Luke 17:1-10 (17 Pentecost 2019, Proper 22C)

I don’t know about you, but I’m rather enjoying the take no prisoners, no nonsense Jesus that Luke has been delivering to us for the last few weeks. Today is no exception: scandals to faith, radical forgiveness, tiny faith that moves mulberry trees, and unworthy servants simply doing their job. I like it because so much of our Christian talk today seems to lack edge and tooth, not to mention body and blood. It’s a kind of a spiritual mush. Jesus is anything but that. He deals in the hard-edged reality of life as sinners in a fallen world in which there are scandals to faith, countless occasions to forgive, and no point at which we can say, “There, it’s finished. We’ve done our job, we deserve our reward.”

Scandals to faith. Our translations tend to get bogged down in moralism, and so they translate scandala as “temptations to sin,” which misses the point of a scandalon. Certainly tempting someone to sin puts you into the same category as the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh and on the wrong side of God’s will.  Not good. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here, since that would be kind of a no-brainer. It literally goes without saying. A scandalon is a stumbling stone, a tripping point. You’re walking along and all of a sudden you trip over little rock and fall flat on your face. In other words, whoever puts some obstacle to faith in front of little ones of faith that causes them to stumble in their childlike walk with Jesus deserves to have a millstone for a necktie and to be drowned in the depths of the Deep.

Stumbling stones can be anything that gets in the way of Jesus.. It might be a pious opinion, a pious practice, some religious thing. If it gets in the way of Jesus, it’s a scandalon, a stumbling stone to faith. Stumbling stones come in several varieties, I’ll name three: intellectual, moral, and spiritual.

Here’s an example of an intellectual scandalon. I know of a young woman who was a geology major. She spent her summers studying ice core samples in Greenland. Ice cores are a timeline of natural history. You see ice from when the Revolutionary War was fought, when Mt. Vesuvius blew, when Jesus walked on Israelite soil, when Moses walked the wilderness. You can go back to the great empires of Greece, and Medo-Persian, and Babylon, and Egypt. It’s all there in the ice. You can go back tens of thousands of years and more. The oldest ice cores go back 1.5 million years, and that was a problem for this young student of geology who also happened to be a Christian. She asked her pastor about it, and he told her that she can’t be a faithful disciple of Jesus and do that sort of science. She would have to choose which one to serve. That’s a scandalon. A tripping point, a stumbling stone in the path of a little one of faith worthy of a millstone.

There are moral scandala. The scandala of pietism – don’t drink alcohol, dance, play cards, etc or you are no Christian. Or politics – you must belong to this party or vote for this candidate or you are no Christian. In Paul’s day, the law of Moses became a scandala to the Gentiles. Keep kosher, be circumcized, follow the rules and regulations of Moses, or you are no Christian. Again, worthy of a millstone, or in the words of Paul, “Let those who teach another gospel be anathema. Condemned.”

Here’s a simple litmus test for scandala: If someone says, you must believe, think, do, or say [fill in the blank] or you are no Christian, and that thing, whatever it is, has no direct connection to Jesus Christ crucified and risen for your justification, life, and salvation, that’s a millstone worthy scandalon.

The apostle Paul said in Romans, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.” And then we come along with our wheelbarrow full of stumbling stones, like some tedious informercial. “But wait, there’s more! There’s more than faith in dead and risen Jesus.” You have to believe this and do that and don’t do this and stand on your head twice daily while facing the sun. Truth be told, we’ve probably scattered a literal ton of stumbling stones in the path of little ones trying to walk the simple way of faith. We’ve turned the narrow way of faith into an obstacle course of religious stumbling stones.

Then there are spiritual stumbling stones, like unforgiveness, when disciples of Jesus, refuse to forgive others as they themselves have been forgiven. That’s a glacial boulder of a stumbling stone. I hope you saw it this past week, the video of the sentencing phase of Amber Guyger, the ex-police office who mistaken shot a man in his own apartment. I realize there are layers upon layers of questions and doubts regarding the incident, as well there should be. I have a lot of questions too about how a trained police office has such total lack of situational awareness that she mistakenly goes into the wrong apartment and then shoots the guy who lives there, who happens to be black. Yes, there are lots of troubling questions. 

But my focus here is on a “victim impact statement” made by the victim’s younger brother, Brandt Jean, the brother of the innocent man who was shot in his own apartment. Brandt took the stand, and in halting and stammering voice forgave the police office who shot his brother and told her to trust Christ with everything she had done. And then he asked the judge if he could give her a hug. He had to ask twice, because that’s not supposed to happen. After a moment of hesitation and thought, the judge permitted this unprecedented act, and the victim’s brother embraced the person who killed his brother as the world watched in amazement and disbelief. It was a picture of grace and forgiveness rarely seen on the nightly news.

There have been other examples of recent memory in the news. The Charleston AME church that forgave the white supremicist who shot and killed nine of their members while they were gathered for worship. The Amish community in Lancaster, PA that forgave the gunman who killed five of their children and injured five others in their school before killing himself. They forgave him, and they reached out to his family to support them. They attended the man’s funeral. Again, grace and forgiveness in action.

The world is amazed. It doesn’t know what to do when confronted with unmerited forgiveness. It scratches its head and wonders how on earth anyone can forgive like that? It questions motives and sincerity. It thinks we’re crazy to forgive. It reminds us that “it’s not that easy,” there needs to be justice done, there needs to be change, there needs to be….what? More obstacles. Stumbling stones. Scandala.

We need more Brandt Jeans, more congregations like that AME church in Charleston, more communities like the Amish in Lancaster who dare to forgive in the Name of Christ and dare to act on that forgiveness. You can forget all your programs and whiz bang ideas for drawing people to church. Radical grace, radical forgiveness – that’s what the church should be known for.

If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. Right there on the spot. No hesitation, no thinking about, no letting it simmer for a while. Not just once, but seven times in the same day, for the same sin. And if you’re counting, as Peter tried to do, then make that seventy times seven. Forgive as you have been forgiven. You live under grace in Jesus, you are forgiven in Jesus. Be gracious and forgiving to your fellow sinners.

But you say, that takes more faith than I have! The apostles thought the same thing. “Lord, increase our faith.” But Jesus would have none of that faith-sizing talk. Faith is God’s to grant in whatever size fits the occasion. If you had even mustard seed sized faith, and that’s pretty small, you could transplant mulberry trees just by telling them to go jump into the sea, and they would obey you, O you of little faith. Don’t blame your faith. That’s blaming God. Blame your unbelief. “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Unbelief is the obstacle, not the size of your faith. Little faith is just as much faith as big faith.

You say, “But we’ve done the best we could.” And Jesus says, “Is that how a servant talks? You plow, you tend the sheep, you come in from the field and say to your Lord, ‘Serve us at your table.’” Is that how it works? We’re done, we deserve to be served now? Or does the master say, “Fix me supper, and then you can eat?” Servants serve 24/7 not 9 to 5. Do you expect a pat on the back for doing what you were told to do? (Well, actually we do expect that, don’t we?) No, Jesus says, at the close of the day, at the end of your life, say, “We are unworthy servants. We were only doing what we were commanded to do.” 

Jesus didn’t come to this world to put stumbling stones in the way of faith but to remove them. He came to clear the rubble of religion and the boulders of our self-centeredness. He took the millstone of Sin and Death around His neck and was plunged into the Deep of Death to save us. He forgave. He forgave even his persecutors and executioners, and they didn’t even repent and say “I’m sorry Jesus for naiing you to a cross. I didn’t want to do this, but I have orders and a job to do. Please forgive me.” None of that. He prays, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Jesus had faith much larger than a mustard seed. He trusted His Father, even in His abandonment. He didn’t make a mulberry jump into the Sea, but He did send a legion of demons into the Deep. He cursed a fig tree and caused it to wither with a word. He also healed the sick, cleansed the leper, gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the lame. He raised the dead with nothing more than His Word.

Jesus was the worthy Servant of all who did His Father’s bidding, who plowed His Father’s field, who sought and gathered His Father’s sheep, who prepared a table for us where He might wash our feet and serve us. He alone could say at the end of His work day, “It is finished,” and it truly was finished.  And yet Jesus never claimed His own worthiness, never boasted His own merits, never bragged about what He was doing. The glory belonged soley to the Father. His food was to do the will of His Father as the servant of all, obedient to death on a cross to save us. 

That is the life of Jesus into which you are baptized. That’s your life, this life of the forgiving, Sin-bearing Servant who removed every obstacle that stood beween us and God. Why would you want to put rubble onto a cleared road by God? Or make crooked a road that has been straightened by God?  Why would you want to oppose the work of God?

We wonder sometimes, could be we do it? Could we speak the way Brandt Jean did in a Dallas courtroom? Could we forgive the person who killed our brother or our child? Could be forgive like the AME congregation in Charleston or the Amish community in Lancaster? Would we have the will? Would we have the faith? I don’t think any of those people planned to do what they did ahead of time. Brandt Jean said he wasn’t planning on saying what he said that day. That’s how the Spirit of Christ works. You don’t plan ahead to be faithful in your time of testing. And when the occasion arises, Jesus promises that you will have the words to say and the Spirit will bring them to your mind and put them on your lips.  We saw how that worked in a Dallas courtroom this week. It happens all the time, in countless whispered absolutions, without recognition or publicity, wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, wherever forgiveness is spoken and sinners embraced, the Spirit is blowing, and faith is enlivened, and love kindled, and hope increased.

In the end, at the close of every day, at the end of our life, we must all confess that we are unworthy servants, no matter how great our accomplishments, no matter how heroic our faith. We were simply doing and saying what we are given, usually not very well. We have not been the husbands and wives we promised to be. We have not been the parents we might have been. The congregation members. The citizens. The neighbor. We are unworthy servants. But our doing and saying doesn’t make us worthy. Christ does. He alone is worthy, and in Him we are worthy. Worthy to be welcome at His table, worthy to inherit the kingdom, worthy to be priests to Him in Hsi priesthood. Worthy to do His work in this world He saved by His dying and rising. It is never worthy am I, or worthy are we, but worthy is He, the Lamb who was slain but lives. Worthy is Christ our Savior.

Beloved in the Lord, live and love and work in Him. Clear away those stumbling stones of unbelief. Forgive, as you have been forgiven.

In Jesus’ name,