Rev. Jeff Bacon
October 6, 2019
Let’s open our hearts together in prayer. Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, open our hearts and fill us with faith, through the presence of your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Today we celebrated communion in the way that Jesus taught us, with all of the important parts of the ancient liturgy. And in that liturgy, we’ve heard how Jesus taught his disciples about God’s unconditional love for us and our call to be faithful servants.
At first glance, the passage from Luke this morning seems to contradict this message with Jesus chastising his disciples for asking him to increase their faith. Jesus rebukes them with the wonderful things they might be able to do with faith the size of a mustard seed. Then Jesus launches into a seemingly unrelated dialogue about masters and slaves and how a slave should do their job without expecting any thanks from their master.
Jesus hits on some tender subjects with both parts of his teaching. First, we can relate to the disciples wanting Jesus to increase their faith. The disciples recognize that faith is a dynamic process and that we can grow in faith. They also recognize that faith is not just a matter of their own strength and willpower: they need Jesus’ help. But Jesus continues with an unusual mixed metaphor. The mustard seed is notoriously small and the mulberry tree is notoriously large and deep rooted. If the disciples have faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, the deep-rooted mulberry tree will obey them and “be uprooted and planted in the sea.” Wow!
And then second, Jesus shifts to the situation of a poor slave, working all day plowing or tending sheep, and at the end of a hard day’s work, having to prepare supper for his master. Jesus asks a rhetorical question that starts “Who among you would say to your slave …” and then he outlines the normal expectations for a slave following the orders of the master. The slave would obviously not eat before the master and no thanks are necessary for a slave following orders. It’s just expected. And relating as masters, the expected response to Jesus’ rhetorical question is, “Of course not, no one would do that!” But then Jesus flips the parable around so that the disciples are supposed to identify with the slaves who are owed nothing and have done only what they ought to have done.
We’re raised to follow orders: obeying our parents, our school teachers, and the police; and obeying written laws, rules, and unwritten customs. We’re also raised to acknowledge and reward following orders. We reward our children for following orders. We even reward our dogs for following orders!
Arabian horses are trained rigorously in the middle eastern deserts to follow orders. This obedience is tested by depriving the horses of water for many days and then turning them loose near water. As the horses get to the edge of the water, and just before they drink, the master blows his whistle. If the horses have learned to obey, they turn around and immediately come back to the master who then gives them as much water as they need. The master knows what his horses need and they must learn to trust him completely.
Jesus is upset with his disciples for asking him to increase their faith because faith is not a commodity that can be given, or that you can get more of, or somehow save up. Faith is like trust that must be developed and grown from within. The disciples need to understand that faith is a state of openness that enables God to work in their lives in ways that defy ordinary human experience. Even with a little faith, they can accomplish great and wondrous things!
Then, with an understanding of faith as a prerequisite, Jesus uses the common household relationship between masters and slaves to describe how faith and servanthood work together. Biblical household slaves are better understood today as servants or like a person hired on a regular basis to clean the house or to cut the grass. Jesus’ point is that when the servant has done their job, it doesn’t place the homeowner under any obligation to provide them with a special reward. The word that’s translated “thank” in “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” doesn’t mean a verbal expression of gratitude, but something that places the master in the debt of the slave. So, by following orders, the servant does not place the homeowner in their debt.
The master/slave allegory is about the disciples’ relationship with God. By doing what they have been called to do by God, the disciples don’t place God in their debt. They shouldn’t expect special rewards for doing the job that they’ve been called to do: to love God and their neighbours; to spread the good news of the gospel; and to heal the minds, bodies and spirits of those in need. In stark contrast with the Pharisees, Jesus opposes any suggestion that obedience might be construed as a means to gain favour with God or to receive some special reward.
We’re faithful servants serving others. It’s not through our own strength that we serve, it’s only through faith in God who loves us more than we can imagine. In one of the greatest signs of love and humble servant-hood, on the night of his arrest and their last communion meal together, Jesus knelt before each of his disciples and washed their feet. Faith inspires us to do great things, but also to kneel as faithful servants.
Faith is a very real, but intangible thing, like love. They say that love is blind because it’s not driven from the rational part of our brain, but from an inner emotional part of us, like the heart, that’s difficult to explain. Faith is similar.
One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness; and he was afraid to jump off the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I’ll catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”
The boy jumped, because he trusted his father and followed his orders. The boy wasn’t thanked for following orders, but he sure was hugged in the loving embrace of his father who saved him. The Christian faith enables us to face life or meet death, not because we can see, but with the certainty that we are seen; not because we know all the answers, but with the certainty that we are known.
We open our hearts in prayer and we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives. It’s more than symbolic. The bread and the wine of communion are on one level symbolic, but on another level, they’re more than symbolic: they’re very real opportunities to be in communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In God’s unconditional love, we’re called to be faithful servants and we celebrate by sharing the same communion meal of bread and wine that Jesus shared with his disciples in the upper room. It’s our great thanksgiving for God’s love and grace in which we base our faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.