SERMON 2 OCTOBER 2016
There is a question that hovers over us day by day. It is there as we come to worship and especially as we listen to the readings from the Scriptures. It is a question that I think we need to always keep in our minds and hearts. That question is “How then shall we live?” Now it might seem more appropriate to conclude a sermon with that question rather than starting it, because it asks us what difference does anything we have heard make to us when we leave here; how does any thought that may have come into our minds bear any fruit? Those are questions that aren’t exactly rhetorical but neither can they have a quick or easy answer. They remain hovering over us. How then shall we live?
As we journey through life we accumulate a vast number of experiences, things in life that may have required us to make choices, some that we may regret and some we rejoice in. We will have experienced things that have affected us deeply, before which we may have felt helpless and some which have drawn out from us unexpected depths of strength. We learn patterns of response from what we experience, habits that may be helpful and habits that are not. And as we grow in the language of faith and follow a call to discipleship, we are invited to hold all our experiences within a framework of awareness of God, woven in and through our lives. We look to the words of faith to give us wisdom, inspiration, courage and especially love. Of course, since we are very human, much of the time we are just getting along with things, day by day and not thinking lofty thoughts. But the story of our Christian faith is one of rootedness in our everyday living, whatever is going on, though often we seem to be too busy to pray, to pause, to be still and to allow ourselves to see how, indeed, we are part of the God story through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, we heard what are really four instructions about Christian living. The lectionary for today actually only gives us two of these sayings. I decided to begin the passage 5 verses earlier. Had we stuck with the lectionary we would not have heard about warnings about causing little ones to stumble and the instructions about forgiveness. I am not sure why the lectionary has done this because all the verses together give us four sayings of Jesus about four important things. They are verses that stand out from the surrounding text. They are not so much a turning point in the story as an interruption. But they have been put together here for a purpose. It seems to me that over these sayings there hangs that question “How then shall we live?”, a question that must have been in the consciousness of Jesus’ followers as they watched him and tried to understand. The four sayings deal with the temptation to sin, forgiveness, faith and merit. They are all big issues that face each of us all the way through life. Jesus understands this. He is talking to his disciples, not the bigger crowd around him, and he prefaces what he says with these words: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come”. Isn’t that both realistic and comforting! Our imperfections and stumbling are part of human nature. Life’s ups and downs means we will make mistakes. Jesus knew that.
The first saying is about the temptation to sin. Recognizing there is always that temptation means that we have to be very aware of hurting those “little ones”, of causing them to stumble. Who are the little ones? Surely all those who are not as strong, as powerful as the rest; those who don’t have the access to education, to wealth, to security as the rest. There are a lot of people who fall into those categories. They are always there, around us. Do we see them? Woe to any who cause them to stumble. Many of the disciples and Jesus’ early followers would have been a close-knit community, so maybe this warning was heard a bit differently by them. But the implication is the same. We are asked to look out for and protect the “little ones”. So how then shall we live?
The second saying relates to forgiveness. Amongst people everywhere, the reality of life means that hurts are caused, wrongdoing occurs. Jesus is shown to be giving some ground rules for how the Christian community will need to act. Luke’s community, like all of them, needed to hear this. We have moved a long way from the times when Church councils, or kirk sessions, would haul members before them to answer for their behaviour and enforce punishment. Jesus talks about rebuke and repentance. The forgiveness of God is at the heart of our hope and our faith, yet all this talk of rebuke and repentance is not so easy for us to get hold of in our lives now. We do it privately, personally, and also communally in our prayer of confession, though even that we often regard as more personal than corporate. Yet how powerful it is when we also celebrate God’s forgiving grace! We hear the words of pardon and then we exchange a sign of peace, the peace of Christ, renewed among us again. So each understanding of forgiveness also depends on our hearts also being freed from carrying hurt and anger, disappointment and mistrust. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” The two aspects are interwoven, not just two things side by side. The hurts and blaming we carry in our hearts can lie there, half-buried, for years, and they keep us back from knowing God’s peace. How much the disciples would have to take this lesson deep into their living!
This message of forgiveness is core to the gospel, the good news. In Paul’s letter to Timothy today we heard Paul urging Timothy to remember the gospel message. The background to this was that there were renegade leaders in the church in Ephesus. Paul had suffered a great deal of harm from Alexander, one of these leaders. Indeed it was because of him that Paul was once again taken prisoner on a visit to Ephesus and was taken back to Rome, where he expected to be executed. The renegades opposed Paul’s teaching and corrupted the gospel message. Timothy was intimidated. Paul reminds him that they were empowered by the Spirit to live in love and self-discipline. He writes “He has saved us and called us to a holy life, not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.” He doesn’t concentrate on the wrongs he has suffered. He did not carry those burdens. His emphasis was on the way Timothy and the community at Ephesus were called to live. How then shall we live?
The third saying is about faith. The disciples seem overwhelmed by what was expected of them. “Lord, increase our faith!” How often do we feel like that, cry out like that in our hearts! This saying of Jesus has been used as a stumbling block to the “little ones”. We may all know of people who feel that their faith has been too small because what they have prayed for hasn’t happened: the sick loved one has not recovered; the thing that was longed for has not happened; the job has not been achieved, and so on and so on. The temptation to sin here is not about not having enough faith but more about pride in believing that we have to do more or better to merit God’s grace, the grace that can help us get through any difficulties. This saying is addressed to those who feel they don’t have enough faith even to put one step forward, but, of course, faith is about just that – stepping forward with even the tiniest mustard seed amount of faith, and in so doing, discovering that faith grows as we do that, through God’s grace. How then shall we live?
The fourth saying is more complex, about the interaction between master and slave. It is hard for us to read when slavery is such a foreign and unjust system in our eyes today. The illustration starts by inviting the hearer to understand it from the master’s perspective, expecting that the slave will do just as he is expected to do, and even then, that he has done nothing that deserves particular merit or thanks. Then there is a twist in the story. Jesus changes the focus from the master to the slave as he says “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!” How often we get caught up in what we think we deserve, what we are due because of our merits! That’s another very human attitude and another temptation to sin, because it is about our values becoming skewed. It is about our human structures and systems becoming so important that they overtake the love of God and the kingdom values. Slavery in the United States became an idolatory because of such a skewing of values. And slavery still happens. It takes many forms when we forget that all people are created equal in God’s eyes. How then shall we live?
These four sayings call us back to some of the very basic things about human life: the temptation to sin, forgiveness, faith and merit. Jesus wanted to address these for his disciples, not to weigh them down or discourage them but as reminders of God’s grace at the heart of living. He was speaking into things that are at the core of being human, our needs, and our weakness, things that are right there even as we follow in the way of Christ. It reminds us how much we depend on each other and even more on God. We are all vulnerable, but it is as we recognise our vulnerability that we discover how deep our relationship with God can be, because God is there, calling us to find the meaning of God’s love and the meaning of our life with each other. We will celebrate that in a few moments in the sacrament of Holy Communion, God-with-us in bread and wine, the meal that speaks to us of grace, forgiveness and love. It is a meal we share in peace. It is food for our journey together with Christ. How then shall we live?