Giving with the faith of a poppy seed

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 17:5-10

Well, friends, here we are again – another of the difficult sayings of Jesus.  ‘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.”’

“We are worthless slaves.”  That’s the part of this Gospel reading we stumble over, isn’t it?  Here are words from the lips of Jesus that make us a bit uncomfortable.  But, have courage.  As was the case with the parable of the shrewd steward, who made friends through dishonest wealth, a difficult reading such as this bears closer scrutiny rather than nervous neglect.  We could just skip it, or we could wrestle with it to see what may be at its heart.

If you recall from a few weeks ago I warned against the common fallacy of over-personalizing all of Jesus parables.  If we do not take this as a teaching directed at us first and foremost, but instead consider that Jesus was addressing the religious establishment of his day, we can begin to see this text with “new eyes.”

We must consider the larger context of this parable in the Gospel of Luke itself.  This brief selection is actually part of a larger section that deals with relationship and community – relationship with God and the community of those around the hearers.

Last week we heard the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  In coming weeks we will hear about the ungrateful lepers and a Pharisee who boasts about his giving contrasted with a tax collector who is humble and earnest in his giving.  Yes, these stories are about wealth versus poverty, but they are also about our relationships – with each other and with God.  They aren’t just about money and power, they are just as importantly about insiders and outsiders.

Today’s Gospel reading contains two elements that may seem unrelated on the surface – a nice, thoughtful meditation on increasing our faith, and then this rather stern parable about servants.  Completely unrelated?  I think not…

The beginning of this passage contains a confession of weakness from Jesus’ disciples.  “Lord, increase our faith.”  This follows on the heels of some pretty high demands from Jesus on forgiving each other.  Again, the themes here are community and relationship in community.  Rather than give them a pithy saying as a quick antidote to their lack of faith, Jesus challenges them, and he does so with a beautiful but perplexing image.

If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could tell a mulberry tree to be cast into the sea.  One commentator has updated it, “if you only had faith the size of a poppy seed you could tell an oak tree to go jump in the lake.”

I doubt this is what the disciples wanted to hear – Jesus highlighting their complete lack of faith.  Is Jesus mocking them?  No, rather than an image of lack, I find this mustard seed imagery to contain hope.  There is good news.  As Jesus says in a similar passage in Matthew, faith, even a little faith, can even move mountains.  Jesus isn’t scolding them.  He’s calling them to something greater.

But then immediately Jesus follows the mustard seed image them this parable about the slave and the slave’s attitude.  Be humble.  Do not be boastful.  Just do your job.  We are slaves, Jesus?  Where’s the hope in that?

Two things about this parable trip us up.  First is this language of God as slave-owner and us as slaves.  Consider Jesus’ other teachings on the character of God and the nature of our relationship with God as God’s people.  The imagery that resonates with us more readily is that of parent/child, such as in the Prodigal Son.  The master/slave imagery is usually saved for the times when God’s people had been disobedient and are being disciplined.  Jesus is most often calling the religious authorities of his day to task.  Jesus is warning the Pharisees and Sadducees and others who were acting as God’s servants, God’s caretakers: do not be boastful, just because you are doing what you ought to be doing in the first place.  Do not think that God is impressed simply because you are doing your job.  Humility is more becoming to a servant than pridefulness.  After all, is this not how you treat your own servants?  But we, 21st century Christians, are not servant-owning, first century Jewish religious authorities, so when we make the reading about us, first, we get stuck.

Second, to help us hear this parable properly, we must remember that we are not the nation of Israel to whom Jesus is speaking when he describes the “job” the slaves are supposed to be doing.  We must instead consider how exactly do we “work” for God?  What is our job description?  When we are dismissed with the words, go in peace to love and serve the Lord, can you tell me what that looks like?  Or in one of our post-communion prayers we say, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”  How do we know when we come back next Sunday if we have succeeded?

If we use Jesus’ life and ministry as an example, we can see the task ahead of us and it’s not an easy one:  to do the work of God’s kingdom here on earth.  We are called to spread the good news.  We are called to love the unlovable, feed the hungry, free the oppressed, heal the sick, reach out to the marginalized.  We are commanded to work for peace, to strive for justice, to bring about God’s vision for the world.

We are God’s workers, God’s servants, in this sense.  We call Jesus “Master” without flinching.  So how do we do the work God has given us to do?

We have gathered ourselves into communities.  Christ Church is one of these communities of the servants of God.  So if someone looked in on us and asked, “How do you serve God?”  I think we can point to many things.  One way we serve is to give, not just by writing a check but by volunteering our time, which often can be a more precious resource.  Being in community should make us want to share our talents and skills.  And yes, we are committed to supporting the church financially as well.  But do we serve simply because we are slaves? Is that how we think God sees us, as worthless slaves giving because we’d better?  Do we give to God out of fear, or a sense of obligation, or out of joy and a commitment to community?

Consider all the other teachings and parables Jesus has presented.  What if instead of a stern slave-owner, God truly was the God of healing, the God of restoration, the God of grace and forgiveness as Jesus has been teaching.  What if this same God is a giver?  What if this same God gives us faith, when we have none, gives us grace when we have only shame and regret?

If we hear Jesus words to us today clearly I think we will hear that when we work for God, we do so because it is part of the relationship.  It’s part of the relationship born in the character of God.

God is the source.  God is the giver.  We receive from God, and when we give, when we work for God, we do so in response to God’s gifts.  We do not give to God in hopes of manipulating God into doing something for us.

It is God’s nature to give and we give of ourselves in response.  Our giving, our working for God, our generosity is yet another way that we partake in the image of God.  It is in the very nature of God to be self-giving, and when we give of ourselves, we are like God.

Giving is not always easy.  We do not always see the rewards or the fruit of our labor.  This is where the need for faith comes into sharp focus.  When we give, not out of compulsion but because it is part of who we are as God’s people, when we give we should expect great things…  If we give with the faith of just a poppy seed, what marvelous things might be accomplished?  We give for the good of this faith community and our giving shows that we believe we can do great things in the name of God.

If we lack faith, like the disciples lacked faith, all we need do is ask.  We need not beg God for grace.

We give our time, we invest our talents, we share our treasure.  When we do these things, are we imagining something greater than just paying the light-bill or keeping the children of the parish pre-occupied?  I hope our vision is bigger than that.  The life of this parish is so much more than just how much money is collected on a Sunday.  The life of this parish is in the Sunday School rooms, in the outreach programs, in the ministry to college students, in the programs run by our tireless volunteers.  It is in these places that we must expect great things to happen.

When we serve God, if we act and give as if faith truly mattered, perhaps we might find our faith in God to be validated by God doing great things in our midst.  We give because God is a giver.  What could happen if we give more?

Lord, increase our faith.  What if God does just that?  What if God does increase our faith – gives us more, even just the size of a poppy seed?  What will be our response?  How will we match God’s generosity?  What can we give to God and to each other that reflects both who God is to us and also who God intends us to be?  Amen.

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