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“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.”
I’m sure I’m not the only person in this room that has tried this a couple of times. So far without success. I remember hearing this passage as a child, or maybe one of its parallel passages in Matthew and Mark’s gospels where it’s not a tree but a mountain that’s thrown into the sea. And the impression I got was that getting a prayer answered was a matter of believing hard enough. Driving every possible iota of doubt or uncertainty out of one’s mind and holding it that way long enough to get the words out.
It turns out the word we translate “faith,” pistis, doesn’t really primarily mean intellectual belief. It has more to do with trust and faithfulness. It’s less about believing in facts and more about being in faithful relationship with God. So it may be that Jesus isn’t so much suggesting we brainwash ourselves into certainty as that we work on the quality of our faithfulness. Not that if we play mind games we’ll be able to do magic, but that if our hearts and actions come to be aligned with God, nothing will be impossible, even things that seem as impossible as a mulberry tree taking root in the sea.
Now today we are blessing animals and giving thanks for God’s creation, mulberry trees and mountains and seas and all of it, remembering our brother St. Francis, whose feast day was this past Friday. And as we do so we acknowledge that God’s creation is good and beloved, and the human vocation that we were created for includes tending to that creation. And we have to acknowledge also that as a species we are not doing it. In the words of today’s gospel, we are worthless slaves who have not done even what we ought to have done. Today even as we give thanks for these dear domestic animals we are mindful of the species that are becoming extinct because climate change is making their ranges shrink or their food chains disappear. We’re mindful of the trees we are uprooting, not out of faith, but out of greed, as rainforests burn in Brazil and Indonesia, and of the sea levels that threaten to wipe cities and even entire island nations off the map.
Two weeks ago over 7 million people in 180 countries participated in the Global Climate Strike, the largest coordinated mass action on climate change to date. Much damage from climate change has already been done. We here in wildfire country know that as well as anyone. And there are great harms underway that we can no longer prevent. But it is also true that there are even worse harms ahead that we can prevent if the nations of the world act now, in concert, to commit to a path to a carbon-neutral future. It’s young people around the world who are leading the charge; because it is young people who will live through the effects of what today’s adults have created. “Anyone who causes one of these little ones to stumble,” says Jesus, “it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” And “these little ones” includes not only today’s children but also the animals, and plants, and other forms of life that now depend on us for survival.
The situation is urgent. But it’s not hopeless. There is a lot we can do. As individuals it can feel like our choices don’t matter—but our choices influence the choices of others, and collectively that matters a lot. We can drive less and fly less. We can eat less meat. We can talk about those choices with one another at church and with our friends outside church. And we can advocate for our elected leaders to put this issue front and center, because it’s also true that this issue won’t be solved unless it happens at a government and multi-government scale. So a lot of what we can do has to be working to influence what those with the actual power to decide do. We can do that through how we vote, as well as how we work to influence public opinion. We can show up at events like the climate strike. We can write to our newspapers. We can give money to environmental organizations that pay staff to work full time on this issue.
On this issue, and any other issue, we each have some power. And there are limits to our power. So our work is to do what we can and also to avoid becoming discouraged at the limits of what we can. In that, people of faith have an advantage. Because we believe ultimately the future is in God’s hands. Like the prophet Habakkuk we may rail against the evil we see around us and we may say, “how long will I cry and you will not listen?” And the reply is, “God still has a vision for the appointed time; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
The mystery of our calling is that in some sense, the future doesn’t depend on us. We’re not God. And at the same time, God chooses to work through us, when we’re open to it. So every time we choose to take an action that cares for creation, we are partnering with God, letting ourselves be instruments of God’s peace.
May God increase our faith—which means, our faithfulness. May we be aligned with God’s purposes so fully that nothing is impossible, not even healing this beloved and beautiful world.