“Tell us what happened to you when Jesus came into your life,” said the host on the “Christian Talk Show.”
“Well, Jim, I was an alcoholic. I was also on dope. I lost my wife, my home, my Winnebago. I really hit bottom. Then I found Jesus.”
“And everything is changed. I have this multi-million-dollar cosmetics business; a fabulous new home with a Jacuzzi. This is my new wife.”
You see, if you have enough faith – no matter what the circumstances Jesus is going to give you everything you want. Just come to Jesus, the T.V. host says and you’ll be fine. To help you on that journey, just send $25.00 dollars plus shipping and handling for my new book, How You Can Have Everything – Now.
You’ve heard the story. Come to Jesus. He will pat you on the head, give you a blessing and change your life. You know the story. And it’s a story that fits so well with our desires: Salvation as self-fulfillment. You know the story.
But do you know this story? One day, the apostles said to Jesus, “Increase our faith” (v. 5). In response, he told a story:
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 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!’“ (vv. 7-10)
On the one hand, the church has heard Jesus say, “Just have a little faith and everything is going to be all right!” On the other hand, with the parable added in, it seems to be saying, “faith is the expectation of all believers…don’t be jumping to conclusions…if you have faith, you have only done what ought to be done.”
Put the two together and you have some hard logic…faith is a given for the servant of God not something that merits a reward of some kind.
As John Calvin said of this parable, “There is no man that would not willingly call God to account, hence the notion of merits has prevailed in every age.” In other words, as one preacher has put it, the rat gnawing at faith, the saboteur in discipleship, is the conceit of merit. We have read the first saying as if there is some unit of faith, some measurable amount that, if only we can achieve it, is going to give us super powers…or super religion. In the second part of the lesson, the parable, are the words which put a check on that notion by saying faith is no more, no less what is expected of us all. The Gospel is not about Jesus doing nice things for us, it is about us taking up the mantle of servant hood and going about the business of discipleship without expectation of special reward.
I just returned from a brief tour of Haiti with several other ministers. All of us represented a different spectrum on the scale of Christianity – I was holding down the “mainline” corner in the discussions which were many and varied. One of my colleagues on the trip was determined that the only worthy enterprise of any Christian – is saving souls. “What is the state of the souls of these Haitians” was his first question. He kept asking it in many different ways throughout our time together. I am not saying he was wrong, but I did observe a couple of things. Looking for the marks of salvation at every turn, he seemed, at first to miss the depth of poverty that some folks were living in as they tried to survive in half crumbled houses or lean-to tents made of tarps and sticks and palm fronds. As the days past, there seemed to be a change in him – he began to see what our hosts were trying to show us. Ministry in Haiti has to be more than preaching salvation of souls, it needs to include feeding the belly and providing medical services and schooling and housing as well.
The needs are immense in Haiti, as you can imagine. Already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere before January 2010, when it was rocked by that massive earth quake, now the extent of the need is extraordinary. If, as Jesus said elsewhere, just a drop of faith is sufficient to move mountains – than is that kind of faith sufficient to remove the mountain of rubble that fell on countless hundreds of thousands? That’s the question I kept asking myself while there.
One finds in Haiti, as one finds elsewhere in the developing world, the church at its best serves two functions. It is the incubator for new faith and the stimulus through the preaching of the Gospel, for people to come to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. It is also, at its best, the place where service happens as individual Haitians take up the mantle of serving each other. Foreign dollars flow into Haiti in many ways, through large NGO’s that pave streets and dig new sewer lines, build buildings and repair streets, first clearing them of the rubble. But just in my short time there, I came to see that the healthiest Haitians among the poor, were those who had found a connection with a community of faith – a congregation of some sort.
Those who had learned to serve one another through the ministry of a church, were those who came to understand that they were part of the mission themselves – not just recipients of God’s grace and the charity of other loving Christians from around the world, but also the ministers of that grace as they looked to the needs of each other. It is the act of being in mission to each other – servants equipped very often with gifts from the outside world – that frees the Haitian Christian from dependency. Instead of looking for the next big gift from somewhere, those who work together in the fellowship of the church, are looking to use what they have to serve one another.
Life in Haiti is hard, so hard. Yet, the gift the Haitian Christian gives the visitor is the gift of hope. Resilient and determined and hopeful one could see the power of the mustard seed of faith that sustained them in the midst of such hardship – as a visitor from a world where we have everything we could possibly need, the Haitian Christians showed me just how powerful faith is as it sustains lives – just how powerful mission is when it is seen in the acts of one person with nothing serving another with even less.
I came home from Haiti feeling exhausted in many ways, though surely I was not forced to rough it, nor risk much of anything but my time while I was there. I am tired, but somehow refreshed or recharged as I see the prospects for becoming more connected with our neighbors there.
Preacher Fred Craddock tells the story of being in a church parking lot just as a bus load of teenagers came pulling in. Off the bus dragged a couple of dozen worn and weary teens returning from a work camp somewhere out west. They were ragged and worn – even the most carefully groomed of them looked a mess which was an unaccustomed feeling for some of the young women.
“Man, do you folks look tired,” Craddock recalls remarking to one young man.
“Yes,” he replied, “but it’s a good tired.”
We don’t do the work of Jesus for a reward – but the reward comes, doesn’t it? It’s not about scoring points, it’s about living a life in Jesus just as you are.
I suppose I could say, my exhaustion too, is a good tired….for I have seen the power of faith as it sustains our sisters and brothers in Haiti.
As we pause today, in our yearly observance of World Communion, I ask that you remember these members of our world-wide family of faith in your prayers. I also ask as you are served the bread and the cup, that you think of what it means to be a servant…it is as servants we find a living relationship with the one who came not to be served but to serve.