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Planted in the Sea

Oct 06, 2019

Passage: Luke 17:5-6

Preacher: The Reverend Andrew Van Kirk

Category: Faith


Of all the miracles that Jesus managed to pull off, he never moved physical objects. He turned over the tables of the money changers that day in the Temple in Jerusalem, but he did that with the strength of his own hands. He calmed the storm, multiplied the loaves, and withered the fig tree — but he never bent the spoon with his stare. He never cleaned up his room Merry Poppins style. Or, apropos of today’s passage, he never plucked the mulberry bush up from its spot on the hillside and planted it in the sea. That, he said, is possible by faith the size of a mustard seed.

This assessment of mustard seed faith is somewhat less grandiose than the gospel of Matthew’s rendition — Matthew has the line about faith moving mountains. Here Jesus is more modest, merely moving a mulberry.

Sill, I’ve never gardened like that. In fact — well, I don’t know, maybe some of you feel like your faith is too strong. You’ve got an overflow situation and don’t know what to do with it all. I’ve never felt that way; I never feel like my faith is strong enough. Count me in with those apostles. You in too? “Lord, increase our faith.”

There’s an old sea tale about a living buoy. “Planted by Neptune himself,” an otherwise God-fearing sailor would swear. No one could ever agree on where it was. Some said they saw it off the coast of Nova Scotia; others said the North Sea. Others claimed that off the darkest coasts of north Africa lucky sailors would stumble upon it. But wherever it was encountered, the story went something like this. It was night. The weather was calm, but oppressively foggy. No storm, but no way to see. The boat was close to shore, but the captain and crew weren’t sure how close, and that was the problem. That was the danger. Then, faintly, over the breeze, muffled by the thick fog, came the sound of tinkling bells. Steer the bow toward the bells. Ever closer, ever clearer; the bells sounded not one note but a whole chord’s worth. And then, out of the fog would come a tree, not a sapling but a full grown tree — like the size of an apple tree, or an olive tree. The whole tree would heave and ho with the waves and swells, but the branches were swept all in one direction, like the tree was pointing — every captain naturally steered their boat to that side — which always turned out to be away from the shore.

And as the boat slid through the waters by the tree, clustered on the branches beneath the green leaves glinted little bells. Ding, ding, ding. And any sailor who looked down over the side of the boat would see what looked like pale lightening strikes shooting out from the place where the water lapped against the trunk. The roots.

I suspect that story is not actually true. You should probably suspect that too.

But I am intrigued by this idea of a tree planted in the sea. Merely casting a tree by faith into the sea would impressive. But…get me a chainsaw and a crane; human ingenuity can mime that miracle with industrial know-how.

But planting a tree in the sea…no way.

And I do not think this thing about being planted, rooted, thriving, growing where you don’t belong — I don’t think that’s such an irrelevant issue for us as Christians. As the letter to the Hebrews names it, we are “strangers and foreigners on the earth.” We are eternal beings living, in a way, where we don’t belong.

The sea, metaphorically, is destructive chaos. Especially in scripture. The Bible writers were, to a man, terrified of the sea. You can tell this book was not written by, say, Vikings, because of the way it talks about the sea. This is a group of people, remember, who took a moderately sized inland freshwater lake, and called it “The Sea of Galilee.”

So for today, let us assume the attitude of ancient Jews towards the sea, because that’s how Jesus’ audience would have heard him. When Jesus suggests tossing the mulberry into the sea — well, that’s a terrible place. The sea swallows things up. Like Egyptians. And fishing boats. And there are wales out there — Leviathans. Which, the Bible says, God made for the fun of it. Except they are terrifying and not fun at all. And there are storms, and waves, and lots of other terrible things that we can’t see and aahhhh!

And you’re going to — by faith — plant a tree out there!?

And yet the metaphor is that, after communion, you will step out there. At times the world in which we’re planted here on earth may feel more or less destructive. Still, as the hymn puts it, “Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us o’er the world’s tempestuous sea.”

This week many of you, surely, watched the video of Brant Jean, the younger brother of Botham Jean. Botham was the black man who was killed, in his own apartment, by Amber Guyger, a white police officer who mistook his apartment for hers.

These last months, and these last weeks in particular, Brant (the younger brother) has been at sea. The specifics of this case are impossibily caught up in decades — really centuries — of racism and injustice; in the BlackLivesMatter movement; in the ways our justice system has not always treated people fairly; in Dallas’ own history as a city and community. There was much more on trial this week than one woman — and all the fear, anger, and animosity to go with it. And of course, at the center of all that, was Botham, Brant’s dead brother.

A human being planted and rooted in that sort of environment — yeah right! That’s like a tree being planted in the sea.

And when so when Brant took the stand on Wednesday, he sat in a seat he could have used to amplify his hurt and judgment. Instead, in an incredible moment, in witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, he forgave Amber, and then stepped down from that seat and embraced the woman who killed his brother. That video more powerfully witnesses to the gospel than any sermon you’re likely to hear this year, I promise. If you haven’t seen it, you really should watch it.

For those of us who are white, we must be careful of celebrating this moment in a way that denies The legitimate anger and continuing cries for justice of our African American brothers and sisters. We must not project onto that moment our fantasy of black America forgiving white America and setting aside the demand for fairness. All the more so with the news this weekend that one of the witnesses in that trial, another young black man, was murdered on Friday night.

But we also should not discard that profound example Brant set for us. As Christians we should be proud of that moment; and yet also humbled into realizing that is the high, high calling of our faith. That incredible act of forgiveness, that’s what faith can do, should do, will do.

I think the feeling I felt most of all was awe. Awe at the power of faith in Jesus Christ. Awe at this young man. It was like Brant Jean doesn’t belong here. His life, his roots, they come from another place. And yet, here he is — alive, rooted, planted in the middle of this world’s tempestuous sea, braving a storm that most of us can scarcely imagine, much less dare to bear. Rather than being tossed to and fro among the waves of a world hellbent on destruction, he stood fast, planted in the middle of the sea, and quietly rang the bells of the gospel — ding, ding, ding. This way. Go this way.

He was planted by faith in a place where it seemed impossible for him to survive and yet, yet...by faith.

The miracles of this world, they all happen by faith — by people who trust deeply in God and know the forgiveness and new life offered us in Jesus Christ.

Even Jesus’ miracles in the gospels…Jesus has this habit of saying to those whom he’s healed, or from whom he’s cast out a demon — “your faith has made you well” or “your faith has saved you.” And yet…Jesus had just done the miracle, right there, with his own two hands. A man outside of Jericho comes up to Jesus in the crowd and Jesus is like “What do you want?” and the man is like “Jesus, let me see.” And Jesus says, “Ok, see!” And then Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you.”

Huh? This is a strange thing…

We say this theologically too: “saved by faith, not by works.” But of course we’re saved by Christ.

An old Puritan theologian named Thomas Brooks put it beautifully, “Christ takes the crown off his own head, and puts it on faith.” We can take “saved by Christ” and say “saved by faith,” because faith is the way Christ’s power is at work in the world.

Even when he was here on earth, that’s what Jesus was saying: “the reason this miracle works is not because I’m physically present with my bag of magic tricks, but because of faith.”

Faith is the way Christ’s power is at work in the world today too. It does miraculous things. In courtrooms in downtown Dallas; in senior living centers with estranged sons; with refugees who live in borrowed bedrooms, at the kitchen table with your spouse; at work with a client. If faith can plant a mulberry bush in the sea, it surely can plant you wherever you are, give you roots to thrive, and bring branches to bear fruit, drawing others to the kingdom of God and showing them the way. Have faith, my brothers and sisters, and do amazing things.