on the way with Jesus: “a way of knowing your place”

Luke 17:5-10

I have an evangelical sermon for you this morning
even while rejecting much of what’s traditionally identified as evangelical!

In much of the reading I’ve done in the last oh, let’s say year,
I have come across, again and again,
strong reservations
about a particular understanding of belief and faith
(that many would argue is a fairly recent understanding—
not an ancient understanding—
not an understanding in keeping with the tradition
of the early church, for example)—
strong reservations about faith and belief as a matter
of predominantly intellectual or propositional assent,

and so, primarily, as a matter of agreement—
of agreeing with specific statements of belief,
agreeing with specific theological affirmations,
and agreeing not just with those statements and affirmations,
but also those who made or make those statements and affirmations—
who promulgate them and expect adherence—
the authorities.

In this way of thinking about things,
a believer is then someone who subscribes to particular statements of belief,
espouses particular theological propositions,
and toes the line on particular issues.

All of which may, in truth, have nothing—
absolutely nothing to do with the way a person lives.
Right?
We all know someone who says all the right things—
believes all the right things,
even loudly and vehemently,
but whose living bears little to no resemblance to the life of Jesus.
Of course to lesser and greater extents,
that’s all of us, isn’t it?

And, of course, many of the authorities in the faith traditions
seek to justify their particular “truths”
by claiming they are holy—
derived from sacred texts
and conforming to God’s revelation and expectations.
They have God’s seal of approval.

Which sounds all good and impressive
were it not for the fact that God pretty much goes out of God’ way
not to make us believe anything—
you know that free will thing.
And you read enough of the Bible,
you kind of clue into the realization
that while God is consistently very concerned with how we live,
really not so much with what we “believe,”
and that it’s we who have God’s seal of approval, not our beliefs.

And if we’re to pursue such a line of thinking—
moving belief and faith away from propositions and dogma,
then we find ourselves asking
what does the disciples’ request “increase our faith” mean?

Because it’s obviously not—can’t be—”increase our conviction—
that we would have more intellectual certainty,
more propositional assurance.”
Along those lines, it obviously also can’t mean “remove my doubts—
take away my uncertainty and my questions.

So what then?

Several of my books in the last oh, let’s say year,
leaned into the idea of belief as not believing that, but believing in
or even believing into
tracing the etymology back to Old English and German,
meaning “to hold dear”—to love
(Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words
Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—
And How They Can Be Restored

[New York: HarperCollins, 2011] 118)—
so that what is believed is what is beloved.
Those books have also named for us the etymology of faith
from the latin fidelitas and fiducia
having to do with faithfulness and trust
(Borg, 121).

So if faith and belief are more a matter
of faithful and loving trust,
then maybe requesting an increase of faith
represents a request for the lessening of anxiety
and of fear—
in and through a trust maintained in spite of doubts—
through uncertainties and questions.

And we who live and love
in and through the difficulties and ambiguities of life
and relationships—we know, within our own experience,
some of what that means, don’t we?
And it doesn’t have much to do with knowing at all, does it?
Can I do it? Can I forgive him that?
Can I keep loving her? Can I respond in love?
Can I do it and keep doing it?

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith,”
as if to say, “You ask a lot of us!
Your way of living, it goes against so much that feels natural.
It goes against what so many others do.
Increase our faith, please!”

It’s often interesting to note the context—
both the immediate and the larger context
of a particular Scripture text—
what’s been going on before our specific verses—
what leads into them.
And so it’s interesting to note
that the disciples’ request, “Increase our faith”
follows not a string of impressive miracles—
of healings and exorcisms,
not a sequence of mighty acts of power—
power wonderworking power—

(it actually does in Matthew’s gospel,
this request and exchange does follow a healing,
and, more particularly, a healing Jesus did
after the disciples had tried and failed!
“Increase our faith, Lord,
so we can do what you do!”)

But that’s not the case here.
Here the most immediate context
is Jesus teaching—
teaching on not causing anyone to stumble and on forgiveness.
“You ask a lot of us.
Your way of living, it goes against so much that feels natural.
It goes against what so many others do.
Increase our faith, please!”

And in the larger context, the disciples’ request follows,
again, not the string of miracles, the sequence of acts of power,
but a succession of parables—
a series of stories.

And so within the context of our Scripture text,
we might hear their plea, “Lord, increase our faith”
not as the desire to do miracles
to be impressive and powerful,
to do as Jesus did,
but as the desire to live as Jesus would have us live—
as Jesus taught us to live,
and as a plea for the strength, the insight, the wisdom, the courage
to tell the stories that undergird those teachings
to tell the stories that confront what is with the vision of an alternate reality.
“Increase our faith,”
that amidst our struggles to live in your way,
we might continue to claim a reality
not exclusively shaped by our experience,
not exclusively shaped by how people treat us,
but by the presence of God ever with us—
by who You are,
by who we want to be,
by how we want the world to be.

So even while reading the news,
even while suffering, even while enduring, even while angry,
we might tell stories of a world shaped not by our worst fears,
but by our best hopes.

And we’re certainly not talking about a blind subscription to the view
that suggests all is well,
naively asserting that all people are good at heart,
and that if we just allow them to do what they truly want, all will be well.
Whether that’s people people or corporations people,
that’s just silly.
We take sin seriously.
And it’s in full recognition of the prevalence of sin (and of evil),
that’s it’s all the more important to tell a different story—
a parable, as it were.
And you don’t even have to believe it—
believe that it happened,
but lean into its possibility—long for it.

So three more things I want to point out about our text.
First, the significance of the intricacies of Greek grammar—
the mood of the Greek conditional verb, to be specific!
For in the first phrase (if you had faith the size of a mustard seed),
Jesus uses the first-class conditional—
indicating he believes
the disciples do in fact have the faith they need,
but then, in the second phrase, he uses the second-class conditional
indicating the disciples won’t be able to uproot the tree
(R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX
(Nashville: Abingdon, 1995) 322).
So, if you had this smallest amount of faith (which you do),
you could tell this tree to be uprooted and replanted in the sea (but you can’t!).

As you might imagine, there are lots of ways people try and explain this.
I’m going to suggest the disciples didn’t take him literally!
They didn’t believe that they should be able to uproot trees.
They believed rather in this story-telling man.
So they didn’t reject his words because they couldn’t uproot trees.
They understood that they had been asking about telling stories
and he was now telling them one
about how if you have but the smallest faith, you’ll be able to reshape the world!
Not by uprooting trees and replanting them in the sea,
but by uprooting habits
and baptizing them into possibility.

It’s not about silly acts of power—
about what amounts to showing off.
You have what you need to forgive and grace and love.
You have what you need to tell stories
about a power more real than anything they teach at Hogwarts
in the way of transformation—
transformation and redemption.
Big words and big ideas that simply mean
you are not limited to who and how you’ve been,
and so neither is the world—neither is creation.
Now there’s a powerful word of hope!

So the second thing I want to point out
is the inversion that happens in the story Jesus tells.
Because we start off thinking we’re the slave owners, right?
That’s what Jesus says, “Who among you would say to your slave ….”
But we end up hearing Jesus say,
“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!’”

One of the characteristics of parables
is that they begin to draw a circle in which you locate yourself,
and you’re pretty comfortable there.
But then, as the parable unfolds, it turns out
that either you’re outside the circle,
or there are unexpected people included in the circle
that you would never yourself have invited in.

We end up being the slaves.
And what’s more, so does Jesus.

For in the parable that is the unfolding of Jesus’ living,
we will later read that a dispute also arose among them
as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.
And Jesus will say say to them,
‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them;
and those in authority over them are called benefactors.
But not so with you; rather the greatest among you
must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.
For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?
Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves”
(Luke 22:24-27).
So Jesus, here identifying the slave’s responsibility as serving at the table,
will shortly serve them at the table while they eat and drink.

Now we don’t believe that, do we?
That we’re to find literal tables and literally serve people their meals?
No, we believe in Jesus—
in his way of being that is a way of service,
and in transformation that comes from choosing service—
that is not imposed and dictated and enforced.

This is not a story about being put in our place—
about being told what we can and can’t do—
what we should and shouldn’t do.
It is rather a story of being called to take our place
in the story we’ve chosen as ours—the story we want to live.

So the third and final thing to point out
is that all the things mentioned in the way of what the slave does,
by the time Luke was writing,
had come to represent following in the way of Jesus.
Not just “[p]lowing (Luke 9:62; 1 Cor 9:10)
and shepherding (John 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 9:7; 1 Pet 5:2),
(Culpepper, 323),
but even being a slave (Joseph A. Fitzmyer,
The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV in The Anchor Bible
(New York: Doubleday, 1983) 1145).

And did you notice, that in Jesus’ parable,
you have one slave doing—expected to do
more than one slave would do—
working in the field and in the house—
as if the field hands were also the domestic slaves.
Again, not to be taken literally.
We don’t believe that, do we?
That we’re to plow and shepherd and fix and serve meals
and be slaves?
No, we believe in Jesus.
So the story suggests rather, do you hear it?
that every aspect of life can be transparent to God.
And as we live toward such transparency,
live toward all our living transparent,
well then, like Jesus, we have only done what we ought.

Ever since that sermon, now several weeks ago,
referencing some commercials,
I’ve been thinking about commercials.

And here’s what I’ve decided.
They market the exhortation, “Try it!”
more than they actually market
the supposed central truth of commercials, “Buy it!”

Now we know—we all know commercials,
implicitly or explicitly, identify product
with something more important.
So beer with friendship,
coffee with family,
a business with support of our military families,
scents with attractiveness.

And they want to convince you to try their product
because of your associations with those more important things.
Try this to get that.
Try this to be a part of that.

Now to try it,
you do have to buy it. (Imagine that!)
And they don’t really care
about your friendships and family,
if their jeans really do make you more attractive to the opposite sex.
Oh, they don’t want them to look bad on you,
but that’s because they’d love for you to buy more,
not because they care about you.

So you have to buy it to try it,
but they sell you on the trying not the buying—
on the more important thing, not the lesser—
on the abstract thing, not the product.

So here’s the thing.
In that sermon, now a few weeks ago,
I suggested commercials have the right idea
and the wrong resource,
while churches, by in large, have the right resource,
but all the wrong ideas.

So now I’d like to suggest it’s important
when it comes to church,
when it comes to God,
and when it comes to the story of God,
that we advocate trying it.
And you don’t have to buy it.
You don’t have to buy anything.

Now if you like it,
you’ll have to buy into it,
and it will take all of you.
Nothing cheap about this.
But that’s later.
That’s after you’ve already verified that it’s worth it.
The first thing is to simply try.
Try it not because you should be afraid not to,
but because it’s beautiful and exciting.

You know the stories of our culture and our world.
How are they working out for you?
Try another story.
Try another set of presuppositions.
Instead of scarcity, there is enough.
Instead of fear, curiosity.
Instead of greed, peace.
Instead of denigrating others, valuing all persons.
Instead of anxiety, hope.
Instead of exhaustion as a sign of how hard you work,
sabbath.
Instead of the need to be in control, laughter.
Instead of comparing self to others, hearing the blessing of God.
Instead of believing that, believing in.
Instead of making propositional theological statements, telling stories

Try it. Not having to believe this,
that strains your credulity.
Not having to agree with that, that pains you.
Not having to, but choosing to—
trust in benevolence,
lean into grace,
and incarnate faith, hope, and love.

Here at the end,
I want to come back to those books I’ve been reading
for the last oh, let’s say year,
and I want to share with you the titles and the chapter titles
of two of them that read almost like poems.
Philip Gulley’s book called If the Church Were Christian,
with chapter titles (and you have to connect it all)—
so if the church were christian,
“Jesus would be a model for living rather than an object of worship,
affirming our potential would be more important
than condemning our brokenness,
reconciliation would be valued over judgment,
gracious behavior would be more important than right belief,
inviting questions would be more important than supplying answers,
encouraging personal exploration would be more important
than communal uniformity,
meeting needs would be more important than maintaining institutions,
peace would be more important than power,
the church would are more about love and less about sex,
and this life would be more important than the afterlife”
(Philip Gulley, If the Church Were Christian
[New York: HarperCollins, 2010]).

And Robin Meyers’ book Saving Jesus from the Church:
How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus
,
with chapters titled: “Jesus the teacher, not the savior,
faith as being, not belief,
the cross as futility, not forgiveness,
easter as presence, not proof,
original blessing,not original sin,
Christianity as compassion, not condemnation,
discipleship as obedience, not observance,
justice as covenant, not control,
prosperity as dangerous, not divine,
religion as relationship, not righteousness”
(Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church:
How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus

[New York: HarperCollins, 2009]).

See I think that’s so positive
respectful encouraging
interesting exciting convincing
dynamic engaging faithful
beautiful graceful honest.

And they make me want to not agree to, but to incorporate,
not to affirm, but to embody,
not to believe but to live and to be love,
not to be right but to be transparent.

“You ask a lot of us, God.
Your way of living, it goes against so much that feels natural.
It goes against what so many others do.
Increase our faith, please!
Because this is the way we want to live.
This is the way we choose.”
So let’s try.

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