A Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22 – Year C – October 6, 2013
by Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 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.
“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’? 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’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 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!'”
It’s hard to know exactly what the disciples were thinking and feeling at any particular time, but they were human and we are human – so we can try to imagine it. When I looked at some of the passages in Luke that come before and after the one we heard this morning, I noticed that Jesus seemed to be in a “Proverbs” kind of mood, teaching his disciples mostly about relationships.
There were sayings about the importance of repentance and forgiveness in keeping a relationship healthy. “Be on your guard!” Jesus warned. “If another disciple sins and there is repentance, you must forgive…and if that same person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive” (Luke 17:3-4).
And there were sayings warning against irresponsible behavior in a relationship such as : “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 (someone)… to stumble” (Luke 17:1-2).
No wonder we heard the disciples cry out for help in this morning’s gospel reading. In desperation they said: “Increase our faith!” And in answer to their cry of despair, or even our cry for that matter, Jesus said to them that it didn’t take much faith to do what he was asking – only faith the size of a mustard seed.
I can only imagine that Jesus’ answer probably did more to frustrate the disciples than to encourage them since they probably thought that they already had at least that much, since a mustard seed is the tiniest of seeds even though it has the potential to flourish into a 9-foot plant.
I also imagine that, at times, it must have been exhausting for the disciples to be in Jesus’ presence especially when they didn’t feel as if they were on the same wavelength or page or sheet of music as he was.
How many times must they have asked themselves: “What did he mean by that?” after hearing some of things Jesus taught them. And even when Jesus explained what he meant, the meaning still wasn’t always clear to them. It’s no wonder they doubted their faith. “Something”, they thought, “must be missing.”
Do you remember being in school and thinking something must be missing when you had trouble understanding what was being taught? I remember thinking that about religion when I was in college. And that thought occurred to me several times again when I was in seminary studying German theologians.
Put yourself in the place of the bewildered disciples and imagine how you would have felt after hearing Jesus say to them:”Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and sit down and join me for dinner’? Wouldn’t you be more likely to say to him, ‘Go make supper for me and after you’ve served me, then you may go and eat your dinner”? (paraphrased from Luke 17:7-8)
Jesus continued: “Do you thank the slave for working so hard for you and doing what was expected of him?” Probably not. Then, don’t expect to be thanked for what you have done, either. Think instead to yourselves: ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what was asked of us.” (Paraphrased from Luke 17:8-10).
So, in effect, Jesus told his tired, weary disciples to think of themselves as worthless slaves. That sounds to me to be harsh and unsympathetic to what I imagine to be their exhausted emotional state. So why would Jesus say that to them? What are we missing in this teaching?
Well, we know that Jesus is teaching them something about relationships when the story is about a master and his servant. But who is the master supposed to be and who is the servant? Is God the master, expecting much of us servants when we are already tired and weary from a day of hard work?
I think there are too many examples of how much God loves us and does not require us to earn that love that makes me think that’s not the case. More like it, maybe we are the master capable of irresponsible behavior when it comes to those who work for us.
Jesus was a master of setting up contrasts in his teachings and then surprising his listeners by getting them to see things in a totally different light. There are certainly a lot of contrasts in today’s story: one who gives and one who receives; one with power and one without it; one who is waited on and one who does the waiting; one who is tired and one who isn’t; one who gets what he wants now and one who has to wait.
So, where is the surprise that’s supposed to make Jesus’ disciples realize that despite how they felt, they had enough faith already?
Well, what if we were the master in the story and God was the servant? Wouldn’t that be a surprise – that God would limit himself not only to become human but a human servant! We all know that’s what happened in the person of Jesus. But why would God do that?
To teach us the greatest lesson of all about the nature of the relationship that God wants with us. And Jesus knew about that relationship so well and modeled it for us in everything he said or did in his ministry. He knew about the irresponsible person we are capable of becoming when we have power and influence over someone else – such as the master in the story.
Jesus also knew the person we are capable of being, which is the servant in the story, when we live in the knowledge of God’s love of us. So the contrasts which we are so good at setting up in relationships with each other such as powerful vs. weak, or worthy vs. unworthy, collapse, go away, completely disappear in the relationship that God wants with us.
When it comes to God and to us there will always be an imbalance, especially an imbalance of power, yet the relationship God wants with us is the one in which we never feel unloved by constantly being reminded of that imbalance.
Parents of small children and their teachers have a relationship of power imbalance, too; yet parents and teachers often limit their power when it comes to the way they love and teach their children such as when they are playing a game with them and let them win or when they marvel at their stick figure drawings and post them proudly on the refrigerator door or in the classroom.
It’s such a lovely expression of love to limit our power and authority to be on the same level as our young children but for their sake we can’t be on their level all the time. They would have nothing to learn from us and that would be irresponsible on our part – or as Jesus taught, it would cause them to stumble.
So Jesus felt compelled to teach about relationship to his disciples and I can certainly understand how that would have made them feel in need of a boost of faith since relationships are never easy – requiring patience and understanding, repentance and forgiveness.
There will always be imbalances in relationships but it’s the power of love that collapses those imbalances and smoothes over the rough edges of the contrasts and differences that threaten the health of any relationship.
Faith is as organic as a mustard seed. And Jesus said that we all have at least that much faith even though at times we may not feel as if we do. And maybe the reason we feel that way is that we’re doing something that causes our relationships with God and with family and friends to become out of balance such as being selfish or irresponsible or unforgiving, or maybe just plain tired and worn out.
The disciples heard Jesus say that they should embrace the idea of servanthood as a way to be in healthy relationships with each other and with God. And I’m pretty sure that we will find that our tiny mustard seeds of faith will not only take root if we, too, keep a servant’s heart of gratitude but will then flourish when we let ourselves be constantly surprised by the extent to which God loves us.