Sunday, October 3, 2010

19th Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at St. Thomas' Parish, 10/3/10 (Luke 17:5-10)


e have two interlocking triangles given to us in today’s Gospel reading: one on Discipleship and one on Faith. The three sides of the discipleship triangle are: faithfulness, forgiveness and humility. The three sides of the faith triangle are: (faith through) learning, (faith that is) handed down, and the last is (faith) given by grace. (For those of you who are graphically oriented, I just painted a Star of David with my hands.)

This parable of the servant who serves without reward is probably not a favorite of any of us. This seems like a harsh parable, but we must remember that Luke is utilizing one of his favorite motifs: that of the master and the slave. It was the custom of that time and place (perhaps not so different from today) to use strong and vivid language to drive a point home. Certainly the first part of the Gospel reading with the apostles asking to have their faith increased results in Jesus being quite imaginative in his choice of metaphor.

To understand why the apostles ask for more faith, we need to know what happened just before today’s Gospel selection. Jesus had been asked how often someone must be forgiven and Jesus replies that if someone sins against someone seven times in a day, that person must be forgiven seven times. The apostles see this as impossible and, that is where our Gospel selection kicks off with their asking for more faith to allow them to follow this instruction about forgiveness. Jesus lambasts them by saying if they had the smallest amount of faith they could uproot one of the largest trees in the area and transplant that tree where it does not seem to belong. This is not a miracle story that Jesus is telling when he talks about moving a mulberry tree. Jesus is saying that even with the smallest amount of faith, anyone can live as a disciple and follow his teachings. Jesus is leading the apostles, and us, to understand through the use of the mustard seed and mulberry tree, that things that appear to be impossible are not when faith is involved. Jesus is saying that we cannot have the mindset of “this is impossible”, but instead “this is what must be done”.

At first the parable of the servant who should seek no reward might seem disjointed from the mustard seed/mulberry tree metaphor just preceding, but there is a strong connection. We are not talking about politeness here or social obligations and expectations as we might understand them. Jesus is telling the apostles, and us, that we need to refocus away from wanting recognition for that which we are charged to do by being his follower. Jesus needs us to understand that we are gifted God’s grace as a part of doing the work of building the kingdom and that should be thanks enough. Simply put, this is what we do… like the servant to the master, no thanks are needed. We are doing our best, doing the things we agreed to do when we signed up to be part of this kingdom, and thanks and recognition do not need to be part of the equation, Jesus is saying. We should not confuse giving thanks when it is appropriate and expecting thanks. Expectations and the giving are two separate things.

We are robbed a bit from the punch of this parable by not being given the verse directly following our Gospel selection, for Luke tells us after the verse “we have done only what we ought to have done!”, Luke says “He (Jesus) was on his way to Jerusalem.” Jesus knows what his duty is, where his faithfulness lies, what faces him as he approaches that Holy City, and what lies beyond. Think about the impossibility of the Cross and of the Resurrection….. Faith makes sustaining self during our times of Cross-bearing possible…… Faith makes Resurrection moments happen for us, even in those darkest and impossible seeming hours.

This is all possible through our integrating into our lives that faith triangle: a faith we have learned from others and our experience. Faith that has been handed down to us from the saints and that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us at all times: a faith that is undergirded by God’s grace. And those three things enable us to enter discipleship with a faithfulness that allows and fosters forgiveness. A faithfulness that brings with it an understanding of a humility we must adopt. A humility that allows us to stand firmly in the face of self-righteousness and false spirituality that is fueled by a lack of faithfulness, a lack of forgiveness and a lack of humility.

The apostles were struggling with forgiveness in today’s Gospel, stirring Jesus to push them hard. Their struggle is so very human: to not want to forgive, to hold a grudge, to get even, to seek retribution or punishment against those who have transgressed against us. We can lose ourselves so very easily if we do not forgive, if we forget the humility necessary to embrace those who have done us wrong. Think about how often God forgives our transgressions. But that is God, we can say, we can’t do that! …. Not true. Jesus is pointing us to a compassionate, generous, constant God who we must try and mimic. Anything less takes us away from the discipleship Jesus is talking about today. Anything less drives a wedge between faith and ourselves, a faith that actually is burgeoning within each of us.

Think on that mustard seed/mulberry tree metaphor Jesus throws at the apostles. Perhaps the apostles are like that mulberry tree, uprooted by faith and placed in the sea, in completely unfamiliar territory, a place where they do not seem to belong. That is what discipleship is like for these apostles, God has uprooted them and placed them somewhere they do not seem to fit, asked to do things they believe to be impossible, and being human, wanting recognition for what they have done.

Our Gospel is pointing us toward reflecting on how we react when we are placed somewhere unfamiliar, uprooted from what we know. For as Christians we are meant to stick out like…. stick out like a mulberry tree planted in the sea. Isn’t that what forgiveness is like in a world that so often lacks the grace to follow this instruction by Jesus?

Jesus is telling us that faith is the greatest force available in the world, and that force is right there for us to grab a hold of. Part of that faithful force is the realization that as we approach those seemingly impossible tasks, we are not approaching them alone, for God is truly there with us….faithfully there with us….forgiving us and gifting us this faith that grace and imbue all of our interactions and existence.

But how do we find the strength to forgive, or the faith to understand in the face of the tragedy of four teen suicides because of the abuse of bullying….As with so many things in life, there is a balance needed here….Jesus was no milk-toast (nor a limp willy) when it came to confronting misdeeds, sin and injustice. And remember that the forgiveness instruction tha apostles weree struggling with today, and Jesus’ 7 times 7 instruction….this was based on the individuals repenting, asking for forgiveness: this is not given automatically. And that is where we can start to find the strength to forgive and the faith to understand because there is room here for action. This tragedy of teen suicides because of the abuse of bullying brought on because those teens found themselves sticking out like a mulberry tree transplanted into a sea bed begs for our action. That bullying that is sweeping our culture at the present time is based in a self-righteousness and a false spirituality fueled by a lack of faithfulness, a lack of humility, a lack of an ability to forgive….. At every opportunity, we are called, as Christians, to stand up to bullies, whoever they are, whomever they are abusing and say: Stop. Shut Up. We, as individuals and as a corporate body, need to reach out and protect those who feel lost and see no way out, and show them there is one: more than one way out. Show them that there is a place for them where they are accepted and loved for who they are and how God made them. We need to do whatever is necessary to say this kind of behavior is anathema in our society. This behavior is certainly a sin that inhibits the creation of the kingdom Jesus is calling us to form.

So our Gospel selection today is framed by: forgiveness and Jesus heading toward Jerusalem. In the middle of that frame is Jesus instructing his apostles, and us, on faith and discipleship. Wouldn’t it be lovely for us to open our eyes and realize that through this gift of faith given us by grace, no matter how tiny we may believe that faith is within us, we have been uprooted, placed in unfamiliar territory and are joyfully able to stick out, be different….and look at the wondrous works of God, and bring that joy to those who have yet to experience that loving, generous and constant God? That is what Jesus is asking us to incorporate in our lives. This is possible (not impossible) with those two interlocking triangles of discipleship and faith being integrated into our lives….faithfulness, forgiveness, humility, learned faith, faith that is handed down, faith that is given by grace…..all guiding us, supporting us and making us whole.


Copyright 2010, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved

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