Faith and Forgiveness

A Sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian, Boise, Idaho

October 3, 2010

Luke 17:1-10

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!  It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And 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.”
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
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.
“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!’”

Lamentations 3:19-26

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
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 him.”

The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.

The assigned reading today from Luke’s gospel actually didn’t begin until verse 5, when the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. I added the earlier verses because I wanted us to get a sense of why the disciples were asking for more faith.

They aren’t just asking for more faith so they can store it up for future use. They aren’t asking for more faith so they can be super apostles and impress people with their faith-i-ness.

I think they are asking for more faith because of verses 1-4:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!  It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.  Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.  And 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.”

Forgiveness. Forgiveness. Forgiveness.

Jesus has just told the disciples that when someone repents, they must forgive.

Even if they offend you seven times in one day, and turn to you seven times with repentance, you must forgive.

No wonder the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith.

Because true repentance is hard. True forgiveness is hard.

And I wonder if it is even harder within a faith community than it is out in the world. Because the stakes are higher here. This is the place where we want everything to be nice, happy, friendly, and safe. But we’re human. We hurt each other.

Often times, rather than face it head on, telling someone, “I felt hurt when you….”, we just say, “Oh, I don’t want to make a big deal out of it and make them feel uncomfortable.” We think that “being Christian” means not saying difficult things. We think that keeping a false peace is more important than seeking justice and truth.

And then we lose authentic community. We make this a place where we only pretend to be honest. We keep up an appearance of peace, when hurt and resentment simmer below the surface.

I do think that we have to be careful and kind when we do go to someone who has hurt us. We aren’t given permission to go be mean and say we’re doing it for the sake of community. We have to go in love, ready to listen and to hear and to see truth in what the other person is saying.

And so we, like the disciples, ask for more faith.

If you noticed, Jesus is not all puppies and rainbows in this passage. He makes it very clear that how we treat each other matters greatly. The stakes are high. It would be better to be thrown into the sea than to cause someone else to stumble.

And so the disciples ask for more faith.

And we should as well. Because we want to have real and authentic community, where we can be honest with each other.

I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m not much of a mind reader. And so I do hope that if I ever do anything to offend, that you would come and share that with me so that I can do what I can to make amends. I am sincerely sorry for anything that I have done that has hurt or offended any of you. If there are conversations we need to have, please let me know.

We need to commit to do that for each other.

And so we ask for more faith.

Because Christ calls us to live as he lived, not as the world lives. And so it is our faith that allows us to attempt it.

But when they ask for faith, what does he say?

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.”

I think we sometimes hear this comment as rebuke.
If you only had a little bit of faith….
you could fix your broken relationships
you could heal cancer
you could find a job
you could have all the money you need to be happy.

How often do you feel like that?

As if the painful situations in your life are because you somehow failed or are unworthy?

I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying here. I think he’s telling us that we have what we need. I think he’s telling us that it doesn’t take a 40 gallon vat of faith to repent, to forgive each other, and to live together in real community. I think he’s telling us that even with faith the size of a mustard seed, we can do amazing and miraculous things.

Like say we’re sorry and forgive each other.

He then goes on to tell a story about a slave and his master. And it makes us get very uncomfortable because, well, it is about a slave and his master.

But, to the point, I wonder if his illustration about a slave doing his job is a reminder to us about why we’re given mustard seeds of faith in the first place—to be God’s serving community. Faith is not to be collected and hoarded, but faith is to be lived out as servants of God. “We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done.”

Our response to receiving faith, whether it comes in a tiny mustard seed or a big vat, is to then go out and be God’s servants in the world.

Notice also that the slaves are mentioned in the plural “we”.  We are connected in our faith. As I’ve said before, our faith may be personal, but it shouldn’t be private. In other words, we aren’t given mustard seeds worth of faith to only be of benefit for ourselves. We are supposed to take our little bits of faith and combine them with the little bits of faith around us. What each of us can do individually is nothing compared to what we can do together.

In a few minutes we’ll come to the table for communion, which might be the best image for us of the communal nature of our faith. This is World Communion Sunday, which reminds us that in addition to sharing a meal at Christ’s table here in this room, we are sharing this communion with brothers and sisters in Christ all across the world.

World Communion Sunday started in 1936 because a group of Presbyterian pastors in America were concerned about the state of the world. The Great Depression and a looming World War 2 called these people to reaffirm our unity in Christ, regardless of nationality, race, creed, or political ideology.

Other churches joined in over the years. And in the 1970’s, our denomination decided that World Communion Sunday is the appropriate day to celebrate our commitment to peacemaking. So this morning we’ll be collecting the peacemaking offering. 25% will remain here to be used toward peacemaking in our community. The remainder of the offering will be sent to the denomination to support peacemaking efforts around the country and the world.

Each of our little mustard seeds of offering will be combined with gifts from all around the country. Together they will be able to work for peace in ways that none of us could individually.

“Increase our faith!”, the apostles said to Jesus.

We too, ask for this.

When the task seems too great; when we feel that we can’t even find a mustard seed of faith to get through the day, I invite you to remember the words we heard this morning from 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.

This song, written by one in exile and buried under much pain and sadness, is one of hope. Not because of himself. Not because the world around him gave him hope.

But because of God.

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.

“Increase our faith”, we cry out.

We come to this table today as Christ’s own body, united with the hope that comes from God, trusting that with even a mustard seed sized faith, we can serve the God whose steadfast love never ceases, whose mercies never come to an end.  May it be so.

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