Habakkuk 1:1—2:4; Psalm 37:1–18; 2 Timothy 1:6–14; Luke 17:5–10

The saying we heard today is not usually considered one of the hard sayings of Jesus: “if you had faith the size of a grain of mustard, you could say to this mulberry tree ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would be so.” Many of us probably think that, like Jesus’ comment about the difficulty of straining a camel through the eye of a needle, it is before all else a metaphor, designed to plant itself in the shoreless and turbulent sea of our minds because it is a fruitful image. But as you rest in the shade of this particular saying, other tremors begin to run through its branches, even an unpleasant sense of Jesus. Like a Zen koan, this cryptic comment resists us and disturbs us with all the toughness and resiliency of a weed.

Consider that this is the reply to the worthy plea of the disciples: “increase our faith.” As an answer, it sounds flippant. Faith the size of a mustard seed? Can any of you quantify faith and set out its dimensions? Is there also faith the size of an orange—or, God willing, in order to get some real productivity out of it, faith the size of an ox? This conjures up uneasy images of faith contests and pageants, which champions of faith prepare for by uprooting bigger and bigger members of the vegetable realm.

There seems to be something misdirected in this utilitarian approach. Do not get me wrong. Faith must be active. But Christian faith is surely not a Swiss Army knife, with clever accessories, so we can tinker with things and fix them to our liking. Christian faith is our active assent to God’s sovereignty, as we know it in Christ, on whom we rely for salvation and health and to whom we offer our praise. If faith has any size, it is probably inversely measured: that is, dependence on God and gratitude increase as confidence in our ability to accomplish anything on our own decreases.

Reflecting on this saying only makes it more harrowing. It would be bad enough to believe that Jesus says “if you had faith, you could display power effortlessly;” his example of causing something to perform contrary to its natural function is not only trivial, it is deadly. Not only is no human life improved by this, the mulberry tree dies when planted in saltwater. These destructive exercises of power over nature in a more naïve age were considered black magic, so it is disconcerting to find the suggestion in Jesus’ mouth. We, in our day, however, are sophisticates and know we do not fear the supernatural, though we alter landscapes, displace species, wrench weather patterns, disrupt ecosystems, all for our satisfaction. To get closer to the effect of Jesus’ words in our day, one might say, “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can take a plane full of people and fly it into a building.” Or what in an earlier day I would have thought even more fantastic, “if you have faith the size of a deer tick, you can make a nation believe you are destroying them for their own good.” We recoil from these thoughts—and yet the evidence is there that Jesus was speaking the truth.

Do not think I am being arbitrary. Jesus makes similar statements about faith that are equally disturbing. Twice in Matthew, Jesus comments that, if we had faith, we could command mountains to displace themselves into the sea and they would obey us. In Mark, Jesus says to his disciples, “you could say to this mountain, ‘be torn up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” He says this when they are astonished that a fig tree he cursed has withered.

None of this is helped by what follows. Jesus says we are to consider ourselves “worthless slaves.” The business of slaves, as he depicts it, is to look after the household obediently. But having done it perfectly, they have achieved nothing but the maintenance of a static social situation, leading to claustrophobia and despair. Yet this, our household, is the very place in which we most want to be helpful, not helpless, useful, not useless, worthwhile, not worthless. Somehow, obedience is not enough. Somehow, doing what we ought to have done falls short. Somehow, we sense that we have not found the fulcrum that will lift despair, heavier than mulberry trees, heavier than mountains, heavy as Creation itself, from us.

Here, dear sisters and brothers, we reach the point where faith can open up. When we are disturbed and defeated, the meaning of faith and our need for it become most apparent. When do we see that we are not seeing? When we run into walls. When do we recognize that we do not recognize what matters? When our life seems meaningless and worthless to us.

Now, finally we are ready to look at Habakkuk! He is trapped in the horror of history, just as Jesus’ metaphors are a true depiction of our power for evil and our inability to act where it matters. Yes, that is a paradox—to have power to act for evil with inability to act where it matters. In a sense, it is one thing: the fact that we act where it does not matter and that we are “useless” in what does matter is wedded to our capacity for evil.

The prophet Habakkuk opens wailing at God: “how long will I cry for help and you will not listen? Why do you make me look at trouble? The wicked surround the righteous, and therefore justice is perverted.” This is the plea of our own day. The perception that those who consider themselves righteous are surrounded by evildoers results in perverted justice. The feared threat of surrounding wickedness twists justice off its course.

God hardly comforts the prophet. The reply Habakkuk hears is this: “Look and be astounded! I am doing something you would not believe if you were told. I am rousing the Chaldeans, fierce and impetuous, bitter and hasty, the supreme military power of your time, irresistible and impulsive, who will invade and seize what is not theirs.”

Habakkuk shudders at this—as we must as well—and raises his voice next to all the Jews since Abraham who protest that God’s decisions are not careful enough of human life. Should masses perish indiscriminately in order to remove oppressors? Is this preemptive violence—even in God’s hands—the solution? Will God hurl mulberry trees, and even mountains, into the ocean? Will God spill all our service out to soak into sterile sand, so suffering and achievement alike are worthless and useless?

Habakkuk recoils and yells back at God. First, he says, “You, God, are not at risk; you don’t die—but we do.” Then he asks God, “How can you use the very means you have condemned? How can these willful egotistical greedy people be your instrument, when your eyes are too pure even to look at evil?” Of course Habakkuk means that God ought to be too holy to contemplate evil as a recourse, but the phrasing encompasses the bitter hint that God does not consider us closely enough and comprehend us with enough compassion to grasp what it is to suffer. The solution God is bringing about is no better than the original condition.

Then, in another indelible image, the prophet ascends the watchtower to be on the lookout for God’s answer. “I will stand at my watchpost,” he says, scanning the blistered horizon with shallow anxious breath, straining his eyes in a migraine of moral anguish, “I will station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will say to me.”

And God does answer: “Write this down. Engrave it where you can return to it. Make it clear enough that even someone running past, whether a rushing messenger or a fleeing citizen, can read it. There is still a vision for the appointed time, but it is of ultimate things. It is the final matter, and it is not a lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it, because its approach is certain.”

Then Habakkuk hears a wondrous thing from God. The certain vision is not about the future after all; it is about the present. You can know the outcome in this moment. You can know what you will become when you contemplate what you are. “Look,” God says, “at the proud: their spirit is not right in them. The righteous, however, live by their faith.”

These are subtle and profound teachings. They call us to look at the spirit in each other, to see past the arbitrariness of nature and history. The spirit of the proud is already damaged. This spirit not only leads to violence and death in the world around them; it is already decayed and necrotic within them. There is nothing to envy there and ultimately even nothing to fear. But in order not to fear, we must probe to the same depth in ourselves. At the same central depth in the righteous, listen for life–giving faith. Listen to what we heard today. From the Second Letter to Timothy, we have the example of a person in chains saying, “But I know the One in whom I have put my trust, and I am convinced that He is able to preserve what I have committed to Him for the last day.” The faith we live by today is our present participation in eternity. Though we are stewards of what passes away and can be destroyed, though we are obligated to care for it and preserve it, nevertheless that is not where we ultimately reside.

Though our share in these days binds us to them hand and foot, by faith we see that what binds us is not essential, but circumstantial. Our work here is useless, if we want to “make a difference,” because the life of the spirit is elsewhere. This is not to say that what we do doesn’t matter; of course it matters. The slaves in the household do everything perfectly. But we become the proud, whose spirit is not right, when we come to believe that what we do is the only thing that matters; then we have yoked ourselves to the demon–drivers of achievement and impact and effectiveness. When all is done to the best of our ability, Christian faith enables us to step back and say, “well, after all, this gift into the moment, this accomplishment, is not where worth and use and value reside; the true gift, the gift of the self, cannot be made to the event, but only to Christ.” My brothers and sisters, faith IS how we give our self, how we are open to what transcends us; it matters terribly and finally to what we make that gift—our deepest self must not be given to the affairs of the household, which, all to them, in the end, are ineffective and worthless because they are contingent and distracting.

This is not an overthrowing of order, not a counsel of despair, not a shrug that nothing matters. It matters deeply to the mulberry tree where it is rooted; seawater will kill it. But faith makes it possible to see that seawater is a possibility within the incidental horror of history. For the sake of the mulberry tree and with the power of faith, we must do everything possible to prevent that. But even more importantly, faith makes it possible to know that the uprooting of the mulberry tree is “useless,” because ultimately the self and its journey to God do not reside in these things. Jesus’ aphorism remains troubling until we see that its arbitrariness is a warning. To consider faith no more than a tool by which to manipulate events is to become the destroyer of the mulberry tree; to engage faith, with all its conviction and power, as a means of imposing our will on history is to become ultimately the worshiper of the net and the hook by which we empty the oceans; to recruit faith for the contests of worldly power is not to have a right spirit within. This is the temptation of faith: even the power and freedom we discover there are liable to the seductions of self–will. As the author of the Second Letter to Timothy says, we must rely on the Spirit of power and love and self–discipline that God has given us in Christ to accomplish His purposes.

The prayer with which Habakkuk closes his book says it all—and I cannot have better words than his with which to conclude my sermon. He looks out on a devastated world, and yet finds hope.

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls”—and I might add “though mulberry trees are ripped up and transplanted into seawater, though armies prowl and brutes ravage the innocent”—“YET,” Habakkuk says, “YET” may we all come to say, “YET I will rejoice in the Lord and exult in the God of my salvation. God the Lord is my strength, who makes my feet like the feet of a deer and empowers me to tread on the heights.”

May we join Habakkuk on these joyful heights, and may we find transplanted there all that history has broken and uprooted, where it might be nourished for all eternity in the vast and sweet and luminous ocean of divinity, and where we will join the praise of saints and angels and enter into the life of the Holy Trinity, Eternal Source, Only–begotten Word, and Life–giving Spirit, one God, whom we also praise today.