Human Nature

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Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, Oct 6, 2019 3:34 PM

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22C), October 6, 2019
Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10  

Human nature. We all know what it’s like to be human, right? We don’t all have the same gifts and talents, and we accomplish a huge variety of good and evil deeds. But when someone talks about some universal aspect of human nature, we can relate.

For instance, it’s part of our human nature to wonder why we’re even here. No other creature in the universe—at least, that we know of—does this. We are so self-aware that it can be painful, almost torturous.

It’s part of our human nature to suffer. It’s expected. To some comes much suffering, and to others relatively little. But at the least, we all go through life gathering a collection of sadnesses, great and small, that we then have to figure out what to do with. And there are helpful and unhelpful ways of doing that, and we usually choose the unhelpful ways. This, too, is human nature.

It’s part of our human nature to want to stay alive for as long as possible. Our sense of self-preservation keeps our species going. We shore up our little worlds as best we can against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. When all else fails, we humans frequently resort to violence, or at least we fantasize about it. It is human nature to defend ourselves, or at least to find ways to cope with our suffering.

We heard today from the beginning of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, a series of poems written in the wake of the Babylonian invasion of Judah 2600 years ago. Those who were taken from their homeland were left with memories of Jerusalem lying in ruins. It would be seventy years before any of these people could return. Most never would.

The way the ancient Jews dealt with extreme misfortune was to understand it as a just punishment from God. This is pretty remarkable. Why would the ancients not think of misfortune as something sent from some evil deity? Perhaps a competing god? Perhaps the one we now call Satan? But no, the Jews had grown into a larger belief. There were no other gods. Everything came from God—all good things and all bad things—and in ancient Jewish angelology, even Satan was a member of God’s heavenly court. We don’t have to share that understanding, but we can recognize it as one way to deal with the theological problem of suffering.

Our psalm today was composed in Babylon, and it’s a famous one. Just a few weeks ago we heard John and Lorraine Casillas sing us a popular version of it, the song “Rivers of Babylon.” The Babylonians saw the Jews as a novelty, a cultural oddity, and they asked them to sing their curious native songs to entertain them. But, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Can you imagine having faith in a time like this? I could only choke out the words to the final verse, in which the psalmist curses the Edomites. These were the next-door neighbors of Judah, and it seems that when the Babylonians invaded, the Edomites were cheering them on! The comment about them is, “You know, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for someone to smash their infants’ heads against rocks.” It’s one of the angriest lines in the entire Bible. If that’s how the Jews felt about the Edomites, then by extension, the Babylonians are worse. So I think they’re implicated by the verse, too.

I like to imagine that this is itself the song they sang for their captors—in Hebrew, so the hearers couldn’t understand it! I have visions of Hebrew writing being trendy among Babylonians, and the Jews making T-shirts of this verse and selling them to their clueless conquerors. Leave it to God’s chosen people to find creative ways to resist oppression—by finding a secret way to express their sadness and rage.

I said last week that a part of the Church’s work is to help people tell the truth and lament their grief, and that includes being honest about their feelings. The Lamentations of Jeremiah and the Psalms give us so much help in this work. And if you’ve ever gone through a time of exile—if your world has ever come crashing down around your ears—if you’ve ever dreaded waking up in the morning because everything you knew was wrong, and you didn’t know how to proceed—you might well have wished horrible things on other people. And then you might have caught yourself and cried out, “God, increase my faith!”

Yet, according to Jesus, more faith is not the remedy.

No matter what we do in this life, it will always be in our human nature to think that it’s all up to us. Any success we achieve in the world? We built that. We worked hard and we got it done. As for our failures, well, the arrogant will blame others for it, and those of low self-esteem will blame themselves. Either way, credit and blame are a part of human nature.

So in today’s gospel passage, when the apostles urge Jesus to give them more faith, they’re thinking of faith as something you can have a supply of, a fuel that will keep you going and, at the best of times, keep you winning. At the worst of times, having more faith will help you tread water and fend off the sharks. Have you ever wished for more faith and less doubt? Don’t you long to feel on top of things, in right relationship with everyone, with good food in your belly and loving friends and family all around? And when this does happen, doesn’t faith come more easily, and don’t you kinda want to give yourself some credit for making it all happen?

Jesus corrects this understandable misconception. He tells his disciples, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Many of us have heard this parable all our lives. And it’s human nature to think of it like this: “A little faith goes a long way.” We think Jesus says, “I’m not asking much of you—just a little faith. Just try.”

But I want to challenge this charming interpretation. It’s too easy. It seems to me that Jesus is saying instead, “Your insistence on having more faith is exactly what’s holding you back. You’re making it all about you. But you don’t need to work harder or be a winner. Just accept God’s love for you.” Well, this is contrary to every spiritual message the apostles have ever received.

You may know that one of the points of contention in the Protestant Reformation was which is more important—virtuous works, said the Catholics, or unyielding faith, said the Protestants. But to both sides we can imagine Jesus saying: “You don’t need more good works, and you don’t need more faith. If anything, you’d be better off if you had even LESS of these things—fewer accomplishments you can claim credit for, and so little faith that you can barely see it. Then maybe you’d get over your obsession with correctness and success. I’m not selling you anything, so there’s nothing you can possibly do to achieve it. You’re already there. Relax. I love you.”

To drive the point home, Jesus throws in another rather baffling mini-parable. We have to remember that he tells this story from within a culture in which, unfortunately, slavery was an assumed norm. “Look,” says Jesus, “your slave has just finished a long day’s work and it’s dinnertime, and you’re both hungry. Are you going to say to your slave, ‘Oh, you must be so tired; sit down and let me serve you dinner’? No, because it’s the slave’s job to serve you dinner, and only to eat afterward. And you don’t owe the slave any special congratulations for working so hard. It’s in the job description!”

I don’t like to hear Jesus talk this way. He sounds too much like … well, like a slave owner. But he’s not consistent with this metaphor. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says that those of us slaves who are alert when the master comes home will find ourselves seated at the banquet table with the master serving us dinner.[1] Jesus has used this image before in a different way. So why has he flipped the script here?

We might look at it through the lens of the decisions we choose to make. Throughout the course of our lives, we are like the slaves in the field, subjected to the hard work of living. And Jesus says, in essence, “Look, your job is to live your life. Making choices and doing stuff is in the job description of the living. But listen up: not one of the things you do is going to make me love you more. Furthermore, not one of the things you do is going to make me love you less.”

We might even imagine Jesus setting us a math problem. “My love for you has the value of infinity. Take one bad deed away from infinity. Take millions of bad deeds away from infinity. Now add trillions of good deeds back in. Have you changed the sum? Not a bit.”

We labor in this life, and it’s human nature to want to claim credit for our good works and for whatever faith we can muster. This is human nature. But our good works are scattershot and fleeting, and faith isn’t a thing to be mustered [mustard?]. It’s a gift, and it’s not required for anything.

And that brings us to the most universal of all the pieces of human nature: our death. We can’t manage death. We can put it off for a short while, but we can’t stop it. So Jesus makes death his focal point. By dealing with the one thing we all do, but which we cannot control, Jesus demonstrates God’s mastery and God’s love. Like all of us, Jesus dies, too, only to rise again and raise all of us up with him. That’s his job description. For while Jesus has our human nature, Jesus also has every bit of God’s nature.

I quoted theologian Walter Brueggemann last week, and I can’t help but quote him again. He writes, “We live always with the Lord of the exile, and all our songs to this Lord are from a strange land.”[2] Yes. We know our human nature, and it bothers us and leaves us feeling exiled. Yet God looks at us through the eyes of Jesus and loves us—every last one of us. There is nothing you can do to modify that or to lose that. It’s just the way God is. Amen.

[1] Luke 12:35-38

[2] Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 31.

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