Luke 17:1-5 Common English Bible
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
6 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.
7 “Would any of you say to your servant, who had just come in from the field after plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come! Sit down for dinner’? 8 Wouldn’t you say instead, ‘Fix my dinner. Put on the clothes of a table servant and wait on me while I eat and drink. After that, you can eat and drink’? 9 You won’t thank the servant because the servant did what you asked, will you? 10 In the same way, when you have done everything required of you, you should say, ‘We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.’”
Some of the most annoying things I see on Facebook are the pictures that say something like, If you believe in Jesus, share this pretty picture and God will reward your faith with lots of money!
I am often tempted to un-friend anyone who posts those things. I don’t believe God is going to reward me for re-posting an annoying picture on Facebook. I don’t believe that if I give enough money to the church, or spend enough time doing charity work, or bring enough bodies into the church building, that God will make me to prosper in the ways of the world. There won’t be cars and big houses and jet planes waiting for me. Time and time again, Jesus says that money and power and the ways of the world are the very opposite of what we are to aspire to. And yet, somehow, the prosperity gospel continues to hold sway over our minds. People become convinced that if they are faithful enough, they will become, if not wealthy, then at least comfortable. What Jesus says in this passage, however, is “If you have even a teensy itsy bit of faith, you can make this mulberry tree uproot itself and replant itself in the sea” - a place where mulberry tress don’t belong. Or, as Matthew tells the story, if you had even just that much faith, you could move a mountain. Nothing would be impossible for you. I have no idea why anyone would want to make a mulberry tree replant itself in the sea, although I imagine that mountain moving trick would be very welcome to a highway construction crew, but the way we usually preach this is, there is no such thing as a little faith or a lot of faith. There is faith or not faith. Or, as Yoda said, “Do or not do. There is no try.”
Which is also problematic, actually. If you believe yourself to be faithful, and the things you most earnestly desire don’t happen - does that mean you don’t have enough faith? When I was in seminary, a classmate’s minister was fired from her job. She had been diagnosed with Lupus, and even though she prayed and the congregation prayed, the disease was not lifted from her. They fired her for lack of faith, saying that if she had faith, she would have been healed.
I am a firm believer that faith will move mountains, but that it would be a good idea to bring a shovel. I am quite certain that God can make things happen for me, but if I want to pass that final exam, I need to study. The things that my faith brings me are not the mountain moving, new car winning, all my debt removed kinds of things that so many pray for. My faith helps me live with a peaceful heart. My faith tells me that a frightening health issue will be resolved, one way or another. My faith tells me that no matter what happens, I will be ok. Even if I lose my job or my home. Even if I die. I will be ok. That kind of faith helps me get through any situation. And that’s the kind of faith I think Jesus was talking about. He didn’t promise his followers easy lives. In fact, he often told them the opposite. He told them that their faith in God, their dedication to following his teachings, would bring them pain, suffering, even death. But he promised them - and us - that ultimately, they would be ok.
I wasn’t entirely certainly how this verse on faith related to the rest of the reading, about serving God. But I realize that faith is what causes us to serve God. Faith is what lets us stand up for what we believe in.
That doesn’t mean I don’t still worry about stuff. I do. I often find myself doubting an outcome, or worrying unnecessarily. But when I remind myself that God is in charge, and that no matter what, is is going to be ok, then my heart knows peace and I can move forward into the unknown more excited than afraid. I think maybe that whole making a mulberry tree grow in the sea thing might be a metaphor for that very difficult task of moving my belief from my head to my heart, where belief becomes faith.
When I first looked over today’s reading, I wondered a bit what the part about servants had to do with the part about faith. Servant passages are always a bit difficult to bring into modern life. Most of us can’t really relate to the concept of having a servant go out to work for us all day and then come inside to cook dinner and serve us our meal, only eating when we are finished. Most of us don’t have servants. But we do go out to eat and expect the server to serve us, not sit down and eat with us. We do go get our cars serviced before a long trip, but we don’t ask the mechanic to come join us on vacation. We expect that whatever service we receive from anyone in a service position will be done for us without whining or complaining or expecting any special reward from us. So it is with any faithful servant. Including us.
In 1517, a priest named Martin Luther wrote 95 theses, statements in opposition to certain practices then current in the Catholic Church. He sent them to his Archbishop and is reputed to have posted them to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg - the 16th century equivalent of posting a blog to the internet. In 1521 at the Diet of Worms (which was not a weird weight loss plan, but a church council specifically called to indict him for heresy!), when asked whether he had written the 95 theses and other books that spoke opposition to the leadership of the Catholic Church, Martin Luther is supposed to have said “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Although those words do not appear in the official minutes of the council, they have become a significant part of his story, and far be it from me to say that something which may not be historically factual may not nevertheless, be True. The point is, whether or not he used those specific words, he refused to recant his writings or his opinions. He stood by his beliefs that the teachings of the Church at that time were wrong - even though he knew that saying this could mean his death. His intent in publishing those theses was to provoke a conversation. His intent in publishing those theses was to provoke a change in heart in the leadership, to bring about a return to the ancient values of the Church. What he provoked was a Reformation. He was a faithful servant of God, a believer in the teachings of the Christ. He wasn’t looking for any kind of reward. He was just looking to do what was right, what God required of him.
Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday, a day when Christian communities of every kind all over the world share communion, something we in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) do every single Sunday, but some communities do only once a month, or once a year. Today we celebrate the one thing that we all hold in common - remembrance of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Today we come together as one Church, for this one short moment, for this one shared meal. When we get up from the Table, the fussing and arguing over beliefs and practices will begin again, but for this one moment - we are one. For this one moment - we share God’s grace with each other.
Jesus reminded us of God’s commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Not just your friends or family or fellow believers. All your neighbors. Even your enemy. Even the people you disagree with. Even the people who have hurt you or want to hurt you. Even the people you don’t trust. Love them all without judgement or assumptions. This is the most difficult commandment to follow. If we follow it faithfully, we can change the world. I know I cannot change the world on my own, no matter how much faith I have. But I can strive to follow this extremely difficult commandment. As a faithful servant of God, I can work to change my own heart, to bring God’s love and grace into the world. So can we all. Without expecting reward or special praise. As Christians, in doing these things we have only done our duty. We can do no other.