06 October 2019

If only I had faith the
size of a mustard seed

‘World’s Smallest Seed,’ 40”x30” oil/canvas, by James B Janknegt

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 6 October 2019,

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVI).

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

The Readings: Lamentations 1: 1-6; Psalm 137: 1-6; II Timothy 1: 1–14; Luke 17: 5-10. There is a link to the readings HERE.

‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. As for our lyres, we hung them up on the willows’ (Psalm 137: 1-2) … willows by the banks of the River Cam in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It is safe to say, I do not have green fingers.

Until recently, I had no interest in the garden. I like sitting in the garden, reading in the sunshine (when the sun shines), listening to the sound of the small fountain, enjoying the shade of the trees, and in summertime, eating out in the open.

So, it is not that I do not enjoy the garden. It is just that I have always felt I am no good at it.

It is an attitude that may have been nurtured and cultured from heavy hay-fever in my early childhood, hay-fever that comes back to haunt me persistently at the beginning of summer.

We once bought a willow tree, in the early 1980s, put it in the back of the car, a small Mini, and drove back across Dublin, with me holding on to the tree as it stuck out the side window. By the time we got home, I was covered in rashes, and my eyes, ears and nose were in a deep state of irritation. It must have been related to those willow trees in this morning’s Psalm, because afterwards I sat down and wept.

For that reason alone, you could not call me a ‘tree hugger.’ But do not get me wrong … I really do like trees.

I relish spending time in the vast, expansive olive groves that stretch for miles and miles along the mountainsides in Crete, or in vineyards where the olive groves protect the vines.

But I cannot be trusted with trees. I was once given a present of a miniature orange tree … and it died within weeks. I have been given presents of not one, but two olive trees. One, sadly, died. The other is still growing, but it is a tiny little thing.

Perhaps if I had just a little faith in my ability to help trees to grow, they would survive and mature.

You may wonder why Christ decides to talk about a mustard seed and a mulberry tree, rather than, say, an olive tree. After all, as he was talking in the incident in this morning’s Gospel reading, he must have been surrounded by grove after grove of olive trees.

But, I can imagine, he is also watching to see if those who are listening have switched off their humour mode, if they have withdrawn their sense of humour. He is talking here with a great sense of humour, using hyperbole to underline his point.

We all know a tiny grain of mustard is incapable of growing to a big tree. So, what is Christ talking about here? Because, he not only caught the disciples off-guard with his hyperbole and sense of humour … he even wrong-footed some of the Reformers and many Bible translators who make mistakes about what sort of trees he is talking about this morning.

Why did Christ refer to a mustard seed and a mulberry or sycamine tree, and not, say, an olive tree or an oak tree?

Christ first uses the example of a tiny, miniscule kernel or seed (κόκκος, kokkos), from which the small mustard plant (σίναπι, sinapi) grows. But mustard is an herb, not a tree. Not much of a miracle, you might say: tiny seed, tiny plant.

But he then mixes his metaphors and refers to another plant. Martin Luther, in his translation of the Bible, turned the tree (verse 6) into a mulberry tree. The mulberry tree – both the black mulberry and the white mulberry – is from the same family as the fig tree.

As children, some of us sang or played to the nursery rhyme or song, Here we go round the mulberry bush. Another version is Here we go gathering nuts in May. The same tune is used for the American rhyme Pop goes the weasel and for the Epiphany carol, I saw three ships.

Of course, mulberries do not grow on bushes, and they do not grow nuts that are gathered in May. Nor is the mulberry a very tall tree – it grows from tiny seeds but only reaches the height of an adult person.

It is not a very big tree at all. It is more like a bush than a tree – and it is easy to uproot too.

However, the tree Christ names (Greek συκάμινος, sikámeenos) is the sycamine tree, which has the shape and leaves of a mulberry tree but fruit that tastes like the fig, or the sycamore fig (συκόμορος, Ficus Sycomorus).

Others think the tree being referred to is the sycamore fig (συκόμορος, Ficus Sycomorus), a tree we come across in a few weeks’ time as the big tree that little Zacchaeus climbs in Jericho to see Jesus (Luke 19: 1-10, 3 November, the Fourth Sunday before Advent).

The sycamine tree is not naturally pollinated. The pollination process is initiated only when a wasp sticks its stinger right into the heart of the fruit. In other words, the tree and its fruit have to be stung in order to reproduce. There is a direct connection between suffering and growth, but also a lesson that everything in creation, including the wasp, has its place in the intricate balance of nature.

Whether it is a small seed like the mustard seed, a small, seemingly useless and annoying creature like the wasp, or a small and despised figure of fun like Zacchaeus, each has value in God’s eyes, and each has a role in the great harvest of gathering in for God’s Kingdom.

Put more simply, it is quality and not quantity that matters.

Here are six little vignettes about faith that I came across recently:

1, Once all the villagers decided to pray for rain. On the day of prayer, all the people gathered, but only one little boy came with an umbrella. That is faith.

2, When you throw babies in the air, they laugh because they know you will catch them. That is trust.

3, Every night we go to bed without any assurance of being alive the next morning, but still we set the alarm to wake up. That is hope.

4, We plan big things for tomorrow in spite of zero knowledge of the future. That is confidence.

5, We see the world suffering, but still people get married and have children. That is love.

6, There is an old man who wears a T-shirt with the slogan: ‘I am not 80 years old; I am sweet 16 with 64 years of experience.’ That is attitude.

This morning’s Gospel reading challenges us to pay attention to our attitude to, to the quality of, our faith, trust, hope, confidence, love and positivity. And if we do so, we will be surprised by the results.

Perhaps I should be paying more attention to that small olive tree on my patio.

Faith is powerful enough to face all our fears and all impossibilities. Even if our germ of faith is tiny, if it is genuine there can be real growth beyond what we can see in ourselves, beyond what others can see in us.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Faith, Hope and Love … a window in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 17: 5-10 (NRSVA):

5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6 The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.

7 ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” ’

The Mayer window in Saint Nicholas Church, Adare, Co Limerick, depicting the three virtues (from left): Faith, Charity and Hope (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical colour: Green

The Collect of the Day:

O Lord,
Hear the prayers of your people who call upon you;
and grant that they may both perceive and know
what things they ought to do,
and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of mercy,
through our sharing in this holy sacrament
you make us one body in Christ.
Fashion us in his likeness here on earth,
that we may share his glorious company in heaven,
where he lives and reigns now and for ever.


653, Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom (CD 37)
549, Dear Lord and Father of mankind (CD 32)
601, Teach me, my God and King (CD 34).

The sycamore fig, the mulberry and the fig are all related … a fig tree in Córdoba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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