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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Luke 17:1-10 Forgiveness & Faith the Size of a Mustard Seed
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, October 3, 2004

This morning, churches all around the world are celebrating Communion. We celebrate the goodness of Christ that we share around a common table. Do you remember when the Millennium came? Do you remember when the TV channels were showing the year 2000 beginning in every time zone? Every hour, the fireworks flew and more people partied. If TV were covering World Communion, then every hour today, we’d see the cup poured and the bread broken, from Australia to India to Africa to Europe to the US to the Philippines.

And if, this morning, TV were covering World Communion, then every hour, we’d very likely hear same the scriptures we heard this morning, read hour after hour in language after language. And it would be a wonderful thing to behold. Or would it?

This morning, the Lectionary – where churches around the world (including this one) get their scriptures – has paired together two of the most difficult passages in all the Bible. Psalm 137 and Luke 17. Psalm 137 recounts the insult and injury of the Hebrew people. Slaves in Babylon taunted by their captors – “Sing us one of your happy little songs about God.” And boy, do they sing. The psalm ends on the bitterest of notes: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” People who think gangsta rock is mean ought to read the Bible. And then, we turn to the New Testament of Jesus Christ – and the music gets even harder. Jesus says, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” “Lord, increase our faith!” the disciples say. Lord, yes.

Lord, increase our faith, we disciples say, on the hour, round the clock, around the world. Lord, increase our faith when Sudanese relief workers bury more children. Lord, increase our faith when we see blindfolded American hostages one minute and Abu Ghraib prison the next. Lord, increase our faith when we see video of Russian schoolchildren, and replays of 9-11, and our blood boils over the flames of righteous revenge. Lord, increase our faith when in the face of all this, you tell us forgive, forgive, forgive… forgive, forgive, forgive… and forgive – seven times or more, every day.

To these pleas for increased faith, Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…!” Some of us have more faith, some of us have less, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that we all are people of little-faith (as opposed to big-faith). If we have faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus says… what does he say? In Matthew he says you could move mountains. In Luke, he says we could move mulberry trees. Mountains, mulberry trees – either one is pretty good. You “little-faithed ones,” he says, you may not think so, but your faith is good enough to accomplish the impossible. And what’s the impossible? In this case, the impossible is reconciling the right of revenge with the duty of forgiveness. Both of which are in the Bible, both of which present themselves 24/7 in 2004, and both of which make it hard – if not impossible – to be a human being who stands for justice… and a disciple who stands for our Lord, at the same time. Lord, increase our faith.


The Sunday School asked the lady who had just celebrated her 50th anniversary how she and her husband managed to stay married all these years. “In any of those 50 years,” they asked, “did you ever think of getting a divorce?” “Divorce?” she said, “Never. Murder? Often.”

I’m guessing that in the past week or month, if not the last few hours, you may have felt like wringing someone’s neck. Maybe the neck of someone you’re related to. Maybe the neck of someone you used to be related to. And the only thing separating you from incarceration is a thin line of personal restraint and the fear of getting a bad lawyer.

The Israelites who sang the cruel song of Psalm 137 were slaves. They weren’t in a position to act on the longings of their darkened hearts. That didn’t stop them from letting their hatred boil up; but it did stop the hatred from boiling over. Sometimes faithful people feel so bad about getting angry. We think anger is a sin, so we get angry at ourselves for being angry in the first place and so we sin twice. And if you’re really into it, you get angry at yourself for being angry at yourself for being angry at someone else. Bad, bad, bad; three times bad. Part of our Old Testament heritage is belief in a God who is just. We believe in a God who gets angry, a God who hears his children’s cries for justice. Whether we cry out in pain, whether we cry out in anger, God hears the cries of the children of Babylon. God hears the cries of the children of Nuremberg. God hears the cries of the mothers of Beslan. Our God is not deaf. Our God doesn’t turn a deaf ear or close a blind eye when humans are horribly inhuman. God wouldn’t be God – God would be less than righteous– if God weren’t stirred to anger over the evil people can do to one another. And we would be less than God’s children if we weren’t stirred to cry out, or sing out, or march out against all the evil that men and women do.

“But…” The Apostle Paul writes, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Sometimes anger, ironically, is the only thing that keeps devilish sin from taking over. The world may be a dangerous place now, but we can only imagine how much darker it would be if you of “The Greatest Generation” hadn’t channeled your anger into the battles of World War II. Anger is more than just a part of being human. Sometimes it’s part of being just, being righteous. But anger for its own sake IS sinful. Anger for its own sake makes vengeance, not God, its only end. Anger for its own sake blots out the light of God that might otherwise break through the darkness. No matter how much evil you might wish on your worst enemy, the point at which you break through the last, thin line of restraint is the moment the devil takes you over. It’s the point, in Biblical terms, when you turn your back on God, when you repent of God himself.

God is both just and forgiving. God gets angry over the stupid things we do. But God also forgives when we turn back around from turning our backs on God. When we repent, the God of perfect justice is also the God of perfect forgiveness. How can that be? If we ask God’s forgiveness seven times a day, seven days a week, doesn’t justice demand that at some point God’s going to say, “Enough!”? I have a feeling Jesus would say, “Why are you asking? Is it because you want to know the limits of God’s forgiveness? Or is it because you want to know a reasonable limit for your own?” If you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can move mountains. So if you have enough faith to repent, you probably have enough faith to grow a conscience… the fifth, sixth, or seventh time today you invoke the wrath of God. Probably.


The sacrament we celebrate today, the Lord’s Supper, is a gift born out of both anger and forgiveness. God was so mad at our inhumanity, that God himself came to redeem the mustard seeds of humaneness that were left. With God’s own body broken, God’s own blood poured out, God shows us the heights of perfect justice and the depths of perfect mercy. In the end, justice and mercy, anger and repentance are two sides of the same coin… and if you ask me how can this be, I’ll say, I don’t completely know. But I know more about it than I knew ten years ago. And, God willing, I’ll understand it more ten years from today. God’s anger and God’s forgiveness meet at this table. Our repentance and our sins meet at this table. And at this cross. And in these waters of baptism. These are the boundaries of human understanding. These are where we can almost reach out and touch heaven.

The Apostle Paul tells us we’re supposed to prepare ourselves for Communion (1 Corinthians 11:28) by examining our hearts. Is there someone whose neck you’d like to wring so much that the anger is eating you alive? Does your taste for blood make you push away the body and blood not of vengeance but of sacrifice? Do you feel guilty that you can’t swallow the whole loaf of God’s mercy? God’s not asking you to do that. If you just take a bit of Jesus the size of a mustard seed into your heart, you can move mulberry trees, or mountains, or even yourself.

In the end, even righteous anger is swallowed up by righteousness. In the end the unrighteousness that we’ve suffered is swallowed up by God’s justice. In the end human hatred will dissolve like a morning mist fades in the light of the sun. A sun that rises every hour, on a different part of this world. A sun that illumines the good – and the bad – of our lives.

O Lord, increase our faith. And help the mustard seeds of our faith to grow.