17th Sunday After Pentecost
S. Pentecost 17.22 “On Sin, Forgiveness, Faith, and Flying Mulberry Trees” Luke 17:1-10
Last week, our Gospel invited us to ask how we would get to heaven (angels carry us, according to our Lord) and also how we’d end up in hell (sin buries you and drags you down to the underworld). This week many questions are raised: first, about sin and temptations and dealing with those. Then: what to do with brothers who sin, and forgiveness.
Pretty straightforward answers from our Lord, terse and simple, just like his answers to the heaven and hell questions. As far as sin: don’t do it! As far as temptations: don’t yield! and certainly don’t be a vehicle for tempting others [unless you like having millstones tied to your neck and exploring the bottom of the sea].
As far as brothers who sin: rebuke him! and if he repents, forgive him! and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times and says “I’m sorry”, you must forgive him!
Again, terse, simple, straightforward answers. But very much in the face of conventional wisdom, we must note, so not easy to hear or believe. We’re taught, many of us, that sin is unavoidable, but thank God! Jesus loves to forgive sin [and since we love to commit sin, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship].
And, uh… no. As I learned at age 13: it’s heartily sorry not hardly sorry for my sins. Also, neither Luther nor our Lutheran Confessions treat temptation and sin in such a cavalier manner. Those who do so [and there were many who did in Luther’s day—not to name names, but like John Agricola, just as there are many in our day whom I probably shouldn’t name]. Luther called them antinomians—that means “against-the-law”—and being against the law is clearly against scriptures (where Paul says the law is holy, just, and good and the problem is we are not) and our Confessions (which say what Paul and our Lord say).
Now, our Lord says temptations are sure to come, and Paul says the good which he wants to do he often fails to do. So, it’s true that none of us can avoid sin. We were born in it, with a taste for it. But still: we don’t have to wallow in it! Jesus says temptations are sure to come but woe to the one through whom they come! Resistance is not futile when it comes to sin! It is painful and difficult and seems impossible, but as, C.S. Lewis said: you don’t find out how strong the German army is by surrendering as soon as they come across your border (France, he’s looking at you!). No, you find out how strong the German army is by resisting with Churchill—fighting on beaches, streets, never surrender. You may lose the fight, but it’s surprising, sometimes, how the enemy’s not quite as invincible as you thought…
Which is to say temptations may come, but let them not come by me! I may sin, but I’m not going to do so knowingly and consciously! I’m not giving in without a fight! I may lose the fight, might take a severe beating, but the first word in beatific (holyfied) is “beat”. I’ll wear those bruises as a badge of honor.
Because: you don’t find out how great is the love and mercy and forgiveness of Jesus if you just give in to sin right away, all the time. And discovering the greatness of Jesus’ love, mercy, forgiveness is worth taking a few lumps and bruises. He did, after all, on the cross, and invites us all to share his sufferings in order to share the indescribable glory of his resurrection.
And, as far as the brother whom we see sinning: rebuke him! Now, this goes flat against a modern age that clings exclusively to Jesus’ “judge not least you be judged” line. But judging and rebuking are different things! We refrain from passing a judgment on our neighbor’s ultimate standing in God’s Kingdom just as we refrain from such a judgment on ourselves (see Paul in I Corinthians 4).
But when we see our brother sinning we are supposed to rebuke him and go: “that’s a bad way you’re taking, friend.” That’s not polite in a modern society, I get it. But that’s because we live surrounded by card-carrying antinomians and we’ve already seen our Lord’s against that. Indeed: we should not pass judgment on the state of our brothers’ soul. But we are obligated by our Lord to rebuke all the external manifestations of sin when our brother wallows in those—for his good and our own.
And if he says “Yeah, that was bad. I’m sorry.” We forgive him as often as he asks, without judging whether his heart’s sincere, if he really means it. Take at face value both the sinful act and the outward words of repentance and leave judging the heart to God.
To which the apostles say: “Increase our faith!”
And the Lord does not say, what we might expect him to say: “I’ve given you faith in Holy Baptism and by my Holy Word. You have all the faith you need, fear not!” No. Instead, he says: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed [which would be the smallest unit of faith imaginable for them] you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
And then he tells a tough little tale about worthless servants…
So: how would I know if I have faith? The conventional answer is: “God promises faith comes by hearing his Word and receiving his Sacraments and… I’ve done that! so I can be sure I have faith, right?”
Uhm, well; yes, but: how do you know you will hold fast the Word and Sacraments faithfully unto death, and won’t throw faith away in times of temptation—like Judas or Peter on Good Friday morning? Yes; today I am good. But what about tomorrow?
Jesus gives a simple test: “if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” I’m pretty sure all the 12 secretly tried this test, right away. Yet, we hear of no mulberry trees flying into the sea. Not one. So…(!)
I’ve tried the test myself—well, starting with small potted plants that didn’t move an inch. There’s a crepe myrtle tree in front of the church many don’t like. Go ahead, knock yourself out; but I’ll wager: none of you can make it fly away today to Wrightsville Beach and be drowned in the sea.
Which is where I think this story about worthless servants comes in, as a chaser. Try the test, by all means! And then you’ll see how it stands with you and faith. And then your cry for mercy and forgiveness will be… unfeigned.
I will say this: those who have mustard seed-sized faith aren’t looking for faith. They’re looking for Jesus. [Did you know: mustard seeds and fly poop look similar? Just sayin’]. Yes; the faithful have eyes only for Jesus. So… they’d never try to uproot mulberry trees or move mountains. They will let Jesus move stuff [including our own hearts!] where and when he pleases…(!)
Luther says the highest degree of faith is the “resignation to damnation”—the beggar who says: “If God sends me to hell, that would be well-deserved (hey, a lot of my friends are going too 😉 yet, even there, I will adore him.” For such a person, Luther says, hell would turn into heaven.
When our love’s set free from all self-interest, when our one desire is to see and adore the crucified, risen Lord [even if it unmakes us!] mulberry trees go flying. And the heaviest stone in the universe—your sinful heart—soars to heaven. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.