Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 2, 2016
“Failing to Notice and Then Making Excuses”
Luke 17: 5-10 – The Message
“The apostles came up and said to the Master, “Give us more faith.”
6 But the Master said, “You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it.
7-10 “Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, ‘Sit down and eat’? Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I’ve finished my coffee; then go to the kitchen and have your supper’? Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.’”
Life on a dairy farm is hard work. Unrelenting. Cows don’t take a Sabbath day. Every day at sunrise and sunset, cows must be milked. Not to mention, fed and cleaned up after. On the day of a wedding, someone still has to milk the cows. On the day of a funeral, someone still has to milk the cows. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter… there is simply no break. At least for the small family farmers like ours who didn’t have the means to hire additional laborers to help. That’s why you had children!
But no one’s job is harder on a small family farm than the mothers. Which I only realize now. Today, looking back, I can see that when my father and brother were out in the fields during planting and harvesting seasons, added to everything else my mother had to do, she had to milk the cows by herself.
Milking is hard, physical labor. First you have to get the cows in from the pasture, which many times meant walking up to a half a mile and back, coaxing and shoving stubborn animals who weigh an average of 1,500 pounds. Then coaxing and shoving them into the barn. Then coaxing and shoving their heads in a stanchion. Then, cleaning their utters with warm water, while avoiding their kicks and swatting tails. Then you put a strap around their back, lift a heavy stainless steel container onto the strap, and attach the suction cups. But if you thought the container was heavy when it was empty, add ten gallons of milk. And once it’s full, then try dumping it into a larger 30 gallon stainless steel container – without spilling. Then carry that to a separate room, avoiding a misstep into manure, and then lifting it high enough to fill a 500 gallon cooler. And then run back and repeat 25 more times.
On the days when my mother did it alone, before I was old enough to help, she still had to time supper perfectly so that when my father and brother came in the from field they had something to eat. After which they would sit down to rest and put up their feet while my mother began washing the dishes. That was her job. My mom reads all my sermons, so let me pause for her right now to read “thank you.” I now see how hard it was for you.
Variations of this story can be told by many here – especially single parents who understand the unrelenting demands of work and family life with no help and no break. Getting off the bus after a double shift but still expected to feed and care for hungry, tired, and cranky children – and help with their homework, wash their clothes, pack their lunches… And then do it again the next day. Sometimes with the needs of an elderly parent added to the list. Nurses who go the second mile without thanks. Teachers who come early and leave late without thought of a thank you, before preparing their own family’s dinner.
I notice you in this story – called here “servants” or “slaves.” Under the old norms of job responsibilities in the home, no matter what else had been going on that day, when it was time for dinner, it was mom’s job. In the story, Jesus seems to ask, “Why would you thank someone for just doing their job?” I’m sure Mother’s Day was invented to assuage some of this guilt.
This story needs telling again, this time from the New Revised Standard Version: “Who among you would say to your slave (various translations debate whether the Greek word here means slave or servant)… Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here and take your place at the table?’ Would you not instead say, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; then 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.”
This is awful. Yuck. So I have to just pause for a moment in discomfort and anger, at least for me, to notice how effortlessly, casually, it reinforces the worst of social hierarchies. Surely that is not the point Jesus is trying to make but I simply can’t leave unsaid that who we are in our own social hierarchy, then and now, affects the message we hear. Imagine hearing this text in a predominantly white, middle class American congregation – that’s us, so it’s not too hard to imagine! But then imagine hearing this text and its interpretation in a Black Church, or a church full of Latino farm workers, or Filipino maids. In our context, we might miss this subtext. Or, if we do, explain it away.
I read at least 20 interpreters and commentators as I tried to make sense of this passage. Not a single one said a single word to call into question this “matter of fact” statement about how one treats a slave. It was just assumed. Well, yes, of course: Slaves shouldn’t be thanked for doing what is expected of them. Such “logic” is right up there with “slaves be obedient to your master” and “wives submit to your husbands.”
A protest was called for yesterday about a basketball game between Black youth and law enforcement over at New Hope Baptist on Colorado Boulevard. My first reaction was “What a great idea. Engage two communities often in adversarial relationships. Especially now, with tensions so high.” Others heard the same news and cried foul. “You can’t use our children to promote a false peace, not until there is real reconciliation.”
Rev. Dawn and Rev. Tawana immediately called upon organizers to cancel the event protesting that this is cheap reconciliation, on the backs of our children. “Is law enforcement providing grief and trauma care to those they want to play basketball with? What is law enforcement doing to build relationships with Brown and Black adults? Where are the attempts by law enforcement to create effective de-escalation practices so they don't keep killing us? But we are expected to trust law enforcement to play games with our children? Please. We should expect and demand substantive and effective work, and not be pacified by such superficial tactics.” They saw this event and said, “This is just a PR stunt, a media opportunity.”
I have to say, I didn’t see that at all. What’s wrong with a basketball game? But then again, I’ve never had to question my safety. My life is not at risk should I forget to use my blinker. Or sit in a car reading a book, waiting to pick up my children. If I’m having a stroke or seizure, I expect to be helped. Not shot. The event was postponed, but the issues not settled.
But before committing to attend, I had to pause and re-read my own sermon last week. Racial Justice work begins by listening. Not debating, questioning, or providing rationales for the experiences of Black and brown people. Not arguing, “Well, that’s not what they meant. They’re just trying to do good. They had good intentions.” Listening is number one. And amplifying Black and brown voices is number two.
To stand as an ally is to look and see and listen and hear things beyond our own experience. So then, when I finally stopped arguing about intentions, I could hear the plea: We do not in any way support cheap reconciliation, especially when it's on the backs of our children. Bishop Desmond Tutu says it best, "Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing." How often the first reaction of the comfortable is “Well, they’re only trying to…”
So Jesus didn’t mean what he said about the slave? Deserved or not, I have to stop to say thank you to those who do their jobs and play their roles without notice. There is no excuse for not seeing what you do and the sacrifices you make – and saying thank you.
As we begin to interpret this passage, one key to translation is a single word that might be “if” or it might be “since.” It makes a surprisingly big difference.
If you have faith like a mustard seed… OR
Since you have faith like a mustard seed.
If you had this kind of faith, you could… OR
Since you have this kind of faith, you can…
Today’s passage began by saying: The disciples implored Jesus to give them more faith. Increase our faith, they pleaded. Jesus had just laid a lot on them. In particular, an expectation about forgiveness. Keep forgiving, keep forgiving, keep forgiving. Seven times a day if necessary. Yes, if that’s what Jesus expects, I’ll definitely need an extra dose of faith for those times when my willingness has run dry.
But, is the issue that I don’t have enough faith? If only I had more I could? Or, is Jesus saying, since I have faith enough already, I can even make a tree jump into the sea? So get to it already. What are you waiting for?
As a progressive Christian I probably err on the side of interpretation that says “If only I had more faith. Then I could…” be more involved, take more risks, choose the side of justice, make a decision, forgive a friend. If only… Perhaps, however, Jesus is trying to say that “since you have faith, therefore you can.” More faith doesn’t matter. Faith is faith – and faith the size of a mustard seed is just as powerful as faith the size of a mountain.
And yet, if only Jesus would give us more. Which plays into our American obsession with more. More is better. Meaning, we don’t yet have enough. But I think of Marianne Williamson’s quote attributed to Nelson Mandela:
Yet, "...our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.”
So, as I see it then, the question isn’t “If” I had more faith I could… That’s an excuse for inaction. Jesus is trying to say that “Since” you have faith, you can… Since I have faith, for example, I can forgive. I can love my neighbor as myself. The awkward connection, the casual disdain, is that slaves don’t need to be thanked for doing what is expected of them. Just like, there’s no extra credit for forgiving. Or loving. It is simply what is expected of a disciple. Love without expecting a thank you.
But this story is a bizarre way to make that point. And the teller doesn’t seem to notice that they are reinforcing the hierarchies of slave and master, just like husband and wife or Black and white. That’s not only unhelpful, it risks solidifying such relationships as “gospel-truth.”
Yet, I think, the whole point is as simple as this: Faith isn’t that special. It’s just doing what is right. It is doing what is expected. Mother Teresa said our calling is not to do great things, but to do small things with great love. The scripture might be saying something similar to us: we do not need more faith; we need to use the faith that we have! We can look around and do what is right, right in front of us. Have you ever said, If only I had more faith?
I heard a story this week about the Detroit Mower Gang. When Detroit declared bankruptcy, they stopped taking care of the neighborhood parks. They soon became overgrown with weeds and tall grass and children stopped playing in them. One man saw it and said I can do something about that. He took his riding lawnmower to the park and cut the grass himself. He noticed that as soon as the area around playground swing set was cleared, children were already on the swings. He told his neighbors who wanted to get involved. There is now a whole gang of riding lawn mowers cutting grass in parks around the city twice a month. They aren’t looking for appreciation. Their motivation is simply: every kid deserves a place to play. They didn’t say, If I had a lawnmower I could. They said, Since I have a lawnmower I can.
Thomas Merton said start where you are, and deepen what you already have, and then you will realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we may not know it and so we don't experience it. Everything has already been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess.
So the question Jesus raises isn’t whether or not you have enough faith, no matter who you identify with in the story. Since you have faith, any amount of faith, even as tiny as a mustard seed, you can do what is right, right in front of you.
However, we not might see what is right in front of us – from our limited, privileged, and biased perspective. That’s why it is especially important to listen to the voices of those who see what we often don’t notice. Or excuse. That’s why I was ultimately willing to protest yesterday. What is important is not that I feel safe, but that others are not.
But there is so much resistance to things as simple as facts and statistics in our world. A company hired two consultants for a workplace dialogue about race. It was a hostile room. A white man finally pounded his fist on the table. His face was red and he was furious. “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years. A white person can’t get a job anymore.” He hadn’t bothered to see that of the 40 people in the room, all were white. In fact, the company had zero employees of color.
We can’t always see what is obvious to others right in front of us. And if we do, excuses are often made about intentions. So once again, we are called to look deeper and listen harder and open ourselves more sacrificially. We don’t need more faith to do it. We already have enough to sustain us, so what can we do?
Do you feel like you lack something? I can’t, but I could? Whenever you think “I need more,” take a look around. Since you have what you need, so you can.
 One late exception was Jane Anne Ferguson at www.sermon-stories.com/blog
 From an excellent article by Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journey of Critical Pedagogy, 2011