The following sermon was preached on October 2, 2022 at St George’s Transcona. You can learn more about St George’s and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by Joshua Lanzarini on Unsplash


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

If you’re been listening to me preach for awhile it shouldn’t surprise you to know that I often have questions about the choices made by the creators of our cycle of readings called the lectionary.

Today my question is: Why did they start our gospel reading at verse 5?  It’s a confusing enough reading as it is, but even more so if you don’t have the first four verses for context.

So let’s back up and look at both the overall context of Luke’s gospel and also those four verses.

Jesus is travelling to Jerusalem. He is not alone, there are disciples and apostles (which Luke sometimes suggests are different types of people) travelling with him, and there are also crowds of people who gather wherever Jesus is. Along the way, Jesus teaches and heals, challenges and comforts.

And this chapter of the gospel begins “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come…” (17:1)

Jesus understands that we’re not robots programmed for perfect behaviour at all times, we are going to stumble and that’s just normal.

This idea is reflected in our baptismal liturgy.  Last week, and at every baptism, the baptismal candidates and everyone else in attendance are invited to say some pretty audacious things.  We’re asked to renounce Satan and evil powers, we’re asked to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.

And everytime I asked one of those questions last week, y’all responded, “I will” or “I will, with God’s help.”

At baptism we are asked to commit to a lot of things, admirable, lofty, maybe even impossible things. Impossible at least if we’re supposed to do this perfectly for the rest of our lives.

But we all committed publicly to do them.

And so I love that one of our most common responses to those questions at a baptism is, “I will, with God’s help.”  These are not commitments it is possible for us to make on our own and we’re not expected to.

At a baptism we’re also asked the following: Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

It’s not, will you persevere in resisting evil and do so perfectly.  It’s not, will you persevere in resisting evil and on the off chance you fail….   Rather we’re asked, “Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin…

Whenever you fall… falling is assumed, and so is God’s forgiveness.

That is true in our baptismal liturgy and in today’s gospel reading.

Jesus says, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to those by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (1-2)

So Jesus begins with a pretty low bar – perfection is not expected, we will have many opportunities to stumble and we will in fact stumble.  What a relief!  But then he shifts halfway through the sentence and says, “but woe!”

Suddenly I am feeling nervous again.   Because although this is a warning for all of us, it’s a particular warning for those of us who teach or lead others to be very careful with our words and our actions.   Stumbling may be normal, but causing other people to stumble is something to be avoided at all costs.

The passage continues with a series of seemingly unconnected warnings and suggestions, like someone gathered up a little buffet of random things Jesus said and plunked them into this section of the gospel.

Audrey West explains that this passage, “constitutes the second half of a four-part series of loosely connected teachings related to discipleship, which may be summarized thus: (1) Don’t be the cause of another’s sin (Greek skandalon, stumble); (2) Forgive, again; (3) Miniscule faith is sufficient; (4) Discipleship is not about reward: Just do it!”[1]

Miniscule faith is sufficient. Really?

The apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” and Jesus replies, “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.” (5-6)

What is Jesus saying? When I first read this it sounded like an insult. It sounded like Jesus was saying that a small amount of faith can do big things, but the apostles don’t even have that tiny bit of faith.

Insulting or shaming people for asking for more faith doesn’t seem like something Jesus would do.   If the apostles are self aware enough to know that they don’t have enough faith and are asking for more, shouldn’t Jesus be pleased and happy to encourage them to grow their faith?

And I can’t read Jesus’ mind so I can’t be sure, but I don’t think that Jesus is trying to shame them for making a dumb request or for lacking faith.

I think Jesus is trying to tell them they don’t need more faith, they already have more than enough. What they need to do is use the faith they have.

I read a lot. I also buy a lot of books. I buy waaaaay more books than I read. Sometimes I wonder which I like better, reading books or buying books.

It’s a question I don’t have an easy answer to.

What I do know, however, is that I don’t benefit from the content of the books I don’t read. They might be fun to buy or look good on the shelf, but they don’t do me much good if I don’t read them.

I don’t really need to buy more books, I don’t need to increase my book collection, I need to read the books I already have.

Similarly, it is possible to have faith that is powerful enough that you could make a tree jump into the sea and not know it because you never tried.

It’s not how much faith you have that’s the issue, it’s how you use the faith that you have.

It’s not uncommon when we are facing a challenge or a struggle to focus on what we think we are lacking – if only we had more money or if only we were stronger or if only we had powerful friends in the right places.   We look at what we have and we are sure it just couldn’t possibly be enough. It couldn’t possibly be all we need to meet the challenge at hand.

And this is what the disciples do as well.  Following Jesus is challenging, and when Jesus reminds the disciples of this they ask for more faith.

But Jesus is telling them they don’t need more. Faith the size of a small mustard seed is enough to do more than they can even imagine.

At least to the best of my knowledge they weren’t going around making trees jump into lakes on a regular basis.

To the best of my knowledge they never did that.

They could, with even a small amount of faith, but they had never tried.

And is the disciples’ faith really as small as a mustard seed?   Jesus doesn’t say that they have mustard seed faith, he just describes what a mustard seed sized faith is capable of.

I suspect the disciples have even more faith, and therefore even more power than a mustard seed.

Audrey West notes that “throughout Luke’s Gospel, the closest followers of Jesus reveal their own “mixed” level of faith. On one hand, they have left homes and jobs and families in order to follow Jesus. It has not been easy, as they have encountered hostility from many who oppose Jesus (Luke 11:53; 13:31; 16:14). Still they have stuck around, even for this final journey toward Jerusalem, and even when they have received a warning of what is to come (Luke 9:22).

Rather than focusing on what we lack, could we perhaps ask, how are we using what we already have?

What if, we met challenging situations with the same confidence we express at a baptism?

Will you do this seemingly difficult or impossible thing?

I will, with God’s help.

What would change if we had that mindset?

What seemingly impossible things would be able to accomplish?

I don’t know, because I have never really tried.

But I would really like to find out.

In the strong name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.