Writing this sermon on Friday, I got hungry, so I took a break and walked over to Kneads Bakery. Sure enough, I received just what I “kneaded”—a little sustenance and inspiration, in a chocolate almond croissant and a conversation. As I broke into the buttery layers, baker Leah Starr told me, “I make my own almond butter. I could have used Nutella, but then you know there’s all sorts of other ingredients. I wanted to keep it simple, just chocolate, almonds, flour, sugar, butter, and a little salt.” Tasting that homemade filling, I appreciated the baker’s craftsmanship, the pursuit of quality, a wholeness and simplicity which actually required extra effort. I get the feeling Leah’s not going to cut corners to make things easier or cheaper. Baking excellent food is just what she does.
“Craftsmanship is doing what you love and doing it right…” writes one author.[i] Another notes, “Craftsmanship…isn’t something that just happens. It requires a great deal of time, patience, and effort… Traditionally, craftsmen developed their skills through apprenticeship to those masters of the craft who came before them.”[ii] Craftsmanship is the passionate pursuit of excellence in which making something excellent is its own reward.
As we attempt to digest Jesus’ teachings this morning, imagine Jesus as the Master craftsman, speaking to his apprentices. But in this case, the craft isn’t something as tangible as a croissant; it is the building-up a particular kind of community, the church, and the subtle craft of person-to-person relationships, in which we share the good news of God in Jesus Christ as we share together the fullness of our lives.
Jesus’ words in Luke 17 sum up a long stretch of teaching, and we have to go back to understand them in context. Remember in Ch.15, the Pharisees and scribes muttering about how Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them?” That complaint launches Jesus into the parables, the lost sheep, lost coin, and the prodigal son, which all reveal God’s extraordinary forgiveness for the least and the lost and question listeners’ attitudes and practices. Then in Ch. 16, Jesus takes on attitudes toward wealth. The conventional understanding, then as now, was that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing; poverty was a curse an individual had brought upon him or herself.
But Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus overturns that idea. In the upside-down reign of God, the least, the lost, the poor and the broken-hearted are closer to God’s heart than those with pride in exemplary morality or financial prosperity.
Keep in mind that the Pharisees and scribes listening are upper-middle class leaders in their community, people respected for their religious practice, people of means with resources to share with others. Further, they, like Jesus and his disciples, were Jews, children of Israel, a people who understood themselves to be God’s chosen. They, among all peoples, had received the Torah, precious instructions on living whole and holy relationships with God, one another, and the land, that they might be a light to the nations.
Now, Jesus is not undoing the Torah. As he says in 16:17, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” Rather, Jesus is the master craftsman, revealing the errors of apprentices and encouraging them to aim for a higher level of craftsmanship. They themselves are far from being the least or the lost; rather, the chosen people, blessed to know God’s ways, are called to be shepherds and seekers of all who do not yet know God’s steadfast love and mercy.
In today’s text, there’s a change. Here, Jesus’ words are addressed to “the disciples,” the whole community of Jesus-apprentices. He is also the “the Lord,” speaking across all generations to the church universal, which is another iteration of God’s chosen people, a people blessed to be a blessing. Here the Master tells all of us apprentices in no uncertain terms, that the gold standard of gospel living, the key to the highest community craftsmanship, is forgiveness.
“Be on your guard!” Jesus says. “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance you must forgive”—not just once, but even seven times a day, as much as is necessary, as seven signifies a complete number.
Wow, these are challenging words. First of all, how many of us readily “rebuke” another disciple who “sins”? I’m guessing many of us associate rebuking with an authoritarian style of religion of which we want no part. We’re Presbyterians, after all! So when we are hurt by someone in our congregation, we’re not likely to rebuke. We’d sooner just sweep it under the rug, pretending nothing happened or just dropping out of the community. If we can’t see it, it can’t hurt us further, we rationalize. The trouble is that avoiding the problem does not allow the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. How many grudges have festered for years in congregations because hurt people refuse to encounter the one who has hurt them? How many folks have simply dropped out of community rather than do the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation?
Jesus warns us there can be no cutting corners on forgiveness. Disciples are apprentice shepherds and seekers, sent out to find the least and the lost. We must live in ways which will not cause them to stumble. And it turns out that one of the biggest causes of stumbling is a community which lacks forgiveness. Andrew Prior puts it this way: “The scandal is not that someone sins and offends me. The scandal is if I do not forgive, and thus cause them in their even weaker faith to stumble…They were never here because of their good behavior! They were here, and they are here, because God loves them.”[iii] For excellence in Christian community, Jesus tells us we must be willing to come face-to-face with members who have hurt us, honestly naming the harm, and accepting and aiding repentance as we forgive again and again.
And so I can certainly understand why the apostles react by saying “Increase our faith!” It seems like we’ll need spectacular supplies of it to live this way! But Jesus disagrees, and tells two parables. Mustard seeds are famously tiny, but that’s all the faith we need to command incredible changes in the landscape. In effect, Jesus is saying, “You have more than enough faith; Any faith at all is enough!” And it turns out that seeking a “bigger and better” faith actually misses the point. That’s what the second parable is about.
Now, I’m uncomfortable with Jesus talking about slavery in such a matter-of-fact way, even though I know it was just part of the social context he lived in. But I think what bugs me more is that I’ve been well-trained to work hard for rewards. The anticipation of a little treat at the end of the day sometimes gets me through the most laborious parts. And when I get it, I think, “I deserve this for all my hard work!”
But despite the religious training many of us have received, what Jesus is telling us here is that working for rewards fails when it comes to the kingdom of God. There is no need to make our faith bigger and better because, at the end of the day, there will not be an increased reward for working harder and longer.
And, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, this is the good news! We are not accepted and loved and brought near to God because of increased faith; neither is our acceptance by God a reward of our good behavior or stellar worth. We are loved and accepted by God because God has chosen to love and accept us. Nothing more and nothing less is necessary.
Only our joy in experiencing God’s unshakable love can truly motivate us to practice the challenging craft of Christian community. We love and we forgive because we have been forgiven and we are loved. In loving forgiveness, we find our identity and our direction, passionately pursuing excellence which is its own reward. Forgiveness and love are just what we do.
We are freed to a craftsmanship of elegant simplicity: less is more. We can stop working so hard at increasing things, we can stop fretting about our limitations, and we can trust that whatever God provides will be enough. We can stop looking over our shoulders, seeking recognition for our good works, because we are already receiving Christ’s loving forgiveness. We can start looking at all our brothers and sisters with deep compassion for the broken, human persons in whom the Holy Spirit is revealing God’s image. We can work smarter, no longer cutting corners in our hurry to increase, but investing ourselves deeply in relationships right here and now, risking vulnerability, speaking up when we are hurt, and repenting when we find we’ve hurt others, trusting we’ll find forgiveness.
It’s just what we do, we Christians who live with and for one another, not from our own tiny faith but the amazing faith of Jesus Christ, in whom God chose to become the least and the lost, walking the road of human suffering to death on the cross; the faith of Jesus Christ, in whose resurrection God revealed that death cannot vanquish self-giving love.
But as it turns out, when we come in from a hard day of shepherding and seeking the lost, we have a Master who does in fact say, “Come here at once and take your place at the table.” Our Master does not call us “worthless slaves,” but valued friends, and he gives us his own life to nourish us! He gives us his body and his blood, joining us forever, across all space and time, all continents and all cultural differences, joining us in communion with him and everyone who trusts in him.
In that communion, joined to the very life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God in Community, Holy Three in One, we have all the inspiration and sustenance we need to be a people blessed to be a blessing. It’s just what we do. May it be so, this World Communion Sunday, and forevermore. Come Lord Jesus! Amen.
(An earlier sermon on these passages can be read by clicking here.)