October 2, 2022, Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "Faith Enough"

Oct 2nd  |  The Reverend John Vanderzee |  Luke 17:5-10

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   I thought long and hard about whether I was going to preach on this passage today from the lectionary. There are probably more appropriate texts out there for World Communion Sunday! But here are two seemingly disconnected sayings of Jesus among several others in chapter 17. The first part seems straightforward enough - Jesus’ well known maxim about mustard seed size faith doing great things.

   But then Jesus gets into this perplexing illustration about masters and slaves that seems to fly in the face of everything else he teaches. What disciple of Jesus Christ today wants to be identified as a “worthless slave?”

   Individuals and groups in church and society have been working hard over the last decades to help women and men develop their own healthy sense of self-worth and dignity no matter their race, and for them Jesus’ appeal to see themselves as worthless slaves seems to negate all that they have been working for.

   Let’s put this slave thing aside for a moment as we put this passage in some sort of context. It might help to better understand the disciples’ request for more faith if we look at the preceding verse that was not read. 

   Jesus had just challenged them by saying “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.” (The more familiar charge to forgive “seventy-seven” times occurs in Matthew). Either way, it’s one heck of a demand. After all, no one wants to be another’s doormat!

   The disciples may have been thinking along the same lines when they asked Jesus insistently, “Increase our faith!” In other words, “to forgive someone seven times in the same day - let alone seventy-seven times - takes a lot more faith than we can ever muster. Give us more!” Isn’t more faith better faith?

   The rest of us tend to look at life this way, too. If something is good, then more of it must be better. So, we ride faster roller-coasters (literally and metaphorically), live in bigger houses than we may need, buy trendier SUV’s, get the state-of-the-art cell phone, and so on. This is equally the case when it comes to values and personal goals: there are books galore out there about having heightened self-assurance, devoting more time for self-improvement, greater personal freedom. You get my drift here? Being part of a culture that says more is better leaves you thinking that what you do or what you have or who you are isn’t enough.

   The drive for more and better doesn’t have to be restricted to society’s excessive enticements. They can be noble and worthwhile things. Like more faith! Who wouldn’t want more faith? 

   Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the challenges life brings, the troubles and sufferings of the world? Or besieged by the demands placed upon you to be “a good Christian” and you’re not sure if you measure up? Do you feel that being a disciple of Christ has become something beyond your own limits of faith, hope, and love?

   Sounds kind of like an infomercial, doesn’t it? Let me put it this way: Does being a Christian seem more of a burden than a blessing these days? 

   Jesus’ response to the disciples and to us is this: faith doesn’t always have to be heroic. A little bit of faith can go a long way if it’s earnest and sincere; in fact, a little bit of faith, symbolized in the tiny mustard seed, can actually do miracles. Even the simplest things done in faith can have a huge impact. One writer said that “faith isn’t an idea, it’s a muscle. If it is not used, it will atrophy.”1 The more you use that muscle, the stronger it gets. But you have to start somewhere, Jesus is saying, and it might as well be with the faith that you already have right now.

   Then Jesus uses an illustration, and, at first glance, we kind of wish he hadn’t. But given the context in which Jesus and his disciples lived and given his audience - which included some Pharisees and where well-to-do people had servants and slaves to do their bidding, what Jesus was saying made complete sense. 

Who among you, after your slave has done your bidding, would invite them to sit with you at the dinner table? Wouldn’t he or she be the one preparing the meal and serving it to you? They can eat and drink afterwards, right? And do you thank them for only doing what you asked them to do?  [Ah, yes, Jesus, you should]

   But you also want to say, Didn’t Jesus elsewhere say that all - the poor, the blind, the prisoner, and yes, even the slave - should be invited to the banquet feast? Yes, he did. But he is teaching a different lesson here and the lesson is contained in our next verse:

So, you also, when you have done all that you are asked to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.’

   By using the image of a slave who day-in and day-out does their duty without thought of reward, Jesus uses a normal circumstance in the Ancient Near East to help his listeners get the meaning.

   Though the imagery is less helpful in our context, given what slavery looks like and how horrific it is, the point back then was about covenant obedience and that there is something extraordinary about consistent faithfulness built on trust in a good God. It’s the ordinary stuff we do all the time, taken together and blessed by God, that can be extraordinary especially when we truly reflect upon it and take it into our consciousness.

   It is important to remember that Christian faith is trust in Jesus Christ, who came among us as “the One who serves,” according to the great 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth.2 Only when we have recognized this can we begin to consider Jesus’ description of the Christian life using the first-century illustration of slave and Master as an example of the relationship between God and the Christian believer.

   And so, with this relationship as our reference, our response to the Master should be “Lord, I’ve only done what was expected of me - what you have called me to do. What more would you have for me do?”

   Jesus is telling his disciples - both then and now - that we already have what we need to be faithful as a gift from God, and that being faithful, when all is said and done, is about recognizing all the God-given opportunities just to show up and do what needs to be done. 

   I had an interesting spontaneous conversation with a church member not long ago. We talked about how our attitudes shape our perceptions of reality. We might say, on the one hand, “Gosh, I have to do this thing and I’m really dreading it.” Or we can say, “You know, I have this great opportunity to do this thing; what a blessing that is!” We gave examples in our own current situations of how that change of attitude makes all the difference in how we approach something we may find difficult.

   “Faith enough” is heading out the door every day looking for opportunities to partner with God in doing God’s work right where you are. “Faith enough” is imagining that the various challenges, great and small, placed before us - whether solving a problem at work, sitting with a troubled friend at school, or forgiving somebody who wronged us - are actual opportunities that invite us to grow as disciples of Jesus. They are possibilities to witness to God’s presence in our lives and in the world.

   The disciples didn’t need more faith, and neither do we. We are called to trust God with the faith that we have. It may not seem like much, but Jesus said it’s as if we just uprooted a tree or moved a mountain.

   What in your life or in the world represents those unproductive trees that are just taking up valuable soil and that should be repurposed to make room for trees that offer shade and shelter for life’s flourishing?

   What are those mountains that need to be moved to make room for flowering meadows? (Remember we’re talking metaphors here; I love mountains too!).

   It can be simply a matter of ridding yourself of life’s unnecessary stresses and worries and replacing them with life-affirming activities. Or letting go of payback and replacing it with compassion. These things may sound difficult, or they may feel more than our measly faith can muster. But the faith that you already have is standing ready and is at your bidding and is faith enough for God to do great and good things with.  

   This, sisters and brothers, is everyday faith - faith enough, as Jesus said, “just to do what needs to be done,” day in and day out as servants of God. It may not be heroic, but it is essential. It is not about having enough; it’s about knowing that we are enough, to the glory of God.

   As we celebrate this World Communion Sunday, think about fellow Christians all around the world gathered at the table of the Lord. Think about all these people of every land and every walk of life trying to live out the paltry faith they feel they have. But when you take them all together, powerful things can happen. What is true for the world-wide church is also true for you and this church. Don’t discount or minimize the faith that you have. Just put it to work, and the rewards will be greater than you ever imagined.

   To God be all honor and praise and glory.

 


1)  Colin Smith, in his blog Open the Bible with Colin Smith, June 3, 2015.

2)  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, trans. G. W. Bromily (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1962), 157