Mustard, Ketchup, or Pickles?

Mustard, Ketchup, or Pickles?

The text for this sermon is Luke 17:5-10. (Read it here.) Click below to listen to the sermon as delivered at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ or scroll down to read it. The videos were included within the sermon. 

***

Flying cars were supposed to make our commutes painless. Computers were supposed to eliminate the stacks of paper that inundate modern life.  Kitchens of the twenty-first century were supposed to give us hours of free time to engage in the highest pursuits of humanity:

Did you hear that? There’d be no dishes to do…ever!

As an 8-year-old boy watching Walter Cronkite’s “The 21st Century”, I was filled with hope and excitement! But our world has not turned out quite like I imagined.

I do have a handheld computer that keeps me connected. It can be a video phone or a television set. It can be a book or a word processor, what we used to call a typewriter. It can be a newspaper or a calculator. It can even be a Bible and a sermon manuscript.

And, yet, the world is not full of leisure or peace and it’s hard to feel hopeful when the very technology that can connect us, too often distances us from those closest at hand. And what of the news itself that the technology brings us?

  • Impasse in Washington.
  • Mall shootings in Kenya and Portland.
  • Unemployment hovering near ten percent.
  • Children in Africa sold into slavery so that we can enjoy chocolate.
  • A quarter of American children in this country living in poverty.
  • The needs of the few outweighing the needs of the many and the poor.
  • Climate change that brings us extreme weather.
  • Nuclear power plants in Japan leaking radiation into the ocean.
  • Wars that last more than a decade.
  • And violent assaults in movie theaters, churches, and our streets.

At 8-years-old, I would never have imagined that I might be the target of a gunman. Yet that is what happened to children in Newtown less than a year ago! No, Walter Cronkite painted a very different image of the twenty-first century than the century we live in.

Perhaps my mistake was believing that as the technology evolved, we too would evolve and grow in our compassion and morality. Perhaps I was naive about the world.

***

Six of us made it to the Central Pacific Conference of the UCC’s Annual Meeting last week. The keynote speaker, the Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, a UCC minister and scholar, talked about the economic injustice which permeates our world.

In the United States, the middle class is disappearing. The poor are doing worse. Demands on food pantries across this generous nation are pushed to their limits. The extremely wealthy, the one percent who hold 40% of this country’s wealth and much of the political power, have more and more of our country’s wealth while the rest of us, who are either doing the work or have retired, have less.

This is not the twenty-first century I signed up for.

This is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

This is why the Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite’s latest book is called Occupy the Bible and why I was a part of the Interfaith Guild of Chaplains for Occupy Portland during the time the tents were up in downtown. You see, like Susan Thistlethwaite, as a follower of Jesus, you and I are called to seek justice: racial justice, gender justice, orientation justice, and, yes, economic justice.

Our faith demands we care and act…but it sure is overwhelming. Really overwhelming!

***

Jesus and his disciples have been busy as we arrive at today’s passage. (See Luke 17:5-10.) They’ve been traveling and teaching and learning for a very long time. Jesus has insisted that his followers learn and do much.

They are to be faithful with money and be as shrewd as the dishonest manager. They are to welcome back into the fold those prodigals who live their lives recklessly spending their inheritance unwisely.

Jesus tells the disciples they must drop everything, leaving their metaphorical 99 sheep to search for the one who is lost. They have to be constantly aware of the economic injustice that leads to a man — Lazarus — dying outside the gate of the wealthy man. They are called to notice him and to seek justice.

As they get closer and closer to their destination in Jerusalem, Jesus’ expectations accumulate. Overwhelmed by his rigorous teachings, the disciples appeal to Jesus, Lord,

“Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5 CEB)

Do you blame them? I imagine they felt inadequate. I imagine they feared they weren’t up to the task. I probably imagine that because I feel that way, too. When I look at the world in which we live and read my Bible, I, too, appeal to God:

Lord! Give me strength! Increase my faith!

It would be so much easier if I could just reinterpret what Jesus is teaching to be about small things, about how I should pray or about following simple and straightforward rules. Sometimes I wish I were called to preach warm, feel-good teddy bear sermons.

Unfortunately for me, when I read my Bible, when I pray, and when I listen to the still-speaking God, I realize that Jesus was more concerned about the poor and about economic injustice than just about anything else.  Though we like to ignore it, a huge portion of Luke’s gospel is about Jesus’ teachings about money. In essence, Jesus is saying that how we spend our money — individually, as a church, and as a culture — is reflective of who and what we value.

Our ancient forebears lived in a world that was contrary to God’s dream for humanity. God-through-Jesus spoke a counter-cultural word to our ancient kin, to the disciples. The same is true in our times. We bail out bankers and hesitate to fund food stamps.

Though none of us wrote the rules of the game, we’re enmeshed in a system that values the wealthiest while those who produce our food and provide the labor get scraps. We’re living in times in which blaming the poor for their lot in life is common. The result is we follow the leadership of the powerful, the one percent, and dismiss too many of God’s children as expendable.

Like the disciples, we hear God’s call but cover our ears, sometimes even closing our hearts, because it’s just too much bear. It’s just too much to deal with. Like Jesus’ disciples, the task before us seems too great! And so we cry out,

Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5 CEB)

***

And rather than tell us we need an all-beef footlong hot dog with a huge glob of ketchup and abundant pickle relish, Jesus tells us all we need is a tiny speck of mustard!

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. (Luke 17:6 CEB)

Too often this passage is read as Jesus criticizing the disciples for not believing enough. Eugene Peterson, for example,  author of the Message Bible interprets this passage that way.

Trouble is, using this passage to blame the overwhelmed for being overwhelmed and the poor for not having enough faith to become rich is inconsistent with Jesus’ friendship with the oppressed and poor of his time. Jesus repeatedly criticized the powerful not the powerless for unjust systems.

Rather than a harsh tone, I suspect Jesus responded with a tone of compassion and encouragement. It certainly would be more consistent within the context.

You have all the faith you need, Jesus tells them. A tiny mustard seed of faith is enough to move this tree. You can do it! Yes, you will make mistakes, says Jesus, and those around you will make mistakes but with repeated forgiveness, with continuous effort, and with love for one another, you can do it!

It only takes the itsy-est bit of mustard to flavor your footlong.

***

It is easy to feel overwhelmed. It is disappointing that we still have to do the dishes and that our cars don’t fly. It’s easy to do nothing because we don’t know what to do.

But the Good News is we each have enough faith to do our part. If we each do our small part, this church and community will be transformed for the twenty-first century. If each of us in each church in each town do our part to dismantle economic injustice, God’s unfolding realm of justice will grow.

All it takes is a tiny speck of mustard-ly love to change someone else’s life for the better. All it takes is a mustard seed of faith to change the world for the better. Mother Teresa reminds us that if we start with a small act of love, a mustard-seed size of faith, we can do bigger things:

“I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time – just one, one, one.

So you begin.

I began – I picked up one person.  Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand . . .

The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community.

Just begin – one, one, one.”

Mother Teresa seemed to understand what Jesus is saying in this passage. She acted out what Jesus is telling the disciples. We, too can do that. We’ve got the faith of a speck of mustard and Jesus has our backs. God’s around to help with the heavy lifting. We just need to do our part.

And, so, let go of the pain of the whole world. Start with one thing. Love first, withhold blaming the victim, make forgiveness a habit, and spend your money in ways that reflect your faith.

Focus your speck of mustard where God points.

Amen.

Desperately Seeking Community

Desperately Seeking Community
Photo from http://www.etsy.com/listing/119259733/vintage-bicentennial-1976-1977-missouri
A Missouri license plate, circa 1976. Photo from http://www.etsy.com/listing/119259733/vintage-bicentennial-1976-1977-missouri

I had to work on the bicentennial of our country. Along with two others who lived the same 40 miles away from the Six Flags over Mid-America, I car pooled to work. A chivalrous seventeen-year-old, I squeezed into the backseat of a Chevy Vega on July 4, 1976. (Those of a certain age will know that this was no small task for a two-year-old let alone a teenage boy.)

I was discouraged that day; I spent it selling watered-down orange juice in cheap plastic orange shaped containers when I really wanted to be celebrating my country’s two-hundredth birthday. Instead I spent it earning $1.90 an hour (less than minimum wage) because I was a seasonal worker.

Nonetheless, I still believed in my country and was glad to have a summer job. Growing up during Vietnam and the Watergate era, I wasn’t naive but I believed in the progression of the dream. Deep down, people are good, all people. (I still perceive this deep within my essence.)

I am not as idealistic as I was three plus decades later. I’ve witnessed things I thought would never happen.This is true both on a personal and national level. I‘ve had to explain unjust war to my children more than once. My trust in the electoral process  — with some caveats — was shattered by the 2000 debacle. 

I’ve seen improvement in race relations only to see a significant and sometimes racially-motivated backlash to the election of a bi-racial president. I’ve seen a minority of people so afraid of our rapidly changing world they draw their circles of inclusion tighter and tighter. This has been true in politics and within the faith I claim.

A Condon Fourth (2013). Photo by Tim Graves
A Condon Fourth (2013). Photo by Tim Graves See more photos on Flickr.

I began pastoring a small United Church of Christ in an eastern Oregon town of less than 700 this year. I quickly began to hear murmurings in town about the big Fourth of July celebration. A little cynical and not much of a flag-waver, I was curious about what this big day would hold. There was an all-community breakfast and dinner in the newly-restored town park. The parade was followed by a soap box derby and tricycle races on Main Street.

Though there were plenty of flags and some of the outfits my congregants wore blinded me with their stars and stripes, this was not about waving the flag. The Fourth was not about blind-obedience to a particular political perspective or even to the United States. No one denied we have our differences in our small town.

Despite those differences, we share something. We share the place we live. We are dependent on one another in our isolated community. We smile at one another (and sometime sneer or are cold to one another) but we all crave community. We need each other. While I lack my exuberant patriotism of 1976, I’ll wave a flag for a town that comes together for a red, white, and blue spectacle each July. I’ll wave a flag for those who in this era of division and vitriol, seek to be a community.

May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. Genesis 28:3 NRSV (Read in context.)

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Philippians 2:4 NRSV (Read in context.)

I Like Colors!

I Like Colors!
Grey Sun (Photo by Tim Graves)
Grey Sun. Photo by Tim Graves

There’s a way in which my adult son Isaac and I are different. I tend to err on the side of more color in my attire. He tends to err on a more subdued color scheme. We recently had a Facebook discussion in which we discussed our very different perspective on the appropriate color of his childhood home. He told me that he was embarrassed by the bright, warm yellow (with green trim) that we painted our 1850s historic home we owned in upstate New York.

Yes, I like color! I’m wearing a lavender shirt as I write this post. I have a bright yellow sweater. I wear bold stripes especially in the winter months. My ties have been known to be dramatic. For me, having a yellow house was inspired by a 1970s Barbara Streisand song, Everything. In the song she lists things she’d like to do; my favorite is, “Move into the White House, paint it yellow.”

For me, color reflects the magnificence of the season of new creation: spring. The flowers are dressed in a vibrant spectrum of colors. It’s as if they are giggling and laughing at winter and its endless greys. That is why I am particularly fond of the Grey & Sun Wind and Solar building in the small town in which I live. I can see it from my office window. Even on the dreariest of days it shines bright. It giggles and laughs at winter reminding me that to everything there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3). Spring always returns.