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Our Place at the Table

Luke 17:5-10

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Mount Berry Church, Berry College, Georgia

October 7, 2007 (27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C)

Sometimes it can be a bit disconcerting to learn how those we care about view us. Any parent who has ever had a child bring home a picture that they’ve drawn at school is fully aware of this principle. Children draw what they see, with no fear of how their perceptions of us might hurt our feelings. I vividly remember learning this lesson as a child when, in first grade, I chose to draw a picture of my teacher. She was around eight months pregnant at the time, and I chose to draw her from a side profile. In an attempt to be helpful, I even labeled the picture at the bottom “Mrs. Longcrier, from the side.” It was the only time I ever got a frowny face from her on one of my artistic efforts.

Even when something is true or fair, most of us would prefer that it be tempered with a little bit of tact or affection. If nothing else, we assume that being tactful is the “Christian” thing to do. Today’s gospel reading, however, may undercut that assumption somewhat. In the first chapter of Luke, Jesus reminds us of exactly how Holy God sees us, and Jesus is not exactly subtle about the reminder.

If you look a few verses above where out text begins, starting at the beginning of Chapter seventeen, you can see what prompts the discussion. Jesus is speaking to his disciples, his close followers who will eventually found the Christian church. He tells them first that it would be better to suffer an excruciating death than to cause a weak sister or brother to stumble on their Christian journey.

With that in mind, Jesus warns the disciples that they have to be on a constant lookout to see if a fellow believer is falling short of the standard that Jesus has set for the Kingdom of God. This is important advice, since Jesus has already warned them that a fate worse than death awaits those who interfere with the spiritual growth of one of their fellow disciples.

That seems harsh, but there’s a word of grace as well. Jesus goes on to say that if a person repents after the disciples have corrected him or her, then the disciples should forgive that person. If the person does it over and over again, the disciples are obligated to keep forgiving them – apparently indefinitely.

Allow me to bring up the analogy of parenting again, for a moment. I know parents who seem to have applied this text to their parenting, and I see them on the playground at my son’s school all the time. Little Susie flings a ball at her father’s head. He tells her not to do that. She says, “Sorry!” Her dad says, “OK.” She throws the ball at his head again. He says not to do it. She says, “Sorry!” and the cycle repeats. After a few rounds, I usually start to be concerned that the parent involved has been hit so many times on the head that they are now brain damaged and have forgotten how to discipline their child.

It’s not just elementary school children who tend to repeat the same obnoxious behaviors over and over again, unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise. Living in Atlanta, it’s interesting to watch the aggressive drivers repeatedly force their way into crowded lanes, assuming that some generous soul will slam on the brakes and let them in. I’ve noticed that such drivers are invariably fairly young, and my theory is that this kind of inconsiderate behavior persists until someone plows into you – which is bound to happen eventually. Those that live through the crash are more likely to correct the behavior.

But until something like that happens – until a ball is taken away or an insurance premium goes up – we humans are prone to persist in our obnoxious behaviors. I asked my wife to provide additional examples of this principle, but all the ones she mentioned concerned me so we’ll skip those.

With those other examples in mind, Jesus’ advice seems like a really bad idea. Forgiving people over and over just turns you into a doormat, and in fact people have often used texts like this one to justify staying in abusive relationships. That is not the focus of this passage, and using it in such a way is just another form of abuse.

Jesus, however, is not talking about individual relationships or the people who use them to wound other people. Jesus is talking about his vision for the Christian community, and the grace that we must constantly extend to those who seek the Church’s forgiveness. Church is not a sanctuary for saints, it is a refuge for sinners – and we are obliged to welcome, again and again, those who seek hope and grace within these walls.

That means putting up with any number of obnoxious people, something that can be more than a bit trying. The apostles, Jesus’ very closest followers, realize that even they are not up to the challenge of forgiving someone over, and over, and over again. And so, in verse five, they say to their teacher, “Lord, increase our faith!” “Jesus, you know that we are your most faithful disciples. We do our best to do everything that you ask of us. But real forgiveness, that’s hard to do. Please give us more faith so that we can do what you want.”

It is at this point that we expect Jesus, the patient and loving rabbi, to step forward and offer a word of encouragement. We expect him to acknowledge how hard the disciples are working, and to offer to strengthen them for even more difficult challenges. Jesus, however, was never one for following the script.

The Son of God looks at the expectant faces of his most trusted students and says, “More faith? You want more faith? You don’t have any faith. If you had so much as a speck of faith, you’d be able to rip this enormous tree out of the ground with just a whisper. Your problem isn’t insufficient faith. You don’t have any real faith at all.”

If I were looking for quotes from Jesus to carve into a plaque and put on your desk for encouragement, this probably wouldn’t be my first choice. In fact, no matter how many times I read this passage, it’s still jarring. So much of Christian focuses on Jesus’ humanity – on his compassion, his sacrifice, his inclusiveness, and his acts of healing – that it is easy to forget his divinity.

Today’s text reminds us not only that Jesus is fully God, it reminds us of how large a step down God took in taking on human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Even the apostles – the very best of Jesus’ followers and the rock on which the Church would be built – even those apostles at their most faithful had so little faith that Jesus considered it insignificant.

What then of our own faith? Not on our bad days, but on the days when we feel like we’re at least a little closer to Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom of God. At our very best, how do we measure up against the divine standard. How does our best human effort look from Almighty God’s perspective?

We can probably guess the answer to that from Jesus’ first example, but he gives us a second one in case we can’t take a hint. Jesus says, “Imagine if you had a slave who comes in from doing all of his daily tasks.” At the point I’m obliged to note another reason this text doesn’t make it onto a lot of religious calendars and inspirational plaques. It is one of many passages in the New Testament where the institution of slavery goes unchallenged by Jesus or other leaders of the Early Church.

The New Testament writers were deeply concerned about justice and mercy, two concepts that are noticeably absent from the institution of slavery. Yet here and elsewhere slavery goes unquestioned; not because slavery is not evil – it is, but because our ancestors in the faith wanted us to understand that no social standing, from that of the poorest slave to the wealthiest king, offers true freedom or hope. The wealthy merchant is as much a slave to her wealth as the servant is to their household.

The power of Christianity is that it looks beyond the surface to see the brokenness of all humanity. Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ focus is not on repairing our present situation. His life and death center on healing all of creation for all eternity. This text, then, is not an endorsement of slavery. As awful as slavery is, Jesus is concerned with a deeper reality.

And so, Jesus tells us to imagine that we own a slave. If that is too far of a stretch for you, imagine instead that you are the CEO of a major corporation, and the janitor walks by after having cleaned out your garbage can; and you tell him to go to a nearby diner to pick up our supper. Keep in mind, that even the gap between a janitor and a CEO is not as great as the gap between a slave and their owner, but I think that’s probably as close as we can get in our culture.

When the janitor returns with your supper, will you congratulate him on his astonishing accomplishment? Will you offer to throw him a party to celebrate the amazing achievement of emptying the recycling bin? Will you say that he has exceeded your expectations, simply by doing his job? Probably not.

At this point, Jesus flips the story around. It turns out, we’re not the corporate executive – we’re the janitor. In Jesus’ telling of the story, we’re the “worthless slave.” And those times when we are at the very apex of our faith, when we are super-Christians living selfless lives of giving and service? Well those are the only times we’re doing what’s expected of us. From the perspective of Almighty God, they aren’t even worthy of a nod of recognition.

Aren’t you glad that you came to church on Mountain Day to get an uplifting Christian message? Perhaps after this we should break out the old Hee Haw song, “Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me?” to cheer things up.

On the other hand, the only reason this text might seem something of a downer is our desire to think too highly of ourselves. It is perhaps too easy to think of Jesus as our “buddy” and our colleague. In so doing, we forget that that classical term for God taking human form in Jesus is “condescension.” Condescension is unpleasant when it comes from another human being, but it is an act of astonishing mercy when it comes from holy God.

Accepting that gift of mercy requires giving up our pretensions, our arrogance, and even a portion of our self esteem.

Recognizing that truth from today’s text makes it the perfect lesson for a Mountain Day chapel service. Like many of you, over my years at Berry College I came to know the school’s family history as well as I knew my own. The ground where we gather to worship today is sacred, not only for its use as a worship space, but because of the generations of students and faculty who labored to make it what it is today.

In a time when a college education was a passport to a life of leisure and the province of a privileged few, Martha Berry envisioned a place where every student would know the value of honest work. In laundries and lumber mills, dairies and weaving shops, Berry students worked side by side to feed, clothe, and house each other and to make their educations possible. There is no place for pretension in the schools that Martha Berry built, just as there is no room for pretension in the gospel.

For a similar reason, this is also an excellent text for World Communion Sunday, which we are also observing today. The foundational principle of this day is the understanding that, in the bread and wine, Christians gather at a common family table. Being family takes work, and we can’t do it if we insist on feeling superior to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Whatever good denominations may do us, we must ultimately confess that they are a product of sinfulness. They are a sign of the brokenness that persists in the body of Christ, and the primary sin of denominationalism is one of pride.

The words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel remind us that there is no room for pride in an honest presentation of the gospel. If we can surrender that pride …if we can let go of our desire to be a “better” Christian than our sister or brother, then – like the slave in Jesus’ parable – we can take our place at the table.

That table is set and waiting for us. Jesus’ words today remind us that we are not here because we are worthy, we are here because he loves us in our unworthiness. The Lord’s table is set. Let us come to it together, with all of our fellow sinners from around the world. We are all welcomed here, not because of what we have done, but because of the forgiveness we have received for what we have not done. Amen.