Harrowing Of Hell
October 2, 2022

Reading the Bible

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

This is a sermon about how reading the Bible is a way of caring for the soul, which is disheartening, given today’s Gospel. It’s a jumbled mess.

Here is what happens: The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, and he replies: “Well, if your faith is the size of a mustard seed you can say to the Mulberry Tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey.’”

That is his answer. So, first of all, that is not an answer. Is it? They ask how to increase their faith,  and he responds with a mixed plant metaphor of mustard and mulberry, culminating with the impressive yet irrelevant, capacity to transplant a tree into the sea.

Jesus then follows up with an even less helpful and seemingly disconnected soliloquy about the relationship between a servant and a master. He asks: “Who among you would say to your servant when they came in from a hard day’s work, sit down and let me serve you dinner? Instead, YOU WOULD SAY: ‘Prepare my supper, so, I can eat. It is your job, after all.’” Jesus pushes his point further saying, “Why should you thank someone for doing what they’re supposed to do?”

He ends with this statement: “So, you also when you have done all that you were told to do say, ’we are worthless servants we have only done what we ought to do.’” That is Jesus’ answer to the request for increased faith…which is why it’s pretty easy to not read the Bible, and if that’s how you feel, I understand. There’s a lot to read out there in the world; stuff that makes more sense. Which begs the question, why did this book, the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and the story of Jesus, have such a profound impact on all the world? If it’s this confusing, how did it get out the door in the first place?

The answer to this question is pretty simple: Jesus. I want to talk about him for a bit and then return to the disciple’s question about faith. And when we get there, I’m going to explain how Jesus unlocks within the imagination of his followers the capacity to see a different world, or shall I say, a future world, and how this world is perfectly designed for the care and health of souls.

It all starts with Jesus. There was something about Jesus that was different than any other person who ever lived. He did things, and said things, that no one else had ever done, or said, or even thought. It was as if he came from a different planet… no, more like he came from the future, armed with insights and aphorisms to direct us toward the world as it could be, or, more specifically, how it is designed to be.

The people who experienced Jesus were fundamentally changed. They were soul-first people, they were utterly fearless, which is code for relentlessly loving because love is the opposite of fear. They were people in love with God and in love with their neighbors. And this love made them bold, unstoppable, and compelling. It was love, this soul-filled love, that changed the people who then changed world.

The people who witnessed the extraordinary actions of Jesus, and heard him tell mind bending parables, well, they talked about him. They talked about him all the time. They talked about him incessantly. And here is the weird thing, or maybe the miraculous thing, people didn’t get sick of hearing about Jesus. Just the opposite. They wanted more Jesus, and that is how he became a legend.

For twenty or thirty years after his death people who knew him, talked about him. And others repeated what they heard. And, in time, sometimes, their words felt inadequate for expressing Jesus. He was bigger than what they could say without metaphor or embellishment.

It is sort of like how I feel about D. K. Metcalf, and that time he ran down Budda Baker. You remember.  Oct. 26, 2020; that game between the Seahawks and the Cardinals.

Let me retell it. Russell Wilson takes the snap, drops straight back about four steps, then lofts the ball into the flats for Carson, at about the Cardinal 5-yard line. Then out of know where, the demon, Budda Baker appears and picks off the pass with no one between him and the Seahawks end-zone.                                       

Now D.K. Metcalf who had lined up on the other side of the field, slowed down at 1-yard line, as the play seems to be dead, but then realizes that Baker was heading for the endzone. You can just see determination flood over him. Jets appeared on his feet, like a giant, with eight foot legs as he covers the field ten yards at a time, running down Budda Baker like a cheetah chasing an impala on the Serengeti. He launches himself at Baker, his shadow covering him like a bird of prey, or an archangel, flying through the air, in fact, he was flying. His arms wrapped around Baker as he bounced him off the ground. Not another man in the NFL could have done what D.K. Metcalf did; and not just because of his capacity to fly, but, because of his huge heart.

And that’s a real story… all of what I told you is true and indisputable. It happened. Jesus’ impact was like that to the power of 10, because what he said and did took root in the souls of those who met him… and it grew, soul to soul to soul. Words were too small for this evolution, this revolution of the human soul. Capturing this soul revolution with words became more complicated as time shrouded the context of this long, long ago and far, far away context.

Just imagine how D.K. Metcalf’s tackle would sound to a community on the other side of the world, who speak another language, 2000 years in the future.

And with that in mind we return to our Gospel today, Luke 17:5-10. We return to the Gospel because reading the Bible is good for our souls. It is the exercise in imagination where we pull apart the words so, we can witness the awesome reality of Jesus. the Koen is the catharsis; the struggle is the liberation; the insight is the equanimity.

So, we read the Bible because it is good for our souls AND, because we prescribe to the Epiphany brand of Christianity. And because we do, we must seek the Jesus truth and insight that lives there; which means not ceding ground to others who claim the moniker of Christian, and yet manipulate scripture for their own power, applying division, exclusion, and hate in the name of Jesus.

And so, we read: The disciples ask: “increase our faith.” Jesus responds with a riddle: “If your faith is the size of a mustard seed you can say to the Mulberry tree be planted in the midst of the sea, and it would be.” That’s the riddleNow let’s set that aside for a moment and continue. Incidentally, that is a Bible reading technique. It is like the SAT tutor’s saying: “If you get to something you don’t understand skip it and come back to it later.”

And so, we proceed. Jesus asks: “Would you say to your servant sit down I’ll make dinner for you?” “No!” He follows with: “You would rather say, serve me supper?” The disciples nod. They can’t imagine a scenario where a master serves a servant. We can, of course, because we live in a future that Jesus helped form. We can not only imagine a master serving a servant, but we have a name for it that is even taught in secular business schools… Servant leadership.

The disciples had no such concept. They lived in a world of fixed roles. And so, not only would the master not even suggest that he do the servants job, but the servant, knowing his place, wouldn’t be able to comprehend a situationin which the master would or could consider changing places with him.

And so, the disciple’s would quite naturally answer Jesus’ question: saying, “Yes, go serve me.” And that is what the servant would expect. The system was set up, so the servant cares for the master. The weaker serves for the stronger. Jesus flips that on its head, suggesting the tired and downtrodden, in this case the exhausted servant, should be cared for by his well-rested master. That was a new idea and a big idea. It might not seem that way to us, but if it doesn’t, it’s because of Jesus.      

The Jesus revolution was built on the reality of human equality. The internalization of hierarchy, represented by the words: “I am just a worthless servant,” is rendered meaningless in a world where the master can serve the servant. Jesus flips the cultural expectation on its head, and in doing so, reveals an aspect of the soul care. And it is this: haughtiness, arrogance, hierarchy of position are states of being that diminishes one’s souls.

Soul care happens when we act the reality that all humanity is equal, and this action is not only good for the soul, but impacts humanity’s future reality. It’s easy for us to imagine how a master can serve a servant, particularly one in need.

It’s easy for us to comprehend the reality of human equality. We can because Jesus has already revealed these soul-first ways of living.

So where does the mustard seed and the Mulberry tree fit in? Here is the exciting thing – not all of Jesus insights have been revealed. Maybe this mustard/mulberry riddle has yet to be solved?

For me, I can imagine a day when the genetic code of a mustard seed can be manipulated so as to grow a Mulberry tree. I can imagine a day when Mulberry trees can grow in salt water. That is what I imagine. But the point here isn’t my interpretation, rather it is to illustrate the engagement of our imagination when reading the Bible. We read it with faith that Jesus will continue to reveal a world perfectly designed for the health of our souls.

Which returns us to the riddle of the mustard seed and the Mulberry tree in the midst of the sea—Jesus’ answer when the disciples asked to increase their faith. It was his answer because faith increases as we imagine what God’s world could actually be like: a world where the stronger care for the weaker and where all humanity understands their core equality.

We grow our faith by acting toward what we can imagine; by dreaming about how Jesus might act in a given situation. And we learn and we internalize Jesus’ actions by studying the Gospels. We get curious about what we read there and wonder how it may be applied to the context of our own life.

It is reading the Bible that we seek to know souls and how to care for the souls God has set in our life. That is what Jesus did.