Sermon: Proper 22 RCL C – “Mulberry Tree”

TreePhoto by Do Photography on Unsplash

Did you know that the longest fingernail (actually a thumbnail) is 6 feet 4 inches? Did you know that the loudest burp by a female is 107 decibels (the equivalent of being close up to a jackhammer)? Did you know that the longest kiss lasted over 58 hours? And did you know that the greatest distance to catch a thrown grape in the mouth is 354 feet? World’s records. If someone is willing to do something crazy, there’s bound to be someone around to measure it. There are also some remarkable human feats that have been accomplished.

A few weeks back, ten of us came together as a team—St. Matthew’s Saints—and walked the 5K at the Great Land Run. For those not proficient in the metric system (myself included), 5K (kilometers) is roughly 3.1 miles. You’ll be happy to know that as a team, we came in second place out of six. The only team to beat us was the EHS Cross Country runners. I’m OK coming in second behind them.

Not only do they keep track of teams, but they track by age groups. For the St. Matthew’s Saints, Frank Baker came in first in his age group, Mary Henneke came in third in hers, and Max Baker came in third for the shorter folks. I… well, I came in 172nd out of 195 runners, and I lived to tell about it. My time for walking 3.1 miles was 54 minutes and 7 seconds, an average of 17 minutes and 46 seconds per mile. There are some remarkable human feats… that was not one of them; however, at the Berlin Marathon held earlier this week, Eliud Kipchoge ran a full marathon (26.2 miles) and set a new world record: 2 hours 1 minute, and 9 seconds. I walked a mile in about 18 minutes. This man ran 26 miles at a pace of 4 minutes and 37 seconds per mile. That’s the difference between running a bit over three mph compared to 13 mph. Eliud set a world record. I did not.

This is only one of the amazing number of remarkable feats accomplished by humans. Still, in all that the human race had done, I’ve never come across a single person who has said to a mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and had it obey them. Yet, when the apostles said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Jesus said if you had faith the size of a mustard seed—in other words—if your faith was the equivalent of my 18-minute mile—you could move that mulberry tree, so perhaps Jesus did not mean for us to understand this literally but was instead using a figure of speech to make a point.

This past week during our Wednesday night study, we discussed the use of a metaphor in Holy Scripture. A metaphor is a word that symbolically refers to another. For example, we see many times in scripture where God is referred to as a rock, but we know this doesn’t literally mean that God is a rock. To have faith the size of a mustard seed and be able to move a tree from one place to another is not a metaphor. Still, it is also a figure of speech: a rhetorical hyperbole—an over-the-top exaggeration, yet when Jesus uses it, he speaks of a greater truth.

In the nineteenth chapter of Matthew, we are told of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man. The man came to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says to him, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” The young man asks, “Which ones?” Jesus replied, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Hearing this, the young man becomes excited. He’s on his way, so he says to Jesus, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus tells him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Jesus said, “All you need to do is say to that mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and you will inherit eternal life.” And the young man went away sad because he could not do that.

If that were the end of it, then in all likelihood, we would all go away sad because there is a mulberry tree in all our lives that we can’t seem to move. Think about it. I can pick many mulberry trees in my life. Things that I’ve worked to change, sins that I’ve attempted to overcome, anger that I think I’ve set aside that keeps welling up… run through the list: pride, hypocrisy, gluttony—It’s all there. Spin the wheel and see which one pops up today. All of them are like that young man and his wealth; they are mulberry trees with roots into my soul that just won’t give an inch. If eternal life depended upon my ability to move them, I would catch up to that young man so that we could commiserate together because, in the end, we would both be damned. Fortunately for us, that is not the end of the story.

After the rich young man went his way, Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, only with difficulty can someone who is unable to move the mulberry tree gain eternal life. It would be easier for Father John to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans than for such a person to enter the Kingdom of God.”  When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God… with a faith in God that is no larger than a mustard seed… all things are possible.” Moving the mulberry tree and gaining eternal life is not about what I can do. Instead, it is about my faith in what my God can do—and all things are possible through Him. As St. Paul says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57) And again, he says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”—who will move this mulberry tree in my life?—“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a)

There are things in our lives that we strive to change and overcome, and so often, we fail. They are like trying to move mulberry trees into the sea. However, just because we fail does not permit us to stop trying and pushing forward, but those failures are not a reason to walk away sad and defeated. We must go at it again. Yet, we can rest in confidence that, in the end, Jesus has already moved the mulberry tree for us. As St. Paul said, the Lord Jesus gives us the victory.

One final note—a bit of an aside: I said that moving the mulberry tree and saying you could move it into the sea was a rhetorical hyperbole, an over-the-top exaggeration. Fine. However, I am not one to limit God, so I firmly believe that should God ever need such a remarkable feat accomplished, it will be done, for if he can raise a man from the dead, moving a tree, no matter how deeply rooted, will never be an issue.

Let us pray: Holy God, we come to you with humility, knowing that the answer to our challenges is not wholly within us. We come with steadfastness and faith, knowing that your love for us is everlasting. And we come with hope, knowing that all things are possible in you. We come to you and give you thanks for the victory you have won for us. Amen.

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