My Cup, Not America's, Runneth Over

October 6, 2013

John Bluck

Pentecost 20     Luke 17: 5 -10

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No doubt you are tired and weary of explaining to each other why we didn’t win the America’s Cup, but I haven’t had my turn yet. And I promise that for the next six months I’ll never mention the event again.


But to honour all those hours of arm chair sailing, all those dreams of what it might have done for Auckland, of the caffeine shot it would have given to our over milk and creamed economy, we need to linger just a little longer over just what that yacht race said about our national psyche.


Do we still feel cheated? Do we think we deserved to win? By leaning together with Toyota as we did, do we believe we’d earned the victory? That we’re entitled to host the next Cup because we need it more than the Americans, and morally we’re better prepared and positioned. After all, we don’t rely on one billionaire like they do. Two or three perhaps, but not one.


In the springtime of our discontent, the resentments rumble on, speaking volumes about who we think we are as New Zealanders.


We’re told all the time that we are what we eat. OK. OK. But it’s also true that we are what we watch and read and listen to, what advertisers, parents, paid consultants and yes, yacht race sponsors tell us what we ought to be.


And what we’ve been told to believe about ourselves in these last weeks, which is only more of the same we’ve been told by TV ads and the whole consumer culture for years, is very revealing, if you dare to stop and think about it, and very scary.


Forget America’s Cup. Try L’Oreal instead, the world’s biggest cosmetics company, with assets of a cool 30 billion euro. And their marketing slogan, for the last 20 years, backed by the highest end of advertising expertise has been “Because you deserve it”, which is a step up from the earlier “Because you’re worth it”.


This is not just a First World way of bolstering our self esteem. The famous Indian newspaper, The Hindustan Times, wears this proud slogan on its masthead: “ Because you deserve to know”.


Maybe we didn’t quite earn the America’s Cup but we certainly did deserve this cosmetic, or that imported beer, or cell phone or flat screen or whatever the product is that is pedalled as a human right.


The whole purpose of the consumer culture is to keep us discontented, wanting more, enjoying more approval, being better recognised, dreaming of the way things could be, if only, if only, if only.


And how is that driven? By the promise that we deserve a better deal, a bigger package, a greater entitlement.


Let’s not get smug about this state of affairs. It’s not just a problem for secular marketers. The church has played the same game. It was the sale of indulgences, the purchase of moral credit for cash in the collection plate, that tipped us into the Reformation. Heaven was becoming a place you earned you way into. And though that heresy has been named and nailed it still lingers in the perception that church going people think they’re better than others. I’ve got a friend who touches the door frame when she very occasionally comes to a service, in case the roof falls in on her unworthiness.


Today’s gospel cuts through this way of seeing the world like a steel knife through soft flesh. The words of Jesus are razor sharp, overstated, angry provocation to the marketing message we’re constantly asked to swallow.


The passage begins with a terse reply to the whining disciples who want Jesus to increase their faith. Presumably in the hope that they’ll be able to achieve more. Not to win a fishing boat race on the Sea of Galilee, but a miracle or three, like Jesus does.


He tells them, they have already got all the faith they need, and if only they trusted what they have, they could jump tall buildings in a single bound, or whatever. His image of planting a mulberry tree in the sea is equally silly. He’s mocking their question.


And then we move to the heart of this passage. Using the metaphor of master and slave, Jesus points his followers to the essence of the good news he’s been trying so hard to tell them, that they can’t see for looking.


Namely, that the gift of God’s grace, like the gift of faith itself, can’t be earned or deserved, or won or accumulated by anything we do or say. We’re not entitled to it, it’s not a reward, it never comes by way of obligation or privilege. 


It is a simply a gift, like life itself. It comes to us ready or not, on a scale beyond our understanding or any comparing, in overwhelming abundance, pressed down and running over.


The grace of God, the love of God, the mercy of God, the very life of God is ours for the asking and the earning. We receive it not because we deserve it but because we are worthless servants, says Jesus.


And that’s a bit of shock for people like us, well adjusted, self esteeming, personally affirmed. But the translation of worthless is a bad one. The word really means not in need of any reward, for doing what we’re meant to be doing anyway.


It’s the positive side of the old negative words in the 1662 confession that Anglicans said every Sunday for 300 years. We have done what we ought not to have done and we have not done what we ought to have done and there is no health in us.


Well, this story is about a way of living that has got plenty of health in it, when we do what we are meant to do and don’t expect any favours, any changes, any rewards, not even any upward mobility of any sort.


In the eyes of God, our worth is not in question, in no dispute, in no need of any special effort. When it comes to the right to stand tall and proud, we don’t have to justify ourselves to anyone about anything, anymore.


What the story asks all of us to do is enjoy what we’ve already been given, and get on with the job of being useful, helpful and as easy to live with as we possibly can. Jesus would have known the saying by the Jewish rabbis, “ If you have practised the Torah, take no credit for yourself, for that is what you are created to do.”


If we really are made in the image of God, if the life we enjoy is reliant on the very breath of God, if our present and our future too is upheld in the arms of God, then we don’t need to prove anything to anyone, let alone God.


The Gospel story is daring us to trust that who we are, and where we are, and what we have is not only OK and more than enough to be going with. It’s actually enough to move mountains and mulberry trees, even if it doesn’t win yacht races. That’s true of us, it’s also true of this community called St Matthews. Between us, we have the resources to do what we need to do through this transition time in the life of this church.


For the consumer culture, this is a very dangerous text. If we took it seriously we’d be able to laugh at the next person who tells us what more we deserve and what we are entitled to. Imagine being able to say to them, thanks but no thanks, I’ve got more than enough to be going on with. Not the America’s Cup but my cup is full, and running over.

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