Remember Whose You Are

Sermon on Luke 17:5-10

Lamentations 3:21-23 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness.

Introduction

If you’ve been in Christendom long enough you’ve heard the faith the size of a mustard seed exhortation. Various forms of itinerant faith healers, gospel preachers, and downright charlatans prey on the gullibility of humanity through the proclamation of material promises of radical healing if you believe just really really believe and abundant prosperity if you give just really really give all you have. The declarations and exhortations are couched in terms of just believe and you will receive; sadly, few received that for which they staked their livelihood. Many people have been led a long a treacherous path ending in despair and spiritual demise.

I wish you knew how angry I get when I hear stories of spiritual abuse such as this. People bombarded with accusations of not enough faith because they never saw the fulfillment of prayers. The material failure of the prayer renders the one praying in a state of personal condemnation (why can’t I have enough faith? What’s wrong with me?) and angry at God (what kind of God would do this? Why would a loving God make things so impossible?). This combination of condemnation and anger produces spiritual despair leading to rejecting God.

It makes sense to me. When I hear these stories, I don’t blame the person for giving up faith in that god. Ditching that god is the best choice. That god is slavery and captivity, forever demanding you play monkey games to earn your desired reward (God’s love!). The world would be better without this god. In these instances, I can’t help but think of one of my favorite short stories by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parable of the Madman. In this short story, a madman hollers in the market place, “‘I seek God!’ I seek god!’”[1] Met with mocking jeers and jeering mockery by passersby,

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eye. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this?”[2]

Nietzsche “Parable of the Madman”

The accusation is delivered; the question is never answered. The reader is left with that dual gift. We are left with that dual gift as the dawn of realization unfolds upon us in the wake of story upon story of spiritual trauma: we have woefully misrepresented God, recreated God in our own image, forgetting we are created in God’s image.

Luke 17:5-10

Now the apostles said the Lord, “Please add faith to us!”[3] But the Lord said, “If you have faith like a grain of a mustard plant then you would say to this sycamore tree, ‘be rooted and planted in the sea!’ and then it would listen to you.”[4]

Luke 17:5-6

Luke has some more fun things up his story-telling sleeve. Our gospel passage is a collection of odd statements—the heading in the NSRV bible translation literally reads: “Some Sayings of Jesus.” Sadly, and once again, our lectionary has jumped the bridge; and within the bridge is the key: woe to those who cause sinful stumbling for that fate is worse than stumbling (vv. 1-2),[5] and you must forgive, forgive, forgive… (vv. 3-4).[6] In these few verses the disciples are warned:[7] don’t become a stumbling block to anyone especially in terms of being unforgiving.[8]

This is heavy; heavier than they have been. See, Jesus is eager to teach his disciples all that he can for the end is approaching and these moments are some of the last moments before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. The disciples are coming up against the long, hard journey continuing on with the coming of God’s kingdom…without Jesus.[9] Thus the exhortation not to be a stumbling block and to be forgiving as often as possible are the very tools that will assist the disciples on their daily and continued practice when their good Rabbi is gone.[10]

Herein lies the plea of the apostles, “Please add faith to us!” Now, doesn’t that exclamation make more sense? The disciples feel the weight of Jesus’s exhortations; they know it’s impossible to walk that narrow pathway! The disciples know that others will stumble because of them—they aren’t perfect; they know human nature and the inability therein to forgive those who hurt them, and repeatedly—they themselves carry anger and resentment![11] So, these humble human beings do the only thing they know to do: throw themselves at the mercy of God, Give us more faith, Lord!!

The very next thing Jesus says in reply to the plea is: “If you have faith like a grain of a mustard plant then you would say to this sycamore tree, ‘be rooted and planted in the sea!’ and then it would listen to you.”

Big Bang Theory Panic GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Herein is the problem: taken out of context it sounds as if Jesus is imploring them to have more faith thus indicating that they don’t have enough faith. But, take a step back and look at what Jesus is saying: it’s ridiculous. It’s an impossible solution to an impossible demand. Both forgiving seven times every day for the rest of your life is a weighty task, demanding faith, even more than verbally uprooting a sycamore tree and making it plant and root itself in the sea.[12] Therein is the resolution: it’s not about the disciples lacking anything; it’s about the disciples realizing who they are: the beloved of God; and realizing who God is: Love.

Here, look at the next story, a parable about a master and slave. I know this parable falls coarsely on our ears, but stay with me. Culturally and historically[13] the master would not ask the slave to come in and dine at the table after working the fields and herds; the slave, according to this parable, would expect to continue with their duties—serve the master.[14] As with the slave, so to the disciples: they are expected to do what they are expected to do, nothing more and nothing less.[15] And they are to do it humbly—faults and all—in the spirit of love and forgiveness as they have been loved and forgiven.[16] This isn’t about great, big, heroic heavenly acts of faith demonstrating one’s power over the divine; rather, it’s about miniscule, small, unheroic, earthly acts of faith informed by humility, mercy, kindness, justice, peace, and love in submission to this God of love.[17] The disciples need not extra faith; they just need to do faithfully[18] what they can with what they have leaning (hard) into the love of God made known in Christ in their hearts and minds by the power of the Holy Spirit.[19]

Conclusion

We’ve killed God, Nietzsche isn’t wrong. We’ve taken God’s self-disclosed image and ran it through the mud forcing it into forms and fittings unsuited for such beauty. We’ve conformed God into our image, reduced God to our desires, rendered God’s word in service to our words. We’ve even framed our self-composed deeds of ownership over the doctrines of God, declaring to many in unnegotiable terms who and what God is, what God wills, whom God condemns; and we’ve crushed people, desperate, hungry lovers of God rendered to ashes in our outrage over and adherence to being right. All of it cloaked in the tyranny of religiosity.[20] How many have been wounded, harmed, victimized, oppressed, and traumatized because of this tendency to make God some object under human determination? How many people have been driven from God because of self-righteous claims? How many people can’t imagine a loving God because we’ve turned God into a cruel despot?

But there’s good news, paradoxically, in Nietzsche’s accusation: God is only dead as long as we keep misrepresenting God. If we, humbly follow Jesus the Christ—God’s baptized representative[21]—by loving others, showing mercy, granting forgiveness, confessing error and fault, embracing our humanity and the humanity of others by participating in liberation and justice, we can let Nietzsche’s madman find whom he seeks: God.[22] So, remember whose you are; remember you are born of love; in remembering this, you can’t help but bring that love into the world. Thus, God will cease being dead, and those who seek God will find God.

To all of you who hurt, nurse wounds, hide scars; to all of you who are afraid to speak, to ask questions, to push back for fear of punishment; to all of you who were and still are traumatized from an early age by images of wrath and hellfire; to all of you who became convinced that you were not enough, unworthy, unwelcome, and unloved for being unique in anyway, standing outside of the status-quo… I’m sorry. None of that is God, was God, will be God; that God is dead. It was all a sham anyway, created by human beings cloaked in fancy colors and robes drunk on their own power and image.

God loves you—not another version of you that’s cleaner, better, happier, or whatever—God loves you…as you are, right now, faults and all. God needs no great work of faith from you to earn God’s love—you cannot earn God’s love, it’s yours right now even if you are not ready to receive it. God loves you—always has, always will—and that’s all you need.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science “Parable of the Madman” Trans Walter Kaufman. New York, NY: Vintage Books, Random House, 1974. 181.

[2] Ibid.

[3] aorist active imperative second person, addressed to a superior (polite command). The aorist imperative carries the emphasis on the action as a whole rather than a continuation of an action from now into the future. Thus, we could look at it as a request for the faith that is needed (full stop); rather than give us some faith and keep giving us faith for a period of time.

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[5] Gonzalez, Luke, 199. “The warning is that, even though people will continue to stumble, any who become a stumbling block for others bear a responsibility even greater than the ones who stumble.”

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. Be on your guard (vv.3-4), “On the basis of the preceding, it is a warning that the disciples are in danger of becoming stumbling blocks to ‘these little ones’….But the possible stumbling block on which Jesus focuses is unwillingness to forgive.”

[7] Gonzalez, Luke, 199. “The first saying (w. 1-2) places the rest in their proper setting. It is a warning to the disciples.”

[8] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 612. “Disciples are to be on their guard against a mindset that works against justice and compassion for the ‘little ones,’ but also against dispositions that obstruct the restoration of sinners to community.”

[9] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 199 “What Luke is stressing in this entire section is the continued life of discipleship. Forgiveness must then be not only unlimited, but also daily and repeated. It is a continued practice rather than a magnanimous action.”

[10] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “But for the time being, in the last stages of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he is preparing his disciples for the continuous, lifelong trek after him, carrying crosses and knowing that the kingdom of God is at hand.”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “…’Increase our faith!’ Read in the context of the foregoing, this points to the wise recognition that what Jesus is demanding of them is impossible. Forgiving even our worst offenders seven times a day? That would take much faith indeed! Hence the disciples’ request.”

[12] Gonzalez, Luke, 202. “Then, given the context in which the saying appears in Luke, there is still another possible interpretation. Jesus has just commanded them to do the impossible: to forgive others seven times, and then to do it all over again the next day. The disciples ask for more faith in order to be able to obey this injunction. Jesus recognizes that what he is asking of his disciples is difficult and requires much faith, even more faith than would be necessary to command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and be planted in the middle of the sea. This last interpretation would then lead into the fourth and last of the sayings in this section, which has to do with the impossibility and yet the need to obey the Master in all things.”

[13] Green, Luke, 614. “In this instance, the parable turns on the observation that a slave who is simply completing his work does not by doing so place his master under any obligation to reward him in some way. That is, the absurdity Jesus outlines draws on a particular, taken-for-granted social script apparent to ancient readers but easily missed by many contemporary ones. In this script, ‘thanks’ would not refer to a verbal expression of gratitude or social politeness, but to placing the master in debt to the slave. In the master-slave relationship, does the master come to owe the slave special privileges because the slave fulfills his daily duties? Does the slave through fulfilling his ordinary duties to the master, become his mater’s patron? Of course not!”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 202. Begins with a ridiculous proposition. “The parable begins by focusing on a slaves master Apparently, this is a fairly small household, in which a single slave is expected first to work in the fields—‘plowing or tending sheep’—and then top prepare the master’s meal and serve him. In that setting, the slave returning form the fields would not expect the master to feed him on the contrary, he knows that he must now prepare food for the master and serve him. This is no more than would expected of the slave, and the master would not even thank him for doing it.”

[15] Gonzalez, Luke, 202-203. “The point then is that all that a slave can do for a master is no more than is his due, and that the same is true of the disciples. Going back to the beginning of this series of sayings, this would mean that, even when the disciples have forgiven someone seven times daily, and done this day after day, they have done no more than is expected of them.”

[16] Green, Luke, 613. “Elsewhere Luke speaks of the daily demands of discipleship…by collocating ‘daily’ with forgiveness ‘seven times’ he points to the need to forgive as a matter of course and ‘without limit.’ To do so is not in any way extraordinary; rather, it is simply part of the daily life of those whose lives are oriented around the merciful God…”

[17] Green, Luke, 613. “In each case, ‘faith’ is not so much a possession as a disposition: Faith leads to faithful behavior; lack of faith leads to anxiety and fear…If for Luke faith manifests itself in faithfulness, then the request of Jesus’ followers, ‘give us faith,’ is tantamount to saying, ‘Make us faithful people!’”

[18] Green, Luke, 614-615. “…Jesus opposes any suggestion that obedience might be construed as a means to gain honor, or that one might engage in obedience in order to receive a reward. Remembering those in need with justice and compassion, working for the restoration of the sinner into the community of God’s family…—practices of this nature are simply the daily fare of discipleship. Extraordinary in no way, neither do they provide the basis for status advancement with the community.”

[19] Gonzalez, Luke, 203. “Taken together, these four sayings are both an indictment and a word of grace, both law and gospel. They set impossible standards. They show how faulty all human discipleship is, yet they also free the slave—and the disciples—from the burden of believing that one can do all that is expected, and therefore should somehow earn God’s love by means of absolute obedience. one could easily apply to them Luther’s saying to the effect that the law is like lighting striking a tree: it kills the three, and yet it makes it branches point skyward.”

[20] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “Too often we Christians are so self-assured in our righteousness, in our orthodox beliefs and in our certainty on what it is that God wills that we convince ourselves that we have reason not to forgive those whose beliefs, lifestyle, or understanding of the will of God differ from ours. We know that this is uncharitable; yet we justify it by our adherence to the true faith, or to the straight and narrow. In so doing we may well be precisely the sort of stumbling block that Jesus is talking about in this passage. And we would do well to heed the words about the millstone!”

[21] Dorothee Sölle Christ The Representative: An Essay in Theology after the ‘Death of God’ Trans. David Lewis. London, England: SCM Press LTD, 1967. German original: stellvertretung—Ein Kapitel Theologie nach dem ‘Tode Gottes’ Kreuz Verlag, 1965.,132. “Christ represents the absent God so long as God does not permit us to see himself. For the time being Christ takes God’s place, stands in for the God who no longer presents himself to us directly, and who no longer brings us into his presence in the manner claimed by earlier religious experience. Christ holds the place of this now absent God open for him in our midst. For without Christ, we should have to ‘sack’ the God who does not show up, who has left us.”

[22] Sölle, Representative, 133-134. “But in view of this hope, what Nietzsche calls the ‘death of God’, the fact ‘that the highest values are devalued’, is in fact only the death of God’s immediacy—the death of his unmediated first form, the dissolving of a particular conception of God in the consciousness. It is therefore unnecessary for Christ to counter Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God by affirming a naïve consciousness of God. If the dialogue between Christians and non-Christians is simply a tedious exchange of affirmative and negative statements, it is certainly not Christ who speaks in this way. To assert that God ‘is’ is no answer to the contemporary challenge, for Nietzsche does not in fact assert that God ‘is not’. His madman does not announce the commonplace wisdom of an atheism which imagines it has something to say objectively about the existence or non-existence of a supreme supernatural being. Unlike the multitude of the sane, Nietzsche’s madman goes about saying, ‘I seek God’. Nietzsche is no more concerned with God, as he is ‘in himself’, than the Christian faith is. This God ‘in himself’ is dead, is no more an object directly present to the consciousness, Nietzsche is concerned with the God who lives for us and with us. His madman mourns the manifest inactivity of God, but the thought of denying God’s reality does not occur to him. Yet this inactivity is taken seriously and at the same time transformed when someone who is conscious of it (but has the hope which resists this consciousness) stands in for God. When the inactive God is provisionally represented, then the two experiences—of the death of God and of faith in Christ’s resurrection—are present simultaneously to join battle as to what is real.”

God is Love

1 John 4:7-21

Psalm 22:24, 29 My praise is of him in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him… My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’S for ever.

Introduction

I’ll confess that over the past few years I’ve found it easier to say, “God is dead” than, “God is love.” It seems we are daily forced to navigate a world decorated with the placards of death and destruction, mischief and malice, greed and grief. With a single swipe up, we easily witness death’s toll rise as our sisters and brothers are seized by pandemic, suffocated in the grip of hatred and prejudice, and neglected for the preference of self-indulgence. It is hard to reconcile the manifold tragedy we see all around us and the claim “God is love.” The world feels absent love especially at a cosmic level. God feels gone.

I wish I could say (with confidence): even though the world feels divested of divine love, the church stands as a bastion of the perpetuity of this love. Sadly, I cannot. The very institution charged to carry on the precious treasure of the life-giving message of God’s love is also the institution that participates—by word and deed—in the same violence and destruction of so called “secular” institutions. It seems that the proclamation God is love and its twin “God loves us” are trapped under systems of the necessity of right thought wedded to faulty interpretations of what it means and looks like to be a follower of Christ. We’ve become mesmerized by our image and not God’s and what makes us feel pious and good. We’d rather quibble over fabric, wood, stone, and precious metal than throw open doors and arms tossing religiosity to the wind to embrace the “least of these.”

With so much pain and turmoil around us, maybe it would be better to throw in the towel, admit the failure of this divine experiment, and confess, with the 19th century genius existential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche,

“…Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead.”[1]

Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman”

1 John 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another because Love is from God; all who love both have been birthed from God and know God…In this way the love of God was manifested in us, because God sent forth [God’s] only begotten son into the cosmos so that we might live through him. In this is love: not that we we[2] have loved God but that [God God] has loved us and sent [God’s] son as atonement for our sins. Beloved, if in this way God loved us, also we we ought to love one another…We we love because [God God] first loved us. [3]

1 Jn 4:7, 9-11, 19

According to John’s first epistle, love is from God because God is love. He goes so far to say that those who love are the ones who have been birthed of God. Then he quickly moves to describe how divine love is brought forth in those who have been born of God and thus of love. Harkening to the imagery of the gospel of John chapter 3—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (v.16, NRSV)—the author articulates: the love of God precedes our love for God. [4]

Pushing the imagery further, we can also say, in accordance with Gen 1, that the wind of God hovering over the formless void and the face of the deep is the same as love.[5] Everything about the cosmos is embedded and submerged in divine love. Divine love is the creative force animating the cosmos; the very fabric of our material being is nurtured and produced from love. Thus, even as God’s love predates our love for God. Love itself is older than time and recorded human history. We neither know of a time nor can conceive an era when love didn’t exist. (As Rev. Teri pointed out last week: God loved and loves the dinosaurs!) Our scope is cosmic: God loved and loves without end.[6]

And as God loved the cosmos into being so to does God in God’s love rescue the cosmos and its inhabitants from the plight of humanity by entering that very plight unto death. It is for this reason the epistle writer uses the events of Good Friday through Easter as the lens to comprehend the preceding and continuation of God’s love from one end of the cosmos to the other. God’s love is so profound that not only can it create but it can recreate. That which is dead can be made alive. Christ died on the cross, was buried, and then walked out of tomb. God’s love produced what is (creation) and then went beyond that to grant us the possibility of what could be (recreation).

The epitome of divine love is manifest in standing in solidarity with suffering and stuck humanity threatened with death and destruction and liberating them from it even if they brought it upon themselves. This is unconditional love, and therefore divine love can exist into eternity because it’s based on the eternal source that is God and not conditioned on this or that behavior of the beloved. Conditional love isn’t love; it’s a contract. There is no contract in God’s love language. God just loves because love loves. Where there is love there is God.

Conclusion

Going back to the quotation above from Nietzsche. The quote is only in part. The Parable of the Madman is more profound than the portion I referenced.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman”

Far from pessimistic, Nietzsche’s words partake of possibility and hope. God is not dead because we cannot kill Love. What Nietzsche refers to as “God” isn’t “God” but what we’ve crafted and fashioned to be “God.” And this “God” is dead. The false idols we have constructed of God and propped up in the name of God are the ones that are being exposed as monsters and must be torn down. The death and destruction we see abounding around us isn’t because God is dead; rather, it’s because we’ve baptized (in the name of God) the death dealing and life destroying structures and systems we’ve built and curated and these we must destroy because they are putrid and septic. The god we’ve presented to the world in our own flesh is a god who has been found wanting and we must kill this “God.” And the only way to do that is to love, to love to the fullest extent of the word and in the most radical interpretation. For where we love there is God, where God is there is life and light and liberation.

“The gravity of her situation settled in on her, closing in on her chest, making it difficult to breathe. Would she put the chains back around her neck or let them go and step forward into love? Her heart beat right up into her throat. She tried to swallow it down, but her mouth was suddenly dry. She sat perfectly still but within she was a child, flailing about, trying to push love away; until another part of herself pulled it to her, holding love out to her. It’s not what you want, it’s what you need. She stopped writhing and pushing and looked at it. She reached out and took love, still afraid. She held love in her hands, not knowing if she held it right…Tell God you are afraid. And thank Him. She couldn’t’ find a way to say she was afraid, but she could at least hold her fear and the love she feared out to Him. So she held our what He was forcing her to carry, her commitment to carry love without even knowing what that meant, her fear, all of it, and took one step forward, making herself say aloud, ‘Alhamdulilah.’”[7]

Laury Silvers The Lover

You are the beloved not because it’s a nice sentiment but because Love started this entire thing and sustains it, always in search of the object of love: you, the world and everything in it from the very small to the very big, the entire cosmos. You are the beloved because you’ve been wrapped up in this ancient and present activity of divine love. You’ve been swept up into the current of the activity of divine love, Beloved. You are the beloved because God is love and is not dead; praise be to God.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman” The Gay Science Trans Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974 (trans). Original publication Die frölich Wissenschaft 1887.III.125.181-2.

[2] The double pronoun use here and following is due to the use of the pronouns with the verb in Greek which indicates an emphatic emphasis on the pronouns. It’s stressing that we did not love God but that

[3] All translations of the text are mine unless otherwise noted.

[4] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.555 “…aorist indicates past time with reference to the time of speaking.”

[5] Gen 1:1-2 NRSV

[6] The statement here is based on the conception of the aorist verb used in the verse translated. This portion reads, “…αλλ’ οτι αυτος ηγαπησεν ημας…” the ηγαπησεν is an aorist active indicative 3rd person singular verb. Daniel B. Wallace explains that the aorist is best understood as, “as taking a snapshot of the action…” as opposed to a moving picture. And here, “The aorist tense ‘presents an occurrence in summary, viewed as a whole from the outside, without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence.’” (554).

[7] Laury Silvers The Lover: A Sufi Mystery Kindle Direct Publishing, 2019.254