It's what we do...

Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26
Psalm 137
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

Today’s scripture readings seem anything but comforting. We move from Lament over the loss of family, nation, and land into an intimate conversation between colleagues in ministry who suffer together the burden of faith in a time of persecution. Then, when we approach the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Holy comforter, the Prince of Peace, we are called worthless slaves. There is yet hope in the midst of the messiness and misery of this proclamation, and it is found in the context. It is found in the corporate nature of our calling to bear burdens together and become blessed by God’s activity in our midst. Together we can see that we are not alone, and that has some value in and of itself. Together we can proclaim like the writer of Lamentations, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in God.”

There’s a song by Amy Grant that has been out for a few months now called “Better than a Halleluiah” that reminds me of the idea of hope in the midst of suffering. She sings:
God loves a lullaby In a mother’s tears
in the dead of night
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes.
God loves a drunkard’s cry,
The soldier’s plea not to let him die
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes.
We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a Hallelujah

Mrs. Grant is not suggesting that God is some sadistic entity reveling in the schadenfreude of human suffering. She is reminding us that this is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the God who made us and loves us enough to allow us to become a beautiful mess. This is the God who suffers with us through our relationships with one another. Like Timothy and Paul, we find encouragement when we go to visit one another in the hospital, pray for one another on Wednesday afternoons, deliver meals on wheels, and take the time to call one another just to check in. We find wholeness and peace when we wrestle with each other over issues we do not agree upon. We find comfort in the knowledge that love is not diminished by conflict, but actually made stronger!

Today is a day set aside to celebrate the common unity that we have in the Christian faith. Today we will celebrate communion with Christians all over the world. Although this tradition started in the Presbyterian Church in 1936, it was adopted by the Department of Evangelism of the Federal Council of Churches (a predecessor body of the National Council of Churches) as World Wide Communion Sunday in 1940. World Communion Sunday is significant in that we affirm and celebrate the diversity of the church. For all of our divisions and differences, there is but one claim, and that is that Jesus Christ is Lord!

I’ve been thinking about that for a while now. What does it mean to us who live in a largely democratic, fundamentally market driven global economy to say that Jesus Christ is Lord? We have no more concept for Lordship than we do slavery. Not that oppression and slavery no longer exist. We are just so far removed from it in our daily lives that we do not have an experience to interpret these concepts with, or so we think.

Enter today’s gospel message into this, and we find a passage that John that Shelby Spong, whose book we are studying on Wednesday nights, would call a text of terror: a Bible passage that supports and affirms the unhealthy traditions of society that the church continues to bless and promote. The parable of the unworthy slaves begins with the disciples begging for more faith, more ability to respond to grace, more of God’s providence, for they have just been given an impossible task. They have been told to forgive, not just once but 70 times 7 (basically without limit). Jesus at first seems dismissive, and then gets downright mean. “Why do you expect a thank you for doing what you are supposed to do? You are a worthless slave.”

The word worthless is the most problematic and hurtful. Some of the original Greek manuscripts do not include it, and some other translations have chosen to soften it by saying, “unworthy”. But the older manuscripts have it, and so does the NRSV. The obvious problem is that it disturbs our sense of being created with any goodness or value at all. Bishop Desmond Tutu, in his book “Made for Goodness”, suggests some reasons why this abiding lack of self worth is so damaging. He writes, “What difference does goodness make? Goodness changes everything. If we are at core selfish, cruel, heartless creatures, we need to fight these inclinations at every turn and often need strong systems of control to prevent us from revealing our true selves. But if we are fundamentally good, we simply need to rediscover this true nature and act accordingly.”

I realize that the staunch Calvinists here are shaking their heads, but I submit to you that even Calvin would agree that through Christ we are being perfected and returned to our true nature as created in the image of God and therefore very good, indeed. The truth is that God’s grace is not about our goodness, but about Christ’s willingness to submit to the will of God. In some ways, that becomes a paradox, since Jesus was very God and very man at the same time. The best I can say to make sense of that is that Jesus, the man, was the embodiment of God’s will. So, doing God’s will was not a special thing. It is who he was. It is what he did. And in the doing of God's will he reminds us that we do not need more faith. We just need to respond with what we have. Jesus, the one who came not to be served but to serve, addresses the disciples as masters. “Which one of you expects your slave to eat with you?” Then he twists it on them in the end, because their response to grace, their faithfulness (which they begged for more of even though they did not need it) is not something of value but rather an appropriate response. It is interesting to me though, that the one who tells us not to expect to be called to the banquet is the very one who invites us to this table.

The movie Places in the Heart is set in the Dust Bowl of America during the Great Depression. Edna, played by Sally Field, is facing a harsh reality. After her husband dies in an accidental shooting, she must find a way to provide for her family and keep up the mortgage payments on the family farm. Salvation comes with the arrival of an itinerant black man and a blind white man who add their support to her efforts to bring in a cotton crop. The closing scene, set in a church, has the characters that we met during the course of the film including Edna’s husband and the man who killed him as well as others who are both living and dead, enemies and friends. All are sitting together in worship, sharing communion.

The message is clear. It is through our common union in Jesus Christ that we are gathered and given purpose and meaning. Our purpose is to proclaim the forgiveness and peace that is made available to us through Jesus Christ. That is what the Peacemaking Offering is about this Sunday. That is why we collect Peanut Butter on Communion Sundays for the United Christian Outreach. That is why we have helped to form and sustain the ministry of C.U.P.S. That is why we have the ability to say that we helped form Grace and Trinity as daughter congregations. Proclaiming peace and reframing the world we live in through forgiveness is why we are here. It is what we do.

We do not come to be comforted and coddled. We come here to be sanctified, encouraged, redeemed, and sustained for lives of faithful service. We come here to be reminded again and again that we have the ability to be makers of peace in this world! Each of us has a far greater reach of influence than we imagine. Not because of our worthiness (or lack thereof), but only because of Christ’s willingness to put death to death!

We are all connected to something much bigger than our own interests, our own needs, hopes, and fears. Through God’s will and by God’s grace all things do work toward God’s good intention for humanity. Though we can envision a scene where friends and enemies have come together, it will never happen unless we look past our own limitations and become as Christ to one another. We have to do this as individuals, as a church, and in our relationship as a body with the community that surrounds us. If we can embrace our commonality in all aspects of our lives, we can live as citizens of God’s Kingdom here and now.

As we take the bread and the cup, let us be mindful not only of the part it plays in reminding and confirming our own salvation, but also the part we play in one another’s salvation and in the coming of God’s kingdom. Until God’s promised rule comes in completeness, offering forgiveness and working to make the world a place where we all get a glimpse of the kingdom is what we do. It is who we are. And to God be the glory. Amen.
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