Proper 22C Sermon (2001)

Proper 22 (October 2-8)
Texts: Luke 17:1-10;
Hab. 1:1-4; 2:1-4


In the task of preaching, there are some weeks where you read the three lessons and say, ‘Wow, these are great! How am I going to choose what to preach on?’ Then there are weeks like this one: you read the lessons, and say, ‘Yuch! I don’t understand these. What am I going to preach on?’ But do you know what? Often times, it’s these latter kinds of weeks that end up being most special. I put in way more time than usual on studying the lessons this week. It felt like the story from Genesis that we’ll read in a couple weeks where Jacob wrestles all night with God and won’t let go until he gets a blessing. It was like that this week with these lessons, and I think I did finally come away with a blessing.

The turn-around for me begins with Jesus’ question in verse 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’?” For us, the whole idea of slavery seems primitive and repulsive. So it sounds even more repulsive when the slave comes in from a grueling day of work and then needs to make dinner, too. Most of the commentators tell us that we simply have to put aside our modern feelings against slavery and take Jesus’ question from the view of a person two thousand years ago who accepted such treatment as normal.

But I say, forget the commentators on this point. What we need to remember is that Jesus was not normal. He came to give us God’s point of view, not the usual human view. At this point in Luke’s story of Jesus, Jesus may not have been ready to make a full challenge to the disciples’ faith, but listen carefully to later in the story when Jesus asks basically the same question. It’s the night before he’s tried and executed, Holy Thursday, at the Last Supper. Jesus, the master, has just served his disciples dinner. He has taken the bread, blessed it, and given it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) He has taken the cup, given thanks, and given it to them, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (22:10) So how do the disciples respond to their master serving them like this? They start arguing with one another about who is the greatest!

This time Jesus won’t let them get away without telling them straight what he is about. Listen carefully to what he says:

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Did you hear it? Basically the same question that he asks his disciples in today’s text when he asks them if the master should serve the slave dinner after a long day. After serving his disciples dinner himself, he asks them flat out, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table?” This time, though, he answers his question: “But I am among you as one who serves.”

A master who serves! Jesus was trying to teach them this basic fact of faith on the night before he served them by giving his life. It wasn’t until after he rose again on Easter that they had a chance to begin understanding. So when his disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith in this morning’s gospel, Jesus is toying with them. How can he increase their faith when they have no idea yet what or who they are supposed to have faith in? He doesn’t give them any straight answers because they can’t yet begin to understand basics of the faith, like a master who serves.

In fact, it’s hard enough to understand even after Easter. These past several weeks in the aftermath of Sept. 11 we are like Habakkuk, crying, “Violence! My God, why do we have to look at such violence, such horror?” God’s basic response to Habakkuk was that God’s people need to have faith, that the righteous live by faith. But just like the disciples: faith in what? Faith in who? Not a master who serves, is it? No, we want a master who can end the violence. And when we say end the violence we mean using enough force to stop these people. We don’t mean service. We don’t mean giving your life unless it’s in the service of taking someone else’s life, taking the lives of these “evil-doers,” as our President has come to call them.

Let’s face it. Let’s be honest. When it comes to ending the violence, we don’t understand any better than Habakkuk or the disciples, do we? Our bulletin summary of the first lesson says that the “central issue for the prophet is: How can a good and all-powerful God see evil in the world and seemingly remain indifferent.” It looks like God isn’t doing anything to stop the violence. Everyone knows that you stop violence by using just enough force to counter it . . . just enough to meet it and oppose it . . . just enough to make it stop. Well, you know what I mean, don’t you? The terrorists used violence first, so we are right in using violence in return just to make them stop. . . . But how much is that?

That’s the problem, isn’t it? Once we start using violence to stop violence, how much is enough? When the Japanese bombed Pear Harbor, killing 2400 of our people, mostly soldiers, we were right to strike back, weren’t we? We had the right to use violence, righteous violence, in order to stop their assault on us. But how much violence did it take? By the end of the war, 250,000 of our nation’s sons had been killed, and many more of the enemy. Then, we deemed it necessary to use atomic weapons for the first time so that, just with two bombs, we killed 250,000 Japanese people, mostly civilians, mostly women, children, and elderly. How much violence is it going to take this time? We don’t know, do we? We cry, “Violence! Violence! My God, why do we have to think of such violence?”

Well, everyone knows that it takes violence to stop violence . . . everyone except God, that is. Only God seems to know that the only way to stop violence is by stopping to do violence. It might look to us, like to Habakkuk, that God has done nothing. But don’t Christians proclaim that God has done something? And wasn’t it the cross? That why it’s so hard for us to understand. We simply don’t see how an all-powerful God, creator of the universe, would choose to save us with loving service that gives itself over to our righteous violence. When it comes to stopping violence, we only understand armed service, it seems, not loving service.

If we asked for an increase in faith today, how would Jesus have to answer us? He’s already died and risen again to save us. We have faith that he saves us, we say. Would he have to ask us, “Save you from what?” That’s the question, right? Save us from what? Death, we might say. Jesus saves us from death. O.K. What kinds of death? Why didn’t he just die of cancer, or heart disease, or M.S.? Why did he die a violent death, at the hands of our righteous violence?

He died to save us from hell, we might say, so that when we die we go to heaven instead of hell. To which Jesus might respond: Hell? What’s hell? 100 million people horribly and tragically dead in wars and crimes of violence just last century alone. What is hell, if not that? What is hell, if not the endless prospect of war after war? “Violence! Violence! My God, why do we have to live in such violence all the time?” Isn’t that hell? What did Jesus save us from if he didn’t ultimately come to save us from our violence? Would he have to ask us that still today?

It’s a peculiar way to save us from violence. Yes, I grant you that, but the cross can help us to finally see something we’ve never been able to see before — namely, that since the beginning of human culture it has always shaped us to believe that the only way to stop violence is with a righteous counter-violence. There are cultural forces that make it almost impossible for us to see the problem of violence any other way. It took the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ for God to get through to us at all. And still we resist.

But I submit to you this morning that the faith we are called to have in Jesus Christ is that God’s way of stopping violence is by not doing violence . . . ever . . . in any way, shape, or form. And I submit to you that God’s way of saving us from violence is by submitting to it in loving service with an unconditional word of forgiveness and grace. We are called to believe, to have faith, in nothing less than the power of love.

It’s hard to understand, yes. This morning’s gospel, I think, is another example of how hard it is for Jesus to help us understand. There are times when he couldn’t even give his disciples a straight answer. Not until he would die as he did on the cross, at the hands of our human righteous violence. Not until he would rise again to show us God’s ultimate power over such death, all death. Not until he would come to them each week, come to us each week, serving us once again in this holy supper.

Perhaps it sounds crazy to have faith in being saved from violence without using violence. But it can’t be any crazier than telling a mulberry tree to be uprooted and thrown into the sea, can it? And, I don’t know about you, but I don’t really care about a faith that can throw trees into the sea. I care a great deal about a faith in being saved from our violence.

So, yes, like Jesus disciples, let us, too, pray for faith. “Increase our faith, Lord!” But let it be faith in the master who serves and calls us to serve. Let it be faith in the Lord who comes to again and again with the new covenant of his body and blood given up for us, for the forgiveness of sin, and who calls us to forgive others. Let it be faith in the one who loved us unconditionally, even while we were his enemies in sin, so that we might learn to love unconditionally, even our enemies. As we go to his table once again, let us pray for even a mustard seed of that faith, that we might some day be delivered from the hell of our violence. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, October 7, 2001

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