Monthly Archives: October 2013

Justified – Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

Justified.
In printing, this word means the way text lines up along both the left and right margins of the page. “Justified” can also mean acceptable, or reasonable under the circumstances: for example, if someone proves to be trustworthy, you would be justified putting faith in that person; or, under certain conditions, an action is justified, such as deciding not to wait any longer for someone who is already an hour late for an appointment.

But in this passage we are given today from the Gospel of Luke, “justified” means something else. It means being made righteous in God’s eyes. It means being made right. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Luke, the 18th chapter, verses 9 through 14:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Like last week’s passage, this story is introduced with an explanation. Some of the parables Jesus come to us without clarification, and Jesus explained other parables to the disciples only after the crowds had gone home. But here, we have two parables back-to-back that Luke introduces with some editorial comment, so his readers will be sure to understand their purpose. Last week, Luke told us that the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge was about the need to pray continually, and to not lose heart. Jesus closes that teaching with a question: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” We can almost see the people around Jesus nodding to one another knowingly, assuring themselves that they will certainly be faithful. Others might fall away, but surely those who are closest to Jesus will stay strong. Sounds a little like Peter on the night Jesus was betrayed, doesn’t it? But there isn’t a rooster crowing this time[1], to alert these listeners to their foolishness, so Jesus tells another story. This one is aimed at those who trust in their own righteousness, and regard others with contempt – in other words, the very people smugly nodding to each other, sure that they have what it takes to stay faithful to Jesus, even if others fail.

Jesus first describes someone who, by all appearances, should be one of the most holy and devoted Jews around: a Pharisee. Pharisees get a lot of negative attention in the gospel stories, so we might need to adjust our thinking about these men – and they were all men, by the way – to understand how they might be seen through the eyes of first century Jewish culture. Pharisees were extremely devout, and highly disciplined in their religious practices. A Pharisee was a real Jew’s Jew: obedient to the Law, even going above and beyond what the Law required. The Law required fasting on one day of the year – the Day of Atonement. A good Pharisee fasted at least once a week, and the most religious Pharisees fasted both on Mondays AND Thursdays, for the sins of all Israel, as well as for their own sin. The Law required tithing, but made allowances for those who were too poor to offer a regular tithe. A Pharisee might give ten per cent of everything he bought, as well as everything he earned, just in case the person who sold him goods had not tithed those goods before he received them. A good Pharisee considered it his duty to know the Law inside and out, and to live according to each detail of that Law. A Pharisee was a Really Good Guy.

A tax collector, on the other hand, was a Really Bad Guy. Tax collectors were considered traitors and cheats. They had sold out to the Romans who oppressed Israel, collecting the Roman tolls and padding their own pockets with whatever they wanted to charge over and above the required tax. And it was all legal. But Jews considered the practice to be highly unethical, and contrary to God’s commands. If a Pharisee was at the top end of the righteousness ladder, a tax collector was on the very bottom rung. It would be perfectly understandable for a Pharisee to see a tax collector and think to himself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

So the Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, feeling confident before God about himself and his own righteousness. He knows he’s a really good Jew. In fact, he’s much better at being Jewish than most other Jews, and his prayer reflects his attitude. He stands apart, where he can be clearly seen by others who might look to him as an example, and he lifts his hands and eyes to heaven. His very posture looks righteous as he begins to recite a familiar prayer of thanksgiving. Perhaps he borrows from a Psalm of David to pray, maybe the one David used to rejoice when he was delivered from the hand of Saul.

Psalm 18:20-24 reads:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

But even if he uses a psalm of David to frame his prayer, the Pharisee doesn’t stop there. He goes on to declare, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people.” Four times, he uses the word “I” as he prays. He sees himself as the subject of each sentence. In the Pharisee’s mind, his own actions are what’s most important. As he compares himself to rogues and thieves, and especially to the tax collector he sees off in the corner, the Pharisee is proud of the sharp contrast between his good works and the evil he sees around him.

The tax collector also prays from a Psalm of David, but, by contrast, he chooses Psalm 51, the psalm David wrote to ask forgiveness for his sin with Bathsheba:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

The tax collector beats his breast, head bowed, off in a corner of the temple court. His sin is such a burden to him that he can only speak the first phrase of the psalm, ‘Have mercy on me, O God.” In the tax collector’s prayer, God is the subject. God is the do-er, the one who shows mercy. Compared to God, the tax collector can only beat his breast and beg forgiveness. He can’t help but pray for God’s mercy, fully aware of his own sinfulness.

If the story ended here, it would be easy to think that each of these prayers accurately reflected the men who prayed them, and leave it at that. But Jesus doesn’t leave it at that.

The movie, Shadowlands, tells the true story of theologian C. S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Gresham, whom Lewis married late in life. Joy died of bone cancer only four years after meeting C.S. Lewis. During a brief remission from Joy’s cancer, a friend tells Lewis, “I know how hard you’ve been praying, and now God is answering your prayers.” Lewis replies, “That’s not why I pray. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”[2]

Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us. That’s why Jesus doesn’t end the story with two prayers that reflect the men who pray them, because prayer changed one of them. And that is a beginning, not an end. If the tax collector kept praying from Psalm 51, he’d get to verse eight: “Create in me a clean heart, o God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” This is not an end, but a beginning.

While we do need to follow the tax collector’s example of humble repentance, it’s also important that we don’t get stuck in the “What a worm I am” mode, certain that we are stained beyond redemption. Jesus doesn’t encourage us to wallow in our failure to measure up to God’s standard. Yes, we need to admit our sin and ask God for mercy, but it doesn’t end there. Once we are made right, we need to act in that assurance, and do right. Not like the Pharisee, so we will be noticed, but like the tax collector who knows how precious grace is.

At the same time, Jesus doesn’t encourage us to be like the Pharisee, either, proud of the good work we do, the way we show up for church on Sunday, the committees on which we serve. Jesus has addressed this issue of pride and self-righteousness before, among his own disciples, so it isn’t something new. When James and John come to him and ask to be seated on his left and right, the other disciples are pretty upset with the way these brothers try to insert themselves at the head of the table. Jesus reminds them that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”[3]

Once again, we are reminded that God’s ways are not our ways. God is not interested in hearing about how good we are, for not one of us is good enough. Scripture tells us that there is none who is righteous, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The proud Pharisee’s problem was that he trusted in his own righteousness. The humble tax collector trusted in God’s mercy. The tax collector’s honest humility is what sends him home …

justified.

The Greek word used here comes from legal language, and it means “shown to be in the right,” or “acquitted.” The tax collector is the one who is made right with God, not the Pharisee. Prayer doesn’t change God, but it did change the tax collector.

Wait a minute! The tax collector is a Really Bad Guy! It’s the Really Bad Guy who gets it right?

Comparison may be the key to understanding this parable. The Pharisee compared himself to a tax collector, and made himself feel better by comparing himself to someone he considered to be less than he was. The tax collector also made a comparison, but it wasn’t to another person. The tax collector compared himself to the holiness of God, and he recognized how far he was from matching that kind of righteousness. The Pharisee saw himself as holy because of what he did, but the tax collector saw himself as a sinner, dependent on what God does. The tax collector knew his only chance at holiness was by the grace of God. His humility saved him. His request for mercy sent him home justified.

Both men addressed God directly in their prayers. Both men quoted psalms, those models for prayer covering nearly every circumstance. Both men prayed about themselves. But one put himself at the center of his praise, while the other prayed persistently and humbly for God’s mercy.

That’s the kind of attitude we ought to have, says Jesus: persistent and humble. Not just in our prayers, but in the way we live our whole lives. We need to think neither too highly or too lowly of ourselves, but to be honest in our humility and desire for restoration to God.

We pray not because it changes God, but because it changes US.

  • It changes us into people with humble and grateful hearts.
  • It changes us into people who care less and less about having our good works recognized
  • It changes us into people who care more and more about loving God, and loving others as much as we love ourselves
  • It changes us into disciples of Jesus Christ, who eagerly participate in Christ’s mission to transform the world.

So, I must ask you: Have you, like the tax collector, been justified by repenting of your sins? Have you thrown yourself on the mercy of God? Have you accepted the righteousness that God offers through his Son Jesus Christ? If you can answer yes to all these questions, go in peace this day to share the love of God with others, and offer them the good news that God loved them enough to send his Son to die for them. If you long to be justified, to be forgiven of your sins, to live in the peace and knowledge that you have been made right with God, I invite you to talk with me, or with someone here you trust, to learn how you, too, can claim this gracious gift. Amen.


[1] Luke 22:60

[2] Dawn Chesser, Director of Preaching Ministries, United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship (http://www.gbod.org).

[3] Matthew 20:26-28

Keep Asking – sermon on Luke 18:1-8

The scattered groups of believers were becoming discouraged. They had expected Jesus to return quickly, but – so far – he hadn’t shown up. The original twelve disciples were dying off, and even the second generation of followers were getting old. Persecution had taken its toll, too. It seemed that everything Jesus had predicted had happened, and the second coming of Christ should have followed soon after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. But here they were, still waiting and watching for Jesus to come again in glory. The stories that had been told with such urgency a generation ago, were now losing their shine. Some of the details were getting fuzzy. And still, Jesus did not come.

Had they missed it somehow? Had they misunderstood? Surely they had heard him announce that there would be persecution, and they had suffered through that terrible experience. As the church had spread from Jerusalem to Antioch, and from there along the Mediterranean coast, the people who now called themselves Christians had struggled to maintain an identity that contrasted strongly with the culture around them. Sometimes it got pretty confusing. As the number of disciples who had seen Jesus and heard him teach continued to dwindle, many were discouraged that Jesus would ever return as he had promised.

In the middle of this confusion and discouragement, Luke set out to tell the whole story of the Good News, to refresh everyone’s memory, and put events into their proper perspective. He addressed a primarily Gentile audience, drawing on the stories that had been told over and over again, arranging them in an order that was designed to encourage believers to keep on believing. Luke wrote down the facts he knew, and used his best editing skills to help Christians understand those facts in the light of God’s timeline. The Kingdom of God that had been introduced to the world in the person of Jesus Christ was already at work, but not yet fulfilled. Luke wanted his readers to know that Jesus had not broken his promise to return, but that waiting for the second coming required more than sitting around in an upper room. It meant actively participating in the work of the Kingdom.In today’s passage, Luke explains a parable of Jesus before sharing the parable itself. He only does this two other times. We will look at one of these next week, when we read about the Pharisee and the tax collector, and the other is the story of the Ten Talents. But the explanation Luke gives helps to focus our attention on the importance of staying persistently connected to God. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel according to Luke, in the 18th chapter, verses 1-8.

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let’s start at the end of this passage, and work our way backward. The question Jesus asks at the conclusion of the story gives us a perspective for understanding it that we might not see if we are in a hurry to read on to the next passage. So let’s look backward first, to reflect on the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge from the framework this question gives us.

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Jesus started this particular teaching back in Chapter 17, verse 20, when the Pharisees asked him when the Kingdom of God was coming. He tells them, “ “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is amongyou.”[1] Jesus often closed his teaching speeches with parables, so the story about the unjust judge and the persistent widow serves as the final close to this longer lecture about the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth. That final question makes sense, in light of this bigger picture, doesn’t it?

The Pharisees had asked “when?” but Jesus answers that how we wait is much more important than knowing the exact moment. So he throws this question back at the Pharisees: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? In other words, will we be faithful to the end? This is the crux of the matter – will Christ find faithfulness, trustworthiness among his people when he comes again, whenever that may be?

Let’s go back a step further. Before Jesus asks if we will be faithful, he assures us that God can always be trusted. God is faithful. Jesus says, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”[2]

Do you notice how Luke reminds us, through the words of Jesus, of this tension the first century Christians were feeling, the tension between the expected suddenness of Christ’s second coming, and the perceived delay of that event? God will not put off helping his people. But God does not operate on our timeline – we exist on his. As Peter would write to another group of early Christians, “do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”[3]

We, today, should also be encouraged, that God will give justice. God will make right the things that are wrong. God will surely heal what is broken. But God’s patience should not be seen as procrastination. God is showing mercy, giving us time to turn to him and seek forgiveness, to ask him to make us whole.

“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

 Recent headlines might make you wonder if it’s possible. There is plenty that is wrong and broken in our world, today as much as it was over 2000 years ago. Justice sometimes seems like a dream more than a possible reality. We see disappointment and pain every day, as people are murdered, others go without food or adequate shelter, leaders turn out to be corrupt, governments stop functioning, and self-serving greed has a higher social value than generosity toward others.

The unjust judge of this parable would fit right into today’s culture: he doesn’t fear God, and he has no respect for people. He models the exact opposite of the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor. I can think of a few people in the news who sound just like this judge, and I’m sure it wouldn’t take long for you to make a list, either.

The judge only gives justice to get rid of the widow’s annoyance, not because he cares about right and wrong. “Yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice,” he says, “so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” What the New Revised Standard Version gives us as “wear me out” other translations offer as “shame me.” Quite literally, however, we could translate this phrase to read “so she won’t slap me in the face,” or “so she won’t give me a black eye.” I don’t think the judge is too worried about a poor widow assaulting him. No, the judge wants to avoid being embarrassed – or shamed – by the widow’s constant badgering. And it is that very badgering, the continual showing up on his doorstep to ask for justice, that finally allows the widow to win over the unethical judge.

Let’s take a look at that widow. Jesus says, “In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’” We don’t know who the opponent is, or what problem the widow has with the opponent. We only know that she is seeking justice. And she has her speech down to six words. Persistently, day after day, this woman kept coming to the judge, saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” What else could she do? This judge is her only hope.

You see, most women were very young, barely teenagers, when they married, so the possibility of outliving their husbands was a very strong one. There were many widows, but they weren’t necessarily old women. The problem was that they often had no means of support when their husbands died, especially if they had no sons to take responsibility for them and care for them. They did not inherit their husband’s estate – it went to another male member of the family. If a widow stayed with her husband’s family, she became little more than a servant in the household. If she went back to her own family, the bride price had to be paid back to the husband’s family. Many times, widows were sold as slaves to pay off their husband’s debts.

With all this in mind, it’s a wonder this widow even tried to seek justice. Yet here she is, day after day, relentlessly asking an unjust judge to give her justice against her opponent. “How much more will God give justice to those who ask him?” Jesus seems to be saying. If a crooked judge can be convinced to do what is right, even if it’s for the wrong reasons, how much more will God show mercy to those he loves?

And now we are back at the beginning, with the reason Luke gives us for this parable of Jesus: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Many times, I think, we focus on the first part of that explanation, and ignore the last part. Jesus was not only teaching the disciples the importance of prayer, he was encouraging them to not lose heart. Jesus knew what they would each have to face after he was gone, and he wanted to be sure they were prepared for what was to come. Luke uses these words of Jesus to remind his readers, decades later, that they should also not lose heart as they wait for Christ to come again. And he wrote them down so that other believers, centuries later, would also be encouraged.

“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Certainly Luke spends a lot of ink describing the importance of prayer. Jesus holds up this persistent widow as a model for effective prayer, but he isn’t talking about mindlessly repeating the same prayers over and over again. We’ll talk more about that next week. The persistence in prayer Jesus asks of us is a faithful pursuit of God’s justice in the world. This widow’s six-word prayer was new and fresh each time she said it. She might have used the same words over and over, but she meant each one of them every single time, with the same intensity and focus she used from the beginning of her campaign. Can we pray like that? Of course.

Praying is nothing more or less than pouring out our hearts to God, who will always be faithful to hear us. It means trusting in God, and not in ourselves. It means constantly hoping for the time when God will make things right, convinced that God’s justice will prevail over evil. Just as the widow kept coming to the judge, determined, relentless, hoping against all odds; so we are to keep praying, determined, relentless, hoping against all odds. Not because we are “good Christians” or because our faith is strong, but because God’s Holy Spirit has given us the courage to pray without ceasing in a broken and scary world, that God’s Kingdom will come and God’s will shall be done. If we are to be found faithful when the Son of Man comes, we must keep praying, and not lose heart.

And what is it that we should pray for? The widow gets it right. Our prayers must be for justice. Not our petty desires or what we think we need – for God already knows what we need before we ask, and many times what God knows we need and what we think we need are not at all the same thing. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done. We must not lose heart or become weary with waiting for Christ to come again to deliver us, once and for all, from the pain and brokenness we see all around us. We must persist in hope, persist in prayer, and persist in seeking justice until the Lord comes.

Christ’s coming may yet be in the future, but God’s patience is at work in the present. The parable assures us that God will save his people. The concern is not when this will happen, but its certainty, and the necessity for us to live in readiness and faithfulness.

Will Jesus come again, as he promised? Absolutely. Will God bring justice to the world? Without a doubt. Will we be faithful until that time, pursuing justice and working for the Kingdom of God? If we pray constantly, relentlessly, persistently for God to do his mighty work among us, may it be so!

So here’s the challenge. I’ve offered it to you before, and a few of you accepted the invitation to pray with me on Compassion Sunday. In the letter from James, we read, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”[4] And Jesus said, “ For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”[5] Many of you have experienced the power of prayer in your lives. I have heard stories of people in this church coming together regularly to pray, and the way God answered those prayers. Can you think of a time in our history when we needed prayer more than we do now? The needs I see in this town are so great, and there is so little help available to meet those needs. People struggle to make ends meet, to battle addiction, to find purpose and meaning in their lives. The greatest need I see is for Jesus to be Lord, for God’s love to be made known to people who have never experienced it. Isn’t that something worth praying for? Isn’t that something worth praying together for? I know that many of you are already overcommitted to many meetings, and frankly, I don’t know where we would put a weekly prayer gathering on the calendar, but if God is nudging you right now to be part of a vital, ongoing prayer ministry in this church, would you please look at your calendar with God, and find a time you could agree to meet him here, along with others from this church, to join in prayer? There is so much to pray for.

  • Healing
  • Jobs
  • Broken relationships
  • Freedom from worry
  • Our children
  • Our leaders
  • The ministry of this church
  • Our stewardship campaign, Planting Seeds of Faith
  • People in our community who don’t know Jesus
  • People in our community who have given up hope
  • People in our community
  • Justice
  • God’s kingdom to come
  • God’s will to be done

Let us pray.

 

 

 

 


[1] Luke 17:20-21

[2] Luke 18:7-8a

[3] 2 Peter 3:8-9, quoting Psalm 90:4

[4] James 5:16

[5] Matthew 18:20

Ten Per Cent Return – Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 (October 13, 2013)

Would you consider ten percent to be a good return on an investment?  Of course, it depends a lot on the investment doesn’t it? Investing in a fast food franchise will look different from a certificate of deposit at the local bank. In any case, if you put something in, it’s usually with the expectation that you will get back something more.

By now, you have read the sermon title, and you may be thinking that you’re in for the annual stewardship sermon, that sermon you never like to hear because it makes you feel guilty about the amount of money you contribute – or don’t – to the church budget. If you’re looking for an easy way to sneak out of the sanctuary about now, you can relax. I already preached the stewardship sermon for today.  It’s sitting over there in that apple core. No, in today’s gospel lesson, Luke tells us of a kind of investment that goes beyond money. Luke isn’t talking about finances here, but about faith. While it might seem that Jesus sees only a ten per cent return on his investment in an outcast’s life, the actual return cannot be measured as easily as a savings account balance. Let us hear the Good News, as recorded in the 17th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, verses 11-19.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.  Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?  Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Luke reminds us that Jesus is on the march toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. But there’s a slight problem with Luke’s geography: The boundary between Galilee and Samaria actually runs east-west: it isn’t “on the way” to Jerusalem. Maybe Luke isn’t talking about geography as much as he’s giving us a time frame for this story. Though Jesus has been traveling to Jerusalem for several chapters, he’s still nearer the beginning of his journey than the end. Luke doesn’t want us to lose sight of the final destination, however. Jesus may be taking the scenic route, but Jerusalem is where he will eventually go.

We have our first hint that something unusual is about to happen when Luke tells us that these ten lepers approached Jesus. By law, they were supposed to maintain a safe distance from others, warning people away with shouts of “Unclean!  Unclean!” But the lepers draw near to Jesus, at least near enough to call out to him and get his attention. Leprosy could mean any of a number of skin diseases, but whatever the disease, being “unclean” meant being an outcast, unable to participate in normal society.

So here we have ten lepers outside a village. But instead of warning Jesus to stay away, the lepers do something that is highly remarkable. Not only do they call out to Jesus to have mercy on them, they call him “Master” – a title that no one else uses to address Jesus in all the gospel accounts, except for the twelve disciples. It’s worth pondering how these ten outcasts, who have been excluded from social interaction with the general population, could possibly know who Jesus was, or that he had the authority to help them. But they readily appeal to that authority.  Instead of warning Jesus to keep his distance, they put themselves at his mercy.

This particular healing story appears only here, in Luke’s gospel. These ten lepers don’t get as much publicity as the one in chapter 5, whose story also gets told by Mark and Matthew. But this is a much more dramatic healing, because Jesus doesn’t even have to touch these lepers in order for them to be cleansed. He simply sees them.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man passed right by Lazarus, day after day, and never saw him until it was too late. His wealth and his self-centeredness did not allow him to really see Lazarus. It is so easy to ignore the needs around us as we go through our daily routines. When I lived in the Twin Cities, it was easy for me to look the other way whenever I saw a beggar on the street corner as I drove through town. How often do we turn away from people who make us uncomfortable, only because they are different from us?

But Jesus sees these ten lepers, and immediately tells them to go show themselves to the priests. This must have sounded a little strange to these lepers. Showing yourself to the priest was something you did after your skin disease had run its course and you were well again. Jesus was acknowledging the faith these lepers had shown when they called him “Master.” The lepers had already demonstrated their willingness to submit to Jesus’ spiritual authority. When he sends them off to the priests, they don’t ask questions. They just go.

And as they went, they were made clean. Jesus didn’t need to touch them for them to believe that he could heal them. His word alone was enough to send them on their way. They obeyed without question, because they had faith in him. As they acted on their faith, they were made clean. Their leprosy was gone.

But only one of them seems to notice what has happened. Only one of them saw that he had been healed, just as Jesus saw him to heal his disease. Only this one turned back toward Jesus, praising God with a loud voice. The same loud voice that, moments before, should have been yelling “Unclean!  Unclean!” had called out “Have mercy!” instead. Now, this very same loud voice was whooping and hollering in praise to God. He knew that it wasn’t some magic trick or the number of steps he had taken toward the priests that had healed him. He knew it was God’s work, accomplished through Jesus. The leper saw. And the leper’s awareness is, quite literally, the turning point in the story.

The leper turned back. What a beautiful picture of repentance Luke paints for us here! The leper turned away from mindless obedience to empty rules, as he turned toward the Source and Giver of Life. The leper’s response was spontaneous and authentic. The leper praised God, but he also prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. The leper’s faith had shown itself in action as he headed for the priests, but the glory he gave to God showed itself in humility and thanksgiving.
Then we get to the punchline.

And he was a Samaritan. Luke loves to remind his readers that Jesus came to reverse the status quo, and one of his favorite ways of doing this is to call attention to Gentiles whose faith brings them into the family of God. First century Jews thought they had exclusive rights to God’s love and goodness. Luke, who was Greek and addressed his writing to a Gentile audience, delighted in pointing out that God had promised salvation to all nations, that God loved all people, and that Israel had no more claim to God’s grace than any other nation.

But there is more at work here than the theme of reversal that threads its way throughout Luke’s writing. Luke carefully sets up the story so that one might assume all ten lepers, though they may be outcasts, are acceptable outcasts. Their leprosy at least has the potential of disappearing after a time of quarantine, and they therefore have the potential to become acceptable again, welcomed back into society. But to a first-century Jew, Samaritans were a particularly distasteful type of outcast. Samaritans were un-redeemable because they refused to acknowledge the Temple in Jerusalem as the only appropriate place to worship God. No Jew in his right mind would ever welcome a Samaritan into fellowship.

Like a good mystery writer, Luke has planted a tiny detail at the beginning of his story that seems unimportant at first. Jesus was passing through the region between Samaria and Galilee. We don’t know exactly where the village is located. We don’t know if the lepers are Jewish or Samaritan, or some unusual combination of outcasts from both nations. When they head for the priests, we don’t know which direction they go. But this tiny detail sets the scene for Luke to shock his readers with the punch line: oh by the way, the guy that showed the right response to God’s grace? The only one who came back to glorify God and give thanks? That guy? Yeah, HE was a Samaritan! He was someone you would avoid at all costs on at least two counts: a leper and a Samaritan. A double outcast! And yet, Jesus saw him and healed him. What’s more, this Samaritan leper was the only one of ten who saw Jesus for who he really was, the only one who returned to thank Jesus and give glory to God.

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 

For the first time, we get a hint that Jesus is not traveling alone. The disciples have not been mentioned in this story. But now Jesus begins to teach by asking a series of questions, so we get the feeling that the disciples have been nearby all along, watching the story unfold before them. Interestingly, the word given to us in the New Revised Standard Version as “asked” really means “answered” in the Greek. Jesus is answering, or responding to, what has just happened, and he grabs this teachable moment to show his disciples again that the Kingdom of God is not what they expect it to be.

All ten of the lepers had faith enough to call on Jesus, submit to his authority, and ask for his mercy. All ten responded to Jesus in obedience, and all ten received physical healing. But where are the other nine? The obvious answer is that they are still headed toward the priests. Whether this is because of their blind obedience to the Law, or simply their eagerness to be restored to society, they are still going the other way. They may have recognized Jesus’ power to heal, but they have missed the point. They have not seen, as the Samaritan has seen, that faith means more than blind obedience.

Jesus asks, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” The word “foreigner” is used only in this one instance in the New Testament. Jesus calls attention to the fact that this one, born outside the people of God, is the only one who behaves in a manner appropriate to a true child of Abraham. Only this foreigner, who could not enter the inner courts of the Jewish temple, has shown the kind of faith that responds in gratitude to God’s grace.

Jesus restores the one at his feet by telling him to get up. As he has done before, and will do again before he finally reaches Jerusalem, Jesus announces, “Your faith has made you well.” Jesus is talking about more than leprosy here. He is proclaiming the Samaritan’s salvation as well as his physical health. Another pastor friend once commented, “All ten lepers were saved from leprosy, but only one is saved from despair.” Only the one who came back to give thanks, praising and glorifying God, showed the kind of faith that leads to salvation.

The lesson Jesus teaches is clear: The only authentic response to God’s saving grace is faith shown in action, and gratitude that erupts in praise, giving glory to God. So what keeps us from showing our faith by acting on it? What prevents us from being so grateful we can’t help but praise God?

I find that I’m a lot like the nine lepers who disappear down the road: it’s a lot easier for me to simply act on my faith than it is for me to praise God out loud for all the world to hear. I’d like to think I remember to be grateful for God’s goodness to me. I do say prayers of thanksgiving every day, but, if I’m honest, I also know that I’m a little embarrassed when I hear someone praising God for the traffic light staying green until they are through the intersection, or for the price on the gas pump going up just after they’ve pumped a tank-full of gasoline. “How nice for you” I think. “What about the person right behind you?” But the truth is that, while I am judging others for being self-centered in their gratitude, I’m not giving God very much glory in my day-to-day life. I can’t honestly say that praise erupts from my lips whenever I notice how good God has been to me. I’m a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth. What kind of weirdo would people think I am?

Luke gives us Jesus’ answer over and over: the kind of weirdo who turns away from the status quo and worships shamelessly at Jesus’ feet. It is no accident that the one who gets it right in this story is the Samaritan, the double outcast. The truth is that we don’t like to identify ourselves as outcasts, as undesirables. But that is what Jesus does time and again throughout the gospel story. He not only reaches out to the dregs of society, he identifies with them, eats with them, walks with them.

Luke often describes society’s “undesirable” people as models of faith and examples of Kingdom living, and the Samaritan leper is a prime example. Luke forces us, along with his first century readers, to recognize that God loves every single person ever born, and God wants every single person ever born to participate in Kingdom joy and fellowship. Luke reminds us that everyone is eligible to participate in the Kingdom of God. Luke uses the theme of reversal to keep us on our toes, to keep us from falling into the trap of thinking we’ve made it into the “desirable” club. The truth is that God doesn’t care how “desirable” we are by the world’s standards. In fact, if we take Scripture seriously, God loves the ones we consider ‘undesirable’ at least as much as He loves anyone else. And he calls us to love them, too. Not judge them. Not scold them. Not ignore them. Love them.

God wants each of us to become the full person we were created to be, so that we can enjoy God’s fellowship. That transformation can only take place when we put our complete trust in God, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so, just as the ten lepers started walking toward the priests before there was any evidence that their leprosy was gone.

To be fully transformed, however, means that we not only let our faith show in what we do, we express our thanks in ways that give glory to God. As we repent of our sin and turn toward Christ, God continues to transform us and we become people who, like the Samaritan leper, spontaneously give glory to God. Through the power of his Holy Spirit, God changes us into the more and more perfect image of God we were created to be. And it is this image that God uses to attract others – outcasts like us – into the Kingdom of God.

So how does this fit with our Sowing Seeds of Faith stewardship drive that begins today? It’s simple, really. As God continues to work in us, and as we continue to trust him, we become more and more like Christ. As we see with the eyes of Jesus, our hearts are moved to compassion just has Christ’s heart is moved. We may not have the gift of healing that let’s us say, “Go your way, your faith has made you well.” But we do have gifts we can share. Trusting God to use them for his glory, we offer them as our own act of worship. When we begin to see the other outcasts around us, and we admit that we are outcasts, too, we become free. We’re free to give God thanks and praise for the work he is doing here. And God calls us to be part of that work, sharing our gifts, meeting the needs we see, contributing whatever we can to the ministry God has given us to do in this time and place. Sowing Seeds of Faith is just one way to do that. But it’s a start.

The Parable of the Ten Apples

First, let me give credit where it’s due.  This isn’t my story.  I stole it from Rev. Phil Stenberg, who used to offer this little parable every year on Stewardship Sunday as the children’s sermon. I publish this story here so that the first paragraph of my sermon, “Ten Per Cent Return” makes sense. It needs props: ten apples. They need to be small, but not too small.

So, here’s the parable, as I received it from Phil, along with instructions for telling it:

Once upon a time, there was a man who had nothing … and God gave him ten apples.  He gave him three apples to eat, three to trade for shelter from the sun and rain, and three apples to trade for clothing to wear. He gave him one apple so that the man might have something to give back to God to show his gratitude for the other nine.
The man ate three apples (distribute apples to three children).  He traded three for a shelter from the sun and the rain (distribute these, too). He traded three for clothing to wear (hand out three more apples). Then he looked at the tenth apple.  It seemed bigger and juicier than the rest.  He knew that God had given him the tenth apple so he could return it to God out of gratitude for the other nine.  But the tenth apple looked bigger, and juicier than the rest.  And he reasoned that God had all the other apples in the world …

so the man ate the tenth apple

(this is where you must actually eat the apple as the children watch)

– and gave God back the core.

(Place the apple core in a prominent place, where it can be seen throughout the remainder of the worship service.)

How Big Is Your Faith? – Sermon on Luke 17:5-10 (October 6, 2013)

When Bruce and I first moved to Minnesota, we became acquainted with an invasive plant called buckthorn. European Buckthorn was introduced to Minnesota by landscapers who liked its appealing look. It often came under other names, such as black dogwood, alder dogwood, arrow wood, or Persian berries.Though it is sometimes called a dogwood tree, it is not related to North American dogwood species. Buckthorn has become an invasive nuisance in North America, partly because it blocks the sun from native plants, but also because it spreads quickly. Buckthorn bark and berries have a medicinal use: they are very effective laxatives, and the berries provide the harshest laxative effect. That’s the problem with buckthorn: birds like the berries, but they can’t digest the seeds. Buckthorn propagates through bird droppings.

As I considered today’s scripture passage, I was reminded of buckthorn. Like buckthorn, mustard weed also propagates through bird droppings, because birds cannot digest the seeds. Mustard weed was ancient Palestine’s version of buckthorn: a nuisance plant that was difficult to get rid of. Mustard plants grew rapidly, and could easily be more than six feet tall. They sprang up in the middle of wheat fields, and blocked the sunshine from the growing grain. It didn’t do much good to pull up the weeds, because birds would just drop seeds somewhere else in the field. Mustard seeds are tiny, but their impact on Palestine’s agriculture was huge.

In today’s passage, Jesus begins by comparing faith to a tiny mustard seed, but he goes on to explain that it isn’t how much faith you have that matters. It’s how you use it.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of amustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘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 all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” – Luke 17:5-10

If you’re thinking this saying about faith and mustard seeds sounds familiar, you’re right. We also hear Jesus make this statement in the Gospel of Matthew. But Matthew puts Jesus in a different setting than Luke does for this teaching.  In Matthew 17, Jesus has just cast out a demon that the disciples couldn’t get to budge. When they ask him why they couldn’t get rid of the demon, he tells them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”[1]

But here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is answering the disciples’ request for increased faith. Jesus had just been teaching them about forgiveness, and the importance of forgiving. Perhaps they realized that the kind of forgiveness Jesus was asking them to offer required more faith than they had. At least the disciples understood that faith wasn’t something they could manufacture on their own. They had figured out that it doesn’t develop by following a “Greater Faith in Thirty Days Plan.” They knew that faith is a gift from God.

Jesus says it doesn’t take much faith to do great things. The tiniest amount of faith can plant a tree in the ocean, or move a mountain from one place to another. In Matthew’s version, it sounds like Jesus is chiding the disciples for having so little faith, but here in Luke, we get a little different slant.

Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples how to get more faith. He doesn’t give the disciples a discipleship plan, or assign them each a faith journey partner, or ask them to write in their faith building journals. They might have been expecting a miracle, but they don’t get that, either. Instead of waving a magic wand and saying, “Poof, have more faith,” Jesus says, “It doesn’t take much faith to do what you need to do.”  In other words, “You have plenty right now.”

You have enough faith. It doesn’t take much. God has already given you all the faith you need.

Have you ever noticed how Jesus often manages to avoid answering questions that are put to him, by answering a different question altogether? This used to annoy me, particularly when I really wanted to know the answer to a question myself. Wouldn’t it be great, on those days when you feel like you need a little more faith, to look up Luke 17:5-6 and have the instruction manual right there in front of you? But instead of answering the question, Jesus goes off on some tangent that doesn’t even seem related to the current topic of discussion! It took me a long time to figure out why Jesus does this so often throughout the gospels. This passage is just one more example of Jesus telling the disciples they are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking for more faith, or bigger faith, the disciples should have been finding opportunities to act on the faith they already had. Instead of treating God like a short order cook who could be expected to slap a scoop of faith onto a plate, they needed to be living into the faith they’d already been given. To show the disciples how they’d gotten it backwards, Jesus tells a parable. And to understand the parable, we need to understand what slavery meant to the disciples who heard the story first.

Even though it was against Jewish law to own another Jew as a slave, slavery as an institution was quite common throughout the first century world. Slavery was the most common means available to get out of debt in that time. It was like taking out a loan with yourself as the collateral. You could sell yourself to another, to be that person’s servant for a contracted period of time, and use the money to pay off your debts. Once your agreed period of service was done, you were free again. Slavery was an institution that was taken for granted, and it apparently crossed common boundaries between social and economic classes. But the distinction between slavery and freedom remained clear. As a slave, you were bound to obey the authority of your master. And as a master, you were not beholden to your slave for the service that slave provided to you. As Jesus tells the story, he draws on the social construct of the day, assuming a small landowner with only one slave who works in the field as well as in the house (jobs that would be divided among several servants in a larger estate), a slave who does his duty, and expects nothing from his master in return for his labor. Jesus says, “Would you tell your slave to eat first, before serving you? Of course not. Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Serve my dinner, and then you can go eat yours?”

Then Jesus does something between verses nine and ten that we might miss if we aren’t careful. Up to this point in the story, Jesus has had his listeners identifying with the master of the house. Suddenly, he changes the viewpoint of his listeners to that of the slave. “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!’” In other words, being faithful and obedient to God doesn’t make God owe us anything. It’s what we are supposed to do. We need to be more faithful, serving with no expectation of praise or recognition, in true humility. Our obedience is by no means a way to gain honor, and good works aren’t something we do in order to receive a reward. We obey and serve because Christ calls us to follow him in obedient service. He gives us plenty of faith to do this, but it’s up to us to be faithful followers.

Not only does Jesus switch us from “master” viewpoint to “servant” viewpoint, asking us to identify with the humble servant who does what he’s asked to do without expecting any special reward, Jesus makes an even bigger shift. Notice how the pronoun changes from “I” to “we”? Once again, we are reminded that we can be believers in isolation, but to become true and faithful disciples, we must live out our faith in community.

Faith depends on this idea of community, because, when you get right down to it, faith is bigger than believing. The Heidelberg Catechism characterizes true faith not only as certain knowledge, but also as a “wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit create in me through the gospel.” Faith is trust, and trust requires relationship. As we put our trust in Jesus, we give up any illusions of depending on ourselves only, and we recognize that faith cannot be measured; it can only be lived.

We don’t need more faith; we need to be faithful. And it’s also possible that we need a different kind of faith. Maybe what we need is the kind of faith that, like mustard weed, spreads contagiously wherever it is dropped, grows persistently, and cannot be easily destroyed. Maybe what we need is the kind of faith that is willing to enter the process of Christian character formation with humility, spiritual discipline, and patient trust. When we understand that faith is trusting God, we can begin to live out that trust through discipline and humility, becoming true servants of God who do the work God gives us to do.

What work is that?  How can we be faithful servants who trust our Master?

Next Sunday, we will receive new members to this congregation. As we do so, we will promise to uphold one another through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

We promise to pray for one another, and with one another. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of us decided to meet together regularly to pray with each other for the needs of this congregation, this town, and Christ’s ministry among us?

We promise our presence. There’s a popular quote that floats around the internet. The percentages vary, but the most common version goes like this: “Ninety per cent of success is showing up.” No one seems to know who said it first. Most people ascribe the original quote to Mark Twain, but Woody Allen’s version, “Eighty percent of life is showing up” comes pretty close, too. The point is simple. You have to be present to participate in the full life of the Body of Christ. It isn’t something you can do via e-mail or text. It isn’t something you can pencil into your calendar, and erase when other events crowd into your time. Your presence among the people of God is not only important for you, it’s important for the rest of us.

We promise our gifts. Not only our tithes and offerings, but our spiritual gifts help to build up the Body of Christ. We have each been given a variety of gifts, and using them is part of our discipleship. It’s how we follow Jesus.

We promise our service. Not to be thanked, not to be recognized, not to receive honor, but because God calls us to serve.

And we promise our witness. This promise was added to the membership vows just a few years ago, to remind us that we are called to be witnesses to God’s work among us in the person of Jesus Christ, and his continued work among us through the power of the Holy Spirit. No one is asking you to stand on the street corner and preach. But as followers of Jesus, we are called to tell others the good news that God loves us so much he sent his own Son, that whoever believes on him will have eternal life.

Trust God. Be faithful. Have a contagious kind of faith that can’t help but share the good news. This is discipleship.

Recently, someone interviewed Christian author, educator and pastor, Eugene Peterson, who is probably most famous for his version of the Bible called The Message. Peterson is now eighty-one years old, and he shared his opinions about what it takes to become a devoted follower of Jesus. He was asked, “As you enter your final season of life, what would you like to say to younger Christians who are itchy for a deeper and more authentic discipleship?” Peterson answered, ”Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place.”[2]

Go to the nearest, smallest church, and stick it out for six months. Here we are, smack dab in the middle of New Ulm, Minnesota. We have plenty of faith. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed, dropped where it can take root, to do what God is calling us to do. God is calling us to be faith-ful, to trust him, to do the work he has given us, as obedient servants. God is calling us to promise our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness as we live out our faith together in this community we call ‘church.’ As we do that, we may discover that our faith does, indeed, grow – not because of anything we do, but because of the One we trust and obey. Amen.