Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Mulberry Tree and the Tree of Life

Sermon on Luke 17:1-10
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 6, 2013 (Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost)

Do you want God to thank you for everything you’ve done for Him?  Do you want a compliment from Him for all the great things you’re doing in His service?  Do you think that God will reward you for how you’ve consecrated yourself to Him?  It won’t work.  Everything you’re doing is already something that is your duty.  In fact, we haven’t even lived up to our duty.  Even the thought that we can do anything that will impress Him is itself a failure to do our duty.  It’s a selfish thought, and selfishness is not service to God.  It’s tempting, though, to think that something we do, especially if it has to do with our outward association with churchly things, sets us apart from the rest of those who just go to church on Sunday morning and do “secular” things the rest of the week.  It’s tempting to think, like the Roman church does, that there are such things as “works of supererogation,” or works that are done over and above what God requires in His law.  Of course, we formally reject that theology, but the temptation is still there to think of our works as better than someone else’s work.

The fact is, though, that no matter how well we do our work, whether inside or outside the church, no matter whether professional or volunteer, we are only doing our duty.  Everyone serves God whatever he does.  I preach here on Sunday morning and visit the sick and shut in, but five days a week, for eight hours a day, I also serve God by being His hands to provide people with daily bread.  As the Catechism puts it, daily bread includes everything we need to support this body and life, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, and so on.  In our society, that also includes various computing and communication devices.  I am also a husband, a caretaker to 21 birds, a tenant in an apartment complex, a literal neighbor to my fellow tenants, a son, a nephew, an uncle, a brother, a friend, a licensed driver, and also many other things as well, depending on the situation.  These are all ways in which I serve God, and most of you could also come up with a list that is just as long, if not longer, of the many ways in which you also serve God in your various vocations.  In all of these things, God serves our neighbor, that is, everyone we encounter, through us, but He also expects perfection.  But there is no such thing as perfection for human beings, except Jesus.  We’re not earning any bonus points.  We’re not pleasing God by doing any of this stuff.  At best (and we are never at our best) – at best, we are only doing what is already our duty.

And so is your neighbor.  Your neighbor doesn’t serve you perfectly, either.  Your neighbor on the road might cut you off in traffic.  He might even collide with your car.    Your neighbor in church might get mad at you over some stupid misunderstanding, or even over a legitimate disagreement about things relating to a political or even doctrinal struggle within the congregation or the wider church.  Even if he happens to be right, he might let his anger get the better of him and say something that is uncharitable or even downright false.  Your neighbor up in the pulpit might say something that needlessly offends you, or he might fail to enunciate so that you can hear what he’s saying in the first place.  Your neighbor at your job might be lazy, causing you more work.  Your neighbor at home might let his dog poop on your lawn.  Your relatives might not always treat you nicely.  Your children might be rebellious.  And so on.  Nobody is perfect, which is why Jesus calls for an infinite amount of forgiveness.  He’s not just asking for us to forgive our neighbor seven times, and then he gets cut off.  He’s asking us to forgive our neighbor every time he sins, which is all the time.

But even in forgiving our neighbor, we never do it perfectly.  Even there we aren’t even doing our duty.  We hold grudges.  We remember how our neighbor has hurt us.  We are defensive.  We expect to be hurt again in the future.  In short, we don’t forgive.  And in failing to forgive, we fail to believe we are forgiven.  We don’t forgive because we don’t even trust that He has forgiven us.

And that’s what faith is, by the way.  It’s trust.  It’s not a thing within you that makes you capable of working miracles.  It’s also not something you can brag about, as if having a greater faith makes you better in God’s sight.  As I pointed out in my sermon on this text three years ago (the first sermon I preached at Holy Cross, by the way), this isn’t about the amount of faith.  It’s about the One in whom our faith trusts.  Even the smallest faith in the world, if that faith is in the One who can make mulberry trees not just plant themselves in the sea but even dance, if He wanted to, is enough to save us, because it’s not about the size of your faith, its about the One in whom you have faith, and what He is capable of.

But what He is about isn’t about silly things like making trees uproot themselves and walk around.  Instead of making a mulberry plant itself in the sea, He plants our cold, dead hearts in the water flowing from His side, making them bloom again with love toward Him and service to our neighbor.  Making a mulberry tree walk is nothing compared to what He did to the tree of the cross.  He hung from a dead tree, with the dead weight of our sins, infinitely more than a millstone, hanging around His neck.  But then He brought that dead tree to life in His resurrection, turning it into the tree of life, whose fruit, His body and blood, if a man eat of it, he shall live forever.  Instead of condemning us for our poor and lazy service to Him, He commends us as perfect and serves us the greatest meal of all.  Instead of holding a grudge against us, He forgives us, not just seven times, not just seventy-seven times, not just seven million times, but infinitely much and infinitely often.  Even though we are sinners, in other words, Christ died to save us.  Even though we are unworthy, He calls us worthy because Christ was worthy in our place.  Even though we are servants, He invites us to sit down at the banquet table where He is both host and meal, and partake in His feast of victory which has no end.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

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