Luke 17: 1-10
In the 1980s, I used to run a hostel for refugees, in South London. It was a vast, sprawling, YMCA for about 300 asylum seekers, mainly from East Africa. At the time, there were wars going on between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and civil war had broken out in Somalia. Uganda was under the grip of Idi Amin, and many young Africans had sought peace and shelter in England.
In those days, I was young - believe it or not! Picture a fresh-faced youth, just out of music and drama school, who had decided - idealistically - to lay aside the pleasure of performance in favour of a life a Christian service. I was, I confess, a little naive! And I still had a lot to learn about different cultures, and the ways that different people do things.
There was one particular resident in our hostel who used to really bug me. Every time that I was working on the Reception desk, he would come in and ask for his key, or his post. But he wouldn't do it 'properly'! He used to just put his hand on the counter and say "Room 232". Then, when I gave him his key, he would simply walk off. To me, this behaviour seemed just plain rude! Over a number of days of being treated like this, my temper had started to rise. Then, one day, I saw him walking through the doors of Reception, approaching the counter again. "I'll show him!", I thought to myself. "It's time for a little lesson in politeness".
So when my African guest walked up to the counter and said "Room 232", I just stood there, staring at him. After a brief pause, I said "Room 232 what?" A look of blank incomprehension came over his face. He repeated himself. "Room 232". And I said, "Room 232 please! You have to say please".
Again, there was a moment of stunned incomprehension. Then a little light dawned. "Room 232, please", he said. Satisfied, I took the poor man's key from the hook behind me, and then dangled it in front him. "Now, when I give it to you, you have to say 'thank you'. Ok?". "OK." he said, "Tank you".
I was jubilant. From my perspective, I had taught this rude man some proper English manners! I smiled a nice superior smile as he went off to his room. Then, as he went out of Reception, an elderly, motherly receptionist who had worked at the hostel for 30 years, sidled up to me and said, "You do realise, don't you dear, that in his language there is no word for 'please' or 'thank you'?"
I was crushed. What had I done! I had humiliated that poor man. I had used my power over him to make him feel no longer welcome, but criticised and small. I suddenly saw that I had a lot to learn about him, and about his country. And I swore to try never to judge another human being again, without learning a great deal more about them.
But as well as that little bit of growing up, I had learned another important lesson. I had learned that in some cultures, the concept of 'please', or 'thank you' is an alien idea. In such cultures, people do things for each other for many reasons...but never for thanks. They do them because they can. They do them because the act of giving to someone else is a pleasure in itself. They do them out of a deep sense of duty.
We also have that idea in our culture - especially in the way that good parents look after their children. No-one expects a baby to be able to say please or thank you, but that doesn't stop us from giving good things to them. There is pleasure in such giving - and duty as well.
Today, we are confronted with a parable from Jesus which falls a little strangely on our ears. We don't have slaves - thank God. But here is a story about a slave, and about their master. Jesus says to his followers - "Suppose you had a slave, working for you. When that slave comes in from the fields, do you invite him to come and sit at your table and eat with you? No. You tell him to put on his pinny, and to go and make your tea". In Jesus' day, and in Jesus' culture, there would have been nothing unusual about that. No slave would have expected to be thanked for the tasks he performed. Those tasks were his duties. He didn't expect the word 'please', and he would never have got the word 'thanks'.
Then, having reminded his students of what it was like to be a master, Jesus turns the story around, and invites his followers to see themselves as slaves...slaves of God.
Why does he do this? Are we not Children of God?
This story comes as the climax of a long discussion between Jesus and his disciples about what it means to live faithfully as one of God's children. First, Jesus warns his followers that they should never be a stumbling block to another person's faith. I could start a whole new sermon on that! But essentially, Jesus is essentially warning his followers that we should never act in such a way that others are put off from having faith in God. If the children of God do not represent God as God should be seen, what's the point of being a child of God? Many people might wonder whether the way that certain Christians behave in other countries - dominating them, taking away their natural resources, using armies to enforce obedience...all of these are ways in which the supposed Children of God sometimes let God down.
Then, Jesus goes still further in describing the way that a faithful child of God should behave. He talks about forgiveness...and saying that his followers have the right to rebuke people who do wrong, but they must also be prepared to forgive, over and over again.
But this is too much for the disciples. This kind of faithfulness is hard. So they cry out to Jesus - "Lord, increase our faith". They recognise that the kind of life that Jesus calls us to live has very high standards. Never be a stumbling block. Rebuke the offender, but never stop forgiving them. This is not normal human behaviour! Normal human behaviour is to do what we want, when we want; and to hold a grudge for as long as we want to hold it. The disciples recognise how hard it is to live up to Jesus' standard. So, they look to him for the grace, for the power, to live as he calls them to live. "Increase our faith", they pray.
And that's the key - to this whole passage. The disciples, perhaps at an instinctive level, are recognising that without God's power, we can do nothing for God. They are recognising what St Paul later recognised when writing to the Ephesians; that it is by God's grace alone that life and salvation are found (Eph 2.8). We are incapable of doing anything to earn God's favour...instead God gives us his favour, his forgiveness, his New Life, as a free gift. The very faith by which we live is itself a gift from God!
And just at the moment when the disciples seem to have grasped that essential fact, Jesus goes still deeper. He tells them the story of the 'worthless slave' - the slave who simply gets on with his allotted task, without expecting any reward or praise.
You see, our human instinct, perhaps drummed into us by our earthly parents and teachers, is that we expect to receive some kind of reward, a pat on the back, a word of thanks, when we do what we are supposed to do. Teachers will tell you that reward is a far more potent weapon than punishment when dealing with children. We like a little reward now and then. I like a little dish of chocolate, after a long day at work! Its my little thank you. My little pat on the back after another 18 hour day.
But Jesus' story of the worthless slave challenges this little kink in our character. God owes us nothing for doing good. In God's kingdom, doing good, doing right, doing what God expects, is the norm. We should not expect God to say 'thank you', any more than I should have expected that YMCA resident to say thank you to me for simple doing the job I was paid to do. We do good because it is right. We live faithfully because it is our duty. We forgive others their trespasses, because we are commanded to do so - and because, by the mysterious process of God's grace, we find healing when we do so.
And if we are honest, this is sometimes a difficult thing for us to do. So many of you are involved in serving God in this parish. You pray for others, you serve them through administration, or cleaning, or maintenance, or face-to-face service in the community cafe, or singing in the choir, or teaching our children, or welcoming strangers at the door. Through this parable of the worthless slave, Jesus asks us all to examine ourselves.
Why do we do the things we do?
If we do them because the Rector occasionally remembers to say 'thank you' - then we will quickly be disappointed...because, let me tell you, the Rector will often forget to say 'thank you'. That's Vicars for you.
If we do these things because we hope that others will notice how dedicated we are, and praise us for being fine Christians...then we will be crushed. Sooner or later, we'll do some little thing wrong, step on someone's toes, move someone's precious object...and all the credit we thought we had built up in other people's minds will be wiped out. That's people for you.
If we do these things because we hope that by doing so, God will notice us, and reward us, then we have mis-understood the nature of God's love. God loves us. God loves us, regardless of what we do for him. Do we think that God needs us to tend the flowers, or serve coffee after the service, or preach the sermon?
Perhaps we might consider the question that Eliphaz asked of Job, in the oldest book of the Bible:
"Can a mortal be of use to God?
Can even the wisest be of service to him?
Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous,
or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless?" (Job 22:2-3)
God created the world without our help. God brought us to life, without our help. God sustains this Universe without our help. God saved us from ourselves, through Jesus, without our help. There is nothing we can do to earn God's grace and love. God loves us - regardless of what we try to do for God. God's favour and blessing are matters of grace...they cannot be earned.
Instead, God calls us to live as Children of God. We are called to love others, because it is what God our Heavenly Parent does. We are called to forgive others, because its what Jesus does. We are called to serve others because we are God's willing servants - the ones who at the end this service will pray that God will send us out as living sacrifices.
This is the life of faith. Faith that could uproot a mulberry tree and see it planted in the sea is the kind of faith which just trusts God...trusts that God knows what God is doing when we are called to render service to one another.
There are two kinds of faith. There is the kind of faith which reads the parable of the mustard seed and mulberry tree as an invitation to ask God for miracles. That's a very embryonic kind of faith...its just the first step on a much longer road of true faith. The kind of faith which Jesus calls us to is 'faithfulness' - faithfulness to his teachings, faithfulness to prayer and worship, faithfulness to never causing anyone else to stumble, faithfulness to forgiveness, faithfulness to a life of loving and serving others.
O God, I pray, that you would increase our faith!