A sermon for World Communion Sunday based on Luke 17:5-10 (NRSV). In honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, I used the story of The First Corn from the Penobscot Nation of Maine. You can read the whole story here.
“The people increased until they were numerous.” This is what it means to increase. To acquire. To hoard. To multiply stuff. Or in this story from the Penobscot Nation, to multiply people. And yet, this story is not about the number of people in this particular tribe expanding throughout Maine.
This story is about the Great Teacher and how he meets a boy and a girl who get married and have kids. Lots of them – until they were numerous. However, happiness doesn’t last long. Famine strikes and children are starving. No one is happy – and the husband notices strange behavior in his wife. She only seems happy when she is in water. Wanting nothing but happiness for his wife, he asks the Great Teacher for advice. And what does he tell him? This loving husband must kill his wife.
Doesn’t exactly sound like the slave in the Gospel Lesson does it? Here is a guy that is accused of being “useless” or “unprofitable,” or in this translation, “worthless.” No word of thanks is offered to this slave after he has plowed the fields and tended the sheep. No praise. No invitation to put his feet up and enjoy the feast. Nope. Like the apostles, we wouldn’t say “come here at once and take a place at the table.” We would ask him to set the table and serve us.
And Jesus knows this. He knows our downfalls because he’s been there. Jesus knows what it is like to be human. So, he begins this parable with a question where the obvious answer is no. Like it or not, we would answer no. Even though we would hope for a different ending, we would ask to be served.
After all, we all relish in someone else taking good care of us. Even though we would rather think that we would answer yes to Jesus’ question, we would say no. We would not invite this slave to sit at the table with us. And aren’t we just as worthless?
Well, no. That’s not how we think of ourselves. In fact, we don’t even think of slaves this way. We are not first-century Christians who considered slavery to be “against nature” while still upholding that it was not “morally wrong.” We celebrate the Underground Railroad. We are proud of our abolitionist Congregational mothers and fathers. For us, it is difficult to imagine anyone could be denied of “all dignity.” They are just as loved. They are children of God. So, no, we are not worthless and neither are they. But in the first century, slaves did what they were ordered to do – and they were still worthless.
I wonder if this is how the husband felt. I wonder if he felt worthless after the Great Teacher told him to kill his wife. Did he feel worthless on his way home? How did he feel when his wife assured him that this is what he must do? So, he follows her instructions and kills her. Just like the slave, he does what he is told. He does “only what [he] ought to have done.” I know. You hoped for a different ending, didn’t you? But, our story is not so different.
“Increase our faith!” Multiply our belief! Amplify our trust! More! More! We cry. Like the apostles, we rely on Jesus to transform our faith like a magic spell. But, that’s not how it works. Because faith isn’t just belief. Faith is something else. “An on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you are going, but going anyway. A journey without maps.” At least, that’s the way Frederick Buechner explains it. Faith is the people that you meet along the way and the stories you tell. It’s the “social glue that binds one person to another.”
It’s not magic. Jesus can’t make the glue for us. We have to do more. We have to do more than we ought to have done. Not because we are worthless, but because we imagine a different ending. We believe that each child of God is loved. So, we must figure out how to increase our glue.
Today, we increase our glue with an invitation to “Come at once and take your place at the table.” Today, with bread and cup, we increase our glue in this sacred space where God comes to take a place at our table and celebrate “the relationship that the meal establish[s] among the diners.” This is our glue that reaches across oceans, boundaries, nations, enemy lines and even cultures. This is what binds us together.
But how do we increase our glue beyond this table? How do we share what happens to us in this sacred space? Are we waiting like the husband for the Great Teacher to explain what we don’t understand?
Because he does. The Great Teacher explains to the husband that his wife has become the first corn. Just as she had said, the Great Teacher explains that “her power should be felt over the whole world and that all should love her.”
It’s not magic. But could this be our power? Could these words from another culture help us discover something of ourselves?
Maybe. Maybe these could teach us to tell our own stories. To take and eat and share what we have seen. To take and drink and increase our glue as we discover what binds one person to another. It’s not magic. But, it might increase our faith.