Ever since I was a young child, I have been fascinated with trees. The yard of my childhood home has white oak trees that soar more than 100 feet into the sky, with the base of the trunk being so wide you can’t even wrap your arms around half of it; their roots spread strong and wide, ever so slowly pushing the little sidewalk path out of its way. I would often lie down under one of these massive oaks and watch the sun flitter through the bright green leaves as my imagination roamed. (And it didn’t take me long to learn that the one in the back had poison ivy growing up it, either.) While I don’t remember my exact age when I first heard the beginning of our gospel text today, I do remember how once when I was lying under the tree, how I wished or prayed or willed this giant oak to be moved. I took the word that Jesus said here accounted in the Gospel According to Luke at face value. And when the tree didn’t move, I rationalized it, thinking maybe I didn’t have enough faith, or maybe it only worked on mulberry trees.
The section from which our gospel lesson is pulled today in my Bible bears the description, “Sayings of Jesus.” In some ways this whole section is disconnected sayings that aren’t really part of the greater story of Christ, but still important enough to be recorded. Now, I don’t have a childhood memory attached to the second part of this passage, but in some ways, I feel similarly stupefied by it. And it’s not just the language of enslavement that makes me pay closer attention, it’s the ways in which Jesus here seems to be offering advice that I don’t agree with.
The sins of chattel slavery have rightly changed our connotation with the language of enslavement, but in the first century, slaves tended to serve a role more akin to servants, which is the word many Biblical translations default to these days for this same passage. But let us not negate the ways in which enslavement in any form, be it chattel slavery, indentured servitude, or the modern-day prison system and mass incarceration, has any sort of place in the Kingdom of God. Or as St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”
So, it’s not really the ways in which the enslavement language bristles me that bothers me about the last part of the gospel lesson today, it is the way in which Jesus tends to instruct the apostles to be self-righteous and pretentious. When Jesus paints this scenario about the workers coming in from the fields, he does not seem to instruct the apostles to ask the workers to join them, but rather that they demand that their food be prepared. It was bothering me so much that I brought it to the student with whom I work in our Campus Ministry, which is my go-to way to break through sermon writer’s block. We talked about this passage, and particularly this part, and it was in that conversation that I realized that I could read this exchange between the apostles and Christ, and for it to not be directly applicable to my faith and my life. Whether because I am not a middle Eastern man with the social capitol of being in Jesus’ inner circles or the way in which these words and this instruction hits my heart and my mind in a different way.
Jesus uses this metaphor of an interaction between a servant and employer, while talking to those who have servants, so while this metaphor can’t quite hit my ears in the way it maybe did to its original hearers, what Christ is saying here is that when we do what is expected of us, how should be expect or demand that our faith be increased as the apostles did at the beginning of this passage?
It is ironic, I think, that the metaphor of having such a great and deep sense of faith that one could uproot a whole tree and move it to the seaside feels much more relatable. Maybe it’s the opposite that’s true for you as you heard it read today, but for me, it’s this increase of faith that captured my imagination this week. One of my favorite tree facts is that in a thriving forest, trees, of all sorts of different species will communicate with each other through little, tiny fibers along the roots. These fibers don’t ground the tree, making sure that they don’t fall when a strong wind blows, but these connections are avenues of sharing nutrients, information, and even stress signals. Most tree’s roots don’t go down and mimic the above ground shape of the tree, but rather spread out laterally so that they can get oxygen and nutrients found in the top layers of soil.
Being rooted keeps the trees sturdy, of course, but it also creates a way for the organism to navigate this world not as a solitary being, but as a connected, grounded part of a greater network. And to me, this is such a blindly beautiful way to describe Christian community at its best. The apostles knew that they wanted to grow in their faith and so they all but demanded it of Christ, to which Christ responded with an analogy that my 9-year-old self would soon find out, is not a reality for mortals, no matter how much faith we have. This analogy teaches us that our faith is more powerful than we can know. In my innocent childhood mind rolled this image over and over again, and I realized this week that not once did I imagine the tree being uproot and lying on its side, slowly beginning the decaying process, but rather I imagined the tree being uprooted, moved, and planted again. Ready to set down new roots for both grounded-ness and stability – perhaps the great act of faith here in this saying of Jesus was not the uprooting, but the replanting. That our faith can not only do more than we could imagine, but also that we could thrive in ways in which we couldn’t dare to articulate. Jesus’ response to the apostles is to say that they have all they need to grow, they need only to put intention behind it and to trust that the phenomenal could happen. That a tree *could* be uprooted and transplanted by the sea.
As we welcome a new Christian into the household of God today, I’ve been thinking a lot about Juniper and the roots that she will put down. I’ve been thinking about how her parents and brother and grandparents and godparents will shape who she will become. I’ve been thinking about that thriving forest floor with its interconnected root system, and how even those here who might not play a significant role in her life, are part of that greater and broader root system, because we are all on in Christ Jesus.
We who stand witness to this first root sprouting of her life-long faith journey will forever be a part of her story, whether or not she ever meets you. We are all connected in our baptism, and on days when my faith feels thin, it is aspects of Christianity like this that increase my faith; again and again and again my faith is increased. Thanks be to God.
A sermon on Luke 17:5-10 delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on October 2, 2022 for Proper 22C.