In the first couple of sentences, Jesus says that faithful Christians have the power to work miracles like moving a tree by simply saying the word. That is a celebration of what we can do, with God’s help.
But then in the second part, Jesus compares us to slaves—slaves of God, but slaves nonetheless. As slaves, we are to have no will of our own. That is a much more humbling picture of Christian life, even a shocking one.
Put the two together and what we get is a picture of the Christian life. Christians are called to be both humble and strong. We need to hear both messages.
Start with the obvious. Compared to the first century, human beings today are unimaginably powerful. We have walked on the moon. We have literally moved mountains, and rechanneled rivers, and, to some degree, even held back the ocean. We have altered the climate of the entire planet, and we have weapons capable of destroying virtually all life on earth.
We Americans in particular live in the richest and most powerful nation in all of human history. Our military can intervene anywhere we want, and, at least in the short run, no other military can resist.
It is not clear what, if any, limits remain. Some scientists are working on technologies and bioengineering that could alter human nature in fundamental ways. Some aim to defeat death itself.
All that power has gone to our collective head. We sometimes assume that we are in charge of everything in our lives and in our world, that we can do pretty much whatever we want. As a species we are a little like a teenager—keenly aware of our ability to do things that would have been impossible only a short time before, and not nearly as aware of the dangers of pride and irresponsibility that go with new-found power.
Whenever we succumb to the temptation of collective pride, and that is a great temptation today, we need to hear the message of the second half of our Gospel reading. We need to be reminded that our power is nothing in comparison to God’s, that we always remain God’s creatures, that we are subject to God’s will and held accountable for how faithfully we live it. We may think of ourselves as lords of creation. But we are in fact God’s slaves.
That is an important lesson, and we need to keep it in mind as we turn to the first part of our Gospel reading about the power of faith.
I have confessed before, from this very spot, that I once tested Jesus’ words. When I was a kid, I knelt down in my backyard and prayed that God would move a tree. I didn’t want to plant it in the sea, which was nearly three hundred miles away. I just wanted to move the tree a few feet. It didn’t work.
My whole effort was pretty innocent, but on reflection I can see that my motivation was highly problematic. My desire to move the tree had virtually nothing to do with God. I wanted to move the tree with a word as a display of my own power. It was all about me. I had missed the lesson about humility in our passage.
When Jesus says that we can do great things if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, he does NOT mean we can do whatever we want, that our faith can somehow compel God to do our will. God remains in charge. We are supposed to do God’s will, not the reverse.
But we still need to hear the promise in Jesus’ words about the power of faith.
Because even though we collectively tend to have an exaggerated sense of human power, many of us individually feel totally helpless. We face enormous challenges. And it seems like nothing we can do makes any difference. That is true for many Americans. It is, I think, particularly true for Christians in New England. We are all too aware of the decline in Church attendance all around us. And so we get discouraged.
That is when we need to hear the promise of our passage. Jesus tells us that we can make a difference, if only we have faith. And the evidence suggests he is right.
Let’s engage in some imaginative time travel.
Think back to the situation of the Church in the year 100 AD. Pagan Rome was the great power, and Christianity was illegal. There were a few thousand Christians total. And the first great generation of leaders—the apostles—has recently died.
The situation may have seemed bleak to Christians in 100. To an outsider at the time, they would certainly have appeared to be utterly powerless. And yet the future belonged to that little band of faithful Christians.
Imagine telling them about the Church today. The Roman Empire is ancient history, and there are something like two billion Christians in the world—considerably more than the entire global population in their time.
My guess is, most of them would have a hard time believing us if we could tell them about their future. But not anyone who really absorbed the lesson in our Gospel reading, not anyone who really understood that, with even a little faith, Christians can do great things in God’s name. Moving a tree is nothing. They were going to take over the Roman Empire and eventually much of the world
Now fast forward a thousand years or so, to 1200. The Church has become rich and powerful. Popes contended with kings and emperors for political dominance. And yet all was not right in the Christian world. People were becoming increasingly materialistic. The gap between rich and poor was growing. Violence was endemic. Odd new religious options were emerging. Many ordinary Christians must have been discouraged. But what could they do?
Not Francis of Assisi, whose life we commemorate this week. Saint Francis didn’t set out to change the world. Francis didn’t even plan to start a religious order. Francis just tried to answer God’s call as faithfully as he could. And Francis’ faith set his world on fire.
Francis understood intuitively both lessons of our Gospel reading. Francis knew that he could do nothing apart from God, that his own best efforts would inevitably fail. But Francis also knew that if he acted in faith, if he followed God’s will, nothing could stand in his way. And so Francis confronted popes and kings and emperors and the Sultan. And Francis prevailed. Francis was living proof that even one person acting in faith could accomplish incredible things.
Now fast forward two thousand years into our future. I have no idea what life will be like then. But I know that God will still be in charge, that God’s will will still be done, that the people of that time will still be moving towards God’s kingdom.
Our task in this moment is to do what Christians in 100AD did, what Saint Francis did, what Christians in every generation have done. Our task is to remember always that we can do nothing without God, but also that with God there is nothing we can’t do. We live and we act in the power of that faith.
And so my prayer for us is that we remain humble, but also that we remember that with God we are capable of great things. In Jesus’ name. Amen.