Pentecost 17

Isn’t it a bit ironic that today, as we get ready to acknowledge the work of our volunteers here in the church and give thanks for their dedication, we find ourselves with this passage where Jesus reminds us that we are all undeserving servants who should have more faith, could do more, and even if we give our best, who should not expect any reward because we would do only our duty by giving our everything?

Well, to tell you the truth, I started my ministry in a church that relied a lot on the work of volunteers as that congregation had an important outreach ministry, and that was the belief of the rector who used to say: In our church, we don’t thanks volunteers because what they do, they do it for God, so they should not expect any reward. And you know I thought about what he said, as I started serving as an ordained person, and I thought: Of course, what we do we do it for God, for one another, and not for a prize or even to make people like us or feel indebted to us – we do that out of the generosity of our own heart. But in the same time, Jesus never taught us to be ungrateful. Not to God of course, but not even to one another. On the other way around, gratefulness is a sure way to find joy and love, and even if we should be first thankful to God, how can we learn this thankfulness if we aren’t able to be first thankful to one another?

So today we’re going to say thanks to all of you who give so much to this place – especially to you the volunteers at the thrift store on the occasion of its 10th anniversary. In the meantime, I think we are invited to dig a little deeper in this passage of the Gospel, and try to understand what it’s really about. To do that, we have to have a look at its context, and come back a few verses before what we’ve just heard. What Jesus does in this chapter of Luke is that he is teaching the disciples about forgiveness, about “not becoming a stumbling block for others” by judging them, condemning them and excluding them. This is what Jesus says (right before our passage):

Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2 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 one of these little ones to stumble. 3 Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4 And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

Well, I think we know that only too well, stumbling blocks. People who profess to believe in God but who aren’t that nice, not that welcoming, not that loving, not that accepting, not that forgiving. It’s not anything new. A lot of believers were like that at Jesus’s time, and Jesus had very tough words for this kind of people. Indeed, he said, if you profess to believe in God but if you condemn your own brother and sister, it would be better if a millstone was hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea – meaning:it would be less harmful, less destructive for everyone – even for you – because at least, you wouldn’t lose your soul.

The more I read the Gospel, the more I think that with Jesus, we can almost “get away” with anything…anything, except one: hardness of heart and hypocrisy, that goes with it. The hard of heart and the hypocrites, that’s the kind of believers Jesus wants his disciples to never become, because that is the surest way to turn oneself and everybody else away from God.

That’s our responsibility, you know. If we profess to believe in God, if we proclaim the Gospel, we are here to lead people to Christ, but the downside is that if we are unwelcoming and unforgiving Christians, we will certainly turn them away too. It’s not so much science, philosophy or even atheism that turn people against God, it’s bad religion and mean believers.

And so – this is in this context that the disciples ask Jesus to increase in them their faith, their personal faith and their faith as a community.

So they ask about a special kind of faith. Not the faith that makes us certain about the articles of the Creed, not the faith that makes us so perfect that we’d never do anything wrong, it’s the faith that enables to rebuke and denounce sin, the faith that enables us to demand justice and repentance, the faith that enables us to forgive and look for reconciliation. The disciples need a faith that would enable them to do the hard work of love – and so do we.

To speak about this faith, it’s interesting that Luke talks about removing a mulberry tree. In all the other versions of this saying, that we find in Mark and Matthew and also in Paul, Jesus speaks about a mountain, and we know that expression, right? “The faith that moves mountains”. Well, actually, Jesus was talking about a very specific mountain: Mt Zion, which was the mountain were the Temple was, were the sacrifices for forgiveness were offered. And so basically what Jesus is saying when he says that if we’d have faith, we could throw this mountain (Zion) into the sea is this: if you had faith, you would not need to offer sacrifices for forgiveness, you would be able to forgive out of your own heart – as Jesus did himself for us on the cross. That’s the mountain we have to move. If you ever had to rebuke someone and ask for justice, if you ever had to forgive someone who hurt you really deeply, if you ever had to take the first step toward reconciliation even if you knew you weren’t wrong, or on the other way around, if you ever had to acknowledge how badly you may have behaved, you know what Jesus is talking about: Doing those things feels like moving a mountain or, at least, uprooting a tree.

The faith that moves mountain is not the faith that makes all our dreams come true or makes us win the lottery. Jesus is talking about the faith that deals with all the traps and obstacles of the evil one, the faith that gets rid of evil. It’s the faith that melt our toughness of heart. Because Jesus will give us the power to love beyond anything we can imagine, even if our faith is only as big as a mustard seed to start with.

That’s hard work. But that’s our work as Christians – that’s our only work maybe. Our mission is to bring reconciliation in a broken world. Reconciliation between races, social classes, countries, bringing reconciliation in families, with other living creatures, reconciliation with our planet earth. There is no greatest thing we can do in our lives than working for reconciliation….and life will provide us with many, many opportunities to expose evil, rebuke it, work for justice, forgive those who offended us, ask for forgiveness – because of course, we need to start with our own hearts. We often understand fighting evil as as going on a crusade against the evildoers, yet most of the time, it’s about fighting first our own toughness of heart.

Yes, there is plenty of work to be done in the church, and we are all very aware of that, and so many of you give so much time and energy to do this work. The Gospel reminds us today that the most important work we have to do in the church is to work on our own hearts.

And so in the end, I think this is what Jesus is really talking about when he talks about worthless slaves doing only their duty. Working on our own hearts, that’s just what we are supposed to do, but we are not worthless slaves in the eyes of God, Jesus kept reminding us we are God’s children, we are worthless slaves to sin, and our job is to be freed from sin. Indeed, we should not wait for any other reward than that: freedom from sin and ability to love truly and deeply. Slaves don’t expect any reward for their work, what they really want is to be free, right?

The good news is that, as opposed to the slaves in the parable, we have a good Master who comes to serve us at the table each time our work is done – who feeds us every Sunday in the Eucharist. Speaking about irony, I love the irony of Jesus asking his disciples whose Master would ever serve his salves, when he actually did just that – washed their feet and gave them food on the last supper, as a foretaste of the eternal banquet, those realities we both remember and anticipate in our liturgy when we share communion.

The good news is that we don’t have to do the hard work of love on our own. The good news is that Jesus is willing to provide the mustard seed of faith in our hearts, if only we are willing to sit at the table. And then we may discover what our job is all about. Yes, there is a lot to be done in our churches, lots of practical realities, humble things like sweeping the floor, watering the garden, paying the bills – or running a thrift store. Yet as we do that, we learn how to be together, we learn to be a community, we learn to let Christ use what we do to bless others and to change our hearts and this is indeed our best work and this is indeed our reward. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *