Sermon: "Laments, Curses, Forgiveness, and Grace"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Lamentations 1.1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1.1-14; Luke 17.5-10
Today’s lectionary readings cover the range of human experience and emotion. One could probably preach a whole series of sermons on these passages, but let’s attempt to see how these readings fit together and inform each other – let’s look for the big picture.
Over the past few weeks our Old Testament readings have focused on Jeremiah – this week is no exception for Jeremiah is very likely the author of Lamentations. As you may recall, the Babylonians have invaded Israel and Judah; Jerusalem has been sacked – it lies in ruin and desolation. Lamentations 1.1-6 expresses the people’s lament; it portrays the depths of their despair:
How lonely sits the city [Jerusalem] that once was full of people . . . She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks . . . Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place . . . the roads to Zion [Jerusalem] mourn, for no one comes to the festivals . . . the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions . . .
Might such suffering be a manifestation of God’s grace?
Psalm 137 continues the song of lament: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion. As for our harps, we hung them up on the trees in the midst of that land. For those who led us away asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil” (Vss. 1-4). Singing songs at the oppressor’s request must have been difficult, adding insult to injury. I suspect slaves in the Southern States must have experienced similar emotions – it is one thing to sing spirituals as they labored, it is another thing to sing spirituals as entertainment for the oppressors. Is it any wonder the Babylonian captives came to say, “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us! Happy [blessed] shall be he who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock” (Vss.8-9, BCP)! What a marvelous curse! As C. S. Lewis has noted, no other religious literature in the world curses like Hebrew scripture – these people were not afraid to let God see their true, raw emotions.
I am sure all of us have experienced such raw emotions, although we may have been reluctant to share them with God, or to curse effectively! Yet God invites us into such honest communication, for in communing with God we come to recognize our true selves, and amazingly, we discover God loves us, accepts us, and is always ready to forgive us.
Did you find today’s gospel reading to be a bit puzzling? Our reading picks up with the apostles’ request that Jesus increase their faith. In effect, Jesus tells them they already have enough faith, then warns them about expecting any reward. What are we to make of this? Why were the apostles requesting an increase in faith?
Sometimes we are prone to wonder about the formatting of our lectionary readings. In such cases it generally helps to wander! Here is one of those places where we need to wander into the broader context. Jesus is still on his way up to Jerusalem. He had just finished the story of the rich man (Dives) and Lazarus – a story told for the benefit of the scribes and Pharisees who were grumbling about Jesus’ welcoming and eating with sinners. Jesus closed this story with the words, “If they [a veiled reference to the scribes and Pharisees] do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16.31; NRSV). The scribes and Pharisees were the ones guilty of offense; they were causing others to stumble, and Jesus routinely took them to task!
Now, let’s look at four omitted verses between the story of Dives and Lazarus and the start of our reading:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive’ (Luke 17.1-4; NRSV).
As Jesus told the apostles, opportunities for stumbling certainly occur, but woe to the one who presents such opportunities, i.e.., the scribes and Pharisees. Such offenders are to be rebuked, but if they repent, we are to forgive them, even if they offend against us seven times a day and repent, we must forgive!
And the apostles replied, “Oh, Jesus, (and that’s a prayer, not a curse) if that is what you expect of us, increase our faith!” Isn’t that how we would respond? But Jesus told them, “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” (Luke 17.6; NRSV). Now I do not know about you, but I find that rather puzzling! A mustard seed is very small! What is Jesus telling us? A note on the text reveals the Greek reads “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed . . .” We do not generally attribute consciousness to mustard seeds, but the mustard seed is programmed to grow under the proper conditions – soil, moisture, and heat, and voila, we have a large bush! Might Jesus be saying, with a little help from hyperbole, “Enough with your excuses – you have all the faith you need to forgive seven times! Just do it!”
But Jesus does not let it rest there. He then tells the apostles the Parable of the Unworthy Servant. When the servant comes in from plowing or tending the sheep, does the master tell him to sit down and serve him? No, the master expects the slave to do as commanded – to first serve his master and then to eat – without expecting any thanks for having done so. We must remember that slavery was contemporary practice in Jesus’ time. Children were often given as slaves or servants in order to pay off a debt. Then Jesus told the apostles, “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’” (Luke 17.10; NRSV)!
Now, let’s see how this relates to our reading from 2 Timothy. After greeting Timothy with God’s grace, mercy, and peace, Paul tells Timothy he is reminded of his sincere faith, a faith which stems from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice which now lives in him. Paul then says, “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1.6-7; NRSV).
Paul invites Timothy to join him “in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1.8-10; NRSV).
Our life in Christ is not attained through our good works; it is attained only through Christ’s own purpose and grace. Our faith grows as we experience and respond to God’s love. But remember, love is all important, for as Paul reminds us, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13.2; NRSV)
What we do for Christ, we should not do for the sake of reward, for it is exactly what God expects of God’s servants. At times in our life we will stumble. Might the very suffering which results from our having so fallen be an expression of the marvelous grace of God, for though we work our way through lament, and curses, we are also drawn to repent, and return to resting in God’s grace!