October 6, 2019, Deep-Root Faith, (Luke 17:5-10) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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There is a tree – a real live tree – growing all alone in the middle of the desert on the tiny island nation of Bahrain, which is in the Persian Gulf, just off the coast of Saudi Arabia. The tree is over 400 years old; scientists did a careful study of the soil and roots in the 1990’s, and concluded that it was planted in 1582 – the year William Shakespeare got married. And it’s still growing today, green and flourishing and fruitful. It’s an acacia tree, which is the same kind of tree that Moses used to make the ark of the Covenant that held the stone tablets of the Law. It produces an aromatic resin that people use to make candles and perfumes, and it bears beans that are ground into meal and made into jams or wine. Some people think this tree stands in the very place that was once the Garden of Eden. People call it the Tree of Life.
But the most mysterious thing about this Tree of Life is that no one can really explain how it is alive and green and growing after four centuries, when there is no other living thing anywhere nearby and no source of water that anyone can identify in this country whose annual rainfall is somewhere between three inches and none at all. The only possible reason it is alive is that the tree has roots that go down more than a hundred and fifty feet. Somewhere in the dry, lifeless sands of that barren country, where nothing else can grow, that acacia tree has found a source of abundant life. And it lives on. And on. And on.
In the reading from Luke today, the disciples come to Jesus and ask him to give them an extra helping of faith. They have taken a look at themselves, and they seem to be falling short of what they think they ought to be. I always find it comforting that the disciples were such normal people, so much like us, and one way they were like us is that they were very much in the habit of comparing themselves with others. They got into arguments more than once, when they didn’t think Jesus was listening, about who was better than who. And of course, when you measure yourself against Jesus himself nobody looks very impressive. So they had concluded that the problem was, they just didn’t have enough of what Jesus has. If he would just give them more faith, they could do the things he did and be more like him.
They had fallen into two traps. The first was to judge themselves by their accomplishments, what they got done, especially when it meant competing and measuring themselves against one another. But the other was the trap of thinking that faith is something like those little five-hour energy drinks you can buy at Kinney’s that give you that extra buzz to help you do what needs to be done. If I try my hardest to do what I think I’m supposed to do, and I just can’t do it, then clearly the only solution is to try harder. I need to work harder. I need to do more. I need to sleep less. And that’s where faith comes in, right? Lord, let us have that extra dose of faith; then we can do more. Surely then we’ll be good enough.
So Jesus told them a story: “Say you had a servant, and that servant came in from a long day plowing the field or watching the sheep in the pasture; how many of you would say to that servant, “Hey, come take a load off your feet. Let me get you some dinner.” No way, right? Wouldn’t you say, “You’re just in time. Get some clean clothes on and get my supper. You can get yourself something after I’m done.” You wouldn’t even think of thanking the servant, would you, for just doing his job? You see, it’s just the same with you. When you’ve done everything you were commanded to do you look at yourselves and say. “We are useless, unprofitable servants. We’re still not good enough. All we’ve done is what we were supposed to do.”
The disciples were hoping that an extra shot of faith would boost their productivity. They saw the amazing things that Jesus was able to do, and they wanted to be like him. When they looked at their own efforts, comparing themselves to their Master, they just felt useless and unworthy, no matter how hard they worked, like the weary servants in the parable. What they hadn’t yet figured out is that faith isn’t like vitamins or caffeine or steroids: something that can beef up our human efforts.
But don’t we think about faith that way all the time, too? When you hear about someone getting a diagnosis of cancer, or losing a child, or getting fired from their job, don’t you wonder sometimes if you would have enough faith to get through those things if they happened to you? Have you ever wondered if you would have enough faith to admit you were a Christian if somebody was holding a gun to your head? On a somewhat smaller scale, if someone asks you to pray for them to be healed, do you think you have enough faith? Maybe you don’t have enough; maybe they should go to somebody with more faith.
But Jesus told them they were completely misunderstanding what faith is. You think you just need me to give you an extra helping of faith so you can do more, Jesus said to them, but listen: if you had faith the size of a tiny seed you could tell that tree over there to rip itself up by the roots and be planted in the ocean – and it would be a done deal. He wasn’t telling them, “Listen, you guys are so pathetic you’d be lucky if you could find your faith with a magnifying glass.” He was telling them that they were thinking about faith all wrong. Faith isn’t just something that gives you the power to do more, to be more productive, so that you can finally, finally feel like you have done enough, that you are good enough.
Faith is something much better than that.
Think about all the times in the Bible when Jesus healed people, and said to them, “Your faith has saved you.” One was a woman with a bleeding disorder that grabbed the hem of Jesus’ robe in fearful desperation. One was a blind man who happened to be in the right place at the right time. One was one of ten lepers who cried out for Jesus to have mercy on them. One was a prostitute who wept at Jesus’ feet. None of these people did anything impressive or heroic to save themselves. All they did was reach out to Jesus.
Because the truth is, faith has little or nothing to do with our strength or our ability or our effort, and everything to do with who or what we put our faith in. If the Tree of Life had been planted all those centuries ago, if it had reached its roots down into the soil of Bahrain and struck nothing but dry sand and more dry sand, no matter how far it reached, then that little stretch of desert would be completely empty of all life today. Life is dependent on tapping into the source. And when faith finds the true source of life, it is always enough. Like Habakkuk wrote, “the righteous shall live by their faith.” By faith we live abundantly, because we drink deeply from the perfect and unending source of life.
When we measure ourselves by our own strength and accomplishments we will always, sooner or later, wear ourselves out – and eventually we will find that what we have done is never enough. But faith in Christ is always enough. Even faith the size of a tiny seed is power unimaginable, not because we have gotten hold of some great power for our own use, but because we have tapped into the source of all power.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Abide in me, and I will abide in you. Just like a branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he’s the one that bears a lot of fruit, because apart from me you can’t do anything at all.” He said these things to the disciples at the Last Supper, just after he had wrapped a towel around his waist and knelt down and served them – the exact opposite of the Master in his parable.
No one can see the roots of that ancient acacia tree in Bahrain. No one knows, even now, exactly what source it is that those roots have found to keep it alive for four centuries. In the same way, the work of faith can’t be seen, either. Faith isn’t something that can be measured or stored up; it can’t be bought or sold or earned. It can only be received. But just as the life of the tree is a sign that there is water deep in the earth, so the life we have welling up inside us is the sign of our faith. Because when there is faith, there is life. And it is always enough.
The Tree of Life, flourishing in the desert, reminds me of the description of God’s people in Psalm 92. I find this passage particularly encouraging, as I grow older myself. It reminds me that my sufficiency, my being good enough, doesn’t come from my own efforts – which is a very good thing! – it comes from my connection with God, my abiding in him. “Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God;” the psalmist wrote, “they shall still bear fruit in old age; they shall be green and succulent; that they may show how upright the Lord is, my Rock, in whom there is no fault.”
The language of the world is accomplishment – competition – success – striving: the vocabulary of the servant. Like the Nike ad says, “Just Do It!” But sooner or later servants realize they’re never able to do enough. But the language of faith is abiding – remaining – waiting – stillness: the vocabulary of the beloved. Faith gives us deep roots. Faith keeps us green and growing, even in the most desert places of our lives.