Here is my most recent sermon, delivered at the Taizé service on October 3 at St. Thomas, Dupont Circle. Also, I have posted some of my previous sermons on the Sermons page–click the tab above.
Luke 17:5-10, Proper 22C
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 ploughing 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!” ’
In all honesty, my first reading of today’s Gospel passage worried me. After some wrestling, I realized that my anxiety about what it says is mostly due to difficult memories in my journey of faith. As with so many passages, this one can offer words of fear or words of hope depending on who we believe God to be and what the good news of God among us means.
On first reading, it seems that God is not only a slave owner, but a master who works slaves mercilessly. In the face of this master, we work tirelessly knowing that we are ‘worthless slaves.’ This fits well in a story I used to believe. I was told that sin had corrupted me to the point that I was so fundamentally flawed that God wanted nothing to do with me until I believed in a certain way and acted accordingly. Much emphasis was placed on remembering my plight as a worthless servant, but being happy in the assurance that at least I was on the right side, at least I was in the household of God, at least, I was in. Being in mattered. Those who were not in were to be feared and the greatest fear was that I might not be in myself.
But I struggled with this. I always felt like I was missing something. I could not seem to quell my doubts or quiet my questions. My prayer was like the disciples, “Increase my faith!” I did not even need to throw a tree into an ocean; I just needed to ‘get it,’ to accept this story contentedly like so many around me seemed to do. I thought if I could only have a little more faith, the questions and doubts I had would stop plaguing me. Even now when I read that only a tiny seed of faith would make me capable of great signs, I hear the same voices asking… if I had more faith, would I be able to heal the wounds that run through my family? If I had more faith, could I get friends out of the cycles of abuse in which they are entrapped? If I had more faith, could I even stop saying things that hurt people I love?
The problem with this belief is not necessarily that it is untrue, but that I know all too well how true it is. I know I am broken in a way that I cannot mend. When I read of the many times in history when thousands of people have been senselessly killed, when I read in the news and see for myself the same happening today, I am overwhelmed with the smallness of my own life in the tidal wave of human living and dying. This past summer I worked as a chaplain, listening to people tell of pain for which I could only offer a listening ear and possibly a prayer; this brought many moments of wondering if my work mattered. All too often I wonder if what I do have significance in the face of the suffering in our world, or in the end, will it be worthless? I do not think that I am alone in these questions. Only a month into this school year, we have already lost Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, and many more unnamed teenagers who heard too many voices suggesting that they were worthless and that they had nothing to offer. It seems to me that we don’t have to look far in our world to get this message. This is the end of the story that surrounds us too often. I don’t need faith to know this story; I need faith to believe that this is not the whole story. Deep in my heart I hope that God has more to say about me, about life.
I owe a lot to some wonderful people throughout my life who have helped me believe that maybe this is not what faith is about. A Sufi story tells of disciples who were despairing because their leader was about to die. They asked him, “If you leave us, Master, how will we know what to do?” The master replied, “I am nothing but a finger pointing at the moon. Perhaps when I am gone you will see the moon.” I think faith is somewhat like the master pointing at the moon. Just as the finger pointing does not matter as much as what it is pointing at, so the essence of our faith is not its size but Who it is in.
It is faith in a God who wants to be with us which helps me find hope rather than fear in these verses. What I finally realized is that we never hear the voice of the master in this passage. There is much truth in these words of Jesus. Most of humanity has shown that we do not often invite the servant to the table; we do not ask those who labor to support our lifestyle to enjoy the fruits of our feast with us.
But God does. This is what we know from the greater story which changes everything. Only a few chapters earlier in Luke when Jesus uses the same master-slave analogy, the master has the servants sit at the table and serves them. (Luke 12:37) In the familiar words of Psalm 23, God sets a table before me.
The words, “We are worthless slaves” are ours, not the master’s. When God speaks, we hear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master.” We are invited into God’s joy. The very life of God was given to prepare a table and invite us to come, eat, and drink. We are certainly blessed just to be in this household of God but we must always remember that there are no worthless servants in this family. In this house, our work is to join God, who is already working for a world better than we can conceive, and inviting all to join us in the joy.
This is the God in whom we have faith. We do not need more faith because God is already more in every way. As the prayer today says, our faith is in God who is ‘always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve.’ Our faith is in a God whose voice speaks to each of us words that we desperately need to hear: “You are worthy more than you know, and loved more than you can imagine.” Because we hear this voice, because we taste the joy of God’s presence, we have faith that points to God by inviting each person to the table with us. In faith, we point to God by joining our voices to the One saying, “Come, eat, drink, this is for you.”