Who Will Be Neighbor?
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
A hymn inspired by today’s gospel sung in Austria goes like this:
Lord, we are your worthless servants
Doing only what we must
And our deeds would be amazing
If our faith were specks of dust
But, instead, we cause to stumble
Little ones who come to Thee
Tie a millstone ‘around our necks and
Drown us in the deep blue sea. (Austrian Hymn)
I promise. You won’t find that hymn in the ELW! But you will find these words in the bible. They cause us to wonder, just what kind of friend do we have in Jesus? The demands of discipleship are daunting. Sometimes faith feels heavy.
Columbus Day is now also Indigenous People’s Day. Mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow. What we called ‘progress,’ is killing us. Weighed down by problems of our own making, added to the needs of the poor, piled on top our personal struggles, faith can feel like a millstone tied around our necks.
Feeling something like this dreadful weight, the disciples felt inadequate. “Lord, increase our faith!” they plead (Luke 17:5). They are on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. They walk. Jesus talks. The disciples take notes. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13b). ‘Offer forgiveness to everyone who asks –not seven times, but seventy times seven!’ (vs. 4). When the crowds were hungry the disciples wanted to send them away; no Jesus said, you give them something to eat (9:12-13). When a father with a demon-possessed boy asked the disciples for help, they didn’t know what to do. Jesus called them faithless and obtuse, unwilling to learn (9:38-41). When the twelve heard about a successful exorcist working independently from them, they wanted to stop him; no Jesus said, leave him alone (9:49-50). When Samaritan villagers refused to give them shelter, James and John asked God to send down heavenly fire upon them; again, Jesus rebuked them (9:51-55).
When the disciples returned from their mission with the 70, they felt powerful and were filled with joy. But now the weight of Jesus’ expectations filled them with dread. They are painfully aware of what they lack. We’re going to need more faith Jesus—more people, more resources, more strength! (As we prepare to discuss the 2023 budget today after worship, I can relate to that.)
Their urgent plea was reasonable. After all, what can you accomplish in this world without capital, competence, ambition, and power? I wouldn’t say their requests fell upon deaf ears. Yet, Jesus knew it was not going to play out that way for the disciples. Yes. Even what little they had would soon be taken away. Jesus would be crucified, die, and be buried. Jesus knew what we, looking back, now know, even their meager gifts would be enough! Somehow, despite everything, the world was about to turn.
The disciples were learning. When it comes to faith, more doesn’t matter. Faith is not a noun but a verb. There on the road to Jerusalem, the disciples still equate faith with a power they might possess –as though it were a skill they had yet to master. They are thinking of faith as like magic hocus-pocus wielded by fairies and wizards. They just need the right prayer or incantation. Soon, they would learn faith is not something you can add to or subtract from. It’s not a skill set. It’s not an incantation but an invitation to relationship. Here’s the thing. Faith is trust in Jesus.
Look how often and how lavishly, in contrast to the disciples, Jesus commends the faith of those who seek him out. “Your faith has saved you,” he tells the woman who anoints his feet (Luke 7:50), the Samaritan leper who returns to thank him (Luke 17:11), the hemorrhaging woman who grasps his cloak (Matthew 9:20). “Your faith has made you well,” he tells a blind beggar (Luke 18:35). “Such faith I have not seen in all of Israel!” he exclaims about a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:10).
“What is it that Jesus commends in these people? As far as I can tell, the only thing they do is turn to him. Orient themselves in his direction. Trust him. What earns his admiration is their willingness — even in difficult, painful, and potentially risky circumstances — to lean into his goodness, healing, justice, and mercy.” (Debi Thomas, Doing Faith, Journey with Jesus, 9/25/16).
Faith is when I can’t –I turn to Jesus because Jesus can. Jesus pressed this point with the disciples. He asked them, which one of you would say to your slave, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? (Luke 17:7). The answer –no one would. ‘Or, which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, would leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one?’ Nobody would do that. But Jesus does, and that’s the point. Which of you, after your waiter came in from working all day would tell him to sit down while you served him?’ None of would do that; but Jesus does. We don’t deserve to be served, but in fact that’s what Jesus does for us.
One of my favorite hymns, which (unlike the Austrian hymn) is in the ELW, may be unfamiliar because it is meant to be sung at Evening Prayer or Compline, services which we rarely do together. It’s called, “Now it is Evening.” “Now it is evening: here in our meeting may we remember Christ our friend. Some may be strangers, who will be neighbor? Where there is welcome, Christ is our friend” (ELW #572).
Neighborliness is God’s gift for faith. In history and around the world, neighborliness has been and continues to be our superpower. Through faith, we are transformed into neighbor, and this is the beginning of changing everything –from our closest relationships to our economy and our democracy.
Here’s where the world turns. Here’s where the weight is lifted, and the scales fall from our eyes. Finally, we move beyond the impossibility of ever being perfect into joy and praise. Faith is born from God’s gift, not from God’s demands. Receiving the good that only God can give, faith opens our hearts and minds to God’s abundant grace. Our poor gifts and skills will never be enough, yet we trust God will use all we have to move heaven and earth.
“‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’” (Matthew 11:28-30). The yoke we wear through faith in Jesus is simply to be friend and neighbor. Where there is caring, Christ is our light.