Another Sermon that is Not About You

Lamentations 1:1-6
Psalm 137
Luke 17:5-10

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine


17: 5 “The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “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’? 8 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’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 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, NRSV)


Let us pray: God of all the ages, you have revealed your grace in our Savior, Jesus Christ. As we wait patiently on your mercies, strengthen us to live in your justice, that with open hearts we may hear and accomplish your will, this we pray through Christ, who lights the way to life everlasting. Amen.


It is a wintery Saturday morning during the Second World War.  Back when rationing was in effect and you couldn’t just walk into a store and buy as much sugar or butter or meat as you wanted.  You couldn’t fill up your car with gasoline because all of these commodities were rationed.  You could only buy a small amount of these things because the government wanted to make sure that there was enough for the war effort.


On this particular cold Saturday morning a man walked into a diner.  He sat down at the counter and ordered a cup of coffee.  The waitress brought the cup of steaming hot coffee and set it before him.


Then she asks, “Cream or Sugar?”  “Sugar.” The man replied.


The waitress then reached beneath the counter for the precious substance – sugar, was rationed – she put the sugar container and a spoon, on the counter in front of the man and she watched as the man poured not one, but two heaping teaspoons of sugar into his cup of coffee.  He stirred the cup of coffee and then he placed the sugar down on the counter, and sipped his coffee.


It was not sweet enough.  So, he reached for the sugar a second time.  The waitress’s eyes widened in disbelief as now, not one, nor two, but three heaping teaspoons were dumped into the cup.  Finally the man put the sugar down and the waitress grabbed the sugar container and quickly put it beneath the counter for safekeeping.  Sipping his coffee, the man was still not satisfied.  He asked for the sugar again.  With steel in her eyes and indignation in her voice the waitress replied:  “Stir up what you’ve got! You have enough!” Enough.


Jesus is basically saying the same thing to his disciples.  In recent passages he has been asking them to do some fairly extraordinary things – to give away their possessions, to forgive those who wrong you, not just once but countless times, to take up his cross, and more.  It is no wonder the disciples ask Jesus to “Increase our faith!”

Who wouldn’t?

But, just how much faith does a person need?


I feel for the disciples.  It is no wonder the disciples, the ones closest to Jesus believe they need more.  So they plead to Jesus to Increase our faith, for a transfusion of faith (literally “Add faith to us!”).[1]   They feel inadequate to the tasks he has challenged them with, they feel insufficient to the responsibilities, unable to imagine accomplishing any of what he is asking.  This just proves that being close to Jesus does not guarantee unwavering faith.  I suspect lots of us feel the same way.   Like we need more faith…to live with faith in our world today.[2]


Did you notice how Jesus responds, to the disciple’s request?  Because when the disciples recognize their need and ask Jesus for help, for more faith, you’d think he would be so pleased that they realize their shortcomings and he would gladly grant their request.  But he doesn’t.  Instead, it seems that he is rebuking them. “If you had even a speck of faith…,” he begins, implying that they actually don’t have faith even the size of a mustard seed. Wow, pretty harsh response to the disciple’s acknowledgement and plea for help.  But then again, this just maybe exactly what they needed – for them to understand that they have all the faith they will ever need.  What they don’t have is an understanding of what it means to have faith.


So he tells them about servants and masters except that everyone knows that servants aren’t invited to the table with the master; servants eat when their work is done.  Hired help is not praised for their work; they just do it or else they aren’t paid.  Jesus seems to say that this is what faith is like doing what needs to be done.  But what Jesus is demanding is impossible; when he says to them that they should forgive a sinner who repents.[3]  Then he adds, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” So, you see it is no wonder the disciples plead to him for help.  How can Jesus expect any normal human being to forgive someone for treating them badly that many times?


If a person treats me badly— over and over and over and then say they’re sorry, is Jesus serious that he expects me to forgive the jerk every time? Really! Well, that isn’t going to happen!  No way, no how!  And that is just the point of this lesson.


The gap between what Jesus asks of the disciples and of us and our ability to do it is enormous.  Jesus is pointing out that we are thinking of faith all wrong, thinking of it as a human commodity, something that we do, some especially intense sort of believing, or some really focused positive thinking, some kind of scarce resource that needs to be saved, spent, and added to.  Faith is simply and humbly doing what needs to be done.[4]


Despite the 2000+ years separating their experience from ours, Jesus suggests that size does not matter; even a seed of faith holds great potential.  The reality is this: We have all the faith we need to do great things for God. Or, to be more biblically and theologically correct, we have all the faith we need to allow God to do great things in, with and through us.


Today we are invited to humbly ask God to increase, not our faith, but rather our willingness to be used by God in any way God chooses. After all, we might add, one who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much.[5]

[1] Reverend Dr. Audrey West, Commentary on Luke 17:5-10

[2] Reverend Dr. David Lose, Luke 17:5-10, Pentecost 20 C: Every Day Acts of Faith

[3] (Luke 17:1-4, NRSV)

[4] The Reverend Dr. Delmer Chilton, Lectionary blog for Oct. 2 the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

[5] Luke 16:10, NRSV

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