A Sermon for 2 October 2016 – World Communion Sunday
A reading from the gospel of Luke 17:1-10. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 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. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 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.” 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!’”
And a reading of Psalm 137. Listen for God’s word to us.
“By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Rocks tie these texts together today. Millstones hung around necks that sink to the bottom in an instant. And big, immovable ones that are best for the dashing against. Harsh feelings cause such fateful acts. A desire for retribution because heinous things have been done. It’s exactly why the Psalmist’s lament is filled with those shocking words. “Happy shall they be who do the unspeakable to your little babies!” (paraphrase of Psalm 137:9) The words seethe with hateful vengeance over the exile to Babylon. . . . In that context, maybe we can understand such sentiments. I mean, who among us too can tell a story about a time we were hurt so deeply by another, that we really wanted to lash out? Who here hasn’t stood stuck in the muck that makes for a bitter grudge? Has your spirit ever been shattered? Maybe a significant other pledged faithfulness, but strayed. Maybe a sibling has put your parents through high waters. Maybe due to the unthinkable, the earth-shattering, the awful that we’ve experienced in our lives: we close our hearts. The wall grows taller. We are too weary to trust again and again and again. . . . And these just are situations between people who know each other – not anything quite as destructive as the exile when Jerusalem was ransacked, burned to the ground, and the people carted off for the next seventy years to the distant land of their invaders. What about when nations clash today? What about when races can’t find a way forward? What about when one group seeks to hold back another for eons? How are we to live together pain after pain after pain?
If you were listening closely to the gospel reading of Luke, then you heard Jesus’ disciples declare: “O Jesus, increase our faith!” . . . That’s what the apostles said when Jesus told them the truth about life together. According to the text, it’s the context of the infamous: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree” – by the way, it’s a mulberry tree in Luke, not a mountain as in Matthew’s gospel. So you could say to this great big tree: “be uprooted and re-plant yourself in the sea” (Luke 17:6). . . . At the beginning of chapter 17, Jesus states: “Occasions for stumbling will come. . . . If another sins,” Jesus says, “tell them so.” I always like to add, “Just please be gentle when pointing out my mess ups.” I mean, “Log in your own eye,” remember (Matthew 7:3)? . . . We are told to forgive. To practice being ready – at all times – to receive back into the fold one who repents – one who turns to say, “I am sorry;” not only in words but in changed behavior too. We’re even to forgive the same person seven times in one whole day if it comes to that! . . . So be honest with yourself: is there a more appropriate response to such a charge than, “Lord, increase our faith!”
We’re human beings. Continuing in communion, as our Christ commands here, is tough stuff. Because, of course, that’s just it: all people in the whole wide world are human beings. We are not error-free. We all sin by separating ourselves from God and each other – sometimes intentionally and sometimes without us even knowing it at all. With the professional theologians, we can scratch our heads all through the day wondering about God’s original creation. We can expend great energy trying to parse out if sin is our natural state or not – which seems to be contrary to Scripture’s witness. After all, – Genesis 1 professes that the Creator declared it and us all good! Very, very good! (Gen. 1:31) . . . Still: “occasions for stumbling are bound to come.” We’re not supposed to try to do it. We’re supposed to do our best. We are supposed to aim for right-relationship between us and each other and the whole of the world – no separation between ourselves and others. But it happens. Jesus knows. God knows. Why do we expect otherwise? Whether one trips over their own two feet, or deliberately orchestrates an elaborate fall, no human being in this whole wide world is perfect. If we’re going to be in community, we’re going to have to find a way. . . . Jesus might as well simply say, “You will be hurt. And you will hurt.” Certainly God doesn’t want it like that. Still, such tumbles will happen. As servants of the unconditionally merciful God, we are to be ready to do our part. Seek to walk right. Rebuke gently when needed. Turn around to start again. And always forgive. There just cannot be community – will not be real community – without such forbearance.
Be certain to understand that Jesus is NOT saying that in community, anything goes. We were not created to be doormats. Every action is not okay – and some things that are okay at one time and place are not in another. At the same time, Jesus is NOT insinuating that we roll over to play dead by pretending that the pain caused by sin simply isn’t felt. It’s real. It hurts. Why do you think we have Psalm 137 with the blessing of those who bring an end forever to the ones who brought an end to us? It’s not there to justify our thirst for vengeance. It’s there to remind us that this relationship with God stuff is real. It’s about who we really are and how we really feel. Every last emotion that wells up within us is to be brought to our God. Nothing separates us from God’s love. That rage we feel is our signal that for us something has been violated. The Psalmist knew that. The issue is: how are we going to act after such damaging violations? . . . As an example: say so and so really screws up. Either we point it out to them, or they come to realize their mistake on their own. They stand ready to begin again – ready to turn around and act differently. Will we forgive? Will we do what forgiveness is: freely give grace to another so that reconciliation can begin? . . . According to Luke’s Jesus, even if it’s seven times in one whole day, “you must forgive” (Luke 17:4). In other words, forgiveness is a practice. One might even say it’s a spiritual discipline. Do you get it? Sometimes it takes practicing forgiveness repeatedly; choosing to release that bitter, begrudging desire within over and over and over until we can freely give grace to someone for the one thing they did that we just can’t seem to let go. Depending on the particular violation, we might have to wake up every morning and before we even set foot on the floor, we might have to plead: “O Lord, before I awake and let the bitterness I hold against so and so creep in, increase my faith right now!” That is what life together demands. And they say it only takes 21 times of doing something before it becomes a habit. So forgive that sin today and tomorrow and the next day for 21 times until the defenses in your heart breakdown and release that person for that particular act.
Of course, we’d like to remind Jesus that even if we’re busy gently pointing out each others’ transgressions in rebuke, not everyone comes to us ready to turn things around. Not everyone repents, right? Then what? Even if the transformation of reconciled life together never will take place, can we still forgive? Must we still forgive? . . . I love the artwork I think I’ve mentioned before as it’s been such a powerful illustration for me. It’s of two sets of chains in a dark, dank dungeon hanging free. The title reads: forgiveness. Ponder that a moment. Two sets of chains hang free. One was for the person we were convinced deserves it because of their hurtful actions. The other set was locked around us; the ones whose lives were just as mangled by life-squelching bondage because we refused to release our clutch upon the one who wronged us. That’s the most amazing thing about forgiveness – maybe reconciliation will not come because another refuses to change their behavior. Nonetheless, forgiveness can go forth. It must. We have to let go of the desire to punish another. For without such release, we are not free to be the ones Jesus sends out.
Is there any better message – even if it’s quite a challenge one – for us this day on World Communion Sunday? Jesus’ teachings on life together. . . . If we can practice it here among us, maybe those beyond the sanctuary walls will begin to see it too. Like the pebble falling into the water that sends ripples far beyond its reach, maybe our little bit of faithfulness will spread to the farthest corners of the world – showing another way. Servants of a magnificently merciful God, keep at it. Even the tiniest bit of faith will help us find the way.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2016 (All rights reserved.)