Duty, Luke 17:5-10
First United Methodist Church, October 6, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
We’ve been traveling along through the gospel of Luke, and Jesus has been teaching his disciples and others gathered around all along the way. We’re more than halfway through the gospel now, and for we who are reading the written down version, the stories follow one right after the other, and I’m guessing that for the disciples, that’s how it feels to them, as well. As they walk, as they pass through different communities, they encounter individuals and situations who provide the framework for even more stories, teachings and revelations about what it means to follow Jesus.
As we look back at their travels so far, we remember some places where the disciples have fallen short. When James and John and Peter were up on the mountain with Jesus and saw him transfigured, they wanted to stay up there—to build shelters for Jesus and Elijah and Moses –and just stay there on top of the mountain and enjoy this amazing moment forever! Then, when they descended the mountain, they discovered the other disciples hadn’t been able to cast a demon from a little boy. It wasn’t so long after that when they had argued among themselves as to which of them was the greatest. Then they had tried to stop the “strange exorcist” who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, followed soon after by an offer to incinerate a Samaritan village because they weren’t interested in welcoming them.
Jesus expressed his unhappiness on each of these occasions. He “rebuked” his disciples scriptures tells us, because sometimes they needed to hear that their first response to a situation wasn’t always the best response. Or at least not the response Jesus would desire from his followers.
We have to admit that sometimes we’re guilty of that, too. Our first response is to do one thing, and hopefully before taking that action, we realize that because we’re followers of Jesus, we’re called to a different response.
The disciples have been following Jesus every step of the way, and I imagine that the following has become more difficult over time. There was this “high” at first, that Jesus had invited them to join him, but the reality set in some time ago. He has expectations of them that requires changes in the way they look at the world and at one another. Loving in his name is more than offering a hug and a high five, it means stepping into the dark places of one’s own bias and prejudice, engaging in people’s lives that are messy/unclean, crossing barriers of politics and religion, letting go of some things they have held dear. The “following” is tough and it doesn’t come natural or easy.
Right before stepping into our reading of today’s scripture, Jesus has acknowledged to the disciples that “stumbling” is bound to happen. There will be trials and temptations in life, he tells them. Being a disciple doesn’t mean you receive a “pass” on the bad things that happen. But, “too bad,” he says for whoever brings about a trial for someone else—for the one who creates the problem in the first place! He tells his disciples that it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause a “little one” to stumble. By “little ones” Jesus is speaking of his followers, and most likely he’s including the poor and others who are vulnerable to abuse, as well. (Here’s a millstone. When you think of it as a necklace and being thrown into the sea it’s a pretty clear image of God’s judgement for being the cause of such a thing.)
Be on guard! Jesus says. Pay attention! Jesus warns.
If you see your brother or sister, your friend, another disciple (each of those options are offered in different translations) headed down the wrong road, you must rebuke the offender. There’s that word again! You must rebuke him, confront him, reprimand him. And if he/she repents, if he realizes what he’s doing and says he won’t do it again, you must forgive him. But not just once, oh, no. You must forgive him 7 times, which in Jesus language means you keep forgiving him. You don’t stop. Your friend is being a jerk, you’ve called him on it, he’s promised to change, but then he doesn’t. You’ve taken the risk and he’s folded, over and over again. And Jesus says keep forgiving him: over and over again.
No wonder the disciples turn to Jesus now and plead with him, Increase our faith. It’s too much. It’s more than we can do. Your expectations are beyond our abilities. You’re God, and we’re mortal, weak and imperfect human beings! Increase our faith so we can do this! Increase our faith so we’ll WANT to do this!
Jesus’ response is a word of comfort, I guess. “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`…”
Okay, here’s a mustard seed. Here’s a mulberry tree. It’s not a mulberry bush. Of course, we’d probably be pretty excited if we told a mulberry bush to be uprooted and that actually happened, but Jesus isn’t talking about something little and relatively insignificant. He’s talking about something big. But the big isn’t the disciple’s faith—that can be small, as long as it’s present. The big is what God can do with the little faith the disciple has.
It’s not the size of my faith and what I can do; it’s the size of my God and what God can do. God can work…God DOES work through the faith I have.
It is a word of encouragement, isn’t it? We tend to picture the giants of the faith as being able to do amazing things: Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley. But Jesus is telling us that amazing things can happen through those disciples who have fallen short several times, at least. God can do some amazing things through you and me.
I feel pretty small and insignificant sometimes. Maybe you do, too. And yet Jesus is telling us that God can work—can do big things through us.
Increase our faith, the disciples plead, and Jesus tells them a second story, about a man and his slave. Sometimes the story is called the “tired” servant, or the “dutiful” servant. If we look at what Jesus is saying out of context with the story of the mustard seed, it’s confusing. But considered alongside the story of the mustard seed, perhaps it can be a word of encouragement for us as well. Faith is like the day-in-day-out, ordinary dutiful service the servant provides to his or her master, rather than some highly-skilled, heroic sacrifice or brilliant theological understanding, teaching or preaching.
There are times when we might think that what God wants of us/what God demands of us is something dramatic, something amazing, something daring. As though, if you were a real Christian, you’d get on a plane and travel to Africa or Central America or somewhere like that and be a missionary. If you were a real Christian you’d be at the front of the march to the courthouse or to Washington DC or somewhere, demanding justice and being a part of a revolution to bring about the change that we know is needed in our world.
But maybe it’s helpful for us to be reminded this morning, that (#1) faith is not a matter of quantity. You only need a little to be faithful. And (#2), faithfulness, having faith, sowing faith is sometimes a simple, everyday matter of doing your duty.
I think that perhaps the most important things we do, we do out of habit. Some of us might say we’re here this morning out of habit. It’s just something we do. It’s a part of our lives and we can’t imagine not being here.
If I were to ask you why you pray, you might respond that you do it out of habit. It’s the way I was brought up, you might say. It’s just what I do. I pray big prayers and I pray breath prayers, I do it out of habit.
Perhaps you contribute financially to the church out of habit, perhaps you usher out of habit, or serve on a ministry team out of habit, sing in the choir, because that’s just what you do. That’s who you are. Maybe you volunteer out of habit, serve in the community out of habit. That’s just what you do and who you are.
Jesus tells us that it’s the little things we do. It’s quite possible that God calls you to something bigger and greater, and that’s an amazingly cool thing, too! Don’t limit yourself if God is calling you to do something big! But sometimes the great, spectacular acts of faithfulness are easier to accomplish than the ordinary, everyday, week in, week out duties you do out of habit.
A pastor shared about an inner-city church where he used to serve where many homeless people used their porches for shelter in the evenings. They tried to get them to go to more suitable lodging at the urban ministries center. For whatever reason, they refused and continued to spend nights in their porticoes.
When there were activities at the church on weekends, particularly on Sunday mornings, there was trash, drug paraphernalia, and other leftovers from the night before. They didn’t have janitorial service on the weekend, so people arriving at church had to step through the trash to get in the church door.
They discussed what to do. Some said they ought prohibit homeless people from finding shelter on their porches. Others argued that doing that would be a violation of the purpose of the church. They were in a real quandary.
One Sunday, the pastor became aware that when he entered the church, there wasn’t any trash in the entryways. It had disappeared. He asked the janitor if he was coming in weekends to tidy up the entryways, but he said no, he wasn’t.
A few weeks later, arriving early to church one Sunday morning, the pastor noticed one of his older members with a trash bag, going down the sidewalk in front of the church picking up trash. The pastor praised the woman. Told her what a great gift she was giving the church.
She seemed embarrassed that she’d been caught in her act of goodness. “There are so few things I can give to this church, particularly now that I am not longer working. I’ve found that if I bring these men some coffee, they even help me with the cleanup. I’ve learned their names and they call me ‘the little old lady from the church.’ We have quite a time here on Sundays. This isn’t much, but this much I can do.”
As Jesus says, you don’t have to have much faith; just a little will do. You take and use however much faith God has given you. You do what you can with what you have. That’s faith enough. By the grace of God we’re able to say, “This isn’t much, but this much I can do.”
This much I can do.
God will do a good thing through you. Through each of us. Together.