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Pentecost 20 October 2, 2016 - The Rev. Canon Janet Campbell

PENTECOST 20  Proper 22 Year C

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, October 2, 2016
The Rev. Canon Janet Campbell
“I have here
a mustard seed . . .”
[Confusion as I search the lectern
trying to find it]
. . . these things are so small
I can’t tell whether it’s
still here or not . . .
[peering through magnifying glass]
Ha . . . Got it! . . .
[holding up between thumb and forefinger
pinched together]
About five one hundredths of an inch
in diameter.
[Lick it off fingertip]
The apostles said to Jesus,
“Increase our faith.”
“If you had faith even this tiny,”
Jesus replied,
“you could say to this mulberry tree
be uprooted and planted in the sea
and it would obey you.”
(Why anyone would want to say that
to a mulberry tree,
I don’t know.)
But of course,
that’s not the point.
Jesus spoke in absurdities
to bring his listeners up short
and challenge them
to re-examine their assumptions.
The point being . . .
faith is not a matter of quantity,
       something to be stored up
               until one has enough
               to do the impossible
               to endure the unendurable.

Its effect in one’s life has nothing to do     
       with amount.
Nor is its purpose
       the performing of fantastic stunts.
as we rationalists
tend to think,
is faith an assent
       to a set of propositions.
Faith is relationship
relationship with God,
a commitment
       born in gratitude
               and maturing in trust.
       for God’s goodness . . .
goodness manifest
in the gift of life,
       new every morning,
in the gift of love,
       and those with whom we share it . . .

in the beauty of Creation,
       and its life-and-soul-sustaining abundance,
in the many and fascinating bugs, birds and beasties,
       co-inhabitants with us of this earth . . .
in the rich diversity of humankind,
       our various cultures and ethnicities,
               our rainbow of colors,
               and all our possibilities . . .
goodness in the coming of Jesus to share our life . . .
       and despite how we keep messing up,
               to make it all new,
goodness in his continuing presence
       within and among us.
And springing from gratitude, trust . . .
in the reality and power of God’s grace
       permeating all of creation,
       flowing in and through our lives
               to strengthen and sustain,
               to challenge and encourage,           
                      ever urging and moving us
                              toward the life that truly is life,
                                     the life we see in Jesus.

And trust
that God’s goodness will always
       fill up what is lacking in us,
       work through our uncertainties and weaknesses,
       continue to transform us
               as we seek to follow Jesus.
The steadiness or wobbliness of our trust,
the strength or weakness or size of our faith,
       these do not make God
               more, or less, present,
               more, or less, involved,
               more, or less,
A literal reading
of the mustard seed parable
can lead to  
the mistaken belief
that faith can make things happen,
bring about any outcome we desire.
The result:
when the outcome is other than we had hoped,
we are guilty of inadequate faith.

As if we were deficient in faith
because we commanded a mulberry tree
       to leap into the sea and it didn’t,
because we said to a suffering loved one,
       “Be well” and she wasn’t cured,
because we cried out to the world,
       “Stop this madness,”
       and peace didn’t break out all over . . .
“If only,”
we say,
“if only my faith had been big enough,
strong enough
secure enough,
sincere enough  . . .”
and we fall into superstition.
Faith is not about our power or agency.
It is about relationship
with the one who is all power and agency.

So we surrender the outcomes
       of our prayers and desires
to the God
       whom we trust,
the God who is in relationship
       and intimately concerned
               with all that God has made . . .
       the mulberry tree,
       our loved ones,
       this violent and troubled world,
And we wait with patience
for the pattern of what God is weaving
       in the world
               with the threads of our lives.
It will become apparent,
at some undetermined future time,
we know not when.
Relationship with God
brings expectations and responsibilities
and Jesus makes that clear.
“Who among you,”
he asks the disciples,
“would thank your slave
for doing what you have commanded?”

In the
Middle-Eastern world,
most families had at least one slave,
       even the poorer families,
the roles of master and slave
       were clearly defined and accepted.
Jesus’ question is rhetorical;
the obvious answer, 
“no one among us.”
The master does what a master does;
the slave does what a slave does.
Thanks are not due.
From our own perspective,
we might wish
that this parable
did not take the servitude of one person to another
       for granted.
We might wish
that Jesus had used it
to condemn the inequity and ugliness of slavery,
to hold up the value
       of mutual servant-hood.

“Yes, if my slave had worked hard for me
       all day in the fields,
I, the master, would have him sit down at table
       and serve him.”
But Jesus’ purpose in this parable
was to use, as an example,
       a relationship common
               to the experience of his hearers,
       to challenge their expectations
               of their relationship with God.
“Well then,” he said,
coming right to his point,
“Why, when you have only done
what you were supposed to do,
should you expect thanks
from the one whom you serve?”
First he had cast them
       in the role of master;
now they find themselves
       in the role of slave.
Good slaves simply do what they are told to do,
with no expectation of thanks.

Relationship with God
       does not bring entitlement.
“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!’ ”
And there is a conundrum . . .
how is an obedient and dutiful servant
worthless . . . ?
The New English Bible translation
suggests a different sense:
“We are servants and deserve no credit.”  
We are servants . . .
We are servants
serving in the freedom of our relationship with God
       for the sake of serving;
we serve in the pattern of Jesus
       who said,
       “I came not to be served, but to serve.”

And so we come around,
in the end, after all,
to mutual servant-hood.
And yet, we are more than servants,
for Jesus also said,
“I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.”
And he said this
as he prepared to give himself on the cross,
to suffer and die and rise from the dead,
to bring us into the fullness of life
       that really is life.
We are that worthy in God’s eyes,
       of God’s concern,
       of God’s love,
       of God’s mercy,
       of God’s hopes,
       of God’s expectations.
Gratitude for what has been given.
Trust in the giver.
Joy in serving as Jesus served,
       in the freedom of friendship with God.

These two short sayings of Jesus
are kind of like
that tiny car
from which emerge a multitude of clowns.
There is more there
than we might expect,
and it behooves us
not to settle for one, or two,
or perhaps even ten, interpretations.
But for today . . .
we have gratitude, trust, and willing service.
This coming Tuesday, October 4th,
is the feast of Saint Francis,
and we commemorate him today,
since this is the day
we can all do that together.
Saint Francis,
the very embodiment
of gratitude,
trust in God,
joy in serving.

He saw the goodness of God
shining through all of creation
and gave thanks for it in poetry and song,
and in his affection for every living creature.
He left the privileged life of wealth
       into which he was born
to live in humility and poverty,
in trusting relationship with God.
Above all, he found joy in seeking and serving God
       in the least and the poorest of God’s children,
even in the hardships he embraced
       as he walked the way of Jesus
       with no expectation
               other than to be of service.
He was content to be a thread
to be woven into the fabric of God’s goodness.
There was that in St. Francis
that was winsome and delightful
       and that which was stern and demanding
               of himself and of his followers.
He finally lost control of the monastic order
       he had founded,
because his ideal of strict and absolute poverty
       was too difficult for most to observe.

But if he were to speak to us today,
perhaps his most urgent demand
would be that we take loving care of the Creation,
for the creation to Francis was a sacrament,
an outward and visible sign
       of God’s gracious indwelling of the world.
And would he not see
and call out
the direct correlation between
the pursuit of wealth
and the despoiling of the environment?
So let us celebrate Saint Francis
not just by asking God’s blessing
on our animal friends and companions later today,
       although that is certainly a good thing to do.
Let us also celebrate by today and every day
repenting of our degradation of Creation,
remembering that our relationship with Creation
       is an aspect of our relationship with God,
and dedicating ourselves to be  gentle occupants
               and gentle servants
                      of God’s endangered world.