Sunday, October 3, 2010
19th Sunday After Pentecost
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" 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.
"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? 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!'"
If I’m going to be honest with you, my first reaction to this Gospel reading was to get really annoyed. I don't need this. I don't think you need this. We don't need to be told that we don’t have enough faith. We don't need to be told that we are only worthless slaves. We don't need to work our tails off and try to be the best people we can and turn to Jesus and have him say "What do you want, a medal?" And that’s what this Gospel felt like when I first read it. Like Jesus was berating me and beating me up. And I just wasn’t in the mood.
And then I looked a little closer at the reading, and I noticed a couple things. The first is the Greek word that is translated as “worthless” doesn’t really mean that. It doesn’t mean “having no value” but rather “those to whom nothing is owed.” Now that’s a big difference. Jesus isn’t saying we should view ourselves as worthless … but as not being owed anything. We shouldn’t have a sense of entitlement because of our status or our accomplishments.
You might not know it because the lectionary skipped over it, but this reading follows closely on the heels of the parable of the Prodigal Son … and there is no more poignant story in all of scripture of God’s boundless love for us no matter what we do. We’re not worthless. We are infinitely valuable … but we shouldn’t feel like God or the universe or anybody owes us anything. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as better than anyone else.
In fact if there’s a theme that runs through this section of Luke it’s just that … that God’s love for us is infinite and that it doesn’t fit into human categories. We are the lost coin that the woman searches for, the lost sheep that the shepherd leaves the 99 to go after. We are the prodigal son who told his father “I wish you were dead” and for whom his dad still killed the fatted calf. But lest we think we have any special place because of who we are, what position we held, what family we were born into or where we went to high school, Jesus lets us know in no uncertain terms the answer is no. He does this by embracing and eating with and loving those whom the world rejects the most, the poor, the weak, the sick and the lame.
In Luke, Jesus draws a distinction between how he sees us and how the world sees us. The world measures us by race and class and job and talent. By how successful we are or how productive we are or how much we can contribute. Jesus looks on us and sees only the image of God, infinitely beautiful but also infinitely gifted because the love that is the heart of being the image of God is the most powerful force in the universe. Jesus looks on each one of us and sees someone who really could uproot a mulberry tree or move mountains … if only we could for even a second see ourselves as Christ sees us. If only we could have faith.
And that’s the second thing I noticed … that word, faith. It’s not about believing something up here. The better translation of the word is trust. And so what’s really happening here is that Jesus, who looks at each one of us and sees deep beauty and amazing power, is really just saying, “Trust me.” Trust that the way I see you is who you really are. Trust that you can let go of all the other ways you have of defining yourself. Trust that you can let go of all the labels that other people use to define you. Trust that you can believe you are lovable just for who you are and not for what you produce. Trust me, Jesus says.
And it’s so true. When we trust Jesus just a little bit. When we believe we are the person Christ sees us as and not the box the world tries to cram us into, the possibilities are literally endless. But that “little bit of faith,” that “little bit of trust” is so incredibly difficult. And we’re so afraid to do it.
My friend John Ohmer’s favorite story is of a woman who was out for a hike in the mountains. She slipped, and fell off the path, and started to tumble down a cliffside but at the last second was able to grab onto the root of a tree. She was hanging there swinging back and forth … a couple hundred yards below her jagged rocks, everything above her smooth rock face, no way to climb back up. She didn’t consider herself particularly religious, but she was in a terrible spot, so she looks up to heaven and says, “IS ANYONE UP THERE?”
Much to her surprise, the clouds part and she hears a voice say, “It is I, the Lord God of the Universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are my beloved child; have no fear. You need only to let go.”
She looks back down at the rocks, looks back up to heaven and says, “Is anyone ELSE up there?”
I don’t care whether you’re 8 years old or 80. We’ve all been shaped by powerful messages that tell us that our worth is tied up in how much we produce or how beautiful we are or what color our skin is or how much money we make or what gender we’re attracted to or, yes, where we went to high school. We all had the music teacher who told us we couldn’t sing or the coach who told us we couldn’t play or the boy or girl who wouldn’t go out with us if we were the last person on earth. And those messages – good and bad – defined us and in many ways became self-fulfilling prophecies. We became who they said we were. Because we believed them, we trusted them. And because we’ve spent our whole life trusting those voices, we are convinced they are all there is. And that if we let go of them, if we stop listening to them, we will be rejected and ridiculed and bullied and all those things that we have been carefully trying to avoid all our lives that make those jagged rocks at the bottom of the cliff seem like a pit full of feather pillows.
And yet in this place, in this community, we hear another voice. We hear the voice of Jesus, who sees us as God sees us … as not owed anything, as not any better or worse than anyone else, but also as infinitely worthy, infinitely lovable, and infinitely capable. And that voice says, “Trust me!” “If you could trust me even this much …. If you could see yourself even this much as I see you … if you could let go even a little bit of those other voices that have shaped you and of which you live in such deep fear … if you could do that, you would not believe what amazing things you could do.”
That is the community we get to be for each other. A community that looks at each other as God sees us. Who sees the extraordinary and the beautiful that the world cannot or maybe simply just will not see. A community that knows the truth of what our friend Becca Stevens says, that the love that is in each one of us is the most powerful source for social change in the world, but more than that, that love heals … and that we are not called to change the world. We’re just given the gift of the chance to love it.
What message are you holding onto that is holding you back from letting God love you and letting you love the world? How can you turn to the person next to you and help them see themselves as God sees them, as amazing and beautiful and gifted? How can we together have the courage to trust that the only social category that matters is child of God, and that because that’s what we all are, there is no limit to the wonders that we can do.