The Great Exception

Sermon for Pentecost +20, 22nd Ordinary, Year C,  on  Luke 17:5-10, World Communion Sunday

Luke 17:5-10

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The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 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!'”

The Great Exception

This is a hugely significant day for me, for all kinds of reasons.  It’s a Sunday – a day we set aside to expose ourselves to the real danger of coming in contact with God, and being changed by that contact.

This is also World Communion Sunday, on which Christians around the world celebrate the truth that we believe in our deepest hearts: that regardless of all the human, superficial, or even important things that divide us – and the stupid ones too – that there is in fact only one Body of Christ, and we are all equally members of it.

This is also the Sunday here in Gulf Shores of tropical storm/would be hurricane Karen.  We have spent the greater part of this week in anticipation, not even knowing for sure we would be able to gather together, and now we know.

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To top it off, this is the Sunday we launch “Transitions,” our 5:00 p.m. service.

Transitions

We call it “Transitions” with the byline: “this church is changing; come change with us.”  That phrase is true: this congregation is willing to try out new ways of being the body of Christ in our time and in our context.

But it’s so much broader than that.  It’s not just that our congregation is changing; the church in general is changing.  Have you heard some of the things the new Pope has said?  It’s nothing short of amazing.

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His statements are just one sign that there are profound transitions going on in Christianity itself.  A new kind of Christianity is emerging – some have even called it the “Emerging Church” movement.

People like Phyllis Tickle have written about the uncanny way the church has experienced a pattern of going through massive transitions every 500 years.  We are only 4 years from the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and here we are again at another one of those great transitions.

But we mean even more by the word “Transitions.”  The very essence of our faith is all about making fundamental transitions.  When I say fundamental transitions, I mean life-changing transitions.  We are going to be reflecting on some of these transitions

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in the next several weeks.

De-centering the universe

We start with the most important transition of all: the de-centering of the universe.  This is the transition we make from looking at the world as if I am at the center, and instead, realizing that God is at the center.

What I am talking about is the radical removal of the the great exception: the exception I give myself.  The way I make myself the special case, the one the rules don’t apply to this time, since my reasons for suspending them in my case are so justified – unlike anybody else’s. I have “good excuses.”

It’s the way we think “I deserve to be first in line, or to be the one who deserves to get whatever is in limited supply, I’m the one who deserves the discount price.

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It’s the way we think we should be singled out for attention and praise.  Our Facebook posts should be liked and shared.  We are the great exception.

Is your driving skill above average?  It has been reported that over 90% of drivers believe they are above average.

This is a totally normal human condition.  We all have it.

But it’s not true.

And to the extent that we believe it, we are lost.  To have self in the center of life is to miss the greatest key to happiness, to satisfying relationships, to harmonious communities, and even to the health and well being of our planet.  It even ruins good government – just look at what is happening in Washington.

“Worthless slaves”?

The transition from a self-centered universe to a God-centered universe is exactly what Jesus was getting at in this text in Luke.

Jesus’ way of teaching here sounds harsh.  According to this parable, we are to think of ourselves as, “worthless slaves” who, after serving the master all day in the fields  have to come home and prepare supper.  We don’t even get to sit at the table with the master.

Instead of a hero badge or a wall-mounted picture of us as the “employee of the month”, after all that hard work, we are to say, in effect, “we expect no fuss nor favors,”

“we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Brush clearing

Okay, first, just to be sure we are clear, this is a parable about something – one thing; not about everything.

  • It is not meant to be about a lack of personal self-esteem, nor about authority and power relationships, being a doormat and letting ourselves be abused.
  • It’s not about slavery either, as if the dominant story of Israel, the story of being set free from slavery in Egypt suddenly didn’t matter.
  • And it’s not about overturning the great banquet table-image of the kingdom of God where we all sit together with Messiah.

It is a parable about one thing, and one thing only: that we are not special cases.

  • We are not at the center of the universe.

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  • We are no better than anyone else, and we are not in control in any ultimate sense.
  • Our purpose in life is not to satisfy ourselves, to get all of our needs met first.
  • Our purpose is to serve.

As counter-cultural and non-intuitive as it is, our purpose is to serve.

This is not our default way of operating.  The transition Jesus is talking about is huge.  It’s about de-centering the universe.  It’s about knowing and accepting our place in relation to God and each other.

The essential first step

This is the utterly simple and simply profound transition at the heart of the message of the the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.

“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

or, in other words, “Think differently, God is King; not us.”

“Repent” does not mean grovel in guilt and shame.  Repent means literally change your mind.  Think about things differently.  Why? because God is King, and we are not.  That is the first step, the primary transition.

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This is the simple, profound insight at the heart of so many religious traditions and the enlightened understanding so many teachers of wisdom have discovered.  We are a part of the universe, on equal footing with everyone else, not the center of it.  We share a common humanity.  No one is born on a higher status than anyone else.

This is part of what we celebrate on World Communion Sunday.

Salvation and freedom

Those who have made the fundamental transition of removing self from the center of their own universe find what?  Salvation.  Salvation from a wasted life, a tragic life; a narrow, dark, diseased form of life.

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This transition is so liberating!  When we are not at the center, when the world does not revolve around our ego needs, we are free in all kinds of ways.  We are free to admit that we were wrong; free to apologize; free to not have to be right all the time.  We are free from the self-destructive habits of denial because the truth has set us free.

We are free to forgive because we don’t hold other people responsible for being perfect all the time, any more than we are, or for being any more kind or patient or humble than we ourselves manage to be.  We are free to drop the double standard, the blame game, the resentment that poisons relationships and shrivels our own souls.

We are free to recognize that God has made all of the people on this planet in God’s image, and so all of us are in this together as equals.  We are free to recognize truth from any source, since all truth is God’s truth, and no group has a corner on the market.

This is the freedom that comes from making the most ancient of all Christian creeds:

“Jesus is Lord.”

I am not Lord. I am not God.  I am not the one in charge.  God is in charge.  And God has shown us exactly what that means to live with God in charge: that’s how Jesus lived.

The Jesus-kind of servant

Jesus is the one who called himself the “son of man” or the “the authentically human one” who

“came, not to be served but to serve”.

The kind of servant Jesus was getting at in that stark parable was the kind he was.

Can we go with this?  It seems so backwards from our culture’s perspective.  Can we have faith or trust enough to believe that living this way would work?

Believing the teaching of this parable does take faith.  It takes the kind of faith his disciples were asking for.  Faith that looked so simple and small, like a mustard seed, but which had miraculous effects.  Effects that went far beyond the miracle of uprooting a  mulberry tree on command; the greater miracle of actually displacing the self as the God of the universe, and letting God alone have that role.

This is the kind of faith that trusts God enough to do justice even against long odds.  The faith that give us hope that God is going to use us, as small and feeble as we are, to accomplish God’s purposes.  The faith to trust God with our mortal lives, our illnesses, our injuries, and our eventual destiny, resting on the fact that God is still God, and we do not need to try to be.

This is the profound and simple transition that is step one in the spiritual life.   God alone is God.  I’m here to serve.

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Spiritual practices

I don’t believe that this way of living comes from simply understanding or agreeing with it.  It is so counter to our instincts and habits!  I believe that this is why the spiritual practices are crucial.  Daily practices of prayer and daily meditation, daily exposure to scripture, regular common worship, regularly receiving the sacraments – the ancient Christian practices which Christians around the world and throughout the centuries have found indispensable.

God is God, and we are not; we are here to serve.  That is the essential first transition we make as people of faith.

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