How many of you have junk drawers at home? What kind of things do you have in them? Why do you have them?
I love the section heading at the beginning of Luke 17. It isn’t actually a part of the original text. It was given by the editors for the NRSV—that’s the version of the bible that we typically use, the one in your pew Bibles. Did you happen to notice it?
“Some sayings of Jesus.” Isn’t that great? We may have just found ourselves in the junk drawer of Luke. Here we have a few really good sayings of Jesus that Luke didn’t want to lose, so he just threw them all right here so that he could find them later.
It’s pretty striking stuff really, about the totalizing nature of relationships for those of us who claim to follow Christ. To follow Christ is to help others out, to create possibility for the healing of relationships, even when it seems hopeless. I was reminded on Friday at his memorial service that Doc Thuline tried to live by this ideal. He loved C.S. Lewis’ definition of love and often repeated it: Love is a sincere desire for the other person’s best good.
So we have a drawer full of good statements, important ideas that Luke seems to have thought we need to hold onto. So he threw them into the gospel here, like we might a flashlight or batteries or safety pins or toothpicks or some furniture pads. And then he adds this section for today. We have, what?—some matches and instructions for an old coffee maker that you got rid of a couple of years ago. Sounds about right.
“Increase our faith” the disciples tell Jesus. Surely that’s got to be the matches, because we’ll need those someday when the power is out. That old coffee maker is long gone, though. What do we need the manual for, and what are we going to do with this section that uses language of slaves and masters anyway? Do we really even want this around anymore? I mean, from what we know of the disciples, they weren’t from the strata of society that tended to have servants anyway. Maybe some in the early church to whom Luke writes fit the bill, but the image just seems old and outdated and disturbing. Why are we keeping this around anyway?
There may, of course, be some sense to this. The language of slaves is so troubling—even if we understand it as temporary servitude for those who owed a debt. And I don’t know about you, but I like to think that I might include myself among those who would have my servant sit down with me. And then there’s a turn. We disciples—you and I—are like worthless slaves goes against the very claims of sacred worth that the gospel proclaims.
So it may seem we just have a bunch of stories thrown in, too dated and too meandering to make much of, which, I have to tell you, as a preacher is not particularly appreciated!
And I suppose there may be some truth to that idea that all scripture is not of equal value. For us to talk about the scriptures as inspired and authoritative is not to claim that they are somehow magical. They are rooted in time. They use metaphors lost on our modern ears and assumptions lost on a modern society.
But there may be more coherence to the section than we might first think—especially if we would have included verse 4 in the reading today. That’s the one about forgiving—again and again and again, beyond any reasonable expectations. When you add that to some of the other demanding or even unreasonable expectations of our Christian faith, and then start to take them seriously, it becomes pretty obvious that we are called to live in a way that is simply impossible, that guarantees that we will fail miserably. Not that any of us ever have that sense when it comes to our own way in the world! We’ve pretty much got it down. Right? We have lost count of the number of days that we have forgiven the same person seven times for the same offense without holding a grudge.
Or maybe we don’t. Maybe there is something powerful and hopeful and redeemable in accepting the limitations we have, graciously, even. Self-compassion as the resources for our Aftertalk discussion put it. We are who we are, and, in fact, that’s enough. Problems happen when we try to live outside of our limitations, when we imagine we are more or less than we are.
When you begin to hold these things together you begin to get the sense that there’s more organization in this junk drawer than we first thought. What do we do with those patterns in life that just seem to dog us, that we just can’t get past? Truth be told, the language of slaves is uncomfortable for us for a reason. This isn’t to suggest that Luke somehow saw through 2000 years to forecast what would be happening in the United States near the beginning of the third millennia, but we have some problems with race still. What if racism is our Mulberry tree—something that seems impossible to get rid of? Something that is so much bigger than the mustard seed, a seed so small that were I to put one in your hand while your eyes were closed, you would never know.
Is there reason for us to have hope that we will ever get beyond what seems to drag us down repeatedly, what feels so rooted and tangled that we will never find ourselves free of it?
The readings for today take us from this sense of despair that we hear in Lamentations, the deep grief that results from looking on the ruins of our lives, through the truth-telling of our sorrow and grief, to the astonishing realization that something new is possible. And the thing about this junk-drawer saying of Luke’s is that you already have what you need. You don’t need to go to the store. You don’t need to look for something you don’t already have. You have all the faith that you need. All that remains is to act on it. To give yourself to it. To trust in that one who does exactly what seemed crazy, by inviting us to the table: Sit down. Join me. Let’s be together. Let’s share our stories. Let’s remember that we are children of God together, created good and created for good, despite our worst attempts at acting otherwise.
All you need to do is to do what you can do, and perhaps even what you think you can’t. God didn’t give you a spirit of cowardice. There is power in you. Give yourself to it. Just be faithful and live as you are created to live. Give yourself to what is good and right, and watch as the world turns and evil is uprooted and life is restored.
[i] Cf. Luke 17:1-4.