Sunday, October 6, 2013

Just Faith

Luke 17:5-10
October 6, 2013/World Communion Sunday

The musical Wicked which ended its run in Oklahoma City just a couple of weeks ago is based on a book by Gregory Maguire.  It tells the other side of the story, the Wicked Witch of the West’s side of the story.  The witch isn’t wicked like we’ve all been led to believe, and the so-called good people like Glinda and the Wizard aren’t so good either.  The musical version does what the best of musicals do.  It puts the sentiments of the story into music.  While some of the songs like Popular and Defying Gravity are better known, one of my favorites is the song Wonderful sung by the Wizard himself.  He’s trying to explain to Elphaba – that’s the witch’s real name – how he, a humble man, ended up in such a position of power and influence.
            "Wonderful, they called me "Wonderful"
So I said "Wonderful" - if you insist
I will be "Wonderful" And they said "Wonderful"
Believe me, it's hard to resist
'Cause it feels wonderful
They think I'm wonderful
Hey, look who's wonderful -
This corn-fed hick
Who said: "It might be keen to build a town of green
And a wonderful road of yellow brick!"
            This corn-fed hick, as he describes himself, had never been wonderful before, so it feels wonderful when the people of Oz hail him as a hero, a magician, a wizard.  He takes them at their word.  They think he’s wonderful, so by goodness, he’s wonderful.
            Probably all of us would like to be considered wonderful every once in a while wouldn’t we?  The actress Sally Field has been the butt of many jokes over the years because of her acceptance speech the night she won the Oscar for best actress.  “You like me!  You really like me!”  But don’t we all want to be liked, and even more than that, don’t we all want to be recognized for our accomplishments, for our hard work, for even the daily efforts that we make?
            I know I do.  I can’t lie to you, when I get compliments on a sermon or someone thanks me for some pastoral duty that I’ve done, it makes my day.  I can sympathize with the wizard.  When you’re told you’re wonderful, you want to believe it.  It can go to your head.  It’s intoxicating.  It’s wonderful.  It’s wonderful to be acknowledged, to be appreciated, to receive thanks after a hard day’s work. 
            And yet this is exactly opposite of what we hear from Jesus in today’s passage from Luke.  This is an uncomfortable story.  First of all we encounter the word “slave.”  Human history is overflowing with evils that we’ve perpetrated against one another – and I think slavery is among them.  I know slavery has been a terrible reality for thousands and thousands of years; and as so many of us in Oklahoma understand, human trafficking is alive and well today.  But that doesn’t’ make me any less adamant in my belief that slavery is a brutal, violent evil.  Yet in this passage Jesus speaks of slavery with seemingly no hesitation.  Even if we translate the Greek word doulos as servant, which is its other meaning, these words of Jesus still rub me the wrong way.  Shouldn’t a servant be thanked for a job well done?
            We can’t look at this particular passage without looking at the context of passages it is situated in.  This chapter is made up of lessons from Jesus to his disciples.  Jesus has gone from addressing the Pharisees at the end of chapter16 to speaking directly to his disciples at the beginning of this chapter.  His first lesson to them is that times of stumbling are going to come, but “woe to anyone by whom they come.”  It was as true then, as it is today, that there are always “little ones”, people new to the faith or struggling to follow Jesus.  In those early days of faith or conversion, it can be especially easy to fall from the path.  And this means that other more seasoned disciples have to be aware of the kinds of examples they set for these people who are still so young in their faith.  They bear a tremendous responsibility on their shoulders for the well-being of these faithful but inexperienced “little ones.” 
            Jesus tells the disciples that they must hold each other accountable for their sins.  If one of them sins, that person must be reprimanded for it.  However if that person repents and asks for forgiveness, forgiveness must be given!  Even if that person sins against you seven times, then turns back and repents seven times.  You still must forgive.
            It is the disciples’ response to these first lessons that begins our particular part of the story.  The disciples cry to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”  In other words this discipleship calling is tough, so tough we may need some extra large faith in order to handle all of it.  We need more faith to handle the responsibilities.  Otherwise we don’t stand a chance.
            But Jesus replies, “If you had faith as large as a mustard seed – and the word for “if” used here in the Greek implies that the disciples already have enough faith – then you could tell that big tree over there to pull up its roots and jump into the sea.  If you have faith that’s as small as that tiny mustard seed, and you do, trust me you do, then you can use that seemingly small faith to do great things.  Even with a small faith, you can still do big and wonderful things.
            Had Jesus stopped here, this would have still been a challenging passage, but that challenge might have felt more manageable.  But Jesus doesn’t stop here.  He goes on to tell them about a master and slave.  When the slave does what’s expected of him, he doesn’t get praise or thanks.  The slave is just doing what he’s supposed to do.  The slave is just doing what’s required of him on any particular day.  He’s just doing his duty.
            Now the interesting twist that Jesus gives to this story is that Jesus moves from the idea of the disciples and their slaves, to the disciples being slaves of God.  This makes God the slave master, adding to the discomfort we may feel reading this passage.  But whether we choose “slave” or “servant,” it still doesn’t seem right that the servant receives no thanks, no praise, no reward for the hard day’s work he’s just put in.  Everyone deserves some recognition.  We all want to be called wonderful at least once.  We all want to be thanked for what we do.
            But the point that Jesus is trying to make to his disciples is that being a disciple is not about receiving thanks.  In fact if you get in it for the thanks, for recognition and reward, then you’re in it for the wrong reasons and you’re going to have problems.  Being a disciple means being an example for others and assuming responsibility for their welfare and well being.  Being a disciple means holding each other accountable and being willing to forgive.  And being a disciple means doing our duty.  It means being a servant that is always serving without expecting a reward or praise or thanks.  Being a disciple means coming before God with humility, knowing that no matter what we do we’re never truly worthy.
            There’s no denying it, this is not an easy passage.  It seems to contradict other passages where Jesus does tell his disciples about the reward they’ll receive someday.  It seems to go against the stories when Jesus rewards the faithful steward and promises a healthy bonus for the servants who invest their talents wisely.  So frustrating and hard to swallow is this parable that one of the early church fathers, Saint Augustine, found it hard to believe these words were actually spoken by Jesus.
            As tough as this passage is, it reminds us of one of the most fundamental and basic tenets of our faith; we can never earn way into God’s kingdom or God’s favor.  Salvation is not ours because of merit or worthiness on our part; salvation comes through God’s grace alone.
            William Willimon, a preacher, teacher and at one time a Bishop in the United Methodist denomination, wrote about the night of his ordination.  He said the Holy Spirit got hold of him that night.  It took hold of him not when the choir sang, not during the preaching, not even in the presence of friends and family.  The Holy Spirit grabbed him that night when another Bishop laid his hands on him and quoted the ancient words, “never forget that the sheep committed to your charge are the ones for whom he gave his life.”  Up until that moment, Willimon was wondering if the Bishop would recognize his superior training.  He wondered if the laity would respond to his progressive and social attitudes.  Instead he heard, “the ones whom you serve are the ones for whom the Master died.”
            Did Willimon feel worthy of that calling?  No.  Do any of us?  Probably not.  But just as this parable teaches about God’s grace, it also teaches us something pretty fundamental about discipleship.  Maybe the true reward comes not in words of thanks or praise but in our day to day living as disciples.  Maybe we find our reward when we recognize that having faith, just faith, is more important than recognition.  Maybe the reward can be found in doing our duty, in always serving others, in doing what we believe to be right and true just because we should, not because of what we think we’ll get.  Maybe the reward comes when we recognize beyond any doubt that we are humble, unworthy servants and yet we keep on serving.
            Every day, around the globe, our brothers and sisters in Christ serve because that is what they are supposed to do.  And many of them serve in circumstances and situations we cannot even begin to imagine.  They are persecuted, discriminated against, forced to keep their faith underground, and yet they still serve, not expecting reward or thanks, just serving. 
            I think what Jesus wanted the disciples to understand is that the reward for discipleship comes in the doing of discipleship.  That doing may be overwhelming at times.  We may feel we need extraordinary doses of faith in order to serve.  But Jesus assures the disciples and us that we already have enough faith to do all that needs to be done.  Even faith as small as that infinitesimally tiny mustard seed is enough to move mountains.  Discipleship requires faith, just faith, even if that faith is shaky at times.  It just requires faith enough to keep walking behind the One who came into this world to love it and us.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

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