Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, October 30, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 21

Pentecost 21, 2022
Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-8
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Something that trips us up with the story of Zacchaeus I think is . . . Well, you know, good manners.  It’s impolite to make fun of someone who is vertically challenged.  We just don’t do that, right?  My wife is around 5 feet tall, and one learns to be careful with the topic of height around her.  In the words of Shakespeare’s Helena, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”  But mainly, we just don’t take kindly these days to pointing out someone as being “short in stature.”  Some scholars claim that Zacchaeus being “short in stature” is really a reference to his position in society rather than his physical height.  Maybe.  And others have noted that, because of the grammar, it’s possible that the short in stature refers to Jesus, not to Zacchaeus.  Perhaps.

However, deflecting the light of Zacchaeus’ being short kind of short-circuits what Luke is doing in this story.  In order to see what is happening, or perhaps what is not happening, we need to turn back the clock to the Ancient World.  We need to put ourselves in the place of Luke’s contemporaries, the people who would have been reading and hearing this story for the first time.

In the Greek and Roman world, the physical and the spiritual state of a person are linked together.  In fact, physical maladies and deformities and irregularities were considered to be caused by inward spiritual dysfunction.  About six chapters earlier in Luke’s gospel, we hear of a woman who is bent over from illness and comes to Jesus for healing.  (It came up at the end of August, though you might’ve been on vacation.)  Same thing with her: She was considered unclean spiritually because she was misshapen physically.  Or, perhaps you remember that time Jesus’ disciples asked him whose sin caused a man to be blind, his own or his parents’.  It was an understood fact of life in those days that spiritual brokenness causes physical distortions.  

But Luke the physician is always bucking against this crazy notion.  Luke over and over breaks down this myth, and in order to see him doing it, we have to set aside our “manners” and call Zacchaeus what Luke wants us to call him: A Short Greedy Empty Man.  No dignity, no morals, no height.  Nothing but a scoundrel in his little town.  AND, there’s a connection between the name Zacchaeus and the word “righteous.”  People in Luke’s day would have seen the irony in the name “Zacchaeus.”  Because the last thing this guy would be called is “righteous.”  He’s a short swindler.  And one thing people were sure of back then was that shortness caused greed in people.  A compensation sort of thing.  

So a short man essentially sells himself short at the career faire, and goes with what people expect of him.  He becomes a tax collector, swindling his neighbors in order to make himself rich and satisfy his insatiable greed, which, remember, is caused by his shortness and spiritual emptiness.  Luke’s audience has all these assumptions hard-wired into them, and that is what will make it so powerful by the time it’s over.

A rejected and obviously sinful short man wants to see Jesus, and he runs--totally undignified--runs to climb up a tree.  Luke’s audience would find this highly entertaining, see?  Grown men did not run; grown men did not climb trees; but Zacchaeus is not grown . . . get it?  It’s like a whole package playing right into their expectations.  At best, Jesus would not notice someone like this.  What Luke’s audience is probably expecting is that Jesus will smite him or something for all his wickedness . . . which is all related to his being short.  

And Jesus gets to the spot, and everyone’s waiting to see what happens, and Jesus says, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today."  WHAT?!?  No no Jesus, you’ve obviously got the wrong guy here.  Zacchaeus is the ironically named short swindler.  You cannot possibly go to his house!  And all who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner."  So not only does the crowd dislike the short little sinner, now they’ve got a grudge against Jesus for going to his house.  It probably even makes some of them begin to doubt who Jesus is, since Jesus obviously doesn’t get who Zacchaeus is.  

And then we come to this tricky spot.  Because our translation has Zacchaeus making a future promise about how he’s going to behave.  But that’s not how it is in the original language.  In the Greek these verbs are past tense, or actually present tense.  Zacchaeus does not say “I will” do these things.  He says I am doing these things.  Half my possessions I have given to the poor, and when I have defrauded anyone I pay back four times as much.  And the reason this matters is because if we’re not careful, we can end up turning this into a story about salvation coming from good works, or buying our way to righteousness.

If Zacchaeus is promising how he’ll act from now on, then it sounds like salvation comes on account of his change of heart.  Jesus comes to visit, Zacchaeus makes some promises to be a good guy, and then Jesus says “Salvation has come to this house.”  Before you know it, this would become a story about how promising to be good is what saves us.  And if promising to be good actually made you good, well, the world would be a much better place, that’s for sure.

So, they’re standing in Zacchaeus’ house now, and Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”  This works on a couple levels.  One is that Jesus is Salvation, right?  Jesus is the one who saves.  So, yes, salvation is literally standing in Zacchaeus’ house.  But it also works on the level that Zacchaeus is reminded of his true identity.  You can see that Jesus does not say, “Today salvation has come to this house because Zacchaeus made some good promises.”  No, Jesus says this:  “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”  All your mocking and prejudice and superstition mean nothing, because he too is a child of Abraham.  He’s already in.  Though you want to reject him, he is part of this community.

This is the true identity of Zacchaeus.  He is a child of Abraham.  He may be short, but that is not his identity.  He may make his living as a tax collector, but that is not his identity.  He may be laughed at and rejected by his neighbors, but that is not his identity.  Jesus proclaims to the world who Zacchaeus really is:  A son of Abraham, a child of God, one to whose house Salvation has already come.

And that is why the story of Zacchaeus is so important to you and me.  Because we live in a world that is telling us we don’t measure up.  We live in a place that puts us in our place if we don’t look right, or don’t own the right things, or go to the right school, or get the right job.  Every society wants to have its Zacchaeuses to kick around.  And whether we are the ones doing the kicking or the ones being kicked, it does not change our identity.  Jesus has claimed you as his own in the waters of baptism.  Your identity is sealed by the Holy Spirit, and you are marked with the cross of Christ forever.

No matter what message you may hear throughout your life, that is not your identity.  Because salvation has come to your house as well.  Because you are a child of God.  You are a member of God’s household.  And no one can take that away from you.

All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  Perfect!  He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.  This is the best part of the story to me.  Because it’s true.  It’s true for Zacchaeus, and it’s true for me and you.  Jesus comes to be the guest of sinners.

And you will see that it’s true in just a few minutes.  Because as you hold out your hands to receive the Sacrament, you will make a literal home for Jesus to visit: In your own hands, Jesus will come to be the guest of one who is a sinner.  A forgiven sinner.  Right in your very own hands.  Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, redeemed sinners who welcome you this day.


Saturday, October 22, 2022

Massillon Tigers Prayer Service, 2022

Tigers Prayer Service
Hebrews 12:1

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, I didn’t grow up around here.  I grew up in Niagara Falls NY, which is near Buffalo.  (Go Bills!)  The high school I went to had about 1,200 students, which is pretty close to what Washington High School has these days.  We had a football team, and I played in the marching band.  Our stadium—if you could call it that—seated, maybe, 500 people.  And I never once saw the stands filled in my four years of playing in the band.  So, of course, that’s how I thought high school football worked.

Imagine my surprise when I moved to Massillon six years ago to become the priest in this church.  A high school football stadium that holds over 16,000 people!  More than 30 times the size of my high school stadium!  A stadium that is filled for most games, and is always filled for the rivalry game.  I hate to sound like an outsider, but this is just crazy to me!  I definitely had a completely different experience than people who grow up in Massillon have.

Which got me to thinking this year . . . why is that?  Why is the only remaining Paul Brown stadium so big?  And how can it possibly still sell out when the school only has around 1,200 students?

And, well, you know the answer before I even say it.  The reason is because of the great cloud of witnesses.  It’s not exactly the same as the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in the reading from Hebrews we just heard.  But the idea is the same.

All those people who keep coming out to cheer you on, they are your cloud of witnesses.  In the good years and in the bad years, the people of Massillon stand behind this team.  They support you as athletes, they support you as students, and they support you as people who will go on to support the ones who come behind you.  Massillon has always had a strong and important football team, because Massillon has always had strong and important people.  You are not the first, and you won’t be the last.

Which brings us to today.  Everyone in town feels like this is their game, like this is their day to beat McKinley.  And—in a way—it is.  But for each of you sitting in this room today, there’s something more.  Because this literally is your game and your day, in a way that no one else will ever know.

Whether you are throwing a ball, or blocking a tackle, or carrying water to the players, or calling the plays from the sideline, this game is your game.  You are the ones who will play this game, in front of—and on behalf of—that great cloud of witnesses who are supporting you, and who will always support you.

Massillon is a unique place, and I am proud and honored to host this prayer service for you each year.  Whether or not we share the same faith tradition, we are still each made in the image of God.  The God who creates, redeems, and strengthens us this day, and all the days to come.  May God bless you all, and may God keep you safe today, and every day.


Sunday, October 16, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 19

Pentecost 19, 2022
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, here we are once more back to looking at a morally ambiguous parable for our gospel text.  Special thank-you to the Lectionary Committee.  There are many reasons this text is troubling.  And a few reasons why this text often does more harm than good in the lives of Christians.  But my main goal this morning will be to get us to consider a different way of interpreting the parable we just heard from Jesus.

So first, beware the road of knee-jerk interpretation.  The typical way to read this parable is to see God as the judge, and see ourselves as the widow: and therefore, the obvious takeaway is that a life of persistent prayer wears God down into relenting and helping us.  That is, if we—like the widow in the story—will only pray without ceasing, then God will finally relent and grant us whatever it is we’ve been praying so hard for.

Two problems with that interpretation jump out, though.  First, and most obvious, it suggests that God’s response to us—and even God’s care for us—is dependent on our efforts at convincing God to notice us.  If you are a human being, you have already experienced some devastating loss and tragedy in your life.  You have probably prayed to God that something would or would not happen.  Something like praying against the death of someone who means the world to you.  Or praying that the loss of a close friendship or marriage would not come to pass.  Or praying that the financial hardship you’ve been going through might finally come to an end.  To be human is to suffer, it seems, and a good amount of our prayers to God really come down to asking God to make things turn out okay.  We pray that we would find that the patient had recovered, the workplace didn’t close, the relationship didn’t end.

And then, despite our fervent prayers, things don’t turn out how we’d hoped.  We might say to our friends, “My prayers were not answered.”  And we are faced with the horrible dilemma: has God abandoned me?  Or was it that I didn’t pray hard enough?  Or, to today’s point, should I have been more like the persistent widow in this parable?

Here’s the thing:  If we approach prayer in such a way that we imagine God sitting on a judge’s bench waiting to be convinced by our pleading to take some action . . . well, what kind of loving God is that?  That is how the ancient Greek gods act; it is not how the God who brought the people out of Egypt acts.  AND, it implies that when our prayers are not answered, it really was our fault.  We should’ve prayed more.  We should've prayed harder.  We should've enlisted more friends to help us pray.  As though God’s love for us were just some huge bolder we need to push by brute force to get moving.  But I want to tell you this: when tragedy strikes, when things go wrong, it is not at all helpful to think that it is all up to you to pray harder.  This is commonly called “blaming the victim.”  In very plain terms: A God who truly loves you does not play hard to get.

The second problem with this parable takes us back to our constant refrain over the summer with these parables in Luke: When you read the parables, do not automatically assume that God is the one in authority, or the one in power.  We tend to reflexively assume that God is the judge in today’s parable, right?  That’s why we think badgering God will get us what we want and need in our lives.  You just have to convince God to help you, like the widow did with the judge.  But I need to remind you how this judge is described in today’s Gospel: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”  That’s not God.  And here’s another way you can tell the judge is not God . . .

Over and over in the Hebrew scriptures, God insists that the people pay special regard to the widows and orphans.  Widows and orphans were powerless in that society—as they mostly are in our society—and, if those who had some means to help them did not care for them, the widows and orphans had nothing.  God does not hold out against the pleas of a widow; on the contrary, God has a special regard for them.  This judge in the parable is trying to ignore the widow, and is trying to deny her justice.  This judge is not God.

Which brings up another thing about this parable.  It is easy to misunderstand the word “justice” when it shows up in the scriptures, because we have a completely different understanding of, and approach to, justice.  We have ended up with the Roman method of justice, which is—essentially—retribution justice.  We make them pay—like in those Misny billboards—but often without regard to helping the victims.  The ancient Jewish understanding of justice is restorative justice, which is more like making sure the victim gets a just compensation.  So, in our time, if I steal from you, the emphasis is on making sure I am punished for stealing.  In the Jewish culture of that time, if I stole from you, the focus would be on making sure you were compensated.  Very different goals.

Jewish justice sought restoration, justice for the oppressed.  A judge would be, by definition, on the side of the widow.  So, with that understanding of justice, the judge in our parable is a pretty lousy judge when you think about it.  A judge without regard for the widows and orphans should not be a judge in the first place.  The whole point in having a judge was to set things right for those who have no voice.  This judge is dis-ordered, and not worthy of being a judge.  This judge is not God.

There is a great little gem, which is hidden from us in our English translation of this parable, and which I just find so amusing.  The judge says, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  The part of that statement that gets translated as the very mild “so that she will not wear me out” is actually something more literally like “so she will stop beating me black and blue,” or “stop giving me a black eye.”  Poor old meanie judge, afraid of a defenseless widow, right?  This judge is not God.

So now you’re saying, “Okay, okay, we get it.  The unjust judge is not God.  So now what?”  I’m glad you asked that.  I’m going to tell you what I think this parable means, and—I admit—it might be very far afield from what you hear other people say about this parable.  But hear me out.

What if God is the widow in this parable?  What if the one who keeps coming back, pleading for attention is Jesus, seeking to set things right, and to get a fair hearing for a restoration of how things should be?  We like to think of God as all-powerful, all Zeus-like, throwing thunderbolts and taking names.  (But I remind you, our God chose to come to us as a defenseless baby in feeding trough behind a sold-out hotel.)  God is not above appearing in whatever form it takes to get us to pay attention.  To notice that things are not right in the world.  Seeing God as a defenseless widow is radical, yes, but we worship a radical God.

And as for the judge . . . what if you and I, deep down, are the unjust judge?  Maybe it is our own hearts that have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.  When we truly examine ourselves, we can see that without God in our hearts, we might just find this describes us as well, and our innermost attitude about God and our neighbor.  We are naturally people who have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.  We, by nature, consider ourselves above others.  We reflexively tell God that we can do it on our own.  We want to be in control of our lives— in a very uncontrollable world—and prefer to think that we are going to get along just fine.

And then along comes this widow, this Jesus, pleading for restoration.  Pleading for our attention so that he can change our hearts.  And, yes, we obviously can go about our business, having no fear of God and no respect for anyone, and get by just fine.  But, eventually, tragedy strikes.  Things happen.  We are, in a sense, beaten black and blue, and given a black eye.  And still, along comes this widow, this God in disguise, trying to get our attention.  This widow keeps coming back, day after day, and our black eyes mark us as people who need redemption.  People who need another way.  A better way.

And you and I reach the point where we say, “Enough!  I give up!”  And that is exactly when it all turns around.  Because in that moment, we are no longer the ones who have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.  Instead, we find ourselves promising to respect the dignity of every human being, with God’s help.  With.  God’s.  Help.

So, yes.  Left to our own devices, we are apt to have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, just like the unjust judge,  But with God’s help, we can turn this around.  And, somehow, we can find ourselves in the position of the widow in this parable standing before the Just Judge: pleading for justice, to the One True Judge, asking God—the One Just Judge—to hear our cries, and remind one another that God is on our side.  

Jesus is a widow, always pleading with our unjust hearts.  Reminding us that we don’t need to be beaten black and blue to find justice.  Today, God is meeting us in this place.  And, once again, God will send us out into the world in peace, to love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God.


Sunday, October 9, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 18

Pentecost 18, 2022
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Leprosy is a terrible disease—which is still around, by the way, but it was much scarier in Jesus’ time, because there was no cure.  (Though, even then, leprosy did not make your limbs fall off.)  Leprosy was considered among the worst diseases, because it also made you ritually unclean.  Anyone who touched a leper was considered ritually unclean, and no God-fearing Jew would go anywhere near them, let alone touch them.

As we heard in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus encounters 10 lepers at one time.  They call to him from a distance (since lepers were forbidden to approach others, because of that ritual contamination thing).  So, these lepers stand at a distance and call out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Ten unclean people, standing at a distance, pleading with Jesus for mercy.  Notice, that Jesus does not heal them there and then.  Instead, he says “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And . . . as they went, they were made clean.

Several things are significant here.  First, to a pious Jew (like Jesus), there were things a priest had to do for someone who is cured of leprosy.  At some point, if you’re really curious, you can turn to the 14th chapter of Leviticus and read all about what a healed leper has to go through.  32 verses involving birds and yarn and hyssop and fresh water and shaved eyebrows and a lamb and grain and fire and blood, and anointing an earlobe a thumb and a big toe with a log of oil.  Unless the person is poor; then there’s a whole different set of things.  But the first step is to present yourself to the priest . . . AFTER you’ve been cured of leprosy.  And given what the priest has to do to make you ritually clean—all that stuff with animals and big toes and fire and stuff—I would imagine that a priest would not be too excited to see a former leper show up on his doorstep.  

But, Jesus sends them to the priests before they are cured.  Before there is any need to turn to Leviticus 14, the lepers do as he says—still covered with horrible sores—they head off toward the priests.  Jesus has not promised to heal them.  He has not done anything except to see them, and tell them to go see the priests.  AND THEY GO!  Is this faith?  Is this stupidity?  I don’t know.  But they go.

And on the way, one of the lepers realizes he has been healed.  He praises God with a loud voice, and turns back to go to Jesus.  He falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him.  It was his natural response of gratefulness for what God had done in his life.  When Martin Luther was asked to describe what true worship looks like, he pointed to this leper for his definition: Praising God, bowing down, and giving thanks to Jesus.  Our natural response to what God has done in our lives.  Praise, worship, and thanksgiving.

And as we begin our Stewardship Campaign this week, I want to point out that one out of ten healed persons returns to God.  One out of ten.  10%.  Does that remind you of anything?  Returning 10% to God?  Isn’t that interesting?  Though every good thing comes from God, 10% returns to God.  And, though all ten are redeemed by the power of Jesus’ healing, one out of ten is dedicated to the worship of God.  Are the other nine any less healed?  No.  Any less redeemed?  No.  Any less loved by God?  Of course not.  But it is an interesting thought, as I say.  Though 100% belongs to God, and is redeemed by God, only a small percentage comes back to God.

And I could add a similar thing about our Animal Blessing this afternoon.  Our pets are our companions, and they are gifts from God.  We talk about them as if we “own” them, but we don’t really.  We don’t deserve them, but they are part of our lives.  And bringing them back to church to be blessed is a sign that we get it.  They get blessed and are then taken back home to bless us.  Blessed to be a blessing.  Okay, but I know I’m kind of reading that into the story.  So, back to the story . . .

That one healed leper comes back to Jesus, and offers praise, worship, and thanksgiving.  The other nine, we might say, are being ungrateful.  Or rude.  They are showing what my grandmother might call, “bad breeding.”  The temptation is strong to turn this story into an object lesson on the importance of writing thank you notes.  And maybe you’ve heard that kind of lesson yourself.  You could read this gospel to your kids and say, “and the moral of the story is, always say thank you when someone heals you of leprosy,” or whatever.  Don’t be ungrateful.  Saying thank you is a sign of good breeding.  

But here’s the irony about good breeding thing:  the ONE person who returns to thank Jesus is a half-breed.  A Samaritan.  A mud-blood.  Samaritans do not have good breeding; in fact the Jews would have said they have bad breeding.  The last person anyone would expect to do the right thing is a Samaritan outcast.  Which is why this is so great!  He returns because he can’t help it.  His worship of Jesus is a natural response to the joy he feels in being cleansed and redeemed.  

This is not a lesson about good manners, writing thank you notes, or being grateful to others.  If this were just a morality tale designed to remind us to say thank you . . . well, first of all, the 9 ingrates would not have been healed, right?  I mean, you can’t make the point of the benefits of being grateful if the people who aren’t grateful get the same reward, right? 

So what do we make of this story then?  Jesus finishes by saying to the leper, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  And the word used for “well” here can also mean  “whole,” or “healed”  So, maybe the point is that Jesus offers salvation to the people who are grateful.  Could that be the point?  Maybe Jesus only saves the people who are thankful that he saves them?  But not only is that kind of backward, it also doesn’t fit what the text says.

All ten lepers were healed on their way to see the priests.  The Samaritan turns around because he could not help it.  And, the other 9 were doing exactly as they were told.  All ten were healed.  It is not the gratefulness that heals this one leper.  It is not the good deed of showing thankfulness that heals him either.  Jesus does not heal him because he is grateful.  Jesus heals him because of his faith.  And you can’t say that the Samaritan’s faith is that he returned to Jesus.  If faith is what heals them, then it is the going to see the priests that is the faith, not the returning to worship Jesus.

And of course we WANT it to be his gratefulness that saves him, since we want people to be grateful.  But it seems to me that his faith is shown in this:  doing as Jesus says—heading off to see the priests while still covered with sores—trusting Jesus, despite all evidence to the contrary.  And (as I reminded you last Sunday), faith is a gift from God.  Jesus says go, and faith makes us go.  Jesus says to ten lepers, who still have leprosy, go and show yourselves to the priests.  Go forth as though you are already redeemed.  All ten lepers head off to see the priests, apparently sure enough, or desperate enough, or filled-with-faith enough that they start toward the temple.  Still lepers.  Still unclean.  Still outcasts, whom the priest will not even speak to—since they are ritually unclean—let alone perform sacrifices for.  Yet off they go, given the gift of faith, trusting that Jesus will heal them, make them well, make them whole.  And Jesus does.

100% are healed.  100% are made whole.  One in ten comes back to worship, and responds with gratefulness to God’s unmerited healing.  A small number of people see what God has done and turn around.  They sing songs of praise, they proclaim God’s love, they profess their faith, they pray together, and they share God’s peace with one another.  And then in gratefulness they come to the altar, where God feeds them with a life-giving meal.  And then they hear the reassuring words, Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.

Jesus loves the lepers, and he makes them whole because of their faith.  Jesus loves you, and does the same in your life.  Whatever it is that makes you feel unworthy, or unloved, or unclean, whatever other people say that makes you feel you don’t belong, leave it behind as you go on your way.  And then, come back to worship Jesus.  You and I cry out together, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on us!” And together, we bow down in praise, worship, and thanksgiving.  Together, we come to the Altar to worship Jesus, because we are all made whole.


Sunday, October 2, 2022

YEAR C 2019 pentecost 17

Pentecost 17, 2022
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-10
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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

The gospel section we just heard begins at verse 5, with that plea from the apostles.  Increase our faith.  In the 4 verses before this, Jesus warns them not to be a stumbling block to anyone else.  He says, it would be better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea, rather than to cause a little-faith one to stumble.

Then Jesus tells them that if someone sins against them seven times a day and each time asks for forgiveness, they must forgive them.  Seven times a day.  Every day.  49 times a week.  17,885 times a year, the same person sins against you, asks for forgiveness, and you are required to forgive them.  Plus, if you’re lucky, someone stands nearby with a millstone and a rope looking into the sea, since that would be better than whatever else is in store for you.  And then we come to verse 5 . . . where the disciples say, “Increase our faith!”

Of COURSE the disciples beg him to increase their faith!  With an exclamation point and everything!  Jesus has just laid out an impossible collection of things they must do.  You can just imagine them looking around saying, “Um, we’re going to need a bigger faith!”  More faith.  God gives them faith, and faith allows them to accomplish great things, so therefore, they need more faith.  If a little bit of faith got them this far, then it stands to reason that a lot of faith might keep away the millstone.  So, sure, the disciples are understandably a little greedy for more faith, after hearing all that.

But Jesus’ response to them is really weird, isn’t it?  I mean, they ask for more faith, and he makes it sound like the smallest amount of faith could move mountains, or at least really big trees.  It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “What do you mean MORE faith?  You haven’t got ANY faith, silly!”  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a mustard seed (they make mustard out of them), but they’re really, really small.  Like a grain of sand maybe.  Jesus is using the smallest thing that his disciples could imagine, and saying, “If you ONLY could have this much faith.”  The message seems loud and clear: the disciples do not have any faith at all.

And this is where we all say, “What?”  They’ve left everything to follow him.  Isn’t that faith?  They’ve risked their reputations, their families, their jobs . . . if that’s not faith . . . well, what is?  

And that’s the real question for us today: What is faith?  Because whatever faith is, it seems like when the disciples ask for more of it, Jesus is saying they don’t even have it yet.  So, let’s start with trying to see what faith is . . .

First of all, faith is a gift.  We don’t acquire faith, or earn faith, or practice faith.  Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is not something you earn or possess, and it comes to you as God gives it to you.  A lack of faith is a gift not yet given.  Faith is not a supernatural power that you store up and then request more of in dire situations.  When the disciples say, “Lord, increase our faith!” it’s kind of like saying, “Lord, increase our Jedi powers!”  Or, “Lord, make us invincible to kryptonite!”

Secondly, faith, at its most basic, is trust in God.  As Paul says, faith is the hope in things unseen.  Faith is trusting that God will empower you to do what you have to do, to endure what you face in life, to live out your own unique calling in the world during your own brief life-span.  Faith is trusting in God to make you able to do the things you could not otherwise do.  And, in a full circle kind of way, faith is trusting that faith itself is a gift.  Which means you do not have to panic about not having enough faith.  God will provide the faith you need, when you need it, to do the things God wants you to do.

And that leads us to the second part of today’s gospel reading—the really strange part.  But let me say this:  just like last week, it is doubtful that these two sections actually go together.  Jesus says a thing, and Jesus says another thing, and the writer Luke decides to put them one after the other in his gospel.  In fact, in most bibles you will see this whole reading under the title, “Some Teachings of Jesus.”  So, the point is, don’t assume it’s one long speech he’s giving.  It’s more like, “Famous Things Jesus Said at Some Point.”  

Anyway, in this Famous Thing Jesus Said at Some Point, he starts by talking about how we treat our servants.  (I know the word used is “slave,” but servant and slave are the same word in Greek, and I don’t want us to get hung up on a completely different issue.)  

The important question to ask here is, who is Jesus talking to?  His disciples, right?  These are working-class people.  These are fishermen, and tax collectors, and work-a-day Joes.  And Jesus says, “You know how it is when your servants come in from the field, right?”  And you can just imagine all the disciples nodding their heads saying, “Oh yeah, Jesus, when my servants come in from the field, that’s exactly what I do.”  In case it’s not obvious, the disciples have no idea what it is like to have servants!  They do not know what Jesus is talking about.  They can imagine it, sure, but the disciples are not the kind of people who have servants.

And it should come as no surprise to you that Jesus knows his disciples do not have servants.  They’ve never had servants, and they never will have servants.  This is like saying to them, “You know how it is when you’re buying a block of real estate in downtown Canton to put up your skyscraper, right?”  Jesus knows they don’t know what he’s talking about.  So why is he using this example?  I think the answer comes in the second part.  The harsh part.  The part that makes us really uncomfortable.

Jesus says to the disciples, “When you have done all you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless servants; we have done only what we ought to have done’.”  Yikes!  But first off, let me help us with that word, “worthless.”  The word in Greek means something more like, “people who are not owed anything.”  Or, maybe, people who have no claim to something.  You know, people who need to rely on the kindness of strangers.  The disciples and we are not worthless in God’s eyes.  Far from it!  But we are people to whom nothing is owed.  And that’s an important balance to keep in mind.

By contrast, our society will tell you that you are what you accomplish.  That your worth is measured in what you achieve in life.  And the obvious implication of that thinking is that people who do more are somehow worth more.  People who succeed in life are somehow more worthy than those who struggle to get by.  And it’s a short drive down that road until we are saying that some people are less important than others, or that some people are not worthy of our time, or effort, or love.

Contrary to what you will hear every day, life is not about what you can accomplish.  Your value lies in being beloved of God.  Whether you are a servant at the table, or the king of Canton, your value is in God’s love for you.  And God loves you because of who you are, not what you do.  You are a redeemed child of God.  That is your identity.  That is your calling.  That is why God loves you.  You are precious in God’s sight.

And I like to think that we can see this in our pets.  I love my cat because she is my cat, not because of what she does . . . believe me!  Cats do not earn our love.  (I mean, come on, what cat ever did?)  But every night and every morning Pippin the Cat gets fed.  Whether she deserves it or not; all she has to do is show up and she will be fed.  No matter what she does.  Kind of like you and me.

We don’t come to this altar because of our accomplishments.  We don’t come to this altar because we deserve to come.  We come to this altar because we are invited.  And we keep coming back, as though we hear the distant sound of a can of food being opened.  We probably can’t even explain why we come back to this place time after time.  But what we know for sure is that each time we return, God faithfully feeds us with the bread of heaven, gives us the peace of God, and supplies just enough faith to endure.  And we leave here in the knowledge that we are all beloved children of God, with a hope and a future, rooted in Jesus, our strength and our redeemer.