Jesus said to his disciples, “Life is full of pitfalls and it’s very easy to trip up. But we can do without people who deliberately put obstacles in the way. Anyone who makes it hard for those taking their first steps toward God should go for a swim with a brick tied around their neck to experience what they’re doing to others. Make sure your behavior is helpful at all times. If one of my followers does something wrong, have a word with them. If they’re sorry you must not hold it against them. If they have persistent habits which they deeply regret, you must forgive them over and over again.”
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord said, “A bit of trust, is all you need, the sort of trust a gardener has. If you have a small seed, you can make it grow into a large plant. Or you can transplant a tree from a garden to a new spot bny the sea and it will grow.”
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or herding, ‘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 a good job of your work, say, ‘We are mere slaves; we have done only what was expected of us’” — Luke 17: 5-10
Faith is decision for God, meeting, encounter, risk, venture. It is this or it is not at all. As Ebeling puts it, the question is rather whether we grasp the one thing necessary. The Christian proclamation, when it really knows what it is about, is not like a shop offering all kinds of goods for sale, according to need and taste. But it proclaims the one thing that is absolutely necessary. The one who is absolutely necessary is God. And that is why—not despite this or in addition to it—faith alone is what is absolutely necessary. On this view, then, faith is like a pearl of great price. And if one sold all one had and bought it, one would have all one needs—so long as one did not think one could either save it or keep it for oneself. – Philip Devenish, review of Nature of Faith by G. Ebeling
There’s a one-liner, which upon reflection on this morning’s passage from Luke, compels me to share:
“Jack is a person who lives for his friends. You can tell his friends because they all have hunted looks on their faces.”
You’ve met people like this before — for certain. Someone who is always doing favors for others and “helping” them out — but always with a price tag attached.
We chuckle at that one liner because we know that receiving help is tricky. Offering that help is even trickier. Our egos wriggle their ways into the helping relationship and make us as helpers feel angry when our help is not returned with thanks and praise.
To receive help is also difficult. How many times has someone tried to offer you a helping hand or wanted to offer you a gift of money in a pinch, to which you have replied: “Oh, I can manage”– or “I will pay you back.”
There’s something about the human situation that has to have a quid pro quo.
Here’s a current issue: US Immigration.
The newly passed DREAM Act, as you know makes it possible for children of immigrants to become citizens. In a fairly friendly news article in the Washington Post about the DREAM Act, the author noted that in the end, “We educated them, and its the least they can do to give back, right?” Of course this is not a far position from the de facto immigration policy that basically says we’ll make it very hard for you to come to the US if you’re not rich — and then, whether you come with or without documentation, we’ll expect you to gratefully take the jobs that we will not work.
Here’s another contemporary issue, a little closer to home:
It’s been a long time now since I’ve been a church shopper, but I still remember the feeling and try to remember it anytime someone walks through our doors “Church Shopping.” One comes to worship and to seek community — not to be used. Again, because the ego issue gets so easily intwined it easy to feel not just discouraged when our welcome is met with refusal, but to feel put out. You know, we’ve done all of this for you, how dare you move on. . . .
II. Slavery tale as solution to quid pro quo trap
I’m not much of a psychologist. Jesus was not one either. But both psychologist and Jesus are similar in at least this respect — they aim to free the human spirit from the bondage of the human situation — or, as our scripture reading put it today — the pitfalls of life.
Certainly one of the great pitfalls of life is the trap of the quid pro quo. The reason it is a trap is because when we’re caught in it we miss what really matters in the when two people are engaged in a relationship of offering help and receiving it. We look beyond the other in our expectation of this for that.
The last paragraph of our reading today is explicitly about this problem. Unfortunately this paragraph, is tough sledding. We don’t hold up slave/master relationships as at all worthy of a metaphor, let alone of emulating.
Nevertheless, I think we re-experience that sense of liberation when we serve without expecting of thanks or gratitude, when we read this otherwise distasteful passage. As with all biblical interpretive work, it is not so much the exact text that matters, but the decision for life the question poses. When we serve, whether we serve the poor and marginalized, or the well off, how do we do it?
If we do it out of some expectation of gratitude or repayment, we’ll always be looking over our shoulders; always occupied with calculating whether others are behaving as we think appropriate. With all of that looking over our shoulders and all of that mental, emotional, and spiritual effort occupied in the calculus of deserving, we’re all too likely not to look in the eyes of the real human being standing right before us. We’re all too likely to miss the opportunity to see God in that moment.
Please do not get me wrong. Neither Jesus nor I advocate slavery. In his culture it was commonplace and as he was not of the upperclass, he understood their position, horrible for what it was but nevertheless amazing for their continued ability to decide, in each moment to be free — free of the longing for praise or gratitude and free of the trap of criticism.
We often use the word faith as if we mean by it the exercise of talking ourselves into intellectual assent to something, such that the apostles’ exclamation “increase our faith” is our way of persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That’s not faith; it’s self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don’t actually believe what we say.
Let me be clear — I am not suggesting that faith and intellectual assent should be disconnected. Faith is, as Phil Devenish so nicely puts it, is an event, not a possession, a verb not a noun. As a verb faith implies activity. That activity is the decision, in the moment, about how to live. If we separate intellectual assent from the activity of faith then faith could mean deciding in each moment on a mere whimsy. It could mean the basis of one’s decision could be the false idea that it is better to step on other’s heads in the reach for success. Faith is the decision in each moment to live free from the pitfalls of life and so to see in each moment the sparkling grace of God; to live contentedly and so to live free.
Beating yourself up because you can’t move a mulberry bush into the sea is not faith. It is in fact destructive to it. Such worries are the result of the kind of Christian faith that has taken root in the West which says that there are certain things that have to be believed in order to be saved.
The English verb ‘faith’ as we have it in the New Testament can also be translated as “to trust.” The translators of our text this morning capitalize on this old meaning and make it clear. The activity that is required if we are to avoid the pitfalls of life is trusting in each new moment to bring fresh possibilities. Each moment can be like the decision to move from the dry ground of the garden to the fresh, fertile ground by the sea.
What all of this means is that God is that reality upon which these kinds of good, life-affirming, hopeful, courageous decisions about life are made. The fact of the matter, of course, is that because we’re talking about God, the list of adjectives I just offered could be extended. God is the one necessary reality, the reality than which to go farther is pointless because that just is God.
I received a letter last week. An anonymous letter from a teenager who is faced with a difficult situation and seeks our prayers. This person begins, “To whom this may concern. It is Monday, June 25, 2012. I am sixteen years old and I thought I might tell you a little about myself. My name is not important, but my story is.”
My name is not important — but my story is. Well, of course this person’s name is important — but he or she is correct — it is the experience of seeking help, of hoping to find victory in the difficult now that compelled this person to write.
“Last year, my cousin had been in a terrible accident. He had made many wrong choices and ended up in a hospital in Hartford, Connecticut. My cousin is 22 years old, and I look at him like the big brother I never had. Though he lost his memory and all the skills of being independent, my family still loves him.”
This person wrote this letter and included with it a prayer he or she had written, trusting that love would indeed provide the strength and courage her whole family relies on. There was no asking for a miracle — no moving mountains — just a trusting opening up. A realization that even in anonymity the moment was filled with God.
This person concludes her prayer as I would conclude — thank you for giving me the strength to carry on through life with such grace. I love you. Amen.
Let us let go of that desructive desire for “increased faith” and share in this moment, and the next, and the next, this grace. It is the one absolutely necessary thing — indeed, the pearl of great price. Amen.