The Survivor Tree — A Story of Faith

Luke 17:5-10

5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The 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 plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would 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’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So 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!’”


Tragedy has the uncanny ability to rattle our faith. The greater the tragedy the deeper the disruption. When the World Trade Centers crashed to the ground, many of us wondered if our faith could survive the crash.

Michael Arad was in New York City on September 11. As he felt the loss in the city, he imagined two holes in the shape of the buildings’ outline, opening up in the Hudson River and the river pouring into those vacant spaces. Michael Arad is an architect and that image translated itself into the design he submitted to the September 11 Memorial Committee, the design that won the competition. The design is more that cobblestones, steel and flowing water. Living trees spot the plaza and stand, in the middle of the absence, as a sign of the persistence of hope when faith fails.

Perhaps of all the trees on the Plaza, the Survivor Tree has the most complex story. In October of 2001, a Callery Pear tree was discovered amid the rubble of the World Trade Center. When the buildings came crashing down, the rubble cut off the branches and the crown of the tree. The tree’s roots were broken. The bark on the tree was burned. When, on an October day, the tree was discovered, in spite of the trauma it suffered, it began to put our new leaves. Quite a surprising thing for a tree to do in October when it usually drops its leaves. The energy of life was surging through the tree, giving it new life. The tree was uprooted, taken to the Arthur Ross Nursery in Van Courtlandt Park in the Bronx. It was only eight feet tall when it made it back to the nursery.

So many people invested their hope in that tree. They supported it, nurtured its injured root system, and they fed it and mulched it that winter of 2001. When spring arrived, buds appeared on the tree and then flowers. In 2010, the Survivor Tree was transplanted to the plaza of the September 11 Memorial. Every spring, the survivor tree puts out its fragrant white flowers, the only flowering tree amid the forest of Swamp White Oaks on the plaza.

We heard today the story of another unplanted tree. Jesus tells us today:  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. (Lk. 17:6) Most of us hear these words and shake our heads since we know that we could not work that magic which would uproot trees. So we doubt our faith and we question ourselves. But those are unnecessary worries we lay on our hearts.

Jesus never intended us to believe that if we had that faith mustard seed faith that we could command trees to dance their way into the sea. It is only a figure of speech.

Let’s remember that the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith not out of the blue but in the context of his previous challenge. If you would open the Gospel according to Luke to the beginning of Chapter 17, you would read Jesus’ admonition that we should forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times. Jesus continues in today’s passage to advise the apostles that they are also called to be servants in the community. In the context of those two challenges of living the Christian life, we hear the apostles give voice to our own plea:  Lord, increase our faith. So how should we hear Jesus’ seemingly impossible reply about moving trees into the sea if we had even a bit of faith?

Let’s look into our hearts because that faith is already there. Perhaps we do not recognize that faith because we call it by different names. We experience that mustard seed faith as the strength which leads us through the painful experiences of our lives. We experience mustard seed faith as the hope that we can discover meaning when the rug gets pulled out from under us. We experience mustard seed faith as that pull of our hearts to go deeper into the Christian life, to give up time on whatever we do and to put in time for prayer, for reading the bible, for practicing that part of Christian living which presents the greatest challenge for me today. Our faith pulls us like a magnet and faith draws us deeper into a relationship with God, an ever-developing friendship with Christ and an unanticipated sharing in love of the Holy Spirit. We feel that faith well up in us and it moves through our lives with all the give and take of any of our relationships.

Once we begin that relationship with God, once we agree to be in a relationship with Jesus, God has a way of luring us deeper and leading us to new levels of our relationship which means new levels of faith. The great mystery of our faith consists in our ability to survive attacks on it. Just as the Survivor Tree endured the attack of September 11 and found new life surging through it, so too our faith gets us through the deepest problems we face.

When our life feels like the burned bark of the Survivor Tree, a deep energy of life, an enduring persistence, surges through us.

What do we fall back on when the going gets rough? What gets us through in the face of the seemingly impossible? What is that energy which pushes out new leaves from a tree that should have died?

Faith is that hope that shines as a light when we feel surrounded by deepest darkness. For our faith opens up for us that mystery of God as a living relationship with a living person. God draws us ever deeper into that mystery.

Let us dare to pray with the apostles:  “Increase our faith!”Let us dare to believe that the Spirit already planted that faith deep in our hearts. No matter how damaged your faith, how small your hope, how timid your love, wait on God when it seems lost. Then anticipate that new leaves of faith will blossom.