Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost, October 6, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4+Psalm 37:1-10+2 Timothy 1:1-14+Luke 17:5-10
It is really hard to tell, given the way that we read scripture in church, that Jesus is more than a little bit impatient with the boys today. Jesus has just warned them that the road will not be smooth, that whoever causes one of the little ones to stumble would be better off with a millstone tied around their neck and be tossed into the sea.
But I don’t think that’s the part that got to the disciples. I think it’s the forgiveness part that followed:
“If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (Luke 17:3b-4)
It is then that they plead with Jesus to increase their faith. Forgive that much? That many times? Who on earth can do that? Clearly, we don’t have what it takes, so Jesus, you’re going to need to give us a booster shot of faith if you expect that kind of forgiveness from us.
Given that they have been on the road to Jerusalem for some time, and he has been teaching and healing along the way, telling parables about the lost getting themselves found, and the importance of being faithful in the little things, and that our blindness to the poor at the gate leads to death now, not just later, I think Jesus can be forgiven if his temper is a little short.
“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” (17:6). You already have everything you need, you just need to do it. Do forgiveness. Do care for the stranger and the poor.
It was not so many chapters ago that Jesus sent them all out two by two with no money and no suitcase and no lunchbox, and they came back rejoicing. Have they forgotten? Is the reality starting to sink in? Are the obstacles just too daunting?
As problematic as slave and master stories are to our modern ear, Jesus tacking on this bit about slaves just doing the work set before them is instructive. We aren’t supposed to be the master. We aren’t supposed to be Jesus. We are supposed to do the work we are given, what is right in front of us.
We Christians have somehow gotten it into our heads that it is up to us as individuals to change the world. The reality is that if each of us use our faith the size of a mustard seed to do our part in our patch of God’s garden, that’s when the miracles start happening. You can’t think or believe your way into this, though. If you start intellectualizing about the magnitude of the world’s problems – and we’re all pretty good at being up in our heads pondering things – then we would be paralyzed into inaction.
The Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque has as one of its core principles, “You do not think yourself into a new way of living, you live yourself into a new way of thinking.” Live as if you have faith and you will find that faith grows. Live as if you care for the poor and the hungry, and your compassion will increase. Live as if you are a forgiving person, and forgiveness will become your pattern.
Believe me when I say that you cannot wake up one morning and say to yourself that you are going to be patient or kind with everyone you meet that day, because as soon as that guy cuts you off in traffic or that scooter rider is going the wrong way and running red lights or the person with her nose buried in her phone is walking straight down the middle of the sidewalk, you are going to fail in that commitment you made up here in your head. It’s like that prayer I shared with you a while back:
So far I’ve done all right.
I haven’t gossipped,
haven’t lost my temper,
haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent.
I’m really glad about that.
But in a few minutes, God,
I’m going to get out of bed.
And from then on,
I’m going to need a lot more help.
As we heard this morning from the beginning of the Apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we rely “on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace”(1:8-9). It is all about doing what is right in front of us, fulfilling God’s purposes for us, and relying not on our own ability, but on the grace of God.
Now, we don’t usually do something like this at All Saints, but I’m going to ask you to help me finish this sermon today. You were given a pen and an index card when you came in. If you don’t have one, raise your hand.
I want you to take a minute to think back over the past week or so in your life, and I want you to write down one thing you did, one action you took, that brightened someone’s day, helped someone to do part of their job, tied a kid’s shoelace, guided someone through math homework, picked up something someone dropped – it can be anything at all. Just write it down. And don’t worry, I’m not going to read them or call you out on them. When you’re done, I’ll walk around with this basket to collect them.
Now, look at all these cards in here. And add to them the cards from our other services and from St. Matthew Trinity Lutheran down the block, because Pastor Gary and I conspired about this. Imagine how much less good there would be in our community if all y’all had not done these things, and the many more that you undoubtedly do every day just as part of your role as a human being in this world. And now imagine that every church in this town and this state and this country had people writing down acts of kindness that they had done on cards. There is enough goodness, if we are mindful of it, to live ourselves into a new way of thinking, of being, of believing, of carrying the love of God into our homes and out into the streets.
There is a reason Jesus surrounded himself with a community. It takes all of us! The great English writer and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” And that difficulty lies in the command to follow, to truly be disciples. And yet, if we follow the example of St. Francis whom we commemorated this week, he gave it all up, not because he was browbeaten into it, but because he fell in love with Jesus. His works and his sacrifices were not a burden, they were acts of love, and Francis invited others to share in that love. If you have ever been in love, you know what that feels like. You want to spend every minute in the company of your beloved. You would do anything to please them.
Francis would have understood Chesterton, who also said, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” We have everything we need with our faith the size of a mustard seed to change this world. It isn’t about changing what we think or what we do, it’s an inside job. It’s a matter of the heart. The invitation to us is to fall in love with Jesus. Then we really can uproot trees and move mountains.
You can’t think your way into that kind of love, you can only live into it. So go, and live your way into loving Jesus.