Pentecost 17 – October 6, 2019

(Ps 37, Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4; 2 Timothy 1:6-14) Luke 17:5-19 Faith, love and gratitude

Just before where our gospel reading begins Jesus tells us – ‘it’s better to be tossed in the ocean like fish bait, with a quarter-ton-stone-sinker attached to you – than to lead a child or disciple astray’ – and – ‘if another disciple sins against you seven times in a day and says “I repent” seven times – you must forgive each time.’

No wonder the disciples say to Jesus “Increase our faith!”

But Jesus says “if you’ve got faith the size of a mustard seed you can tell a tangerine tree to tango and it will start dancing.”

Faith, according to Jesus, isn’t about size. It’s about trusting God – and even a very tiny size faith is enough to do wonders. It’s a metaphor. It’s a parable. And–
If we’re faithful in our relationship with God – Jesus says – we can ask in his name and God will move the metaphoric mulberry tree – into the ocean and out again. Which can sound like fun.
But the follow-up example of faithfulness Jesus tells next makes me say again “Increase my faith!” As Jesus asks us to imagine having hired servants who have been ploughing and tending sheep all day long – and when they come in from the fields they’re expected to wait on you at table before eating – not expecting any thanks – saying “we are unworthy servants, just doing our duty.”
Now I’ve never had any hired servants – and I doubt the first disciples did either. So I’m pretty sure Jesus intends for us to see ourselves as those servants, working in the fields of the Lord, and in God’s kitchen. Not expecting thanks for our labors on behalf of Jesus. Just saying “we’re unworthy servants, just doing what we’re supposed to do.” (There will be a time, Jesus says elsewhere, when the faithful are thanked – but that’s not to be our motivation.)
But – before I can even begin to say “increase my faith!” – again – Luke the gospel writer directs our attention now to an encounter with lepers – in which – Ten lepers approach Jesus crying “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And Jesus says, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” (Leprosy meant any kind of skin disorder considered contagious in those times. Lepers had to stay outside towns and villages, and be certified healed by priests before they could rejoin the community.) And –
Now all ten lepers are healed as they go. And one – turns back – falls at the feet of Jesus, praising God, thanking Jesus. And – “Where are the other nine?” Jesus asks – “Were not all ten healed?”
With these gospel stories before us we’re walking with Jesus on the biblical road of stewardship. Perhaps the first theme of the bible… as –
In the beginning God makes human beings in the image of God, and commissions us to be stewards of creation. And in the beginning God instructs us to tend the garden – as we ourselves are tended, nurtured, taken care of by God…

Stewardship means employing all our God-given gifts, grace, resources and abilities to do all God asks us to do. Which is, yes, a big job… But it’s not something we ever have to do by ourselves…and…

The faith and gratitude Jesus talks about today are two sides of the one multi-sided first principle of stewardship. And –
Faith for Jesus means faithfulness to God.
And faithfulness for Jesus means trusting God to be more than faithful.

In Jesus we see faith and faithfulness joined at the hip. Faith for Jesus means loving and trusting God – heart, mind, soul and strength – and living our faith by following Jesus, faithfully.

Following Jesus isn’t easy. No surprise – he tells us often.
And I’ve had to learn again and again – I can’t do faith according to Jesus on my own. Which Jesus also tells us often. One of the chief blessings of faith is the joy that comes with learning our need for God and for God’s people… The joy that comes with learning every parable that astounds or frightens us at first becomes a source of grace as we stay in the word…

And – what Jesus also means by faith – is trusting that all we’re not able to do alone we can do together – when we ask Jesus to do it with us.

I think we know the bible teaches – God is King and Lord of all – and every good gift comes from God – and all things belong to God…
There’s an old hymn we always sang in the Boston church where I interned, as we received the weekly offering:
We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be;
all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.

One leg of the first precept of stewardship is understanding – everything (everything!) – belongs to God. Understanding we give back to God only what belongs to God all along. Once we know this – logically, it should become second nature for us to be generous givers… Knowing the great generosity of God, the giver of every good gift.

Yet because of the power of sin in human culture – even believers are constantly tempted to think what we have is our own. Even when we know better – it’s easy to slip into thinking – we earned it – it belongs to us – it’s ours to do with as we see fit. We usually know we should give something back to God… and the church… and those in need… But once we slip into thinking it’s our wealth, our decision to make… we’re no longer able to follow Jesus…

Which is one reason Jesus talks so often about money– and employs so many wild parables and creative metaphors – to try to get us to see life differently – money differently – see how money becomes so easily and so often an idol – a false god – that distorts our thinking and causes all manner of stress and worry…

Yes, of course, we need money for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, etc. And God knows all our needs – and God meets all our needs – when we put God first in our life.

I’ve never been naturally generous. My parents were generous to their children. But I don’t remember being taught generosity in the home. What I’ve learned has come through being a beneficiary of other people’s generosity… And yes, I’m a slow learner…

When I started going to church again about thirty years ago, after some years away, at first I’d give five or ten dollars a week. One or two percent of my salary. As I began to feel the love in that tiny little church in Adamant Vermont I couldn’t help feeling more grateful to God. I began to notice blessings more… I began to feel thankful… as I felt God working in my life…
So… I started giving 5% of my salary to the church… I didn’t have a lot of money, working for low-budget non-profit organizations. But I had enough. I owned a house in a beautiful Vermont valley, where deer often grazed in the farm field just across the dirt road I lived on… I could watch the flickering dance of fireflies on summer nights from the front porch… Neighbors kept an eye out for each other… It was a good life.

One day the pastor of our church asked me to lead a stewardship campaign. During this stewardship time in which I was charged with encouraging others to consider giving more, I became convinced that I myself wasn’t giving enough.

With much prayer, I decided to start giving ten percent to the church. I wasn’t quite sure at first I could afford this (I was making about $500 a week at the time) but I decided to take a leap of faith and double-down on God – go from $25 a week to 50 – trusting God’s word – that says a tithe – ten percent of income – is the basic standard. When we tithe, God says (somewhere in Malachi 3) God honors our commitment by meeting our needs. Which I learned, first hand, God indeed does.

I’m still not sure exactly how it works – but since I made the commitment to tithe there’s always been enough to pay every bill – stay warm in winter – eat well – have enough to save and to give… and enjoy many of life’s simple pleasures.

And the more I continue learning to give… the easier it becomes to thank God for every blessing in my life… And after all the years of being one of the nine who often forgot to come back and say thanks… How good it feels now – to remember much more often – to keep coming back to say “Thank you Jesus….”

Faithfulness and gratitude – two sides of the same first precept of stewardship – which together flow from the central truth of life – that God is love and all things belong to God – who loves us and invites us to love in return – following Jesus… who has revealed for us the heart of God – our joyful, all-loving, exceedingly generous God… Who blesses us so richly in so many ways… With the good gift of generosity – given freely by Jesus to us all…
When we choose to receive it….

Thanks be to God. Amen.