It has been just over three years since September 11th 2001. The anniversary carries a little extra significance for me personally because the first time I took a service here, at Mornington in the Dunedin parish, was the Sunday immediately after the terror attacks. If I recall correctly there were a few last minute changes to the order of service that week. Now I haven't taken more than half a dozen or so more services since then but I always feel when I'm standing up front that there's nothing I can tell you that you don't already know. I have probably said this before, but your combined wisdom surely exceeds mine. And when I look at the Bible - today's readings being no exception - I always find myself asking a lot more questions than I have the answers for.
Occasionally I cut cartoons out of the paper and put them aside as a potential resource for leading worship. There was one from Peanuts I found quite appropriate - for reasons of copyright I didn't put it in the bulletin, but to quickly summarise... In the first frame Charlie Brown is on the phone saying "Well, yes ma'am, I guess we could try...". He goes to his sister and tells her "They want you and me to teach at Bible School". "Teach who?" she replies. "You mean there are people around who know less than I do?" Well, that pretty much sums up how I felt when I sat down to reflect on today's readings. So although I've prepared a short sermon I ask you to think of it as an exploration, not a lecture, and I invite you to join in. Please, if I say something that strikes a chord, or really upsets you, or you think you have the answer to one of my questions, feel free to interrupt.
So let's look at today's gospel reading from Luke. The Bible seems most of the time to be a very serious book - and I suppose it should be, dealing, amongst other things, with life, death and the working out of our salvation in fear and trembling. But surely Jesus wasn't serious with his suggestion about the mulberry tree? The image this conjures up - how on earth would you go about planting a tree in the sea? - is just plain ridiculous and surely an exaggeration, he had to be joking?
No, I can't imagine the people who draw up the lectionary would let any jokes slip into the readings - I'm sure they must believe we lack the gift of laughter - so presumably this is a case of using exaggeration to make a serious point. If only I could work out what the point is. Luke has Jesus giving this little piece of advice in response to the disciples' request to "Increase our faith". Perhaps Jesus is telling them that faith isn't something you can be given. Perhaps he's suggesting that faith is about taking a few risks. Perhaps he's challenging them to dream the impossible dream, to dare to imagine, to see visions. Perhaps he's even saying you have to do things that look crazy - like planting trees in the sea - to be his disciple?
On reflection, I think - I hope! - that Jesus is saying that when you're faced with a seemingly impossible or ridiculous task (like Charlie Brown or me!) a tiny bit of faith can go a long way.
There's a contrast - or perhaps tension would be a better word - between Jesus and Habakkuk. Habakkuk, the Old Testament prophet, sees a vision which God tells him to write down. "If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come..." Jesus says have a mustard seed of faith and even your most unlikely visions will become real. The gospels show Jesus as a prophet who acted out his vision, not someone who wrote his ideas down on tablets and then sat around waiting for the right time to come. For Jesus the Kingdom of God was here and now and he set about living it and sharing it. In a sense he was the good news. "Come and follow me," he says.
I know I'm not being entirely fair to Habakkuk. In fact, I'm usually far more comfortable waiting for things to happen than instigating them, myself. Some people like to be busy and can't sit still; others can happily do nothing forever. But action without vision is likely to be futile; and waiting without a purpose isn't really waiting, is it? Jesus somehow managed to combine both vision and action in a way that still challenges us today. We'd like to think he wasn't serious, he can't be serious; a mustard seed? A mulberry tree? Planted in the sea? What's he on about? It's hard to believe, it's impossibly hard to do. Maybe if we wait long enough it will start to make sense...
"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.
Maybe we need to wait a bit longer!
But no matter how confusing that mulberry tree is, the slavery stuff that follows it seems even worse. "We are worthless slaves!" What are we to make of that?
Now I thought that God loved and valued everyone. What about the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son? "Worthless slaves"? No room for self-esteem here it seems. Taken literally, we are all being reduced to the status of slaves. But surely when you consider this passage in the wider context of Jesus' life and mission this isn't what he meant. It can't be that the Jesus who encourages children to join him, who gladly eats with outcasts and sinners, who dares to touch the unclean... would or could use the phrase "worthless slaves".
For a start, he can't have meant give up, go round saying you are useless. And I don't believe he meant that we are slaves and God is the master. That's clearly not how Jesus saw God. He rejected the attempts by people in his time to tie God down to a set of rules and regulations, to put God in a box. Yes, it's comforting to think that you can find God if you just pray the right prayer, or eat the right food or do the right thing. Or pass the right resolution. Or even go to the right church, I guess.
But we know, don't we, almost instinctively I think, that there's no magic formula for finding God. We can't tie God down like that. This is not to denigrate the value of routine and discipline - John Wesley was called a Methodist for good reason, after all! But Jesus showed that we can experience God anywhere and everywhere. Some might turn to nature or prayer; music or art; sport or the Mornington/Glenaven Methodist church. Archimedes found enlightenment in the bath. My father, I remember, used to say he most experienced new learning about God when working as part of a group. Which reminds me of our parish motto, "Finding good in everyone, finding God in everyone". If we that take seriously it's a pretty big challenge. If we look hard enough, if we bring that mustard seed of faith with us, we can find God in some unlikely places, even in the ugliest, most inhuman places of suffering .. .even in the cross. And if we Christians can somehow find God on the cross, where can't we find God?
So what did he mean ... "Worthless slaves" ? This is, I think, another one of those deliberate exaggerations to make a point.
What point, then? In saying "We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done!" Jesus, as one reference I found puts it, "deconstructs hierarchy". Which I think is a fancy way of saying he's warning his listeners not to get too up themselves. For any of those who might have been nodding along in agreement when Jesus talked about slaves coming in from the field having to serve at the master's table before they could eat and drink themselves - with the listeners putting themselves in the place of the master, of course - he turns their prejudice back on them. So you, when you have only done what you should do, don't make special claims! You have done only what was expected!
Because for Jesus it's not our status, our sex, our age, our looks, our race, or even our achievements that matter. To him we are all loved by God, as God's children.
In fact, what this passage does is debunk the idea that we achieve value by achieving the good, as though we deserve a bonus for being decent, caring human beings. We can't claim: you ought to love me, because look at how good I am! Look at what I have done! Yes, this is clearly not the passage for prospective candidates for the Auckland mayoralty!
You may have watched the documentary series on "Status Anxiety" a few months ago, which among other things talked about how living in a so-called meritocracy can cause a lot of stress. If we don't achieve some socially valid goal, reach a certain status, we can feel like failures - because if we aren't particularly successful by the prevailing standards it's not just bad luck it's because we actually deserve to fail, we shouldn't just feel worthless, we are worthless... Well, maybe now I'm exaggerating a bit. But what today's reading says is that we shouldn't value human worth based on achievement.
This seems a bit unfair - it gives us no credit for what we have done. And it raises the question what is our value if it is not in what we achieve? This is a question which goes to the heart of being human. But I think it's probably the wrong question, it's ultimately futile to pursue it too far. One path leads to eugenics ... another to the rather prosaic summation of the value of our parts ... 2 litres of water here, a few grams of sodium chloride and so on, arriving at a total of - I don't know -$7.34 cents?... As a former economist I suppose I should also suggest letting the market determine our worth - but that way leads us back to slavery. Jesus, if you asked him, might answer in the words of Colin's hymn "I am worth everything, you are worth everything, we are worth everything in the eyes of God".
So really, I think a better question is what do we value, what gives our lives meaning? Which is good topic for another sermon. Suffice it to say that when we take achievement in our society's terms as the measure of worth, some of us will come out very low on the scale.
In our house, there's something of a hierarchy - in dire need of deconstruction I reckon -concerning who has control of the TV remote. I come at the bottom, the kids quite often get to be at the top. So most evenings lately we have been watching The Simpsons. I don't mind that at all, there's some very clever writing to enjoy in it, even the second or third time you see the same episode. I suspect many of you won't know what I'm talking about, but it's comforting to me to reflect that God loves even Homer Simpson. Even chronically lazy, stupid, incompetent, greedy, and thoughtless people - and I'm certainly all of those things at times - are worth something (everything? Colin's song says) in the eyes of God.
In one Simpsons episode this week there was an awards ceremony at which Homer thought he deserved an award even though he hadn't done anything. Well, he didn't get an award. In fact, there was a whole night of award ceremonies on TV recently, what was it - the Wearable Arts Awards followed by the Emmy Awards and then the NZ music awards? - and as usual, I guess there were more people who missed out than won.
I think what Jesus says is that God doesn't run an award system. We can't earn God's love. For Jesus, we are valued because of who we are. And the more we become convinced of that the less we need to play the other games and the less it will matter. Then, if we are less preoccupied with making ourselves deserving we have more energy and time for others. The flipside of today's reading, then, may be the parable of the talents - we need to put our skills to work for others.
As, for the most part, I guess we do.
Jesus told us to do things like ... walk another mile, give the shirt off your back, turn the other cheek, love your enemies ... And he washed his disciples' feet, acting like a slave himself. We should do all these things too, not in expectation of a reward, and not because we are slaves and have no choice; not even just because Jesus said so. I suggest that maybe we should act because of that mustard seed of faith, that crazy vision of the divine, telling us to go and plant a tree in the sea.
And at our best we do do these things. Look around you - there are plenty of shining examples of faithful people here today. Part of gathering together each Sunday is to receive energy and encouragement to carry on with these tasks.
Anyway, I think I've said more than enough. I thought I would end with some words from the wisdom of another culture which seemed to me to pick up - indirectly and with a different slant - on some of the thoughts I've shared today. This is, apparently, a traditional West African song.
Do not seek too much fame