Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
LWML Sunday (Proper 22C) – October 13, 2019
Text: Luke 17:1-10
Today is LWML Sunday. The theme of the day is from the Gospel reading, where Jesus says, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” It is that gift of faith in people’s hearts which is so precious in the Lord’s sight. Today, we recognize and celebrate the support which dedicated women from all across the country give to spreading the Gospel, so that He, through the means of His Word and Sacraments, increase faith in people’s hearts and bring unworthy servants into His household.
To understand what Jesus is saying about faith and mustard seeds, we’re going to have to dig into the Greek a bit. Our Lord uses some pretty powerful language to make His message clear to us.
First, He says some things which sound familiar and pretty basic:
And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. 3 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
You know what the most difficult part of living on earth is? People. You’ve often heard it said and probably thought it yourself, This world would be great if it weren’t for all the people. Well, the same goes for the Church too. Being in the Church and following Jesus would be great, if it weren’t for all the other people! Think about it: The thing that is our biggest source of frustration is the people we live with (sometimes even other Christians!). It’s hard not to take the perspective of one popular song: “I’ve got one less problem without you!”
Jesus says something shocking though, not just that “temptations are sure to come”, but “It is impossible that temptations should not come.” It can’t be any other way, which means that all the things we hate—the deadbeats who lure our children away from what they know is right, the abuses and injustices we suffer—are unavoidable. It also means those people you get annoyed by the most, the people who tick you off, those who you loathe to speak their name because of the memories it brings up…Yeah, God put them in your life. It can’t be any other way.
Now that’s no free ride for the creeps, because God pronounces “Woe!” to them who cause one of these little ones to stumble, who scandalize faith. But don’t underestimate the almighty power of God to bring good even out of the evil of others. (Genesis 50:20)
But the Lord doesn’t support us just denouncing the world and bemoaning how corrupt it is. He says, “Pay attention to yourselves!” He is speaking to each of us personally, not just that guy we really think needs to hear it. Listen up, dear Christian, He is talking to you and applying this to you as you follow Him.
If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
This series of statements use a special construction in Greek called a conditional statement. The gloss is, “Whenever this happens, this is what the result will be.” So it reads not “if” but “When your brother sins, rebuke him” It’s not a matter of if he sins, because he will. (The same message is being preached to him about you, by the way.) So, whenever your fellow Christian sins, you are to rebuke him. This is unpopular, especially because we would rather make people happy and like us than have to be the bearer of “negativity.” But, this isn’t an optional thing for the Christian. It’s a basic part of being part of God’s family, that we actually speak to our brother or sister about their sin. It’s not judgmental; it’s loving: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:1-2).
“Pay attention to yourselves!” When you rebuke your brother for his sins, you don’t do it from a high horse. You do it, realizing you are just as dirty. He may have this sin that needs to be called out, but you have your own. The motivation for rebuking another Christian has to be because God loves them, and you love them enough to tell them when they are mixed up with sin.
The next part is also crucial: “If he repents, forgive him.” Without Peter even having to ask (as he does in Matthew 18:21) Jesus drives home how important this is, saying, “If he sins against you seven times in a single day [emphasizing the Greek], and turns to you seven times saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” If you claim the name of Christ, this is absolutely how you are to conduct yourself. Anything less profanes God’s Name—even the name of Jesus which means “He saves His people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21) The Christian Church is a community of repentance and forgiveness.
That’s not the way we like to operate, though. It’s much more satisfying to see people have some sort of consequences. We figure they need something to teach them a lesson and keep them from doing it again. But doling out consequences is not a vocation that God gives us with respect to our brother or sister (unless we hold a civil office). Truth be told, we often find ourselves avoiding the person who has sinned against us, rather than to do what the Lord commands here.
That’s when the disciples, like us, realize how spiritually bankrupt we’ve been, and cry out, “Increase our faith!” or literally “Add to our faith!” That’s when Jesus throws them another humbling reply: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” He says this because it’s not that things would magically be better if we just tipped the scales on the “right amount” of faith. He points to the mustard seed, and says if you had even the tiniest speck of faith, you could command a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea.
Here is another place, where the Greek tells us more: This is what’s called a contrary-to-fact statement, like, “If you had blue hair, you would look like Marge Simpson.” But you don’t have blue hair, so neither is the other part true. “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed (which you don’t), you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted.’…” But the point is you don’t.
Boy, what a downer, Lord. I thought you wanted everyone to have greater, bigger, stronger faith? I mean, your prophet, Habakkuk even said, “The righteous shall live by his faith.” (Hab. 2:4) It sounds pretty important. But Jesus isn’t diminishing our faith; He’s diminishing us. He’s humbling us, so that we realize this immense work of living reconciled with God and those around us isn’t our work. Having faith is being humbled to realize all that dwells within us is desires to see the wrongdoer have their comeuppance and for God to vindicate our worthy case. But those are not God’s ways, because they are higher than our ways and thoughts (Isa. 55:9).
Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ”
The final humbling statement comes with the illustration of a house servant. This doesn’t make much sense to us today, as I don’t know any of us rich enough to have domestic servants. But we can still understand it from the employer—employee relationship. If you have an employee, would thank him for doing what was already his job? I’m so glad you came in on time today, and answered the phone! Splendid! I think we’ll make you employee of the month! Well, what this means is that it is our basic duty as Christians to rebuke our fellow sinners with God’s Word, and when they recognize their sin, forgive them with God’s forgiveness.
This is the work which the LWML supports. But it’s not just about the money they raise for missions; it’s about the way these women dedicate their lives to living out their faith. But that is really nothing over the top: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” All Christians, from the least to the greatest, are called to this amazing-and-humanly-impossible work of steadfast reconciliation. That is our witness to those who don’t know Christ—not just that we get walked all over by people who never understand, but that our lives witness to the grace of God in Christ to fellow broken people who need God’s grace.
But it’s not about us; it’s God’s work through us. So, when we find ourselves loving those who have wronged us, thanks be to God! This is what our Lord has commanded us: Love one another; forgive your enemies (Matt. 5:46-48, Luke 6:27-31). This is what faith does: it puts God’s love into us so that we love as He does.
So today is really about Jesus who has loved us while we were still sinners, whose love sends His Holy Spirit to add to our faith, to put into our cold hearts a divine love which witnesses that in Christ, there is peace with God and peace with our fellow man. And we thank God for the support of the LWML both in sharing and living this Gospel. To God alone be the glory, forever and ever! Amen.