A sermon on Luke 17:5-10 by Nathan Nettleton
How many of you here have ever wished you had more faith? Perhaps prayed to God asking to be given more faith? Yes, lots of you.
And how many of you still hope you will yet have more faith than you have now? Still most. Me too. It’s a perfectly normal thing to want. Our gospel reading started with the apostles saying to Jesus, “Increase our faith,” but it had a context. Jesus has just been speaking to them about being careful not to cause another person to sin and about being willing to repeatedly forgive someone who keeps sinning against you and then repenting. Seventy times seven and all that. So faced with these almost impossible sounding standards of Christian behaviour, the disciples, perhaps in exasperation or desperation say, “Increase our faith!” So we’re in reasonably good company.
Now how many of you have ever owned a slave? I don’t mean a younger brother or sister, I mean a real slave. No, somehow I didn’t think there’d be many – we’re not a high slave owning population round here. Quite a few paid servants in some streets not far from here, but not slaves. Now given that none of you have actually owned slaves, you’ll probably not immediately see the connection between what Jesus says about the relationship between slave and master and the request that was put to him, “Increase our faith.”
Most of Jesus’ parables and illustrations don’t depend to heavily on local or historical knowledge. You can fairly easily get the gist of them without having to research their background. A bit of research and you’ll often get even more out of them, but they make sense anyway. This one though is one of a handful that are a bit more problematic.
You see when we think of slavery nowadays, we think of stolen generations of people dragged from their homelands, chained and whipped and forced to work in the most appalling and inhuman conditions. We think of all things evil and abhorrent. As a result when we hear a parable that uses the relationship of a slave to his master, our attention is drawn to the place of the master, the slave owner, and we immediately despise him and regard him as the bad guy in the story. And obviously that presents a problem with this story because if we focus on the slave owner here, the story lends itself to the assumption that his role equates with God’s. “God equals slave driver” is not a popular piece of theology. It’s not an accurate piece of theology either and it’s not what Jesus was saying with this story.
So let me have a crack at substituting an illustration that will make more sense to those of us who’ve never owned slaves and then perhaps we’ll be able to see more easily what Jesus was getting at.
Now I don’t have to tell anybody what’s been on the front page of our papers for the last week. So big that it even pushed the last week of the election campaign out of the headlines. So big that most workplace staff rooms were not talking about the grand final on Monday. A little matter of the gas supply to most of the state being cut off after an explosion. Suddenly most of us had no cooking facilities and no hot water. And there’s still no certainty when we’ll get them back. Far worse is that thousands of workers have been stood down because the industries they work in are gas dependent.
I think we should give an award for compassion to Dayo who voluntarily took cold showers for the first five days just so he could identify with the rest of us. And even though he’s given up now and gone back to using his electric hot water I think it was a commendable act of solidarity with the suffering. I’m sure any of you would have done the same. And any rumours that he just didn’t realize that his hot water wasn’t on gas should be treated with utter contempt and dismissed as scurrilous muckraking intended to besmirch his character and expose him to unwarranted ridicule!!!
Anyway, what’s my point about the gas? Well, before this crisis made us all think about our gas supply, how many of you had ever rung up the gas company to say thank you for sending the gas? No one. Now why not? I mean when you go into a shop and buy something you usually say thanks to the person who sells it to you, so it’s not just because you’re paying for it. Why don’t you say thanks, or send the company a Christmas present or something???
Think about it for a moment. When you knock of work for the day the people at the gas company will keep working to keep the gas supply going. If you want to have a hot shower at two o’clock in the morning you usually can because people are still working down at Longford. Now why don’t we stop each time to feel grateful to them? Why don’t we see that as a reason for special commendation for the gas workers?
Well, basically because they’re just doing their job. The gas supply is an essential service and these people are paid to keep it running 24 hours a day. They’re just doing their job, nothing more. We’re supposed to be able to take them for granted. And until a week ago, we did.
Now in a nutshell that is the same point Jesus was making with his illustration about the slave. If you can see that there is no special reason to make a big fuss of someone for just doing what’s expected of them, for just fulfilling their normal job in the way they’re supposed to, then why would you be expecting a big fuss to be made of you when you’re just doing yours? If you haven’t done any more than what is basically expected of you, don’t go expecting a medal.
Now, what’s this got to do with how much faith we have? With whether or not we need an increase in our faith?
Well, it seems to me that what Jesus is saying here is that there’s not much value in worrying too much about whether you’ve got enough faith or whether you could have more faith. The important question is, “Are you living faithfully with the faith you’ve got.” You see, living faithfully should not be a big deal. Every one of us was created in the image of God with an innate ability to know the difference between love and hate, between integrity and fraudulence, between faithfulness and treachery. Every one of us was created with the capacity for continual growth in love, truth, peacefulness, goodness, creativity and wholeness. Everyone of us should be able to be expected to live faithfully to that. Our basic faithfulness and integrity should be able to be taken for granted. It’s what we were created for. It’s what we are called to. It’s just doing our job. It’s not evidence of great big faith. A mustard seed’s worth of faith is more than enough if you just live it faithfully. God and everyone else should be able to take us for granted on that one.
You want more faith? You want the kind of super-faith that will move mountains, that will enable you to command a mountain ash to be uprooted and planted in the sea? Well what are you doing with the faith that you’ve got? Are you living faithfully? Are you doing your job, doing the basics, acting justly, loving mercifully, and walking in simplicity with your God? That’s just basic nuts-and-bolts humanity, lived out.
You have more than enough faith for these things. Everyone of you. More than enough. In essence Christian discipleship is not something extra, something special. It is nothing more and nothing less than living out the meaning of our humanity, growing into what we were created to become. We should be able to take that for granted of everyone, whether they’ve heard of Jesus Christ or not.
The only reason we can’t take that for granted is because it has now become so commonplace to violate our human integrity that it has become a trend that sweeps everyone up in it. That makes it more difficult for us too, because it means that living faithfully is living out of step with the culture around us, and that’s why we need to stick together – to reclaim our basic human integrity, our simple faithfulness together. To encourage one another and support one another in the living out of our mustard seeds of faith. Without that support it is easy for the flames of faith to be blown out in the storms of greed and callousness. We have to remind each other as Paul reminded Timothy in our other reading to rekindle the the gift that is within you, for the Spirit that God gave you is not a spirit of cowardice but of power and love and self-control.
Living Christianly is not a job reserved for the experts. It’s not just for the specially gifted. It’s a job you’re up to. It’s your basic responsibility as a human being, and if nobody ever patted you on the back or commended you for it, that should be OK- you’re just doing your job. But if the fact that you have got what it takes already is not good news enough there is more. Our God is a God of extravagant generosity, of limitless grace, and so despite having every right to take our faithful living for granted God instead showers us with blessings and honour. God even goes so far as to become one with us and face suffering and death for our sakes, though we never did more than expected and seldom did even that.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. The mercies of God are never spent. They are new every morning, for great is the faithfulness of our God.