Sunday, October 17, 2010

SERMON: God, Faith, Service

A mulberry tree

Date: October 3, 2010
Sermon Text: Luke 17:5-10

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen. 

[Introduction] Our Gospel lesson this morning is about faith and miracles. When I think about faith and miracles, my mind always jumps immediately to the so-called “faith healers” that can be seen on Sunday morning television. One famous faith healer, whose name we’ll change to “Rev. James,” proclaims that God has given him the gift of healing, and when he prays for someone, they often fall over unconscious, overwhelmed by the experience. They are “slain in the Spirit.” I don’t doubt the sincerity of these actions. I myself have experienced, in instances of intense personal and corporate prayer, extreme vertigo. But the whole scenario certainly raises some questions about faith for me.

And the questions are only exacerbated when a seminary friend of mine, who knows of my deep and abiding love of Star Wars, sends me doctored YouTube videos. This video he sent me took clips of Rev. James slaying people in the Spirit and combined it with the moving battle music from the Star Wars films. And, to top it off, the clever video editors put a glowing red lightsaber in Rev. James’ hands. In each of the original clips, Rev. James swings his arms at the people to slay them in the Spirit, but in the edited version, he’s knocking individuals and groups over with one swing of his lightsaber. “Rev. James,” the video proclaims, “Dark Lord of the Sith.”

I probably shouldn’t have so much fun watching this video. But, I think it points to something that Jesus wants to address in our passage today. What is faith for? Is it a tool to be employed? Is it something to swing about? Is it something that we can have and hold and use however we see fit? Really, now, what is faith for?

[Page 1] Our text takes us to a hillside a long time ago in a land far away. On the hillside there is a mulberry tree. It started its day like any other. The hot Mediterranean sun rose in the east and began its transit over the hills of Palestine. To the tree’s west is the water that has fed it its entire life. Its serrated green leaves and bristled red fruit shine brightly in the sun. It is surrounded by people.

The crowd had come slowly at first, straggling in one or two at a time, then many arrived at once. There is a man by the mulberry tree. He is addressing the gathered multitude. It is Jesus of Nazareth.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus says, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.”

The crowd closest to Jesus looks at the mulberry tree, and there is something wistful in their eyes. Their eyes are hungry. They hunger not for the fruit of the tree, or for the tree itself, but for something greater . . . a power, an ability to do something that is beyond the ordinary. They want power for themselves.

The mulberry tree has deep roots. It would take many men several hours to dig it up and move it. If, suddenly, the people of the crowd could move it themselves with a word, what else would they be able to do? What other things on their farms or in their houses might they move? Their minds do not wander for long, though. Jesus brings them back to earth with a very practical question.

If you had a slave, he asks, and the slave had come in at the end of the day, would you want him to come to the table and eat with you? The question is rhetorical. No, the people shake their heads. It’s dishonorable to eat with a slave. Most of the crowd don’t have slaves themselves, but they know what they would do if they did. They want that power for themselves, too. They wouldn’t ask the slave to sit and eat, they would ask the slave to do his job. They would say “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink.” They know that if they had a slave, all of a sudden, they would be free to do so much more. And, in response to Jesus’ question, they know that they would not likely say “thank you” to the slave very often. After all, the slave is only doing his job. So, for the apostles on the hill, whether it is a faith that works miracles or a slave that makes dinners, the people want the power for themselves. They know what they would do with it. They know what they want.

[Page 2] I’m pretty sure I know what I want, too. I’ve heard that dreaming about flying is a common thing. I’ve dreamed about flying on again and off again through my life, but what I dream about more often than flying is moving things with my mind.

I’ve already told you about my deep and abiding love for Star Wars. It started very early for me. I am told that when I was too young to remember I watched the first movie A New Hope so many times that I ruined the video tape. I had the toys, too: action figures, ships, full-length plastic lightsabers, anything and just about everything. But what I really wanted was the power.

The Force has always held an attraction for me. The ability to wield a lightsaber to block blaster bolts, to change people’s minds with a wave of my hand, and to call objects to me from across the room, all these were part of my boyhood fantasies, and they crept into my dreams. In the earliest of these dreams, I didn’t know how to wield the power, but slowly, over years of on-again, off-again dreaming, I slowly learned to use the Force to the point that, if I were to have a dream like that again, it would be no problem to pick up a hymnal from the front row and call it to myself.

So, when I read a story in which Jesus tells the crowd that if they just had enough faith, they could command a tree to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea, a deep, deep part of me yearns for that power. In my dreams, I never use the Force to help or serve people. I use it like the people listening to Jesus would have used their day-worn slave: to make my life easier. I use it to impress my friends. In my dreams, I am no hero. In my dreams, fortunately or not, I am just me.

And I wonder if this is not a common, human experience. We want power and tools to make our lives easier. We almost never think about what power and tools are intended for. And we even more seldom come to the God of creation, who created us for faith and obedience, to ask how we should put them to use. Whether it is commanding a slave, or uprooting a mulberry tree, or moving a hymnal with my mind, I know that on my own I don’t know how power should be used. I know that I need to be taught.

[Page 3] And, 2,000 years ago beside that mulberry tree, the Teacher, after talking about miracles and slaves, says: “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’.” As Jesus has done so skillfully in the past, he again forms a thought in the mind of the gathered crowd and then turns it on its head. He had them thinking about what they would do with miracles and power, especially what they would do to another person should they own one themselves. Then, like a tree crashing down, everything changes. Instead of thinking of themselves as the master, they should put themselves in the shoes of the slave. As slaves, when they do all that they are ordered to do, they should say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.” This seems harsh, but really, it is freeing. God empowers faith for service.

This is the lesson of part of our story: God empowers faith. The apostles asked for more faith, and Jesus said if they only had the barest amount, they could uproot mulberry trees with a command. Faith, though, is not a thing to be swung about - it is a relationship. Faith is trust in God. Faith is believing what this God says about us, the world, and Himself. Faith is a gift from God. And, the story says, God gives power to faith. In other words, God works wonders where faith is present.

But, God does not use faith to make us little replicas of the Greek gods on Mt. Olympus. He does not use faith to create little popes or potentates or powerhouses. God does not empower faith for our own selfish benefit. Instead, God gives power to faith for service. Jesus tells the crowd that they are slaves, not masters. The miraculous powers that God gives faith are not for them to decide how to use; they are to be used in obedience. Even if God were to suddenly give the amazing power of moving mulberry trees to one of the apostles, all the apostle could ever say was “I am an unworthy servant. I have only done what I ought to have done!” Because God empowers faith, Jesus’ apostles should expect great things while they’re following him. But, God empowers faith for serving him and others. Nothing more. Nothing less.

[Page 4] The question we began with was, “What is faith for?” Is it for miracles? For healing? For salvation? What our passage reveals is that while faith might include all these things, faith in the first instance is for God alone. God empowers faith in us so that we might serve Him. God creates belief and trust in us so that we can love Him and love our neighbours as ourselves. And, God is the one who uses us to work miracles in the sight of His faithful servants, uprooting in their lives and in their communities the trees of envy and hatred, bitterness and unforgiveness, and injustice and tyranny, trees that have much deeper roots than the mulberry on the side of that hill, trees that cannot stand against the risen power of the Crucified Christ.

As we follow Jesus, we should expect miracles. We should expect the work of our hands to yield fruit beyond our asking or imagining. And we should expect this because God empowers our faith for service, too. But, we must always remember that, as we see the work of our hands multiplying and growing, that God alone is the one who deserves the praise. “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” Jesus asks. “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done!” God empowers our faith for service.

But, that leaves us with the awkward situation suggested by the end of our lesson. What happens when someone points to the results of our work and says “Thank you?” How should we express the fact that God is the one who empowers faith for service? Should we say that whole bit about being a worthless slave, only doing what we ought to have done? I suggest instead that we steal that tried and true line from our liturgy: “Thanks be to God.”

“Thank you, John. Your reading really spoke to me today.”

“You’re welcome. Thanks be to God.”

Try it this week, and see how well it expresses your faith that God is empowering you for His service.

If we all realize that God is the one who empowers our faith for service and all together point the gratitude aimed at us upwards to the God who has loved us in Jesus Christ, then we really will be able to live that beautiful doxology that we say at the end of our service every week: “Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation, in the church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen.”

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

No comments:

Post a Comment