10/30/2016 Sermon – Go and Do the Same #3: “Up in the Tree”

A couple of weeks ago, somebody asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

When Jesus replied, he told the story of the Good Samaritan, who helped a man who was mugged.  Then he asked, “Who was the neighbor in that story?”    And the reply was, “The one who showed mercy.”

Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”  That’s our theme for this series.

Last week, we looked at who our neighbors are and what we can learn from them.  Today, we’re going to let Jesus show us how he does neighboring.

Luke 19:1-10. He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ 9Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

Does anybody here have a sycamore tree near their house?  Sycamores can grow to be huge trees with enormous limbs.  It has the biggest trunk of any tree in Pennsylvania (and the northeast).

owl
Owl in Mt. Joy, PA

I don’t know my trees very well, but I know how to tell a tree is a sycamore: the bark is in big thin patches and falls off all year as the tree grows.  When they get old, they might be hollow.  There are ancient stories of people finding shelter inside sycamore trees.

A church member told me about this sycamore tree in a park in Mt. Joy (PA).  It had a family of owls living in it.  That hole is about 50 feet off the ground.

Whenever I hear this story about Zacchaeus being in a sycamore tree (that’s the traditional Zacchaeus tree in Jericho), I think of the big sycamore behind the house I grew up in.  My brothers built a treehouse in it.  It was just a platform made of old shutters about ten or twelve feet off the ground.  You got up there with a rope ladder.  It was kind of dangerous, the more I think about it.  Did you have a treehouse when you were younger?  Why have a treehouse?  It’s a place to get away.  It’s private.

I think Zacchaeus is up in the tree not just to get a better view, but to get away from the crowd, to be out of sight, to be safe.  This story wants to make sure we know that nobody likes this guy.

In your neighborhood, there is the one neighbor everybody stays away from.  In your school, there is the one kid that you and most of your friends avoid.  That’s Zacchaeus.  These days, it seems so easy to put a target on somebody.  Maybe you’ve got some experience with being that person.

entry-into-jerusalem-giotto-1305
“Entry Into Jerusalem” (detail) Giotto – 1305

The people in the crowd would say they’ve got a good reason for the way they feel about Zacchaeus.  He’s a Jewish guy who collects taxes for the Romans, the occupying army, which makes him a traitor in the minds of all his Jewish neighbors.

For us, it wasn’t like he worked for the IRS.  You may not like the IRS, but IRS agents aren’t thought of as traitors to their country.  Not only does Zacchaeus have an unpopular job, he is rich.  Think about that – a tax collector, who is rich, and works for the bad guys.  Most tax collectors for the Romans made their living by skimming off the top of what they gathered.

So he is easy to hate.  Do you get it?  He’s up in that tree not just to see over the crowd.  He doesn’t really want to be in the crowd either.  He probably needs the Romans to protect him from his own people.

Maybe you know a Zacchaeus.  The path of his life led him to this place.  Maybe, for some reason, he couldn’t get any other job.  Does he want this life?  Maybe, but he is paying a price for the choices he’s made.  Can you put yourself in his place up in the tree?  Walk in his shoes, just for moment.  Maybe you are a Zacchaeus in some way.  There’s a lot of bad water that’s flowed under your bridge, and there’s a lot of inner healing you know you need.  You’ve heard Jesus is nearby, you’ve heard stories, and you have to see him.

Jesus, the Son of God, walks along through Jericho. He knows this kind of crowd, so I think he looks for somebody just like Zacchaeus.  When he came to the edge of town, he may have asked who the local tax collector was. Who’s the one nobody likes?  Who’s got the bad reputation?  Who’s the one everybody stays away from?  You say that’s him in the tree?

And so, in front of everybody, he calls him out, “Yo, Zacchaeus!  Get down out of the tree!  I’m staying at your house!”  Jesus puts his arm around his shoulder and they walk off toward Zacchaeus’ house.

This is scandalous. It would have made the TV gossip shows.  Jesus went out of his way to hang out with somebody that most respectable, well-mannered people wouldn’t have anything to do with.  If that’s you, Jesus would love to come to where you live.  He’d love to hang out.  For everybody watching that happen: you know those people nobody trusts, the ones who don’t fit?  Guess who Jesus is going to have dinner with.  Guess who Jesus wants you to have dinner with!  As he walks off to Zacchaeus’ house, he looks at you, motions with his hand, and tells you to come along!

Jesus’ relationship with Zacchaeus created tension, conflict, some unpleasantness, but Jesus cared more about having a relationship with Zacchaeus than about preserving peace.  Jesus has a habit of making comfortable people uncomfortable.

That crowd around Jesus cringed when he looked up in the tree and said, “Zacchaeus, come down – I’m staying at your house!”

This story is about salvation.  How was Zacchaeus saved? First, when Jesus called, he said yes.  That’s the first and most important step – invite Jesus in.  That’s the game changer, the life changer. If you’ve never invited Jesus into your life, I’d encourage you to do that. It’s a simple prayer.

Jesus must have had a huge, profound effect on him because Zacchaeus gave half of his living to the poor and dedicated himself to treating others fairly.  This is what God wants to do in our lives: enter in (at our invitation), change us, and make the world better through us.  Salvation has a warning sign on it! God begins making you less selfish!

When he met Jesus, Zacchaeus became a giver.  He changed and became a generous person.  But the real story of giving is about what Jesus gave Zacchaeus.  Jesus gave Zacchaeus respect, gave him self-esteem.  That’s what helped Zacchaeus turn his attention off himself and toward others.

God is waiting to do the same thing with each of us: turn our attention off of ourselves and toward others.  That is what God the Holy Spirit does in us when we believe.

When God sees us, God looks at the whole package and loves us, no matter who we are or where we’ve been.  Throughout the gospel of Luke especially, you will find that there is no such thing as a separation between a person’s faith and their finances.  They are intertwined.  It’s all together.  This is why the church talks about tithing.  Tithing literally means giving 10% of your living, but Zacchaeus gave 50%.  There’s another story in Luke about a rich young ruler whom Jesus told to give everything away.  The point is not what you give, but that it represents your life.  A percentage represents a connection to everything you have (which belongs to God anyway).

That whole story is about giving.  The Christian faith is all about giving: what we give to God, what God gives to us, what we give to each other.

Like that tax collector in the tree, we come to God in need of healing, self-respect, and a new attitude toward other people.  We believe in the living Jesus and God gives us those things. May God say of us, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

Prayer

O God, you’ve searched us out and we know that there’s no place to hide from you.  You come looking for us by name and you find us.  We might be hiding in a tree or in a busy schedule.  We might be hiding behind a mask, hoping that everybody thinks we’re something we’re not.  And sometimes we don’t care what anybody thinks anymore.  We thought we would stand off to the side and let you pass by, but you call us by name and you want to stay with us.  You want to be friends.  Your love searches us out and you wrap your arms around us.  Your love fills us.  Change us into people who make your presence known by sharing that love.  Help us introduce others to you.  Amen.

10/23/2016 Sermon – Go and Do the Same #2: “The Poor Empowered”

Last week, the religious law expert, the lawyer,  asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

When Jesus replied, he told the story of the Good Samaritan, who helped a man who was mugged.  Then he asked, “Who was the neighbor in that story?”    And the reply was, “The one who showed mercy.”

Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”

That’s our theme for this series, and today we’ll think a little more about neighbors, how we show mercy, and what we can learn from them.

nola-homelessI’d like to tell you about James.  You probably don’t know him and this story isn’t about any of the people in the bible named James – and he didn’t write the scripture passage for today.  The James I’m thinking of used to live in Berea, Ohio, near the Cleveland airport. Kathy and I lived there in the late seventies, before I went to seminary, and we knew James.  But I don’t think I ever knew his last name.

He used to ride around on a beat-up bicycle wearing an old army jacket and a stocking cap – all year.  He had all sorts of gadgets stuck on that bike, including baskets that held probably most of the things he owned. He was short – maybe five feet tall.  In the six years we lived in Berea, I never once saw him clean, or at least what I consider to be “clean.”  His teeth were not good.

James was a few years younger than us, and he was very friendly.  When we would run into him, he would always smile and make up some small talk.  He seemed intelligent enough, but I heard that he had some sort of severe learning disability and couldn’t handle school – especially when other kids made fun of him because of his height.

His parents threw him out when he was a teenager. We never knew where he slept at night, and he would never tell, but we thought that he probably knew a secret way into a vacant hospital building down the street.

Early in the morning he would sweep the floors at the local McDonalds and they would give him something to eat.  He also used to get handouts from the people at our church.  He would come to church on Sundays carrying a beat-up paperback bible and sometimes people would take him in for the night.

A few of our friends made an effort to reform James.  They tried to get him regular work, and gave him a room and food in exchange for chores.  That arrangement usually lasted for about a week.  Then James would disappear.  Whenever there was too much responsibility in his life, he would duck out of sight – and show up at church a few days later.

I never saw him beg, but he knew where to come for help, and I knew that these were the only people in his life who cared about him.  And as far as I know, they were always there for him.

Sometimes when I stand at the back door of the church building, I can imagine James parking his bike outside behind one of the bushes.  Then he opens the side door for the sanctuary and walks down the aisle with his worn-out paperback bible in his hand.  He sits down somewhere – maybe next to you or your kids.

How do you feel?  What do you do?  When we greet each other, when you “pass the peace” to people near you, are you friendly to him?  How do you feel when you see him head out into the rain after the service and ride off to who-knows-where?  Does he have some gift for the church that he could give if we let him?

Reading the book of James makes me think of James from Berea.  In this passage, I’d like you to lock into one or two verses that really speak to you.

James 1:27 – 2:10.  27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. 

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?* 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’,* 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.* Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

8 You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 

What verse caught you?

How do you think people show favoritism today?  Have you ever seen it happen?  Have you ever been hurt by other people’s favoritism?

Can you imagine the people who first received that letter – and how they felt?  How do you suppose they reacted?

According to tradition, this was one of the first books of the New Testament and the James that wrote those words was the half-brother of Jesus, not the apostle James (the fisherman).  He was not one of the twelve apostles.  He knew Jesus growing up and at some point became a believer, and that’s really kind of huge when you think about it.  He saw it all, the before and after.  Maybe he had his own story of meeting the resurrected Jesus!  This James is all about a believing lifestyle.  All about following Jesus honestly, without hypocrisy.  Your faith has to mean something real; it has to be lived out.

He quotes Jesus saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (v. 8)  And according to that scripture, if you don’t do that, you are a law-breaker!

Just to make sure we have the complete thought from Jesus, here is the whole thought that James was probably thinking of…  (let’s say it together)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  Matthew 22:37-40

For me, it’s hard not to think about James from Berea, Ohio when I read the book of James, because our church in Ohio (all those years ago) welcomed him.  Maybe there’s somebody you think of when you read or hear those words.  It’s one of those readings that “cuts to the chase.”   This scripture is about making judgments, about not loving our neighbors, and I’m afraid it’s a common thing in churches – in all times and places, in one way or another.

It’s not about whether you drop your change in a homeless person’s cup; it’s about whether we ignore people in our own family who don’t happen to share the same lifestyle as ours.  The first verse cuts like a knife:  “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

So these words from James are not about whether we help people.  It’s about whether we welcome them, which is a reflection of our faith in Christ. Before we wallow much longer in guilt, although we are not the perfect church, I’d like to say that I believe, at least from my perspective, I think we do pretty well at welcoming people in our church without showing favoritism, and it’s mostly because our local culture is comparatively generous and fair. Comparatively, that is.  This is important.  I know of churches that have closed, simply because they couldn’t find a way to reflect their neighborhood.  This is something that our leadership knows we have to work at.

dscf0192Our Mission Team is planning a trip to the Back Bay Mission in Mississippi next summer.  I have a mental image of a street in Biloxi: two houses side by side with a chain-link fence in between.  On one side is a two room shack with a tin roof; the porch is about to fall in. Yes, I was told, somebody lives there; there’s no such thing as an abandoned house in Biloxi if it’s still standing.

On the other side of the fence is a brick ranch-style house with a two car garage and nice landscaping.  The lawn is green and thick on that side of the fence, and two big German shepherd guard dogs stare through the chain links at the house next door, and at anybody who happens to walk by.  Maybe these people go to church together.  Probably not, but maybe they do.  I wonder how much the neighbors love each other in that place.  Is your town like that in any way?

The verse that gets me is…

Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? (v. 5)

We really miss out when we are economically exclusive.  We miss the blessing of knowing those who are rich in faith.  Have you ever met somebody who is rich in faith?  In Biloxi, we think we are going to serve the poor, we who think we are rich.  And the truly rich people in that neighborhood welcome us into their lives and teach us.  Let me tell you how that works:

dscf0012When we paint Mrs. Jones’ house, she teaches us all about being content with what you have.  She’s in the house all day in a wheelchair and is really thankful for the company.  She constantly makes lemonade for us while we paint a house that probably should be torn down years ago.  But she is truly happy, this black lady with one leg.  Until we start making the place smell like paint, she makes it smell like fresh bread.  And it’s going slow because she’s always sitting us down to talk.

I love going with groups to these places.  By the time we’re ready to get back on the plane or in the van, the group has forgotten about the beaches and everybody wants a copy of the picture we took with Mrs. Jones on her front porch.  Happens every time.

And we’re so proud of ourselves for this great thing we did, why, we welcomed her into our little family.

But the more we think about it, she welcomed us, and taught us some things about ourselves we needed to know.  She taught us how to be rich.  We came home really believing in the Lord Jesus Christ.  This Christ who went out of his way to be with outcasts.  The Christ who didn’t have much, and what little he owned was stolen while he was dying on the cross.

I just had this odd vision of James wheeling Mrs. Jones down the aisle, looking for a place to sit.  I hope it’s okay if they stay for a while.

Let’s think of ways to be good neighbors in our own neighborhood.

Prayer

O God, you showed no favoritism with us when you called us into your family.  You are the great equalizer.  Remind us again that we won’t be taking any of the material things we’ve accumulated with us when we leave these bodies.

Help us live wisely.  Help us understand the value of seeing people as you see them: as objects of love, as your creations, as people with much to give.  Open our hearts to the gifts you want to give us through the people around us.  Help us hear what your Spirit says to us through them.  May the way we live reflect our faith in a risen Christ.  Amen.

10/16/2016 Sermon – Go and Do the Same #1: “Samaritans Like Us”

Desert hills near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011. The exodus route would have included terrain like this in the Sinai Peninsula.
Desert hills near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011. The context for Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.

Luke 10:25-37.  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Go and do likewise; Go and do the same.  Do the same as that Samaritan.  Go and do the same.  That’s what our theme is this month.  Our mission as believers is to go and do the same; individually and as a church. But what is that?

The area where that story happens is not much different from the time of Jesus.  There are some places where it’s full of rocky cliffs (like what you see what you see above).

cropped-DSC_9857.jpgBut it’s mostly dry, rolling hills.  It’s easy to get lost here, and what I mean is that this is one of those places where you can hide if you don’t want to be found. I walked through here with a hiking group five years ago.  We had Muslim hiking guides, stayed mostly with Muslim families (including Bedouins) and the hospitality was extraordinary.  I never felt unsafe, but I get why Jesus picked this road for his story.

I’ve preached on the Good Samaritan a lot over the years, and I think you’ve probably heard a lot of sermons about the Good Samaritan and stories about Good Samaritans.  I don’t want to spend too long on the stuff I think you might already know, but we’ll do a quick refresher!

There are minor characters in this story:

The robbers. Every society has them.  What do they look like to you?  They take what is not theirs.

The Priest and the Levite (Jewish legal scholar). Distinguished people who are chosen to serve God.  But they seem to be ignoring what God has commanded.  They are asking themselves, “If I stop and help this man, what might happen to me?  Are the robbers still around?  Will I be late for my next stop?”  Their vision is inward.  Have you ever been too busy to help somebody?  Maybe too afraid? I know I have.

 But these are the characters Jesus wants us to pay attention to:

The man who is attacked.  He did not ask to be in this situation.  I can tell you that there is no “shortcut” between Jericho and Jerusalem.  It’s really far to go around that place.  Unless he wants to add another week or so to his trip, he has to walk this road.

The Samaritan. Let me just say that in the crowd Jesus is talking to, nobody likes or trusts Samaritans.  Lots of racial and cultural baggage here.  The despised Samaritan asks himself, “If I don’t stop and help this man, whoever he is, what will happen to him?”  His vision is outward.  That is what God wants believers to ask themselves whenever they see a problem that’s within their ability to help out with.  If I don’t stop and help, what will happen? 

But just for a moment, I need you to look at where this all started.  The Jewish lawyer/legal expert had asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  At one time or another, I think nearly everyone has wondered this.  Another way of asking is, “How can I please God?”

And Jesus has him give his own answer.  Let’s say this together….

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ 

Love the Lord your God.  (Luke 10:27, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18)  I have heard people divide up that verse.  “I happen to do really well at loving God.  I go to church, bible studies and I’m in the choir. I pray.  I’m just not into that relational stuff.  I’m going to let people who are really into loving neighbors do that.”  And I’ve heard people say, “You know, I’m not really sure about the religious part, worshiping, reading the Bible.  I’m not really sure how much I want to believe.  I’ll leave that faith stuff to somebody else.  I’m just going to help people.”  I have heard faithful church members say things like that.

However, faith is lived out in action, and you can’t just skip over one to get to the other. Did you catch that? Do you believe?  Have you loved God?  It will change your life!  God is more interested in how you believe in Christ than in what you do.  But believing in Christ is made obvious by what you do, how you care, how you show mercy, how we show mercy together.  This is how faith finds fulfillment.

In his story, Jesus shines a spotlight on the one who shows mercy.  God is all about mercy.  Mercy is what God shows us and what God wants from us.  It’s a little harsh, but what Jesus is showing in this story is that even non-believers can be better neighbors than believers.

Here are some video clips to get you thinking…

Some questions:

  1. What street or area do you try to avoid because it’s a scary place?
  2. Have you ever helped a stranger or been helped by a stranger? What happened?

This text goes with the video above.  

My name is Steven Nieves, I filmed this as a freshman in High School (Uploaded on Jun 2, 2011); during my lunch period. That is why you see me eating a bagel. If this video comes across a bit confusing, please continue reading this description.

High School was very hard for me. I was bullied pretty much everyday my freshmen year of high school. This moment captured on film was me eating lunch alone. I was rejected by the students, so I ate in the corner. 

This video was posted by mistake. When I say mistake, I didn’t expect anyone to view it. If you happened to find this, watch closely, I put on a fake smile. My eyes look lost, confused, and I’m also a bit paranoid. I tried so hard to prevent the headlights from shining on me, THAT IS WHY MY LAPTOP WAS OUT FILMING. I spent most of my days dodging packets of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, chopped up carrots, oranges, and French-fries. Some days I ate in the bathroom.

I don’t have any friends.

 I come back to this video once and a while and I’m the only one who can truly see the sadness in my eyes, and face because I relive this moment over and over. Eating lunch alone is probably the worst feeling in the world. Especially when you’re sick with depression and anxiety. (you had depression and anxiety?) {I still have it!}

Eating alone is torture for any student.  I saw a news clip this week that was about a high school student who developed a phone app that helps students eat together at lunchtime.  It helps students be Good Samaritans to each other.

I think that every believer has the voice of God in them, speaking to them.  Call it conscience if you want to.  The voice says, “I can’t just walk by that and not do something. I can’t just look away and forget about it.”

At the end of the movie “Schinder’s List,” the Jewish concentration camp survivors give Oskar Schindler a gold ring (made of the gold fillings taken from some of their teeth), which has an inscription:  “He who saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Maybe today, you’re the wounded person, wondering if anybody will help you.  You are not alone.

Who are our neighbors?  Who is your neighbor?  As we pray, ask God to show you their faces.

Prayer

O God, we see neighbors everywhere.  We see them on TV, we see them in Lancaster; we see them in Manheim.  In our own daily lives, we see people lying by the side of the road every day, wounded and helpless.  We are frightened because we know that with a slight change in the circumstances, it could be us.  Forgive us for slipping into denial and walking by.

Give us the wisdom and the foresight to know when our own needs have been met so that we are free to take care of somebody else.  Help us understand how much we need you and how much we need each other.  Help us know in our deepest places that we can’t afford to play it safe and not get involved. Through your Spirit, teach us how to take care of each other.  Through the power of your love, show us how to love through Christ, whom you sent to save us and in whose name we pray.  Amen.

10/2/2016 Sermon: “Huge Faith”

Over the last couple of weeks, we worked through some common sayings that you would think are in the Bible, but they aren’t.   “God Never Said That” was the theme (see the sermon blog). It’s actually more common for folks to latch onto a few words from scripture and given them a meaning they were never intended to have.  It’s so easy to take words out of context, and when you do that, you don’t get the full sense of scripture and God’s Word doesn’t have the impact that it could.

This morning, we’re going to look at some words of Jesus that are quoted a lot and we’re going to let them have a deeper impact on us.  It’s all about having huge faith.  Let’s do a little study!

There are a lot of words in scripture that give encouragement to believe big, to step out. Trust God.  Can you think of a time when you had extraordinary faith and God supported you?  Or have you known somebody with huge faith?  What happened?

20150606_173051Maybe you know these words of Jesus:

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. (Luke 17:6)

Some preachers have used words like these to encourage people to believe big for getting that new car, new job, or maybe winning the lottery.  It’s called the “prosperity gospel.”  It’s the idea that God wants to make you prosperous, and it’s wrong in so many ways.  For now, let’s look at the huge faith Jesus is talking about here.

I can imagine Jesus walking along with his people, his entourage, and pointing at this tree.  When you read or hear those words, you get the idea that Jesus is encouraging us believe in the thing that seems impossible.  I kind of wonder what he had against mulberry trees!  (I get it; we’ve had mulberry trees that left stains on our cars!) But that would be missing the point.  It’s a crazy idea, imagining this mulberry tree flying through the air and splashing in the water.  Kind of random.  Is Jesus suggesting that huge faith gives us power over nature?

In a way, he is.  But let’s put these words in the bigger context of what Jesus said.

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 ploughing 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!” ’

handsSo, now what do you think having “huge faith” is all about?  Jesus gathers his inner circle into a huddle – his apostles – and looks them in the eye and says, look people, relationships are really hard.  We all cause each other problems.  We all create situations that need forgiveness.  He says please don’t cause other people to sin, especially “little ones,” and if somebody sins against you, correct them and forgive them.  Over and over.  Make it a practice and a habit.

And they had the right response: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (v. 5). They understood that there was no way they could do this on their own.  Increase our faith!  I know I’ve said that to God, and so have you.  Especially in difficult relationships where there is a lot of blame and apology and forgiveness going on.  Among believers, there will be those moments when we turn to God and say, “Lord, if you expect that from me, you’re going to have to give me more faith!”  God, give me a faith transplant!  Push that button that makes me a better person!  I’ll have a heaping order of faith please; just put it right here.

And with a deep sigh, Jesus says, “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’” (v. 6).

If you have the tiniest ability to believe, to choose to trust God, you’ve got what you need.  And even the smallest grain of faith is something God can use.  Faith is trust, and the faith we’re talking about here is an inner reliance on that power outside yourself that makes the impossible possible.  That’s the faith that achieves truly difficult things like the reconciliation of relationships.  And this is only possible through surrender and submission to God.  You can make that choice, but God can’t force you!  God is there, waiting to be trusted, reaching out to us through Jesus.  And the smallest grain of faith is major with God.

Each of us has something going on in our lives that takes huge faith.  There are people coming to “milestones” in their lives.  Things are changing.  Students are having school challenges with classes and relationships.  Maybe your family is facing a situation that calls for huge faith.

DSC_5598 (2)Churches like ours have been tested by changing times in so many ways.  To have a future, we must have faith.  If we have huge faith together as a church of Jesus Christ, what does that look like?

A nice building?  Lots of cash reserves?  Is that what Jesus had in mind?  He seemed to be very concerned about how we care for the “little ones,” and how we forgive and love each other.

The faith Jesus is looking for has more to do with practicing care and tolerance in our relationships.  It’s the kind of faith that brings people into relationship with God.  They can tell we believe, and they want some of that.  Jesus says, your huge faith should cause you to care for “the little ones” and forgive constantly.

Then Jesus starts talking about slaves (servants) and masters – a picture his people would have understood in that time and place.  For us, this isn’t a happy picture to lock into because slavery has caused all sorts of problems in our country, it needs another sermon, but go with it for a few minutes.  By believing, we become slaves by choice.

The slave doesn’t just sit down at the dinner table.  The master orders his slave to serve him. The slave serves, and the master doesn’t thank his slave for doing what a slave was expected to do (vv. 7-9). In other words, just as the master had the authority to order his slave to serve, the followers of Jesus are expected to care and to forgive.

Some of us might be stuck on the idea of being ordered around, even by God. So here’s a thought that might help:

In ancient times, you mostly couldn’t tell by looking at a person whether or not they were a slave.  Maybe by what they were wearing.  Slave owners would mark their slaves, maybe a tattoo or a brand, sometimes on the hands.  Another unpleasant thought, right? The prophet Isaiah (many years before Christ) turned the idea around.  Through Isaiah, God said to the people in exile,

I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.(Isaiah 49:15-16)

The marks on God’s hands are for us.  God’s devotion to us is far beyond anything we can offer to God.  God comes to us and lives with us through Jesus.  God gave him for us.  Our seed of faith starts with him.  Faith in him is what makes change happen.

The longer I do this work, the more convinced I am that the simplest commands of Christ are the hardest ones to fulfill.  Loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength is an act of submission, of surrender.  It is an act of faith, and act of complete trust.  Loving your neighbor as yourself is a fulfillment of that faith.  One can’t happen without the other.  Loving God has to be lived out by loving neighbors.  (Matthew 22:34-40)

You realize that most acts of huge faith are not amazing.   They are mostly little seeds that get planted and grow.  Nothing spectacular and most people don’t know. But when we do these things at the same time, and when we teach our kids that this is how you follow Christ, they have a powerful impact.

It’s about a change in our relationship between God and each other.  Take that step of faith; have a conversation God; give yourself to Jesus Christ.  Then with the Spirit of God in you….

Have coffee or lunch with a someone you don’t know very well, and listen to what they say about the struggles at home.

Find a neighbor from a different political party (which shouldn’t be hard right now), and ask to hear their perspective on a divisive issue.  You don’t have to respond; just listen.

This is not an easy thing for some people.  Before reacting, have a listening conversation with someone to get their perspective.

Volunteer at the Community Breakfast, and make sure you spend time having conversations with the men and women and families who come for a meal, so that you’ll begin to see the world through their eyes.

Find a world issue of justice and make it your mission to know about it and how we should all respond.

None of these things is going to change the world overnight, but they may change your world and your neighbor’s world.  Those are the seeds that grow in God’s garden.

Let’s say it together:  Increase our faith!

Increase our faith!  God will increase our faith, God will do huge things – if we plant the seed – if we take that first step.

Prayer

God, bring us to the place where we will understand that our most basic need is you.  Take away the prejudices and mistrust that might keep us from doing your ministry in our homes, our community and our world that you want us to do.  Forgive us and fill us with yourself.  Help us learn.  Give us a vision for caring for the little ones.  And as our faith grows, make us transparent, so that the world will know that we just human beings, just people – people who belong to you. Amen.