October 6 2019, Proper 22C
Before we do anything else I think we need to acknowledge that we cannot read today’s Gospel passage as Luke’s original audience would.
We cannot read about “worthless slaves” without naming that in churches across our country today there are people in the pews who are descended from slave owners and there are people in the pews descended from the enslaved and that the power remains in many ways like it was for our ancestors. Those of us of European descent still benefit from our ancestry. Our siblings of African descent are still endangered and oppressed for theirs.
And I also want to point out that this passage has been used by Prosperity Gospel preachers to swindle and mislead a lot of people. So, with that in mind.
To start, Jesus is not setting out a social order among humans, or endorsing slavery in this passage. He is using the language of his context to tell a story about our relationship with God, not with each other.
And he uses the work of slaves for very specific reasons.
We human beings, Jesus implies, aren’t nearly as important as we like to think we are. Far from being the pinnacles of creation, as those of us at the St. Michael and All Angels feast last Sunday heard: God created more powerful, intelligent, wonderful creatures than we. We’re just, critters, really. If beloved ones. And we’re not as fast as horses, nor as loyal and cute as dogs.
And yet, God is interested in our lives.
This whole strange discussion about worthless slaves and the work they do comes in response to the disciples somewhat bizarre request. The disciples begin today’s story by asking Jesus to increase their faith. We think of faith as a quality we possess. As something we take responsibility for, worry about, cultivate, work on.
But the disciples aren’t asking Jesus to show them how they can cultivate more faith. No, they are asking to be given more. And Jesus responds with strange talk about miracles and slaves.
Faith he says, can move mountains. A tiny bit of faith can change the world. And it has. From faithful abolitionists in the United States, to the brave men and women who, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu risked death to stand up for human dignity. To families who hid Jews, and people of all faiths behind the Iron Curtain who chipped away at totalitarianism until the wall came down.
Jesus is not a preacher of the Prosperity Gospel. He isn’t saying that if we have enough faith we’ll get everything we want. No, because he goes from those powerful seeds to “worthless slaves.” And that story could be pretty damaging, I mean really? Someone who has worked in the field all day should then cook and serve dinner and consider that just! But before we get ourselves all wrapped around the axel.
Remember who is talking.
This is Jesus. Who lifted up the lowly. Who fed the hungry, even when he’d gone of to try to get some rest. Who refused to be called “good,” who knelt and washed his disciples feet as if he were, indeed, their slave.
Jesus comes as one who serves, that’s who is talking here.
When his disciples ask that he increase there faith his response is this strange dual riddle that in the end points back at… God and God’s mission.
God, Luke implies, gives us our faith. Mustard seed sized, or watermelon it (like everything else) doesn’t belong to us. We didn’t create it, we don’t sustain it, God does. Not as a reward (the disciples after all have hardly been star pupils), not for ourselves. God’s gifts are strange, and sometimes dangerous things. They almost always upend our lives.
Perhaps Jesus’ story is even a warning. A reminder of the consequences of living Jesus’ kind of life. Sure, our faith might uproot a tree of violence, oppression, or injustice, but there are always consequences.
Our faith is a gift from God. But what a strange gift it is. Now I’m a liturgy nerd so when I hear the disciples crying out like baby birds for sustenance I see Jesus responding with the bread of his own body. I remember the ways he served, by washing feet and challenging systems. I remember that he is the grain of wheat, buried in the ground, that yields a thousand fold. I hear the pageantry of our liturgy marching through the year. And those echoes of Good Friday where, according to one Gospel, like a good and faithful servant his words to God were simply: it is finished.
And then he rose like yeast, and became the food, that makes us his body and it all begins again.
Jesus stands before us as an image of what it means to have true faith.
It doesn’t mean (as Janis Joplin put it) God buying me a Mercedes Benz. It probably doesn’t even mean comfort or power; but a life of service, becoming a grain of wheat, a mustard seed, a tiny bit of yeast. Tiny, insignificant things really, doing ordinary everyday things, that change the world.