Below is an audio link to the sermon by The Rev. Posey Krakowsky on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Proper 22 Year C
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17: 5-10
I can’t speak for you, but to me, this is truly one of the most distressing gospel texts that we ever encounter.
Normally, one of the things I find most fascinating about doing scriptural exegesis is to look at the cultural context of not only the times when texts were written — in Luke’s case, likely the late 1st Century CE, but also the context of Jesus’s own time. After that, we might also consider the twists and turns of how a particular passage has been used in different cultural contexts since it was written. And while homiletics professors teach that the most important context is the original one, in some cases, exceptions should be made. For me, this passage is one of those cases.
Why? Because it’s such a troubling parable, especially when heard in the 21st Century United States, a country with a legacy and history of chattel slavery that goes back to 1619. And we can apologize all we want for this passage by naming it as a product of the cultural context in which it was written, but we do not have 1st Century ears. We have 21st century American ears. So it would be irresponsible, at least in my opinion, to hear this parable and not think about how it sounds to our African American brothers and sisters.
A fellow alum of Union Seminary posted something on Facebook recently that gives us some of the context of how this parable, and so many others, may have been presented to generations of African Americans by their white enslavers.
I’m going to read some lines from A Catechism for Slaves that was written by people in our own denomination. It was published in June of 1854 by the Southern Episcopalian, a journal that published in Charleston, SC irregularly from 1854 and 1863.
Who gave you a master and a mistress? — God gave them to me.
Who says that you must obey them? — God says that I must.
What book tells you these things? — The Bible.
How does God do all his work? — He always does it right.
Does God love to work? — Yes, God is always at work.
What does God say about your work? — He that will not work shall not eat.
What makes the crops so hard to grow? — Sin makes it.
What make you lazy? — My own wicked heart.
Take a moment to let all that sink in.
The white Americans who enslaved black people also created special editions of the King James Bible for distribution to enslaved persons. Any texts that encouraged liberation were deliberately removed from those Bibles.
So in light of that historical context, a context we are all profoundly shaped by, let’s take a moment to think about how our gospel text today might have sounded to the writer of this catechism. Because it seems to me that this gospel text could have easily been separated from its Biblical context to serve as a road map of empowerment for our slave owning writers.
As one commentator writes: These questions and these answers sound obscene in our current context. Completely obscene.
In the times of both Jesus and Luke, there was slavery — and part of the reason Christianity became as wide ranging as it was, and spread as quickly as it did, was because its teachings inherently challenged the oppressive systems enforced on the many by the powerful few. Luke in particular is known as the gospel writer who most pointedly takes on the task of speaking truth directly to those who hold the most power.
The Roman household codes were clearly patrilineal and all encompassing — indeed all of Roman order was built on a system of patronage where one’s power was always part of a pyramid shaped hierarchy with the emperor at the top.
Jesus asked these questions in the context of that system — and he would have expected the responses to be clear “NOs!” In the cultural milieu of Jesus’ time, no master would be expected to invite a slave to recline at table with him, nor allow a slave to eat first before serving him, nor to thank the slave for doing that which the slave knew he was meant to do.
So how have later theologians worked with this tricky passage?
Various commentators tell us that this passage reminds us that faith is a gift. Listen to one of the fathers of Liberation Theology, Gustavo Gutierrez:
“The second part of today’s gospel presents the theme of faith as a gift. The comparison is seemingly harsh. The servant who does what he or she is supposed to do deserves no special thanks from the master. In the first place, complying with the requirements of the faith commitment is not a question of our own merit. This is why it is not only possible, but necessary to admit that we are “useless servants” or, as some translations say, “worthless slaves.” In saying this, there is a strong affirmation, that, first and foremost, faith is a gift. Consequently and paradoxically, truly useful servants are precisely those who admit they are “worthless.” The emphasis on “worthless” seeks to enhance the gratuitousness of faith.”
I gotta admit — I usually find Gutierrez helpful. But in this case, I had to dig deep to get there. Because, yes, I hear him, I hear his interpretation as plausible. Jesus was known for inverting our expectations, especially in parables. He often told stories in ways that were meant to shock. And it is possible that his disciples, to whom this was addressed, were in need of a “reset,” of being taken down a peg or two — especially if they were touting their own sense of self importance. Just think of the sons of Zebedee asking to be on the right and the left of Jesus in his glory! To Gutierrez’s point — it could well be Jesus’ way of saying, “don’t let your heads get too swelled, people, just because you are my close companions.”
Okay, yes, I get that. But especially in the context of 21st C America, we cannot ignore our own cultural history and how this passage likely sounds to our sisters and brothers who are descended from those who survived the Middle Passage. We truly cannot. So we need to dig deeper still.
I asked a dear friend if he had ever heard this passage preached in a black church.
His response was interesting. He had to really think hard to recall if he had. He’s my age, late 50’s, and in the end, he could only come up with two instances that it had happened. In his own words: “I guess that it’s not super popular.” I think we can all understand why.
But he went on to tell me how he heard it preached, and I found it incredibly helpful.
I’ll quote from what he remembered:
Jesus is scolding the disciples a little. Of course they have all the faith they need — there is no need to ask for more. What Jesus demands is that they perform their mission as God’s servants at the highest level of their abilities right through to the end. By Luke’s time all these disciples had been killed but they had fulfilled their mission and grown the community of believers….Moses did not get to the promised land. MLK did not get to see his dream become a reality. Malcolm X did not get to finish what he started…. But they never ever stopped being servants of the Lord. Jesus is reminding the apostles that they hadn’t seen anything yet, hadn’t done anything yet and that the job of the leaders of the community, the shepherds of the flock, is to keep on keepin’ on and never stop until you see the glory of God…
To keep on keeping on.
One might think that turning and turning, that sense that we are never finished is bad news. I know there are many times when I sigh and say, “How long, oh Lord, how long!” But this passage reminds us that our work is not ever done until the kin-dom is fulfilled. To remind us that the faithfulness of the ancestors who did exactly that — keep on keepin’ on — in the face of incredible adversity. God is always continuing to work in and through us. We don’t get to rest on our laurels after our baptism. There’s more work to do.
Last week I joined the diocesan trip to Brooklyn to attend the MAAFA Suite — the annual truth telling and healing service that is written, directed, and enacted by the congregation of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York every September. If you have never been to it, I urge you to go next year when the diocese sponsors the trip.
MAAFA is the Swahili word for Black Holocaust — here is a definition: a word used to describe the history and ongoing effects of atrocities inflicted on African people, particularly when committed by non-Africans (Europeans and Arabs to be exact, specifically in the context of the history of slavery, including the Arab slave trade and Atlantic slave trade) and argued as “continued to the present day” through imperialism, colonialism and other forms of oppression.
The annual week long series of services at St. Paul Community Baptist began 25 years ago. The congregation created these healing rituals because, in the words of their current pastor, Rev. David K. Brawley, “We do this because our ancestors deserve it, our children are worth it, and our future requires it.”
One of the many things that stuck with me when I attended was hearing the voices of my own white ancestors, screaming their protests and objections to this version of American history — and doing so loudly inside my head as I watched the performance. People: That’s how deep the internal programming goes. Growing up in the South in the 1960s and 70s, the lessons of whiteness were all around me, all the time. It takes conscious effort and profound humility to observe them when they arise, to rebuke them as false, and then to send them on their way, because I know full well that they will always resurface in some form.
And that’s okay. That’s God’s way of reminding us that our internal work, and the external goodness that flows from doing that work, is not yet done. It is through turning and turning again, that we will continue to learn. Until we hear the stories that have been suppressed for so long — until we hear the truths that have been silenced for so long, those of us who are white Americans will not be able to heal ourselves either. It is through that kind of storytelling that we will ultimately be able to repair the breach.
This work of truth telling and of deep listening is vital for all of us — for the health and for the sanity of our nation. To do this work is also deeply biblical — despite what we may hear from many who hold power right now. And yes, in response to the gospel text from today — it is deeply humbling work — work that needs to be done repeatedly, and without any expectation of thanks, even by those of us who think our eyes are open. Dismantling the power of whiteness in our country is the project of more than our lifetimes, but one that we cannot abandon. Dismantling the power of patriarchy is as well. Dismantling the heteronormative, the cisgender, the ableism, the class structures —all of which keep so many down — all are things we need to push back against in ourselves. They are all part of the project of bringing the kin-dom of Heaven down to earth — of working to make things here “as they are in heaven.” And it okay to realize that we will not live to see them fulfilled.
This work isn’t about feeling guilty and shaming ourselves. When those of us who hold the power in any of these dynamics make this out to be about guilt and shame, we are not only centering ourselves in the story again, but we are also NOT helping change how things are. What we are really talking about is opening our minds to being able to hear stories that are enormously different from our own experiences — and taking the risk that hearing them may change our hearts forever. And here’s the hardest part — to be willing to do so again, and again, and again.
No one is trying to shame us. Instead, they are asking us to see them, in their fullness, and in the fullness of their own experiences, so that we can know their truths as well as our own.
St Francis — you all thought I would never get to Francis, didn’t you? — St Francis learned exactly this when he went and crossed the battle lines to convert the Muslims during the Crusades. Francis chose to defy the dehumanizing rhetoric that Christians of the time used about any non-Christians. He crossed the battle lines and found out that nothing was as he expected. His own heart was changed. Instead of converting them, he established a friendship with the Sultan of Egypt — Malik Al Kamil, nephew of the famous Saladin. This is a true, but mostly forgotten story. If you are interested, there is a book and also a film about it — called the Sultan and the Saint. Francis learned from them — he learned that they were not monsters. He learned that they were also people of God. He learned that just because people told different stories and had different experiences, it did not mean they were wrong. It did not mean it was okay to belittle them, to demonize them.
I’m sure many of you remember Erasmus’ translation of the prologue to John’s gospel: “it all arose out of a conversation, a conversation within God, in fact the conversation was God.” God is a storyteller. And God is telling us stories every second of every day. And those stories are love stories — because the story, the truest, deepest story — God’s story: is the story of Love.
We hear that story from the testaments of the planets, the animals, the trees, the flowers, and yes, from other people. Ones who are different than we are. In this gospel passage, Jesus is asking us to open our hearts, to keep on keepin’ on, to be willing to always be participants in the conversation.
Let those who have ears hear!