Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Mike Turgeon “The art of living: Forgiveness and faith” November 6, 2011
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!'" Luke 17:1-10
The art of living
This passage in Luke has long been considered one to avoid preaching from because it is difficult at best. The opening image of lethal punishment by drowning alone is enough to make you think twice about going deeper into this text.
Back in the Galilean economy, millstones were common and effective tools. Once grain was separated from the chaff, it was passed through two of these heavy blocks in order to grind it. Most millstones were three or four feet high, weighing many hundreds of pounds. The idea that a person’s head would be put through the middle hole, or the entire stone would be tied around a person’s neck was a cartoonish image, really. Could it actually be done? Cartoonish, maybe, but effective.
When Jesus uses it here, the analogy is quite clear--if you block, discourage or hinder another person’s response to God’s call, the consequences will be severe. And if you cause a child to stumble in this way, you are doomed.
One might argue that parenting itself consists of placing obstacles, boundaries and rules in front of children, forcing them to stumble and climb over them. However, parenting is about guidance; this is about leading children astray, doing harm. And the consequences fit the severity of the action.
The art of living
Okay, well that’s just the opening paragraph here. We easily see why this is considered a difficult text. Don’t be a stumbling block to children. Fair enough, but the next paragraph presents another uneasy topic--confronting sinners. Now, Jesus isn’t just talking about the bleeding crowd out there doing their own thing, being outrageous, acting as if actions don’t have consequences. The chips on our shoulders are massive in this regard. I mean, we pick fights for entertainment.
No. Jesus is talking about when someone has sinned against you, has personally done you harm.
Confront sinners. The word confront is a bit misleading. Yeah, we’re encouraged to ‘get in the face’ of our transgressors, even if it is not in our nature. In our hyper-sensitive environment, when our buttons get pushed, our egos get bruised, it’s not long before resentment, anger and pride kick in.
What Jesus is saying here is that we must speak the truth in love to a sinner for their own good, but that’s really the easy part. If my transgressor shows repentance, real willingness to turn around and go the other way, then I must forgive him, and not just once according to Jesus.
Folks, working up the courage to speak the truth in love to someone who has done us harm one time is no small mountain to climb, but repeated forgiveness, seven times a day, all day? I told you it was a challenging passage.
I believe the key to this text is what happens next.
Forgiveness and faith
Right after Jesus hammers home the lesson in forgiveness, the apostles immediately ask to have their faith increased. They’re scrambling to understand what Jesus has placed before them. Forgiveness to the seventh power? Help us, Lord.
The experience of the disciples is not unlike our own experience. You run up on me with a bad attitude, I’ll adjust your attitude. Jesus says, no, that’s going the wrong way.
There must be a connection between forgiveness and faith.
Apparently, forgiveness is not a science, but an art. Jesus exposes our most vulnerable and tender blind spot here--our inability to grow spiritually without his help.
Jesus is preaching the basic principle of spiritual life--that we learn most deeply when we wander into the the most uncomfortable places. When we are the most inwardly confused something new will appear if we just keep walking.
It is in our weakest moments when we experience our greatest awakenings. Be most careful when you’re feeling most strong, competent and clear.
In light of this lesson, the disciples cry, “Increase our faith!” Just pour that faith down upon us, lavish us with the faith of our fathers, fill up our faith cup to overflowing, Jesus.
His response? All we need is a mustard seed of this faith? Is this a trick? You can hardly see a mustard seed. What good is a tiny little quantity like that going to do us? We live in the land of bigger, more and often. How does this make sense?
ILLUSTRATION: During the last three and a half years of World War II, the Japanese captured a company of Scottish soldiers and forced them to work on the Burma Railway. Scottish Captain Ernest Gordon recounts the tale in his book, Miracle on the River Kwai.
By the cruelty imposed upon them, the Scottish contingent had degenerated to barbarous behavior, but one afternoon, something happened. A shovel was discovered missing. The Japanese officer in charge became enraged. He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else. When nobody in the squadron budged, the officer got his gun and threatened to kill them all on the spot. It was obvious the officer meant what he had said.
Finally, one man stepped forward.
The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and beat the man to death. When it was over, the survivors picked up the bloody corpse and carried it with them to another checkpoint. This time, no shovel was missing. Indeed, there had been a miscount at the first check.
The word spread like wildfire through the whole camp. An innocent man had been willing to die to save the others. The incident had a profound effect; the men began to treat each other like brothers. When the victorious Allies swept in, the Scottish survivors, human skeletons at best, lined up in front of their captors and instead of attacking them they insisted: "No more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness."
Forgiveness and faith
Some tiny mustard seed of faith was born in that man who sacrificed his life on behalf of his fellow soldiers. He was guided to a place of hope where he gained the confidence to act with with a love that we call sacrificial.
I doubt if you ever get to this kind of love without faith. It is a giant leap into the vast spiritual abyss. The same abyss that Christ was facing on our account.
Let’s be honest, the times in our lives when we willingly leap off the edge of this abyss are few. We may take this leap when we come to the end of our rope or the end of our resources. The unexpected death of a loved one. Coming face to face with a divorce. Loss of a job without any warning. Yes, this room has experienced all of that. But how often do we proactively wander outside our comfort zones, the places where true spiritual growth happens?
I’ve always been curious about the mulberry tree in this passage. Uproot it and plant it in the sea. Who thinks about that stuff except maybe Disney or Pixar Films or Jesus in trying to make his point here.
Faith is not one of our go-to resources most of the time, is it? Technology, sure; our own steely resolve, yeah, not a problem. But faith that could make mulberry trees want to plant themselves in the sea, not so much.
Okay, so faith is the key to forgiveness, is there anything else?
Yeah, by the way, become humble like a slave. Okay, the mustard seed and the mulberry tree metaphor has a certain poetic charm about it; we could even practice small confessions of faith, tiny seeds to be planted in our hearts.
But do we even have to take a slavery comparison seriously today, particularly with our racially-charge political discourse?
First, let’s be clear, we don’t have to do any of this stuff Jesus says. He was never a promoter, he was always an attractor. His life, death and resurrection serve as our salvation and he only awaits our choice to follow. Only eight chapters earlier in Luke, Jesus put it out there for all to take it or leave it as we wish:
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23.
You talk about a difficult path through a deceitful world. You want real challenge in a culture of caving in? Pick up his cross daily and follow him. It does not say that you must, only if you will.
And if you exercise your free will and choose his path, pay attention to the lowly, humble actions of the slave. The slave does not expect a reward and does not receive one for carrying out his basic duties. You can’t go more counter-cultural than that, brothers and sisters.
The art of living: Forgiveness and faith
Are you willing, are you able, to tear up your own agenda and submit your will to the will of the Master? Good News awaits our emergence into his world.