Servants of the Servant (Lamentations 1:1-6; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10)
It seems that, of late, the Revised Common Lectionary is assigning very difficult passages. I am constantly surprised how many difficult things Jesus said. They do seem to make the life of discipleship hard.
I might also add, that at first sight, you may have wondered how the Old Testament lesson fits together with the two from the New Testament. Well, it does, sort of, but through the back door. One of the difficulties in the Book of Lamentations for many people today, is that it’s such a downer. All five of the poems that make it up are sad. And, at least to watch television and read magazines, newspapers, and online materials, many of us will do almost anything, take almost any drug, pay for almost any therapy, to avoid being sad. I know some professional counselors who think that one of their primary tasks is to keep people from getting, or being, sad. Look, sometimes, we should be sad. Sad things happen and sadness is appropriate, and people need to be given space to be appropriately sad.
The subject of all of these poems is the loss of meaningful personhood, and specifically the destruction of the national centre of Hebrew identity, Jerusalem, which was burned by Babylon in 586 BCE. Why shouldn’t the response to such sad things be sad? Out of the pain and sadness of loss and estrangement, loneliness and despair, the singers of these songs called to God to notice Jerusalem. Some of the words that the poet used to describe the condition of the people in Jerusalem are “lonely, widowed, vassal, weeping, alone, discomforted, betrayed, exiled, suffering, servile, weary, distressed, mourning, desolate, groaning, grieving, bitter, captive, sinful, weakened, and pursued.” Not a happy word in the lot. So, OK, let them be sad, but the question is, “Why should we read of such old unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago?” (As Wordsworth wrote.) Is there not joy in serving Jesus? Can we not just stick to upbeat stuff in church so we can all go away feeling good about ourselves? Will God not, then, have done the job we have desired of God? Or, is it possible that such a book of inky, icy midnight provides us with insight into the context for the faith and service to which both New Testament lessons call us?
I am not suggesting that most people (whether Christian or not) are miserable and lamenting. Some are, of course, because their lives are just awful in this culture that cares mostly about externals, winners, and money. For others, however, the loss of a sense of centeredness, and of identity is so subtle, they aren’t aware of it. There is a thirst for spirituality that is alive and thriving among folks who wouldn’t think of darkening the door of any house of worship, and whose spirituality does all it can not to be very religious, much less Christian. I think it a hopeful sign that many are, at least, recognizing that questions of meaning and belonging in life are important. And yet there seems a disconnection, in many, from the source of their identity and life, and there is a thirst for reconnection with something greater than individualistic consumerism. I find in this the stirrings of God’s Spirit among us.
The faith-gifts that young Timothy was invited to stir up and rekindle in his life had to function in an environment in which Christian faith was the confession of very few. In that kind of a context, God was not calling Timothy to have a spirit of cowardice, but of “power, love, and self-discipline.” Such a spirit would be necessary in that context – and I believe in ours, although when we are in the majority we will need to take care that such a thing as “power” is not simply a mask for aggression. Many of us here this morning can share in Timothy’s heritage of faith. Godly parents and grandparents are an immense blessing if we have had them. But, they do not substitute for fanning our own God given gifts and talents into flame for our context today and tomorrow. We are not called on to have our grandparents’ faith, but our own for our day. That’s harder. It is important to guard the good treasure of tradition that has been entrusted to us, but that does not mean hoarding that tradition and simply repeating old words. It means translating the tradition into meaningful words for today, coupled with a demonstration of those new words in flesh and blood. We have to make sense in our world. Who is up to such things? Do we not want to join with the apostles in Luke’s Gospel in saying “Increase our faith”? If we’re going to have to be up to fanning those gifts that God has given us into flame for our context in the world now, then, we think, we need more faith.
Today Luke’s Gospel has woven together two sayings of Jesus that were probably independent of one another into a charge to congregational leaders (called apostles in the text). He further prefaced these two with two other independent sayings of Jesus that describe the communities of disciples led by these leaders. The first two statements recognize that faith communities are places where the inevitability of human mistakes is taken for granted, and dealt with by both mutual accountability and a deep and repeated willingness to forgive those who change their values, which is what “repentance” means. Of course this means letting the past go. Well, even more than a minute ago, if this is the kind of community of which we’re called to be a part, or even to lead, who wouldn’t say, “Lord, increase our faith”?
So, how did Jesus actually respond to people who say they need an increase in their faith quotient? His response was:
If you have 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.
This statement is usually taken as a rebuke by Jesus that these so-called apostles didn’t have enough faith to fill a thimble, but it’s not. In Greek we can tell whether Jesus meant to say “If you had a little faith (and you don’t)…” or “If you have a little faith (and you do)…” It’s the latter here. Jesus is not rebuking them for what they don’t have, but encouraging them for what they do. He’s saying that faith is not mainly quantitative, but qualitative. Faith is not like a substance that you can simply get more of; rather it’s an openness to the working of God’s powerful love in the world. Jesus is telling those leaders in the community of disciples that the faith they have makes impossible things possible because it isn’t about us, it’s about God and what God is up to. It’s at this point that the Greek sentence begins to admit some doubt. Is even the apostles’ trust in Jesus deep enough to be patient and persistent to see impossible things happen? Is it possible that our trust in God through Jesus and our patience is deep enough here at First Baptist to see some things happen that are surprising?
If Jesus isn’t after a bunch of religious kooks screaming at mulberry trees, “Go jump in the sea,” what is he after? Verses 7-10 are difficult for us to grasp because they come out of such a different culture in which different social roles were accepted. For many folk who have been oppressed and disenfranchised, is Jesus here calling for a return from self-respect to being considered, and considering oneself “a worthless slave”? Let me be clear. No.
All persons need to sense that their person and their work are valued and that people are grateful for what they are and do. If we do not do that in the Church, then we miss one of our mutual responsibilities. The question is, “How can we move this text on, so that it’s not trapped in a culture we really don’t want to have much to do with”? How can we grasp what our Jesus is saying today when we don’t think slavery is OK?
Let’s try it this way: Do we expect to prepare lunch for our letter carrier day by day? Is it normal practice for us to cook breakfast for the city garbage collectors when they come by on their trucks? Is it our normal expectation that we’ll be whipping up a snack for courier service? Not really. We expect these people to do their work. It’s not a matter of who’s better or worse, it’s a matter of “It’s their job.” No extra perks for doing the job.
Just so, Jesus says to church leaders (and normal garden variety Christians), “Your job is to model Jesus’ kind of love and service to the world.” “Remember your role in the world.” “I, your Lord and Master am among you as one who serves,” Jesus says (Luke 22:27). “And, even if it were possible to get one of those giant faith-infusions you were talking about, it would still not make you more than a conduit of the love and grace of the God who came in Christ, and washed the dirty feet of peasants.” That’s our job; to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
This also gives us insight into the words from the Epistle: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but of power, and love, and self-discipline.” Jesus is saying to those who would be his disciples (and leaders among them) that God has given us the power to serve in love, to empower others, and to discipline ourselves not to take on the role of lording it over others who may be less mature in their faith than we. Of course, to Christian leaders (professional and otherwise) this statement absolutely prohibits thinking of ourselves as CEO’s in the church. It’s simply not on. At best, leaders in the body are servants of the servants of the Servant of God.
That’s it! None of us ever get to the place where we say, “Well, I’ve done my quota, I’m on time and a half now, I’ve earned my bonus.” What God gives, God gives. It is not a reward for what we have done. It is a gift of grace. We are called upon first to understand that, literally, to stand under that grace. We are, then, called to stand up and stare up, in awe, into that heavenly love. Then, we are called on to imitate that grace and that love that emptied itself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
As we come to share the Love Feast of the Lord on this World Communion Sunday, let us rededicate ourselves to God’s service in the world. Let us also be grateful for the service we do mutually for one another, and let us not be afraid to say “Thank you,” to one of your sisters or brothers, even today.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.