October 6, 2019
17th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:4-10
One of the challenges, sometimes, of reading scripture in the 21st century and listening for what God is trying to say to the church today is wading through the antiquated images and metaphors that bog us down or trip us up, and not giving up when the going gets tough. Sometimes that seems almost impossible. Like today, for me, that seems almost impossible. Passages like this Gospel reading make me want to throw my Bible across the room. How embarrassing it would be for us if someone who had been on the fence about walking through the doors of this church showed up for the first time today, only to hear this passage read aloud in worship. If this is your first time worshiping at Gloria Dei, I promise, it’s not always like this when we read the Bible in church.
Today Jesus says even the tiniest amount of faith can make miracles happen, and then he tells the disciples they should think of themselves as “worthless slaves.” To modern ears, this sounds strange and irrelevant, if not downright abusive and dangerous.
First there’s the part about how if you just had faith the size of a mustard seed you’d be able to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea. Jesus says just a tiny bit of faith can make miracles happen. But how many of us have mustered all the faith we have and prayed for a miracle, only to feel like those prayers landed on deaf ears and the faith we had wasn’t enough?
You may have seen this week that Pastor Bradley, Pastor Lois, and I launched a new season of our podcast where we discuss the readings for the upcoming Sunday, and this season, each episode, we invite a member of Gloria Dei to join us as a special guest for the conversation. This week our guest was Gloria Dei’s communications coordinator Linda McDonald. When we got to this passage, Linda said, whatever is smaller than a mustard seed, her faith must be even smaller than that because she’s never uprooted any mulberry trees. She went on to say, look, we live in a busy world. Everybody is so busy. We’re working our jobs and shuttling kids from one event to another. We’ve got after-school sports and extra-curricular activities and hours of homework. Life is so full. Too full. And Linda asked, how do we find time to read the scripture and study it and grow our faith so it’s at least as big as a mustard seed? I would guess most of us hear this passage and feel shamed—like we’re not good enough, not faithful enough. And isn’t that just what we needed to hear, when it feels like we’re giving 110% every day of the week and barely hanging on, that oh yeah, by the way, you’re lacking in faith, too. I bet it makes you want to throw your Bible across the room, too.
And we haven’t even gotten to the part about slaves.
In modern America, 400 years after the first enslaved Africans arrived on this continent, at a time when we are still trying to come to terms with the ongoing consequences of slavery and the racial prejudice it was founded upon, slavery is a metaphor that just doesn’t work for us anymore. Sorry, Jesus, we just can’t do it. We’ve spent too much time trying to reverse the effects of slavery, and we’ve worked too hard trying to teach our children that every human life has worth. Sorry, Jesus, but we just can’t tolerate you, of all people, trying to tell us to become like worthless slaves.
But it’s there in our scriptures and unless we really are just going to throw our Bibles across the room and walk away, we need to stick with it a little bit longer.
Maybe it helps just to acknowledge that even Jesus sometimes got it wrong—to recognize that even Jesus was a product of his time. In our creeds we confess that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, and maybe no passage in the Bible reflects Jesus’ full humanity more clearly than this one. He was one of us, trying to do his best in a society that was callous and broken. He uses slavery as a metaphor in this passage in a way that suggests even he couldn’t imagine a world without it. There was no abolitionist movement in the first century, and slavery was such an ever-present reality in Jesus’ time that it seems nobody—including Jesus—ever considered challenging the practice.
It’s a good reminder that we might just miss things, too.
Today’s Sunday forum is being led by Gloria Dei’s Welcoming Community Committee, which is a group that is always helping us think about how we are widening our welcome. When Gloria Dei voted to become a Reconciling in Christ congregation almost 20 years ago, the leaders of this church developed a beautiful “welcoming statement” that explicitly stated that members of the gay and lesbian community are welcome here. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that someone asked, “What about bisexual and transgender people?” Since then, with the leadership of our Welcoming Community Committee, we’ve revised our welcoming statement to be more inclusive of the entire LGBT community. But the fact is, 20 years ago, we missed it. We weren’t thinking about the B and T in LGBT.
And we’re probably missing things today, too. I wonder, 20 years from now, what issues we’ll be discussing that simply aren’t on our radar today. Maybe seeing how badly Jesus missed the mark on slavery and reflecting on the matters of justice we’ve missed ourselves over the years can turn us toward the future with humility and with a heightened awareness of those whose situations of injustice are going unnoticed today.
Having said all of that, let’s look at this passage again.
Jesus says to the disciples, “If a person sins against you seven times a day and seven times comes back and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” Pause for a second and think of the person it would be most difficult for you to forgive. Jesus says, “You must.” The kind of life Jesus is calling his disciples to live is going to take more than they’ve got. So you can understand why the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith.
Then comes Jesus’ reply about the mulberry tree—the one that makes us feel like we’re lacking, that we have to do more and believe harder. What if the tone of Jesus’ reply was lost in translation, and when the disciples begged Jesus to increase their faith, what he actually said was more like, “Increase your faith? Even this much faith is enough!” It’s almost like he’s trying to tell them, “It’s not about the quantity of your faith. Just do what I’ve been teaching you to do—the things you know to do. Do it today. Do it tomorrow. Put one foot in front of the other. This doesn’t require magnificent faith. Just stay the course and don’t give up.” And then Jesus tells that unfortunate story about masters and slaves. I think the point is that what Jesus is asking of his disciples is no more extraordinary than slaves doing the everyday tasks that are expected of them. What Jesus asks of us is simply to keep doing the ordinary tasks of faith, trusting that when we do that, we really can accomplish extraordinary things.
I think that’s the message from Paul to his younger protégé Timothy in the other reading we heard today. A few decades have passed since Jesus was around on earth and life in the early Christian community is hard. They’re experiencing persecution and there are other teachers spreading messages that are at odds with what Paul and Timothy have been teaching. Paul’s advice to Timothy? Stay the course. Keep doing what you know. Keep passing along the faith that was passed down to you by your mother Eunice and by grandmother Lois before that. Paul tells Timothy that ordinary acts of everyday faith are what will get us through chaotic times.
Which I think is exactly the message we need to hear today. The challenges facing our country and our entire world feel overwhelming—and that’s to say nothing of the hardships so many of us are experiencing closer to home. The message today is not that if you only believe harder and prove yourself to be a better Christian then somehow you will make miracles happen. That only compounds our feelings of hopelessness and despair. The message is simply this: Do the things you know to do, the things you’ve learned here in church week after week, the everyday acts of faith. Work for justice. Practice mercy. Model compassion. Do the everyday acts of faith that you’ve learned from the generations who came before you. You’ve already got what it takes. This much faith is all it takes. Ordinary faith will do extraordinary things.
Ira Brent Driggers, “Commentary on Luke 17:5-10,” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2019, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4200.
Kimberly Bracken Long, “Luke 17:5-10: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).