Month: October 2010

Sermon: The Only Prayer We Can Pray

Jesus reminds us that there is one prayer we can and must pray.  It is a prayer that reflects our understanding of who we are in our relationship to God and others.

The Only Prayer We Can Pray

Luke 18:9-14

9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

One of the things I like about scripture, particularly passages like this, is they tell us exactly what to look for.  By this time in his ministry, Jesus has become somewhat famous for telling parables.  The word parable comes from the Greek word parabole’ which means to “throw alongside.”  Parables were stories tossed to the hearers to make a point.

But sometimes the parables were enigmatic and mysterious.  In Mark’s Gospel Jesus has to explain some of his parables to the disciples, who seem as mystified as the crowds about the point Jesus is trying to make.

But here, in this parable, Luke tells us several things. First, Luke tells us about whom Jesus was speaking —

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable…

Now that’s pretty clear.  There is no doubt to whom Jesus is speaking and what problem he’s addressing.  So, this parable is going to be one of the easy ones, one of those that is blatantly apparent when it gets told.

And, it is.  Jesus then tells the story of two men who went up to the Temple to pray.  So, this is not just an ordinary day, or an ordinary time of prayer.  Going up to the Temple to pray usually involved some special occasion, a feast day, or some event in the life of the worshipper that brought them to the Temple.  Going to the Temple wasn’t like our going to church on Sundays.  A Temple visit was a special occasion which required ritual preparation, the exchange of Roman coinage for Temple currency, and the purchase of a sacrifice if one was going to be offered.

The righteous Jewish man would make his way up through the winding streets of Jerusalem, assiduously avoiding anything that might make him ceremonially unfit for Temple worship.  As he ascended the Temple entrance, he entered the Court of the Gentiles.

This large portico, the outer court of the Temple, most of which was out in the open except for the colonnades, was the place for God-fearers to gather to pay homage to the one true God, the God of Israel.  This was the court from which Jesus ran the money-changers.  His words were, “My father’s house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”  What sometimes gets lost in the account of the cleansing of the Temple was that when Jesus said, “My father’s house is a house of prayer” everyone who heard him would have filled in the rest of the scripture, which read, “…a house of prayer for all nations.”

In other words, the moneychangers and the merchants were taking up space allotted for non-Jews.  The Gentiles couldn’t go any further into the Temple upon penalty of death, so disregarding the purpose of the Court of the Gentiles in order to exchange money and sell sacrificial animals deprived the non-Jews of their place in God’s house.

Okay, enough of that, but I wanted you to get the picture.  But back to our two Jewish friends, two men going up to pray.  So, they pass through the Court of the Gentiles, and then bypass the Court of the Women.  Remember that this is a paternalistic society, and Jewish women could come past the Court of the Gentiles, but no further than the next courtyard, the Court of the Women.  The Court of the Women was an enclosed area, unlike the Court of the Gentiles which was an enormous open space.

I’m not sure why our church has two front doors, but many old churches have two front doors because the women entered in one door, and the men entered the other, and they sat separately during worship.  The Old German Baptist Brethren still practice this to some extent.  Men sit on one side of the church, women on the other, but they do have families seated together in the middle.

Once they are past the Court of the Women, our two friends enter the Court of Israel.  This is where Jewish men can gather, offer prayers, give their sacrifice to the priest, and worship God.

So, it is in this part of the Temple, most likely, that this parable takes place.  Perhaps it is a high holy day, or a day of festival.  Or perhaps one of our worshippers has experienced the blessing of God in an extraordinary way.  We don’t know what brings our two friends to the Temple, but we do know who they are.

One is a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.  Which is very much like Jesus saying, “Have you heard the one about the Pharisee and the tax collector?”  By putting these two types of men in the same sentence, Jesus has already crossed the line of propriety.  You literally didn’t mention “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same breath.

So, immediately Jesus has the attention of everyone standing around, some of whom are — you guessed it — Pharisees.  Oh, and there’s at least one tax collector, or former tax collector named Matthew in the crowd, too.  Not sure where Zacchaeus is on this particular day, but Jesus already had the reputation of eating with “tax collectors and sinners.”  The phrase itself was redundant in first century Jewish society.

Let me tell you about the tax collector first.  Tax collectors were a hated bunch of guys in Jesus’ day.  They were hated because, first, they collected taxes and for thousands of years people of every cultural stripe have hated paying taxes.  And, Roman taxes were high, and systematically collected.  You remember that Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus to be counted, and the counting was so that the Roman government could know from whom to collect its taxes.  Unlike my grandfather who told my grandmother that the IRS didn’t know he existed.  He found out differently.

But, if that weren’t enough, tax collectors could also collect whatever amount they wanted to.  You might have owed the Roman governor 15 denarii, or fifteen days wages, but the tax collector could tell you that your bill was 20 denarii, or 25, or 50, depending on how much money he wanted to make, and his ability to enforce his demands.

Not only was the Roman system of taxation spread widely, but it also dug deeply into the coin purses of every household.  And paying through tax collectors was the only way to get your taxes paid, and your name duly checked off.  So, you paid extra because that was the way the system worked.

But you didn’t have to like it.  And you didn’t have to be kind to the tax man, or speak nicely to him, or befriend him, or even act in a civil manner.  You could show your complete disdain for him and his dirty business.  Tax collectors, needless to say, were never invited to the best parties, or asked to lead civic events, or held up as model citizens.  They were Jews stealing from their fellows Jews, and so in this way, they were worse than the Romans.

But, let’s turn to the Pharisee.  Everything the tax collector was, the Pharisee was his exact opposite.  Pharisees have a bad reputation today because we know they were always on the wrong side of whatever it was that Jesus was doing, until finally they orchestrated Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution.

But, if we lived in Jesus’ day, we’d like the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were the keepers of the Law, the defenders of the Torah.  In our 21st century language, Pharisees loved Scripture, studied it endlessly, memorized it faithfully, and practiced it publicly.

Pharisees were conservative in their views of religious life.  They weren’t for changing things.  They had made an uneasy peace with the Roman government, and as long as the Romans let them worship and practice their faith, the Pharisees were fine with Rome.

The Pharisees were also good men. I say “men” because a woman might be married to a Pharisee, but women were not called Pharisees as such.  But Pharisees were good men.  They gave generously and sometimes flambuoyantly of their income.  In the Temple were great receptacles for monetary offerings shaped like the open end of a trumpet.  A Pharisee could make a great show of rolling coins around the horn of the offering trumpets, making sure all around both heard and saw his generosity.

Pharisees observed the dietary laws, the sabbath laws, the laws of ceremonial cleanliness, and on and on.  They were the good, solid citizens of Jewish society, and they even believed in the resurrection of the righteous, which their counterparts the Sadducees, did not.

If our church were situated in the first century, instead of being called Chatham Baptist Church, I am sure we would be called Chatham Church of the Pharisees, and we would be proud of it!  To call someone a Pharisee in Jesus’ day was to pay them respect and honor them for their faithfulness to God.  Or so everyone thought.

And this is where Jesus really gets under their skin.  He says, “A Pharisee and a tax collector go up to the Temple to pray.”

But then he goes on, “And the Pharisee prays about himself.”  Actually, this could also be translated, “The Pharisee prays to himself.”  That’s right, either way, Jesus is letting his hearers know that the Pharisee is either praying about himself and not God, or to himself and not God.

And here’s what he says:  “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  Actually, that’s not exactly what he says, but it means the same thing.  “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men — murderers, thieves, adulterers, even this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

We’re glad today, 2,000 years later, that we are not like murderers, thieves, and adulterers, or even dishonest tax collectors.  I mean, none of us wants to labeled among the vilest of society, like people who break the Ten Commandments two at a time.

If we were in this story that Jesus tells, we’d all be Pharisees.  And I think that was kind of the point.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.

But now look at the tax collector.  Jesus says, “He doesn’t even lift his head.”  That doesn’t seem strange to us, because we bow our heads when we pray, but the practice of prayer in the Temple was to look up, hold out your arms, bellow your prayers so that others could hear.  (Which is why Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “Don’t pray like the Pharisees, standing on the street corner, saying a lot of pious sounding words.”)

All the tax collector says is, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Okay, you get to pick.  Which one of these guys gets a gold star today?  Is it the upstanding, well-mannered, scripture-quoting, tithing, fasting, praying Pharisee?  Or is it snivelling, dishonest, disgraced, traitorous tax collector?  I’ll give you minute to think it over.

Okay, time is up.  Of course, you know this story so you know that Jesus says of the tax collector, “I tell you this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”

Bang!  the Pharisees get hit right between the eyes.  “How could this happen?” I am sure they asked.  “How could a tax collector be justified before God over a devout Pharisee?”

Now, remember, Jesus doesn’t say, “A former tax collector.”  Or, “an ex-tax collector.”  Or even, “a repentant tax collector.”  No, this is a real, honest-to-goodness, tax collector who is still collecting taxes, still cheating people because that’s how he makes his money.  But, and here’s the important point, something is stirring in our tax collector’s heart.

This tax collector knows he’s a sinner.  He knows his life is not pleasing to God, and is not helping his community.  This tax collector has taken the first step toward God.  He hasn’t repented yet, but he has recognized his sin.  He now knows that he is a thief, a liar, a cheat, a betrayer of his own people.  He sees himself for what he is.  He sees himself as others see him.  He sees himself as God sees him.  And he is cut to the heart, stricken by what he sees.  Heartbroken by his own sin.

And so his only prayer is a prayer for mercy.  What else can he say?  “Lord, this is the only job I could find.”  Or, “Lord, somebody has to do it, and there are worse people than me.”?  No, he says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Sin as a word and an idea has really fallen out of favor in our society.  About the only place we talk about sin is in church, so we get the impression that sin isn’t a real problem in society anymore.  Several years ago, the psychiatrist, Karl Menninger wrote a popular book titled, “Whatever Became of Sin?”  Well, sin isn’t fashionable anymore.  But it’s still around.  And the tax collector knew he had committed sins, and that made him a sinner.

But back to our friend the Pharisee.  What’s wrong with the Pharisee?  Luke sums it up for us:  they were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.

Why is that such a problem.  The Pharisee was a better man than the tax collector by all outward appearances.  He tithed, the tax collector did not.  He fasted, the tax collector probably feasted.  He kept all the holy days at the Temple, but this was probably the first time the tax collector had been in the Temple in a long time.  The Pharisee was by anybody’s account the better man.

Except the Pharisee didn’t think he was a sinner.  He knew the tax collector was, he knew the murderer was, he knew the thief was, and he knew the adulterer was because those people broke commandments, and violated the Law of God.  But not him.  He was righteous.  Upstanding.  A good citizen.  A model religious leader.

But he was also arrogant.  Self-righteous.  Self-centered.  Self-satisfied.  He needed nothing.  Except, of course, for others to know that he was not like the tax collector.

Because the Pharisee’s arrogance doesn’t end there.  Arrogance leads to separating yourself from others.  Arrogance leads to believing that you’re right and everyone else is wrong.  Arrogance leads to thinking that everyone should be like you.  That if everyone in the world were like you, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

Arrogance also damages the community.  Here were two Jews — not a Jew and a Samaritan, not a Jew and a Gentile — but two Jews.  Brothers by ancestry, adherents to the worship of the one true God, the God of Israel. Two men who were both outstanding in their own ways, one famous perhaps, the other infamous no doubt.  But arrogance has separated them.

And not only has arrogance separated them, it has cut off the tax collector and his family and his children from the warm traditions of their faith, and cast them out of the closed society of Judaism to which they rightfully belonged.  Some wonder how the tax collector even got into the Temple, much less was given time to pray.

Normally, we talk about how we shouldn’t look down on others, or think more of ourselves than we ought to think, or we draw other similar lessons from this parable.  Jesus helps us by saying the exalted shall be humbled, and the humble shall be exalted.  So that’s the lesson.  But this story has more than just personal application.

When we put ourselves above others, think of ourselves as different from our fellow human beings, bad and terrible things result.  In our own country, clergymen preached from prestigious pulpits of both the North and South that the Bible affirmed the inferiority of the negro slave, and therefore, the white man had the right, and the duty, to tame the savage and command from him good, honest work.  The fact that slavery served both the economic interests of North and South, of course, was never mentioned.

In Hitler’s rise to power, the Jews were seen as the problem.  They were different, an inferior race, a mischievous group who not only reject Jesus Christ, but who killed him.  They and their nefarious schemes were to blame for the economic woes of pre-war Germany, according to Nazi propaganda.  So, Hitler’s appeal to Germans as the superior race, better than others like Jews, or Gypsies, or homosexuals, led directly to the “final solution” — the extermination of those inferior peoples.  Six million Jews were killed, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Romany (Gypsies), and others who did not fit the Third Reich’s portrait of a superior people.

Religion often contributes to this “I’m glad I’m not like him” syndrome, but not always.  I was gratified to read that an evangelical group, known for its opposition to gays, had suspended a nationwide anti-gay high school program after the suicides of several young gay students, students who took their own lives because they were bullied for being gay.  Cancelling that program was a good thing to do, and showed that some realize that when we position ourselves as superior to others — morally, spiritually, ethically, genetically, or in any other way — the consequences can be deadly.

I have titled this sermon, The Only Prayer We Can Pray.  Perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement.  But the prayer of the tax collector is certainly the first prayer we must pray.  It is the only prayer we can pray in relationship to others.  And when we recognize that we are sinners, despite our appearance of respectability, and that our only real option is to beg for God’s mercy, then we begin to live our lives truthfully before God and each other.

The tax collector’s prayer is the only prayer we can pray if we are honest with ourselves.  It is the only prayer we can pray if we see ourselves as God sees us.  It is the only prayer we can pray if we are interested in reconciling humanity to God, and bringing the shalom of God to earth.  “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Amen.


Sermon: The God Who Would Be Known

The God Who Would Be Known

Jeremiah 31:27-34

27 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will plant the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the offspring of men and of animals. 28 Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the LORD. 29 “In those days people will no longer say,

‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,

and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

30 Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge.

31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD,

“when I will make a new covenant

with the house of Israel

and with the house of Judah.

32 It will not be like the covenant

I made with their forefathers

when I took them by the hand

to lead them out of Egypt,

because they broke my covenant,

though I was a husband to them,”

declares the LORD.

33 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel

after that time,” declares the LORD.

“I will put my law in their minds

and write it on their hearts.

I will be their God,

and they will be my people.

34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor,

or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’

because they will all know me,

from the least of them to the greatest,”

declares the LORD.

“For I will forgive their wickedness

and will remember their sins no more.”

The Prophet No One Wanted To Hear

Last week we looked at Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet no one wanted to hear.  Jeremiah preached between the time of the defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the Babylonian captivity of the southern nation of Judah.

Jeremiah’s first sermons came as the king of Judah and the aristocracy of the nation were being carted off to Babylon.  Other prophets were saying that the “shalom” of God — the all-encompassing peace of God’s provision, protection, and presence — would be with the remaining inhabitants of Judah.  In other words, “everything’s gonna be all right.”

But everything was not going to be all right, and Jeremiah knew it.  The famous phrase, “peace, peace when there is no peace” may have been borrowed by the American revolution, but it originated with Jeremiah.  Jeremiah was the naysayer, the doomsday prophet, the guy with the sandwich board which read, “The End Is Near.”

And, of course, the end was near.  In 586-7 BC, the Babylonians quit playing at making Judah its territory, and destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem, and Solomon’s temple with it.  But, this passage we have just read comes as the worst is about to happen.

Finally, the prophet no one wanted to hear had something to say that everyone needed to hear.

The Days Are Coming

Jeremiah has some bad news for the people — Jerusalem is going to be destroyed.  But he has some good news for them, too.  “The days are coming” Jeremiah says in verse 27, “when I will plant the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the offspring of men and animals.”  That’s the promise God makes, but what does it mean?

Well, there are two things going on here.  First, the phrase “the days are coming” is a prophet’s way of speaking of the beginning of the end, of the eschaton, the culmination of all things.  So, this is a real prophecy, a glimpse into the future of how things will be when God has God’s will in this world.

And, Jeremiah uses the language of creation — “the offspring” or seed of men and animals — to paint a picture of a new creation, a new day, an era unlike the era in which he and his fellows Jews are living.

This era will mark a new beginning, a new awareness of God in His relationship with humankind.  The old relationship was based on the Exodus experience.  God delivered the nation from bondage, from the slavery of Egypt, and from exile in a strange land.

But that the face of that deliverance was Moses.  Moses was chosen by God.  Moses represented God before Pharaoh.  Moses spoke for God, even though at times he used Aaron to do the speaking. And most importantly, Moses encountered God first at the burning bush where God called him.  Then, after the Exodus on Mount Sinai where God had summoned him.

Moses was the face of God before the people of God.  So afraid were the people of a direct encounter with God that they wanted Moses to go into the Presence on their behalf.  And it is in the presence of God that Moses receives the Ten Commandments, written by the finger of God, on rock-solid visible tablets of stone.  These tablets were held up before the people, broken in anger at the rebellion of the people, and then given again as the external reminder of the expectation God had that this people would be different from all other peoples on the earth.

But it wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t enough to have the Ark of the Covenant, powerful as it was, in their midst. It wasn’t enough to have the tablets of stone containing the Decalogue, the foundation of moral and spiritual conduct.

It wasn’t enough for God to be on the mountain, and it wasn’t enough for Moses to represent the people of God in the Presence of God.  For while Moses was on the mountain, the people in the valley clamored for their own experience of God.

And before the proverbial ink was dry on the 10 Commandments, before they had even heard what God had in mind for them, the people wanted a god they could see, hear, and control.  The golden calf, made from their own gifts of jewelry, became their reassuring symbol of the presence of a god.

God’s Hand Was Evident In Nature, Too

But before God had called Israel out of bondage in Egypt, God had revealed himself to his people in creation.  God had placed Adam and Eve in God’s own garden, a place where God walked with Adam and Eve each evening.  But it wasn’t enough.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which was supposed to be an external reminder that humanity did not know everything, became an external symbol to be grasped, and plundered rather than revered and acknowledged.   Even the penalty of death, which mankind had not experienced, was not enough to keep the boundary between God and man secure.

It wasn’t enough that Adam and Eve had everything good thing in the garden, they wanted everything.  And most of all they wanted to be like God.  Not with God, but like God rendering God’s presence with them unnecessary.  It wasn’t enough that they were products of the hand of God.  They wanted, not God’s revelation, but God’s prerogatives.

But even after Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden for their sin, God continues to reveal himself in nature and creation.  But man continues down a path of rebellion, misuse, and misappropriation of all the good gifts of God until God uses creation itself to judge all that is evil.  Only Noah and those in the ark survive the judgment of God.

God Reveals Himself in a Purpose

Generations pass, and God reveals himself in a purpose to another man, Abraham.  The covenant God makes with Abraham precedes the covenant with Moses and the nation made int he desert of Sinai’s wilderness.  God calls Abram from out of paganism, gives him a son as proof of the promise, and then begins to establish the descendants of Abraham as a nation that will be a blessing to all the nations of the world.

But it is not enough.  The nation loses its way, forgets its purpose as it grows and expands, and finds itself captive in what had been the land of deliverance.

It wasn’t enough that the people of God had a purpose.  They continually lost sight of both the Presence of God and the purpose of God for their community.

And so after generations of disobedience, where the sins of the fathers impact their children, and grandchildren, God sends judges, and kings, and prophets, but they are not enough.  Not enough for the people to understand that God is their God, that they are His people.  Not enough to have the Presence of God mediated through judges, and priests, and kings.  Even David, called a man after God’s own heart, fails the God he encountered as the Good Shepherd who led him beside still waters and was with him through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

A Time Is Coming

So Jeremiah reiterates his prophecy.  “A time is coming” Jeremiah says.  Not just days, but an epoch, an era, a new beginning. “A time is coming” when God will make a new covenant with his people.

It will not be like the old covenant, not like the time when they were delivered from slavery in Egypt.  That covenant meant deliverance, and security, and land, and a future, but even those promises were not sufficient to make the people keep their side of the bargain.  The people failed me, God said, even though I was their “husband” — their protector, their guide, their security, and their provider.

No, a time is coming when a new covenant will be made.  When the way to live will not be carved on stone, but carried in the heart.  Tablets that could be broken, became a symbol of a law that also could be broken.  External, enshrined in the Ark of the Covenant.  Eventually the Ten Commandments and some of the reminders of the Exodus — Aaron’s rod that budded and a pot of manna — were stored in the Ark of the Covenant.  It was placed in the Holy of Holies in first the tabernacle and then the Temple.

But Jeremiah is telling the people “the time is coming” when the law will be written on your hearts, not on tablets of stone.  What he doesn’t tell them is that in a few short years the Temple will be destroyed, the Holy of Holies desecrated, and the Ark of the Covenant plundered.  The Ark and its contents will disappear forever from the life of the nation.  The external law, the tablets of God, will also disappear for before God’s word can be written on hearts it must disappear from its external hiding place.

The Time Did Come

But when was this time of which Jeremiah spoke?  When did God place his law within his people?  When did God write his precepts upon our hearts?  When did everyman, great and small, know God directly?  When did God reveal himself in a way that was different, and make himself known so widely that no longer would teachers be necessary because everyone would know God directly?

The people of Jeremiah’s day did not live to see that time.  Jerusalem is destroyed in 586 BC and the Temple plundered and razed.  The Ark of the Covenant is lost forever.  The nation is carried into the long decades of the Babylonian exile.  The future looked bleak, if not hopeless.

But the day did come.  Not 70 years later with the return of the nation, but about 500 years after that.  The time did come when God made himself known.  The time did come when great and small could know him.  The time did come when the way to live would spring up from the heart, rather than be represented on hard tablets of stone.

The time came in Jesus.  The revelation of God known to all of Israel.  The time came in the birth of a baby, the growth of a boy, the maturity of a man.  The time came as the cousin of John the Baptist rose from the waters of baptism with the acknowledgment and approval of his Heavenly Father.

The time came when the least — a boy with his lunch, a leper with his sores, and blind man with his cane — would be touched and transformed by God’s presence.

And Jesus came with the message of Jeremiah, too.  Herod’s Temple, a grander version than Solomon’s, dominated the Jerusalem cityscape.  And Jesus reminded his followers that not one stone would be left on another.  And in 70 AD, the Romans did what the Babylonians had done five centuries before — they destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.

And then, they dispersed the followers of Jesus into all the world.  The time did come when the Holy Spirit, promised by the Son, sent by the Father, filled followers of Christ with his presence, his power, and his promise.

The time did come when the last sacrifice was made, the forgiveness of sin complete, the power of death broken, and the promise of life secured.  The time did come, and the God who would be known was known by everyone.  History was changed, hearts were healed, and God would forever be known as the God who came down to his people.


Sermon: A Little Faith and A Lot of Obedience

Jesus’ story of the mustard seed and faith might mean something different than we’ve often thought.  I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow, from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 17:5-10.

A Little Faith and A Lot of Obedience

Luke 17:5-10

5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

6He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

7“Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ”  -Luke 17:5-10 NIV

Two Warnings And a Plea for More Faith

As we gather at the Lord’s Table today, we encounter this passage from the Gospel of Luke.  It’s a familiar story, but usually we read the story from Matthew’s Gospel because Matthew has Jesus saying that if you have faith even as small as a mustard seed, you can command a mountain to be thrown into the sea.

Here in Luke’s Gospel, however, Jesus uses a slightly different image.  He has just given the disciples two warnings about the life of faith.  In the first warning Jesus says, “Sin comes into people’s lives, but don’t be the person who causes others to sin, especially children.”

Then, Jesus spins his teaching in the opposite direction by saying, “And if someone sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him.”  Now that sounds logical enough, but then Jesus adds, “And if he sins against you seven times in one day, and repents, then you are to forgive him all seven times.”

In other words, don’t cause people to sin, especially children.  And, don’t prevent others from turning from sin by refusing to forgive them.  Even if they sin against you seven times in one day, you’re to forgive them all seven times!

At those words, the disciples seem to throw up their hands in resignation, because Jesus has just laid out two scenarios that outline our responsibility for the spiritual and ethical lives of others.  We are  not to lead them into sin, especially those who are the least mature and most vulnerable.  And, we are to forgive those immediately and repeatedly who struggle to break free from the grip of sin.  That’s a lot of responsibility, and it ran counter to the idea that righteous people have no responsibility for others.

Remember the story Jesus tells about the righteous man and the publican.  The righteous man lifts up his eyes to heaven and tells God, “I’m glad you didn’t make me like him!”  Obviously, he felt no responsibility for the humble publican beside him who lowered his eyes and prayed, “God have mercy on me a sinner.”

But back to our disciples.  They seem both desperate and exasperated, and they respond to Jesus’ teaching by saying, “Okay, Lord, if that’s what you want us to do, increase our faith!”  Literally, they were saying, “Add to our faith.”  In other words, “We need some help here!”

Jesus’ Impossible Reply To The Disciples

Now we get to the part we think we know very well.  Jesus replies by saying,

“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus’ reply in a similar fashion, but instead of uprooting a tree, Matthew records Jesus saying you can move mountains!

It was believed that prophets would “uproot mountains” which is exactly the image Jesus uses in Matthew’s account.  But the idea of uprooting is also present in Luke’s account.  But a little faith uproots a mulberry tree instead of a mountain.  Both, however, get cast into the sea.  This is not a small feat by any means, and a little faith is the key to it.

It appears that Jesus is setting up an impossible goal for the disciples.  None of them have even “mustard seed” faith apparently because there is no record of trees, much less mountains, being flung into the sea by the disciples, or anyone else for that matter.

Here’s the way we usually handle this passage.  We act like Jesus is saying something that is achievable, but of course, he doesn’t mean it literally, we say.  Rather, Jesus means that even a little faith can move mountains — obstacles that might be in our way.  “Mountain-moving faith” we call it, or “mustard seed” faith.  Remember when you could buy necklaces and bracelets that had a single mustard seed incased in a ball of plastic that magnified its size?  A little faith accomplishes big things!

But suppose that’s not what Jesus means here. Because it never happens.  The disciples never exhibit that kind of faith, as though faith were a superpower like super heroes possess.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t telling them they needed more faith, maybe he was telling them they already had enough to do what they needed to do.

Why do I say that?  Well, suppose Jesus is saying, “You want faith.  Let me tell you how powerful faith is.  Just a mustard seed amount of faith can uproot trees (or mountains).”

But Jesus hasn’t asked them to uproot trees or mountains, or even to accomplish the impossible.  He’s just told them not to cause other people to sin, and when others do sin, to forgive them.  That is not mountain-moving by any means, or even tree-uprooting for that matter.

We Have Enough Faith To Be Faithful

I really think that what Jesus is telling the disciples is this — “You have enough faith to be faithful.” In other words, he is saying, “You don’t even need a mustard seed size faith.  The little bit of faith you have is enough for you to do what I’ve called you to do.”

Why do I think that?  Because of what Jesus says after the mustard seed story.  He gives an example of a servant, a story that seems to have nothing to do with faith, or with the question the disciples just asked.

Jesus says, “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’

So, Jesus turns from an example of faith to an example of faithfulness to illustrate his point.  Probably Jesus and the disciples are outdoors, walking along.  Jesus has already pointed to a mustard plant, and a mulberry tree.  Now he points to a servant plowing a field, and another looking after sheep.  Both were very common practices in that day, and visual examples were easy to spot.

Then Jesus weaves a little story around the servants.  “Suppose your servant comes in from the field.  You as the master don’t say to him, ‘You look really tired.  Come, sit down and eat, and take it easy!’

“No, the logical thing is that when the servant comes in, before he can eat, he has to prepare the meal for his master.  Only after he finishes all his chores, can he then eat.  And, at the end of the day, he doesn’t get special praise because he’s just doing what a servant does.”

Then Jesus brings the point home —

“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ “

We’ve just done our duty, we haven’t done anything extra.  We’re God’s servants.  God has given us all the faith we need to serve him, to live our lives as we should.  And that’s all we have to do — do our duty.  Be faithful, live like we’re supposed to.  And none of that takes a supernatural amount of faith, only a little faithfulness.

I read somewhere that when men help around the house, they expect some kind of recognition.  So, when we’re finished vacuuming, or folding the clothes, or with some other chore, we men want our wives to see what we’ve done and give us some reward.

“Honey, did you see how great the carpet looks after I vacuumed it?”  Or, “Just look at those windows, I did a great job cleaning them, don’t you think?”

Women, I am told, just go about their business doing stuff for which they do not expect, or receive, recognition.  That’s what Jesus is saying here.  Even if you’ve done a great job of serving God, of not leading others to sin, of forgiving others when they do, you’ve only done what you were supposed to.

The Good News About Faith

So, the good news about faith is, we’ve already got enough.  We have enough faith to be faithful.  And so as we gather at this table today, we gather encouraged that we don’t have to demonstrate mountain-moving faith, or even tree-throwing faith!  We don’t have to be a spiritual superhero to serve God.  We have all the faith we need to be faithful.

It is interesting that at this table, Jesus has done it all.  In the account we will read in a few moments, Jesus has all the action verbs.

Jesus takes the bread.  Jesus blesses it.  Jesus breaks it.  Jesus gives it to us.  And with the cup it’s the same.  Jesus does it all.  He gives us his broken body, his shed blood.  He does what we could not do for ourselves.  He both becomes and offers the sacrifice we need.

He gives us all we need, including faith, to be faithful to him.  As we come to this table today, let’s examine our own hearts, because even if we have done everything we were supposed to do, we are still just doing what servants do.