Proper 22, Year C
Sorry this is a little late, folks; I was traveling yesterday, and didn't get a chance to post.
Luke 17:5-10 - link to NRSV text
There's a lot that I appreciate a great deal about using a lectionary. It means that over the course of three years, congregations get at least some exposure to scripture from across the canon, and encourages preachers to deal with a variety of themes over time, rather than simply dwelling on one favorite topic.
Sometimes, though, I find the lectionary editing to be a little awkward, giving us small chunks of texts that, presented without context from the larger document, are difficult to appreciate fully. At times, I think that trying from the lectionary to instill appreciation for scripture is a little like trying to get someone hooked on Will and Grace by having them watch one 30-second segment from a different episode each week. It'd be hard to get to know the characters or find any kind of arc in the story. Heck, it'd be hard sometimes even to catch the jokes. And Luke is a lot more subtle than Will and Grace.
This Sunday's gospel is one of those slightly awkward points in the lectionary for me. Luke tends to group sayings thematically, but this is a pretty loose grouping -- I'd say that the section is roughly from Luke 17:1-21, and the theme is the broad one of "community relationships." Here's the progression I see:
The section starts with encouragement to forgive one another (vs. 1-4), continues with the saying on faith (vs. 5-6), moves on to address honor-seeking behavior with the saying about slaves (vs. 7-10), uses the healing of the lepers to look at what kinds of relationships and community Jesus creates (vs. 11-19 -- more on that next week), and climaxes with the saying that the community Jesus calls together IS God's kingdom (vs. 20-21), which becomes the jumping-off point for considering eschatology, what the climax of history will be like (17:22-18:9).
This week, we've got two units of tradition from that "community relationships" thematic cluster: the saying on faith and the saying about the slave. One of the challenges posed for preachers here, I think, is that the looseness of the thematic grouping makes it hard to craft a cohesive sermon that addressed the whole text for this week.
On one hand, I'd be tempted to preach on the saying about the slave, and mostly because it strikes me as a difficult text. Read in isolation from its cultural context and without considering similar sayings, the exhortation not to come to the table and to think of oneself as "worthless" sounds like a recipe for neurosis. But the saying needs to be read in the context of Luke's theme of the great reversal -- the casting down of the mighty and raising up of the lowly. In keeping with Lucan eschatology, this reversal is both "now" and "not yet"; it is a guide for how Christians should behave in the community that is the inbreaking of God's kingdom now, and it is done now in anticipation that this great reversal will be consummated and made universal at the climax of history. I'd suggest reading Luke 14:7-11 alongside this Sunday's gospel to provide a little more context, as what's made clear repeatedly in Luke's gospel, from the Magnificat to Jesus' resurrection, but isn't explicit in this text is Luke's expectation that those who follow Jesus' exhortation to concentrate on serving and honoring others will be vindicated as Jesus, the Lord, honors them; the one who chooses the lowest seat (or no seat) will be brought to the highest one.
That'll preach, I'd say. But it's theme that's raised so frequently in Luke that I think I'd be inclined instead to concentrate on verses 5-6, the saying about faith, and specifically, I'd want to read it in the context of this thematic clump Luke places it in. It's a helpful corrective to our Western tendency to think of "faith" as an individual matter, and Christian faith as something that can be practiced apart from community.
That sort of view doesn't fit well with the meaning of pistis ("faith," in most translations into English). Ask for definitions of "faith" on the street, and I suspect most of us would hear things that boiled down to something like being willing to assent to some proposition -- to say that you believe a particular statement is true. Some people would add that it's willingness to say something is true even when there doesn't seem to be much evidence to support it, or even when the evidence seems to suggest that the opposite is true. Sometimes, I call this definition of faith "trying to talk yourself into thinking that you think it."
But that's not what Christian faith is. It's not about what goes on in your head. It's not even necessarily about "believing in your heart that it's true." It's not about what you feel.
Side note: lots of people say things to this effect, and base it on the Latin credo, "I believe," coming from the root cardia, or "heart." They say then that saying "I believe" is about what you feel and not what you think. Unfortunately for this argument, people had different views in the ancient world about which organ did what, and pretty much nobody thought that thinking went on in the brain. They thought that thinking went on in -- you guessed it -- the heart. The heart wasn't seen as the seat of emotions any more than the brain was seen as the seat of rational thought.
So if Christian faith isn't summed up by "I feel in my heart that this is true" any more than it is by "I think in my brain that this is true," what's it about?
I'd say it's about a different dimension to our word "true." It's about the kind of "true" we mean when we say, "he's true blue," or "she's true to her friends." It's about relationship. It's about relationship with integrity -- our willingness to put our resources and our very selves behind what we say is important -- or more accurately, WHOM we say is important to us. It's about fidelity, trust, allegiance.
And that's what Jesus asks of us as our Lord and gifts to us from his grace. Jesus calls us into a community in which we are each freed to give freely of everything we have to give, because we're ALL sharing with one another as if all of our resources -- money, power, time, and love -- were unlimited. It's the sort of vision that some shake their heads at and call impossible. But nothing is impossible, Jesus says, with faith. Nothing is impossible when we realign our relationships as Jesus calls us to do; we find the power we need from the community -- the communion -- we find with Jesus and the Body of Christ once we take the leap of faith to risk deeper relationship.
It's a truth that we don't necessarily think, or even feel; it's a truth we live into. So perhaps the connection between the saying about faith and the saying about the slave is stronger than it might first seem. It might seem impossible that we find what we need -- honor and esteem as well as our material needs -- as we learn to give what we've got freely and to the benefit of others. And maybe it's helpful sometimes to let ourselves enter into humble service without Luke's certainty that Jesus will raise us up, because I don't think that most of us can muster up a sense of certainty for ourselves before we take that next tiny step forward, much as it feels like a huge leap of faith, to serve without thought of reward. But for each step forward we take on the journey into that truth, that integrity, that freedom, we find more to strengthen us for the journey. In the community to which Christ calls us, we've got what we need -- a mustard seed of faith, and companions who will lend us theirs when we can't find our own.
I hope that mulberry trees don't have a negative impact on the ecosystem of the ocean!
Thanks be to God.