Rocherty UMC October 6th, 2019
World Communion Sunday
Luke 17:1-10 Faith, Doubt, Hope, and Trust
Meditation Manuscript


          It was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth who advised preachers and pastors to preach from two books: The Bible and the newspaper.  Today, as we celebrate World Communion Sunday, I want to apply that advice and take an honest look at the world.
          As I read newspapers from around the world I am becoming increasingly concerned about fractures, rifts, and conflicts among the various people groups that make up the world’s population of well over 7 billion people.  Did you know that there are over 200 spoken languages in the world?  And within those language groups there are even more cultural and ethnic groups—thousands of them.
          But what has me concerned is the amount of hateful speech that exists between people that should be trying to get along.  Now, it’s obvious and in our face right here in our American political scene.  Many Republicans and Democrats do not hide the fact that they truly hate each other.  It’s not only that they disagree with one another on policy, wording, approaches to correction, etc.  No, it’s truly that they despise one another as people. And throughout the world this kind of hatred is played out in a thousand different ways.  People hate each other because they are different in some way; perhaps they speak a different language, dress or act differently, worship a different god or they worship no god at all.  The fact of the matter is that people who are created in the image of God and taught to love one another as neighbors just can’t seem to do that simple task.  The differences among us is too much of a temptation.  Some people can’t get over their own assumed superiority and “rightness.”
          I wish that I could say that type of thing doesn’t happen in the church.  I wish I could say that the American church is THE place where true love of God and love of neighbor plays out in thousands of loving communities every day….
          No. The American church today mimics the divides and splits that are apparent in American politics.  The labels of “liberal” and “conservative” have been drawn and many people are digging in for a long war.  We’ve seen this in our own United Methodist Church over the issue of human sexuality.  Instead of entering a process of holy conferencing, like our founder John Wesley asked us to do when we come to issues upon which people of good faith disagree, we’ve turned the issue into a political game in which there can only be one “winner.”  There is, according to many, no room for compromise, discussion or differing opinions.  You’re either all in for something or against it.   Lost in this winner-takes-all approach is the command to first “do no harm.”
          That’s the first General Rule that governs us as United Methodists.  It’s John Wesley’s premier teaching.  It’s enshrined in our constitutional documents and part of our historical fabric.  The second General Rule is to do Good—Wesley stated “do all the good you can.”  And the third is to attend on all the ordinances of God—to take the sacraments, participate in bible study, spend time in prayer, and other ways of showing love to God seriously.
          Now don’t think I’m trying to stir the pot on any of these issues.  As I told the people who came to the “meet the pastor” events, I am a theological moderate.  I sit in the middle on many issues and am not hard and fast to any particular group or ideology.  From that position I can see that there are many good people trying to be faithful throughout the church.  But on all the sides of many contentious issues, we’ve allowed our ideologies to inform how we think of our neighbor, instead of allowed our love of neighbor to temper our ideologies.
World Communion Sunday
          I state these things this morning to bring attention to the thing that gathers us together today.  Today, the first Sunday in October has been, since the 1930’s, a Celebration of World Communion. 
          World Communion Sunday began along with something called “the Ecumenical Movement.”  Ecumenical is a specifically Christian term that refers to efforts to find and celebrate common ground between various Christian denominations and churches across the world.  This movement has been moderately successful in the forms of the World Council of Churches and other such groups that have helped foster dialogue between the various strands of Christianity that exist today.  There has been a great amount of healing of old wounds in the past 100 or so years between groups that used to view each other as “un-Christian.”  But I’m afraid that the current atmosphere of hatred, in which old lines of bigotry and division have been brought up anew, will damage and hinder these laudable, Godly, Christ-like efforts.
Our Passage For Today
          As today is Communion Sunday, I won’t take a great deal of time to expound the text for today.  Our text for today, Luke 17:1-10 comes on the heels of the parables we have been studying for the past several weeks.  So, when we discuss the passage, keep in mind where we’ve been in these last few weeks of messages.  We’ve talked about things that are lost and found.  We’ve talked about using our resources for the Kingdom and how God will hold us accountable for how we’ve used the resources we’ve been given.  Today, we encounter even tougher teachings.
          One of the things Jesus is best known for is his so-called “Sermon on the Mount” found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  What some people don’t know is that there is a slightly different version of that sermon found in Luke called “The Sermon on the Plain.”  In it, Jesus lays out much of the same kinds of Kingdom teachings he does in Matthew.  His emphasis however is even more strong on how the ways of the Kingdom are often opposite of the ways of the world.  That’s about all the set-up we need to take a look at our text for this morning.
          Our text begins with a somewhat curious statement.  It says Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come, it would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.  So watch yourselves.
          Here we have a very honest portrayal of the Christian life.  It’s inevitable in a sinful fallen world that things will arise that will cause us to stumble—things that will lead us astray and into sin.  In the early church, a very real problem was the problem of people falling away from the church.  In the earliest days of the Christian movement, it could be life-threatening to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  It meant that you were defying either the Jewish authorities, the Roman Government in which Caesar was Lord, or both.  People who confessed a commitment to the teachings of Jesus did so at great risk to themselves.
          And therefore, one of the great temptations was to walk away from the faith.  When Jesus refers here to “little ones” he’s referring to those who are young in the faith.  The harsh warning that Jesus is leveling here is against Christians who lead other Christians astray.  He says it’s better for those people to do away with themselves than cause another one to stumble. Because causing anyone to desert faith or renounce the Way of the Kingdom of God is a heinous error.
          But you see, this isn’t only a problem for the first century.  It’s a problem for today as well.  The church doesn’t have a good track record of keeping people who are young in the church.  Yes, there are many reasons for this, some that come from competing interests like sports, weekend recreation, and so-forth, but we also need to take our share of the responsibility for this.  We often chase young people away from church by not giving everyone a seat at the table where decisions are made, by not paying attention to their needs and desires, and by dismissing their ideas and suggestions.  Maybe it’s time to tie some millstones around our preferences and cast them into the proverbial sea and see what comes of giving those who are younger a seat at the table.
          But Jesus isn’t done his teaching yet.  He continues: If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.  Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.
          This is a familiar teaching about forgiveness that’s also found in Matthew—there he says to forgive not just seven times, but sevent- seven times!  Forgiveness is one of the hardest things we have to do in life.  Any of you who deals with other people—and that’s all of us—can attest to that.  But why is forgiveness so hard?  One reason is that we get stuck in the rebuke part of Jesus’ command.
          You see, it’s natural when we’ve received offense to call it out, name it, to bring it to light, to make it known to the offender.  And when Jesus talks about forgiveness, he doesn’t say NOT to do that.  He actually affirms that that is what we SHOULD do.  It’s not forgive and forget, it’s call out and then forgive.
          But what we often do is call out, then hold on to unforgiveness.  If people make a genuine effort to change however, Jesus calls us to forgive.  One of the most tragic things I’ve seen in churches is people who hold on to an offense or an attitude of unforgiveness toward a brother or sister.  I’ve seen such things tear apart churches and tear apart families.  Jesus calls us to another way.  Jesus calls us to the path of repentance and forgiveness—a call for unity.
          At this point in the teaching, the Apostles, the twelve closest followers to Jesus have had just about as much as they can stand of Jesus’ teachings.  You can imagine the demands of the Kingdom Way beginning to weigh them down.  You can hear the exasperation in their voice as they cry out “Lord, increase our faith!”
          But Jesus doesn’t respond with either a rebuke or a word of comfort.  He responds with a proverb.  A proverb about faith and a mustard seed:
          If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.
          At first this seems to be a bit of a non-sequitur.  What does moving trees have to do with not leading others astray and forgiveness?
          The answer is that it requires faith.  Certainly, to work a miracle like uprooting a tree and planting it in the sea would take a courageous amount of faith.  And that’s the point that Jesus is getting at.  He’s not saying the disciples lack faith to do miracles.  They’ve already worked miracles in Luke’s Gospel in Jesus’ name.  What he’s getting at is that the same small kernel of faith in Christ that works miracles is all that is required to live the Kingdom values that he is presenting.
          The disciples believe that faith is something quantifiable.  Something that can be measured, compared, increased, or added to.  But Jesus is saying to the disciples that faith isn’t something you can quantify like that.  It’s something more mysterious.
          Jesus then speaks a parable about slaves and masters and duty.  He presents the model of a farmer who has one slave.  The slave does the outside work during the day, tending the fields and the animals.  When he comes in at night the master doesn’t offer to feed him first, but the outside slave becomes the inside slave and serves the master.  Only then does he himself get to eat and drink.  Jesus then quickly brings this back home to the Christian life.  He states, So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’
          At first this sounds incredibly harsh.  It equates the Christian life with that of a slave.  Are we nothing more than slaves to God?  Pawns in a game the rules of which we don’t know?  No, that’s not what Jesus is getting at at all.
          Instead, what Jesus is saying is that we were created to love God and to love neighbor.  That includes the things he’s been teaching all along in the Gospel.  It includes working toward equality.  It includes tending the sick, helping the poor, welcoming the foreigner.  It means rejoicing over repenting sinners—those who were lost.  It means handling our money as a steward not a master, giving it to worthy causes whenever we can.  And it means not causing little ones to stumble and forgiving others.
          In short, our duty is to love God and love neighbor.  That’s what we were created to do.  When we do that we aren’t entitled to any special reward—it’s our duty as Christians.
          The problem is that today we live in a consumeristic culture.  We value things and people in so much as they are useful to us.  This is a philosophy called Utilitarianism.  Things and people are valued based on usefulness.  Jesus calls us to another perspective using the ethic of love.  Jesus calls us to look at other people and at things with the right perspective.
          Jesus calls us to look at things—money, houses, cars, books, furniture, clothes, etc.—like they are held by us in trust.  We are stewards of what God has given us.  When he needs it somewhere, we need to obey the calling of the Spirit to give up our grasp on those possessions.  And Jesus calls us to look at other people as God sees them: as people who bear his image, as people with needs and feelings, as people with stories to be heard and understood—not as if they were things to be used.
          And when we do that—when we steward things well and when we look at people as God sees them, that doesn’t entitle us to some big reward.  We’ve only done our duty.  We’ve simply fulfilled that which we were created to do.  And our reward is participating in that kingdom life of Peace—that Shalom community that God intended from the very beginning.
          So, on this day of World Communion, when people all around the world who call on the name of Christ gather around this table, we shouldn’t think of ourselves as special—as doing something worthy of reward.  Instead, let this sign-act that we partake of today lead us to an honest self-examination.
          Do we look at people who think differently as somehow “less than?”  Do we label people—by their race, their religious persuasion, their gender or sexual orientation—before we see them as people with names, lives, struggles, and joys?  Do we love people unconditionally?  That means we try to gently and with love lead them to the truth of God.  That happens as we live out love-of-God and love-of-neighbor as revealed in Jesus Christ and his teachings. 
          So, let us take a minute to pause.  Let us take a minute to think of several people we know who need to hear, see, and know the message of God’s love for them.  Let us give thanks to the God who has created such a diverse world where people of every shade and hue gather around the one loaf and one cup today….
Let us think of ourselves and what we may have done to cause a little one to stumble.  Let us confess our sin, our wonder, our awe, and our love as we gather around the table.