6 Oct 2013
“‘“We are unprofitable servants. We have done what we were obliged to do.”’” (Luke 17:10)
In the name …
You may remember my story from a while back about taking part in a psych study over at UMass. I enjoy being a lab rat, plus I make about $20. Recently they sent me the results of their group study. I wasn’t all that surprised. Young people are able to pay attention to a message by disregarding competing messages and noise. Older people like me don’t fare so well at this. The newer message that interrupts and overlaps the older one replaces the first message and so the two of them get garbled into nothing but nonsense. Try and keep that in mind for a few minutes.
I’ve been reading the book A History of God by Karen Armstrong. She was a very religious young woman. She even entered a convent and served as a nun for seven years. But doubt wouldn’t let her continue and she left the convent, earned a degree at Oxford University and is now a professor and author. This is how Karen Armstrong introduces her book to the reader: “As a child, I had a number of strong religious beliefs, but little faith in God. There is a distinction between belief in a set of propositions and a faith which enables us to put our trust in them.” With the pig-headedness of supposed leaders in Washington being in the news all week, I have a belief in the power and wisdom of our democracy, but right now I don’t have much faith in it. I think that’s what Karen Armstrong is talking about. She continues by saying that she could grasp the ideas of hell and damnation. They were intuitive. If you messed up, you got messed up. But, she said, God “was a somewhat shadowy figure, defined in intellectual abstractions.” She ended up leaving the convent because God was either scary or vague. In her words, religion “leaves me cold.”
This disconnect worries me because Karen Armstrong is not unique. I have spoken to our Bible study group about Bart D. Ehrman, a deeply religious man who ended up an atheist because he could no longer have faith in the Bible. He read it literally and when he discovered all of its contradictions and errors, he found out that he had no relationship with God just with book he no longer knew how to trust. I recently read Geza Vermes book Christian Beginnings. He was a Jewish convert to Christianity, became a priest, and then returned to Judaism because he lost faith in Christ and church. His connection was theology and specifically how it developed from Jesus of Nazareth to Jesus the Son of God, and when the science of thinking about God failed him, he also discovered that he had no real, personal relationship with the God he studied.
I think a lot of other people face this same realization that religion, in Karen’s words, “leaves me cold.” They may not write books, but they drift away. There’s something missing. There’s nothing to hold them and God together. And I think that idea of belief without faith is what Jesus and the apostles are talking about this morning. The apostles are thinking about faith as a quantity, as a thing. And I wish I could spend more time talking about this, but Jesus is slyly pointing out the absurdity of this kind of faith. Faith as a quantity or thing that can be increased is as possible as ordering the maple trees outside this building to uproot themselves, walk down Thayer and Sugarloaf Streets, turn left and start growing in the middle of the Connecticut River. Each of us here realizes it’s absurd to test faith like this, and so did everyone in Jesus’ audience. And this message of absurdity then serves as the introduction to the parable about the slaves. They work all day and when they return to the house they have no right to expect the master to greet them with kind words and a warm embrace. Rather, he will order them to prepare his supper, and then Jesus says, “‘So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants. We have [only] done what we were obliged to do.”’” (Lk. 17:10)
Can’t you just feel Karen Armstrong’s, it “leaves me cold”? These words are not at all inspiring. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe Jesus intends them to be as preposterous as the trees walking down the street. Maybe they are intended to be just as absurd. Maybe thinking about faith as slaves and commandments can’t get us all that close to God. And I think this is the case because of something Jesus had said earlier in the Gospel, something we read a number of Sundays ago that maybe you remember. Jesus had told His followers not to sweat the small stuff. “‘Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your lifespan?’” (Lk 12:25). If God takes care of the birds and the grass, and adorns the flowers with their beauty, then won’t He also take care of you, “‘O you of little faith?’” (12:28) Then Jesus immediately offers the parable of the vigilant servants who are ready to greet their returning master no matter what time of the night he gets back from the wedding feast. That’s the beginning of a standard message of vigilance, but Jesus doesn’t often give us the standard anything. The next words out of His mouth would have shocked His audience. When the master returns, he will seat the servants at table, put on the servant’s uniform, and begin to wait on them!
And how does He then begin this morning’s parable? With the words: “‘Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here immediately and take your place at table.”’” (Lk. 17:7) You know who? Jesus and the God He reveals to us perfectly. Rather than increase our mustard-seed-sized faith, Jesus says, “O you of little faith,” just trust in God. It’s not about quantity. It’s about the relationship. We can know all kinds of stuff about the faith, but unless we have faith in Jesus it’s all for naught. Remember the psych experiment. We have to be careful that the second message about amounts of faith doesn’t confuse the first message about faith as a relationship based on trust between us and a caring God. Let us pray that we never drift away into a faith that we can’t really believe in, that leaves us cold. Let us here, together, build a faith of relationship. And for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo