October 2, 2016 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Sometimes the tone of a message is even more important than its content. And I, for one, have a hard time with tone. I have a bit of a sarcastic streak, so, sometimes, when I’m offering Elizabeth a genuine compliment on how she looks or a dinner that she has fixed, I get an angry look in return. You know that look—the one that says, “You’d better be glad that you’re on the other side of the room and that I’m not holding anything I can throw at you.” Then I have to try to convince her that I meant what I said—that I wasn’t being sarcastic—but I don’t think it ever works. “You didn’t sound like you meant what you said,” she says in return, letting me know that it’s too late—that I’ve missed my chance to be sweet and affirming.
If getting the tone right is difficult in a spoken word between two spouses, what’s it like in an e-mail or a text message to someone you don’t really know? Have you ever tried to use sarcasm in a written communication and had it backfire on you? More than once, I’ve received an angry response to something I’ve written that had nothing to do with what I meant but only what I wrote. That leads to an apologetic phone call and, again, an unconvincing explanation that involves asking someone to reread that e-mail but with a totally different inflection. “Can’t you see that I didn’t mean that it was a terrible idea—that I was trying to be sympathetic by making fun of your sister for giving you a hard time?” Yeah, tone is tough.
If striking the right tone in an e-mail is like walking through a minefield, imagine, then, what it is like to try to hear the right tone in a text that was written more than two thousand years ago in a different language and by people who inhabited a completely different culture. Welcome to the gospel. Is it any wonder that we argue with one another over what Jesus really meant? Do you ever get the impression that if Jesus came back today and heard how Christians use the words that he said to suit their own arguments that he would probably throw up his hands and walk away before even saying a word? It’s so easy to read a gospel passage and take it the wrong way. We can’t rely on tone. All we have is the text. When a passage doesn’t seem to say what we expect it to say, we have to try to piece together the context to see if we can figure out what Jesus or the gospel writer really meant.
Sometimes the person reading the passage out loud can totally change how others interpret the text just by the way he or she reads it. Take today’s gospel lesson for example. How do you hear what Jesus says? Did I influence you unfairly when I read it? The apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” And he replied, “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.” Was he upset at them for asking? “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” Or was he encouraging them? “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” In some churches, the gospel is chanted—a practice that involves the deacon or priest singing the text in a mostly monotone pitch with only slight variations at the end of sentences. We don’t do that here at St. John’s, but, with passages like this one, I can see why getting rid of all of the tone might help.
In this gospel lesson, I really can’t tell whether Jesus is fussing at his disciples or comforting them. But, to be honest with you, I’m tired of hard gospel lessons. Believe it or not, I’m tired of preaching tough sermons. Every three years in our lectionary cycle we focus on Luke, and Luke is hard on people like you and me. Luke has a heart for the poor and the blind and the lame and the prisoner and the oppressed. And that’s not us. We’re the rich and the powerful. We’re the ones that Luke’s version of Jesus is wagging his finger at. It seems like every Monday, when I look at the lessons for the upcoming Sunday, we’ve got another tough text ahead of us. I want this gospel lesson to be encouraging. I want Jesus to be saying to us, “Take heart! Even if you only have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can still say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea!’ and it will obey you.” I don’t want another reprimand. But it doesn’t really matter what I want. In fact, how we want to hear this passage doesn’t matter at all. What really matters is how we need to hear it.
We might not be able to figure out the tone that Jesus used when he said these words, but we can ask ourselves what tone we bring to the story. What about you? Put yourself in the text. What if you were asking the question? Come to Jesus and allow yourself to ask him to increase your faith. What tone lies behind your request? Are you asking him to give you more faith because you’re tired of working for it? Do you want the easy way out? Do you wish you could approach the ups and downs of life with the same confidence as others whose spiritual lives you envy, but you don’t want to work at it like them? Is that why you’re asking for more faith? Or maybe you’re asking Jesus to increase your faith because, no matter how hard you pray and no matter how focused you are on God, it just doesn’t seem like your faith is real to you. No matter how desperately you look for God, you never seem to find him. Or perhaps you don’t really need any more faith; you just want some more—more than your sister, more than your husband, more than your co-worker whose “holier-yet-more-humble-than-thou” attitude is about to drive you up the wall. “Lord, increase our faith,” we ask. And Jesus’ reply is the same to all of us: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could do anything.” But whether he is encouraging you or chiding you depends completely on you.
The second half of the gospel lesson is the same. When you’ve exhausted yourself doing the very thing that God is asking you to do, what message do you need Jesus to give you in that moment? Jesus said to his disciples, “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!’” What is he saying to you? Is he warning you not to look for congratulations when the only thing you’ve done is what is expected of you? Or is he comforting you because you get discouraged when no one notices the work that you’ve done? When I was a freshman at Birmingham-Southern, I had a mentor who helped me learn how to be a little more humble. Whenever I would mention something that I had accomplished, he would say, “Do you want a cookie?” It was his way of reminding me what I needed to know: that the true measure of my life wasn’t to be found in the recognition that I received but in the purpose with which I did my work. But not everyone struggles with an ego like mine. I wonder about you. What’s your struggle? What’s Jesus saying to you?
The truth of the gospel doesn’t depend on us. It is the same no matter who we are. If we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could say to a crepe myrtle, “Be uprooted and go plant yourself in the Tennessee River!” and it would. Faith is a powerful thing—far more powerful than any of us can fully appreciate. Likewise, when we have finished our work, our response is to be simple and humble: “We have only done what we were asked to do.” We shouldn’t be surprised that discipleship is a thankless job. What Jesus says is the same for all of us, but how we hear it is a different story. What do you need to hear today? Faith can move mountains, and Jesus wants you to have that kind of faith. Do you need him to remind you that you already have everything you need, or do you need him to give you a kick in the pants? Following Jesus is hard, thankless work. Do you need him to remind you that the real reward still lies ahead, or do you need him to ask you what you’re really in this for? The truth of the gospel doesn’t change, but we do. And thanks be to God that, through God’s Spirit and in communion with one another, God’s word speaks to each one of us.