BIBLE READINGS: 1 Timothy 2:1-7 Luke 17:5-10
If you had faith, even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree: “Be uprooted and be planted in the sea. And it would do it.”
Planting trees in the sea sounds a clownish exercise. Its sound silly and foolish, I think that is exactly how Jesus meant it to sound. We miss the point of this mini-parable if we look at it with solemn eyes
It is cartoon he is creating. Think of it in cartoon terms. Unfetter your imagination. Imagine someone standing up to his waist in the sea down at Brighton trying to plant a tree. Crazy, huh?
Like any clever cartoon, behind this picture there is a serious point. In this cartoon Jesus is challenging those who would follow him to start attempting the hard and clownish things. The teaching of Christ is for many, impractical nonsense. But not for the disciple; for the disciple it is the way to go.
To get literal, the tree Jesus mentions is a sycamine tree. This is not what in English we call a sycamore tree, but a variety of mulberry tree that grew in the Middle East. It is a fruit tree. Also, maybe it is significant that here Jesus speaks of a tree which happens to have a large and deep root system.
Jesus actually says planted. Not thrown into the sea, but planted. The Greek word phuteuo is used. It’s the common word for planting flowers, trees or vegetables. It’s the kind of thing you do when expecting things to grow and produce food.
In Jewish thought the sea represents a primitive, untameable, alien force. Jews feared the sea. The sea separated people. To be lost at sea was most feared because it was thought to cut you off from any hope of resurrection. No wonder the Jews made poor sailors.
For Jesus faith is not a passive, fatalistic acceptance of things, but an active, disruptive force. It is not resignation to whatever the stars decree. Jesus’ faith is prepared to roll up its sleeves and get working at changing the world with God and for God. Faith is not having a lever to get God to do what we want, but the readiness to do what God wants. Even a little faith, Jesus says; even faith a small as a mustard seed will have surprising results.
In the eyes of a cynical world, faith is an exercise in improbability. To the worldly schemer what we are on about will seem impractical; a waste of time and effort. We will always be seen by some as the clowns of God. They say: “There is nothing we can do.” We say: “Let’s give it a try!”
Christians need to be the people who dream up exciting ideas that to the cynics around us seem clownish nonsense in their calculating view. We are called to put ourselves at risk. We need to be asking the awkward questions, making the unpopular stand, trying to win the unwinnable contest with evil. We are called to give it a try, and if we fail, to fail gloriously.
It would not be a bad thing if we took as our motto: “Clowns of faith, by appointment to his humble majesty, Jesus of Nazareth.” Planting trees in the sea is our true business. The clowns of God are ready to go where the wise and sophisticated will not go.
Those who are prepared to take a risk for the sake of Christ Jesus, inspire the rest of us. Some examples I have read about recently.
A 29 year old convert, with no Christian upbringing, who within three months of becoming a person of faith accepted office in his trade union; “To be Christ’s man there.” How is that for planting trees in the sea?
A 7 year old child, after hearing about starving people in Africa in Sunday School, drew a picture and made a donation box. This she installed at the front door and made sure any visitors saw it. She could not cure the ills of Africa but she could plant her small tree in the sea of general apathy.
One young man who decided to study both economics and social work so that he might be able to offer some skills to the long term unemployed. Fellow students who found out his plan, derided him as a crank.
The mother in her forties who went back to study and completed teacher training so that she could specialise in helping children with learning difficulties. In a large school, she worked with a class of what others (off the record, of course!) used to call the “dumbos”. Because she actually asked for this difficult class, some teachers treated her like she was crazy. Planting trees in the sea?
A priest in Africa who faked a crime and got himself imprisoned so that he could minister without any status to those who needed him most. Now that is planting in a deep sea! What a clown of a thing to do!
Much is common stuff. Some happens very quietly and unobtrusively.
Many of you in this congregation have done your share of planting fruit trees in the sea. In your own way, you tackle the difficult and attempt that which seems improbable. Sometimes you appear to succeed, at other times you may appear to fail.
Day by day plantings do matter.
In the kingdom of God, what appears like a waste of time is always a success. The act of attempting the difficult for Christ is itself a glorious success. No brave act of faith is wasted in God’s eyes. That which may not appear to bear fruit, will fruit in ways we cannot even imagine. Nothing done for Christ Jesus is a write off. No brave risk of faith and love is a defeat.
So get out there in the seas with a spade in your hand. In those places where others are negative and defeatist, and stand around bemoaning the state of the world, or the church, let us get on with Christ’s tree planting programme.
There is much more fun in being a clown of God that in “sitting in the seat of the scornful.”