Text Luke 17:5-10
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Oct. 3, 2016
I have never ceased to be amazed when one our war heroes is awarded a medal of honor, for bravery, for risking life and limb to save a fellow comrade, or for action beyond the call of duty. The reaction is always the same. “I’m no hero, I was only doing my duty. I was only doing my job.” Somehow, our military, all five branches—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard instill in their members the motto of West Point – Duty, Honor, Country. It becomes far more than a motto; it becomes part of their very DNA. (How many of you here today have served in one of our Armed Forces? (A month from next Sunday, we will be honoring you. We will have special guest at all three services. Randy Kington, a retired Marine, and a paraplegic will be our guest speaker. He is a devout Christian who is invited to give his testimony in churches all over the country. Circle Sunday, November 13 in your calendars. You won’t want to miss him!)
This morning I suggest to you that a slight variation of West Point’s motto should become part of the DNA of every disciple of Jesus Christ: “Duty, Honor Service.” It embodies the very essence of the Gospel lesson we had at our Eucharist we celebrated Clergy Retreat this past week: “If anyone would be my disciple, they must take up their cross daily and follow me.” This same sentiment is also embodied in today’s Gospel that is summed used in the last two sentences: “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all you were ordered to do, say: “We are worthless slaves: we have done only what we ought to have done!”
Since the last Sunday in June, our Gospel has been taken from Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem where Jesus knows he will face his own cross—a literal cross. As I told you on that Sunday, on this journey Jesus has joined a pilgrimage of people heading to Jerusalem to observe Passover. And on this pilgrimage we find Jesus is the center of attention, telling stories and performing miracles. Sometimes he tells stories to the whole crowd that is on their way to Jerusalem. Sometimes he addresses only the religious leaders, especially the Pharisees. Sometimes he addresses only his disciples. To fully understand what Jesus is saying, it is important to know his audience.
In today’s gospel he is speaking directly to his disciples, and therefore directly to you and to me! They have approached him and asked, “Lord, increase our faith.” Jesus replied: “If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could say to that mulberry tree over there, be cast into the sea, and it would be done.” In Matthew Gospel, he tells them with that amount of faith, they could cast a mountain into the sea. Many Bible commentators believe that Jesus is referring the size of the mustard seed. (It is one of the smallest seeds you can find.) These scholars believe that Jesus is saying if you have only a little bit of faith, you can great things. That is a possible interpretation, but Jesus is constantly chiding his disciples for having such little faith that they are unable to do anything. So in making this comment about the mustard seed, I think he is talking about the quality of their faith, not its quantity. Though the mustard seed is tiny, it has the potential to grow into a huge bush. I will come back to our potential as disciples of our Lord at the end of my sermon. Right now it is sufficient to note that having made the statement about their faith, Jesus does not dwell on it. Rather, he immediately shifts gears by bringing into focus the attitude they should have as disciples. “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.”
This is another zinger Jesus lays on us. He has done that that for the last several weeks in our Gospel readings. What does Jesus mean by this latest one? Let me begin by stating clearly what he did not say: “You are worthless slaves, you did only what you ought to have done.” Absolutely not! In God’s eyes, we are like the pearl of great price. God loved each of us so much that He gave His Only Son that we might have eternal life! Rather he makes this statement as our response to God’s graciousness towards: “We are worthless, we have done only what we ought to have done.”
We have to understand what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel reading in light of the context of the readings we have heard during for the past several Sundays. Can you imagine, for example, the prodigal son, after he has been restored by his father, working in the field all day, and then coming in to the house and making dinner for his dad? When his dad thanks him, he says, “Dad you don’t have to thank me, I am a worthless servant, I only did what I was supposed to do.” I can see him say that because I think that is exactly how he would have felt.
Over my life-time I have witnessed some pretty dramatic conversions, former prostitutes, drug addicts, and persons caught in a life-time of crime? After their conversions, for the most part all of them have lived their lives with this attitude. They know what it means to be a sinner saved by grace.
But what about the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son? Can you imagine him having the internal feeling of a “sinner saved by grace?” I suspect it is also true for most of us here today as well. We verbalize this truth. We can accept it intellectually. But do we really feel this way deep in our bones? This was brought home to me forcefully at clergy conference. As we going forward to take communion, we sang “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” One of my clergy colleagues whispered in my ear, “I’ll never have that sung at my funeral, I’m no wretch!”
I was at fist startled by this response. But as I thought about it, it made sense. John Newton, the author of that hymn, had been a drunkard and a slave trader before his conversion. Afterwards he became a prominent minister in the Church of England. It is understandable why he would feel that way. In contract, most of us were born into Christian homes and have lived relatively decent productive lives. Yes, we may have sowed our wild oats as we were moving into adulthood, and screwed up a time or two since. But if we have a feeling we are worthless, it probably means, we grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, or that we had an abusive parent. We feel this way about ourselves, not because of what we have done that was wrong in the eyes of God, but rather because society or family has impressed that feeling upon us. It is the very opposite of what God feels about us and desires that we feel about ourselves.
Most of us were brought up in a context like the “elder brother” or the “rich man” in the parables I have been reflecting upon in recent Sundays. We have relatively healthy “self-concepts,” and we feel relatively good about what we have done with our lives. As I just said, we understand intellectually that we are “sinners’ saved by God’s grace—but should we have a feeling of being worthless? The answer is clearly “No!”
But if this is true, how does today’s gospel and the words of Jesus apply to us? Let us look again at the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus didn’t condemn the “elder brother” because he did experience the same path of his younger brother. Rather he was condemned we have a positive self-concept, how are we to understand what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel. It is simply this. Jesus didn’t condemn the elder brother because he didn’t follow the course of his younger sibling and blow his inheritance. Rather he was condemned because he could not rejoice when his younger brother came home. He had no empathy, he could not put himself in his brother’s shoes. Likewise, Jesus did not condemn the rich man because he was rich. Rather he was condemned because he failed to see in Lazarus a fellow brother who was in need and who he could help.
Our call as disciples of Jesus is to share the Gospel, that is the good news that we are all part of God’s family, and that we are called into this community of faith, called the Church, that we all might be transformed and see the world through God’s eyes. As that happens we are enabled to ever more effectively share this good news with others that they too might be transformed. In short our call to discipleship is a call to sharing in the calling of God’s chosen people, that we are called to be God’s people that through us we be a blessing to the whole world.
Finally, this call to discipleship is a call to stewardship rooted in the very story of creation. God has given each of us life, special giftedness and resources. We were given responsibility to care for all of these as faithful stewards. Next Sunday we begin our official Stewardship campaign. The theme I have chosen for this year is: “St. Paul’s Year of Jubilee.” The Hebrew scriptures tell us that every fifty years, there was a year of celebration. Old debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, land restored to families who had lost it. It was a year of looking back at what God had done in the life of the nation, it was a year of looking forward to what God had in store. Above all it was a year of celebration.
As most of you know, we will begin our Year of Jubilee on Sunday, December 11 when Bishop Smith comes for his annual visitation. It will end in January 2018 on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Throughout the year we will have a special focus each month. There will be celebrations of past successes. There will times of discernment and prayer as we seek together how God wants us to move into His future. But above all their will be many opportunities for each of us to some forward, offering to God, our time, our talents and our resources that will enable us to minister to one another and to those we encounter in our daily lives.
To return to today’s gospel each of us can see ourselves as a grain of mustard seed. But what great potential we have collectively as we offer ourselves to God asking him to use our time, our talents and the resources we offer to Him. He will take them and multiply them as He makes each of us a blessing to others. It is my prayer that the coming year will in fact become St. Paul’s Year of Jubilee!
And as we celebrate our 50th anniversary we can rejoice together but with a genuine feeling, Lord we are no heroes, we have done only what we ought to have done! Amen.