often, faith is understood as intellectual assent. Let us be reminded again (and again and again) by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine: God does not ask for our minds, God asks for our hearts.
The Chinese definition of power incorporates the heart God asks for. Power is moving forward, with heart, to achieve a goal. Jesus is not interested in moving the mountain simply to move the mountain. The goal in the immediate context is two-fold: cast out the demon and heal the person before him; and second, teach the disciples that they have the power within them to affect the world for better: healing, wholeness, peace, justice, forgiveness, grace. Believe this good news, get through your fear, and take responsibility.
It’s no mistake that Jesus then uses the comparison to a mustard seed. You already know that it’s a small seed that quickly grows into a large plant. But the Greek doesn’t talk about size at all. A more accurate translation is: “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed.” Instead of focusing on size, the real call here is to focus on the type of faith a mustard seed has (remember, the type of trust, the type of power).
Anne Robertson, a United Methodist minister in Boston and director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, comments, “Suppose we had faith that could really believe in the far-reaching effects of our tiny little efforts. We are all too often shut down by thinking some version of, "Well, I'm just too small to matter." "What difference can I make? I am only one." "This problem is too big for me." That is not the kind of faith that a mustard seed has. It's own size has nothing to do with the question. It is the seed of a mustard plant, and mustard plants are big. It will grow...that is its nature.
“When we have the faith of a mustard seed, we recognize our nature. We are fully confident that we are made in the image of God and therefore the powerful love of God can and will be channeled through us. That's what the disciples forgot in the Matthew story. They thought that because they were only human they couldn't cast out a powerful demon. But that wasn't their true nature. They belonged to God and had the power of God at their disposal. It doesn't matter if we're only one. It doesn't matter if we're small or poor or uneducated or weak. It doesn't matter if we're facing demons. Our power is God's power, and with God all things are possible. We may just be a seed, but we are a mustard seed...and that means big things.
“More than that, the mustard seed knows that its destiny as a mustard plant comes at great personal cost. For the seed to become a plant, the seed must be broken apart, and yet the seed has faith that even in its own breaking and death, a magnificent plant will grow. We rarely think like that. When the breaking times come for us, that is when we tend to think God has gone on vacation without us...that we are being punished or abandoned or that people have lied to us about there even being a God. When we are breaking, we often stop believing in the plant that is to come. Not so the mustard seed. The mustard seed gives itself to the ground, to the breaking, to the death; completely confident that something incredible is going to come of it.”
Let us give ourselves to something incredible! Let us change the world together! This is faith, this is trust, this is power, this is tapping into the Divine Energy available to each person! Let us start asking each other, “How have you changed the world today?”
Some of us already think that’s a crazy idea. Others find ourselves on the defensive. But some of us have an answer at the ready: “I resolved a dispute with my neighbor.” “I said no thanks, I won’t use plastic bags.” “I smiled at the waiter and told him what a great job he was doing.” “I contacted my state rep about anti-bullying legislation.” “I dropped off food at Christian Neighbors.” “I took part in Occupy West Michigan.”
Robert Greenleaf, author of the classic book Servant Leadership, makes us aware of how many mustard seeds never get planted and mountains never get moved by reminding us that the problem is
“Not evil people. Not stupid people. Not apathetic people. Not the 'system’....The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people, and their failure to lead. Too many of us settle for being critics and experts. There is too much intellectual wheel spinning, too much retreating into research, too little preparation for and willingness to undertake the hard and high risk tasks of building better institutions in an imperfect world, too little disposition to see the problem as residing “in here” and not “out there.” In short, the enemy is good people who have the potential to lead but do not lead. They suffer; society suffers.”
The solution is you: good people who have the potential and do lead, by words and actions. The solution is taking the mustard seeds out of the packets, out of the jars, and out into the world. Be planted. Take action for good. Discover the Divine Energy, the Power, that awaits. Relish the joy of moving mountains. Together, with faith, we can do it!