A Sermon for Trinity 19
Readings: Habakkuk 1 & Luke 17
‘Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.’ The Prophet Habakkuk, chapter 1
This morning I checked the news, as I do before taking services every Sunday morning, and picked up the story from a journalist who was sharing the images he cannot show. All he could do was to show the images of the children who have been caught up in the violence in Syria, the wounded and the dying. What he could not show us were the pictures of the children whose bodies were torn apart, the babies decapitated by bombs and shrapnel – the horror is beyond imagining. And yet these have become the experience of a generation of Syrians, so many of them children – playing in pools of water formed in a bomb crater and thirsty for a simple toy, the tenderness of their family and friends who could be lost in any instant. How long, O Lord?! And how long will our cries continue unheard by those responsible? Or maybe they do hear? How long will we feel ourselves disempowered, unable to bring about the change that will end this misery?
I recently returned to the sea, for a time of rest and refreshment. I had forgotten how much I missed it, and the fresh air and salt cleansed my troubled soul.
In ancient tradition the sea represents chaos – deep and dark and limitless, with storms and the danger of drowning, but also the nourishment of fish and seaweed and salt, providing sustenance and taste. Healing can only take place within this sea of sorrows, within this place of fear and darkness, within this place of danger and chaos. And yet within this is also nourishment and cleansing salt.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks about the times we stumble being many – and that if we give into them, it would be better if we had a stone tied around our neck and were thrown into the sea! I don’t believe Jesus is telling us to throw ourselves into the sea to drown when we have done something wrong. Rather he is stating what it is like to discover we have caused offense. It is hard to ask for forgiveness, and until it is given, it can be as if we are drowning in a deep sea of sorrow. But he goes on to state that if we offend, we must seek pardon. If we have caused offense we should seek forgiveness. If someone repents – we must forgive!
The Gospel goes on to suggest that a tiny bit of faith, the size of a mustard seed, is able to transplant a mulberry tree from the land to the sea. The eminent theologian, John Crossan, has stated that we believe scripture to have been written literally but that we are now sophisticated enough to read it metaphorically. But the reality is that scripture was written symbolically and we are foolish enough to try to read it literally. So maybe this mulberry tree thing is not about an actual mulberry tree moving into the sea.
Jesus is telling us to take the little amount of faith we have and plant it in the sea – that sea where the sorrowful have cast themselves. The mulberry tree is an interesting tree – it bears fruit that is full of iron and vitamin C, and which can be dried and saved throughout the winter. The wood is good for carving and along with the leaves is also used for making paper – paper upon which books are written. It provides food for the body and nourishment for the mind and the soul. Forgiveness, and a small amount of faith, provide healing to the broken.
And the sea, the sea is almost without limit, the winds and storms themselves provide for the rain that falls on the land and waters our crops, provides for and fills our rivers and lakes. Our sorrows, our suffering, when confronted with a small amount of faith, are themselves transformed into the Grace that makes for a better world. What our world needs most is for faithful servants to plunge themselves into the sea, wash themselves in salt tears.
Jesus tells us of the faithful servants who after toiling in the fields, come home to serve the table of their master. I have to admit the first reading of this feels counter intuitive. I want the master to invite them to share, not to serve. But on reflection, if the faithful servants are the disciples of God, toiling in the fields, the master they serve are the afflicted and suffering of the world. The good and faithful servants knows his or her meal will come, knows that forgiveness is theirs, and because they have received the healing of the sea, because they know the suffering of the guilty, because they know forgiveness having lifted the stone of guilt from around their neck, to serve another is only doing what is humanly decent.
None of us can survive the sea without that we serve one another, forgive one another, feed one another, freely dive into the sea for one another – and there discover God’s given Grace with and in serving one another. We must plunge into the sea, plant ourselves in the swirling waters of our world’s sorrow, plead forgiveness for turning away from the suffering of others and be swift to forgive the transgressions of others.