Joy in Servanthood (Ken Pennings) 10/6/2019

We may not have the energy and vitality of youth, but we can do what we can do with joy and thanksgiving.

Luke 17:5-10

5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord replied, “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. 7“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

When I first pondered this text, it made no sense to me. In fact, I took issue with it! It seems that the second portion of the text was an endorsement of hierarchy and slavery. I was particularly annoyed with the reference to worthless, or in some translations “miserable,” slaves. What’s going on there?!!!

But as so often happens, the longer one sits with a text, the more it begins to speak to the soul and spirit.

I’ve always appreciated Biblical Scholar Anna Carter Florence’s exhortation, “Don’t merely read the text. Sit with it long enough for the text to read you!”

So the longer I sat with this text, the more I realized it speaks beautifully and profoundly to me in this period of my life.

It has been very hard to admit to myself that I’m not as young as I used to be. In fact, I more than qualify for the OVER 55 luncheon on Tuesday.

I always knew that becoming an older adult would be challenging, but now that it’s here, I’m downright indignant about it.

As a young man, I was quick and nimble, flexible and strong. Now my body resists every move I make. I’m cautious about breathing too hard lest I pull a muscle, pinch a nerve or strain a joint.

And the lapses in memory! “I just had my car keys! What did I do with them!” It’s a good thing I haven’t lost my sense of humor! I give myself plenty to laugh about!

But what’s happening in my body and mind is the least of my concerns. I’m actually quite troubled by what’s happening in my psyche and emotions. As a young man, I could tackle any situation with optimism and determination. I had a can-do attitude about practically everything. Go ahead; give me a problem I can’t solve!

But it’s different now. There’s hardly a day I don’t find myself wondering, “Why is this situation affecting me so deeply? Why can’t I shrug off my irritation and frustration?” Why does every little thing that goes wrong upset me so much? What happened to my positive mental attitude which prepared me to take life as it comes?” Though I often have moments of tranquility and serenity, I often feel quite weak and fragile, in a way I never felt years ago.

The upside of this is that I’m more self-aware. I now realize that I always had these vulnerabilities, but that I compensated with the verve and nerve of youth.

How does this text speak to me in this phase of my life?

By reminding me that God uses what little we have to perform great works.

We are called to trust God with the mustard-seed faith we have. It’s not a fancy faith and it may not seem like much, but in Christ, it will uproot a mulberry tree and throw it into the sea! Faith doesn’t have to be heroic. Even the simplest things done with a miniscule faith can have a huge impact: We don’t need more faith, we need to realize the power of the faith that we have.

With the disciples, I might ask, “Lord, increase my faith!” But the text answers me, “You don’t need more faith. You have what you need, so use what you have!”

As an older guy, I’m trying to apply this wisdom to every area of my life:

“Lord, increase my energy, vitality and strength!” 

“You don’t need more energy, vitality and strength. You have what you need, so use what you have!”

“Lord, increase my optimism, determination and resolve!”
You don’t need more optimism, determination and resolve. You have what you need, so use what you have!”

As we view these images (with piano playing softly), let’s be mindful of our own moments of faithfulness as insignificant as a mustard seed, and as magnificent as a mulberry tree being hurled into the sea. Be mindful of how the little faith we have, whether faith in God, faith in others, or faith in ourselves, helps us do what needs to be done. Also be mindful that faithfulness may be simply maintaining a positive mental attitude in very difficult and challenging situations.

Even the second portion of this morning’s text, the part that initially irked me, began to speak to me. I was pretty much able to let Luke’s Jesus off the hook for his reference to the hierarchical relationship between master and slave when I remembered that slavery was a given in the first century. Stories about masters and slaves are ethically problematic for us as moderns, who no longer accept the institution of slavery. Yet in the ancient world, a “slave” was not only one who helped to keep the economy afloat, but also one wholly devoted to another. It may be the slave’s dutiful devotion to his master that Luke’s Jesus had in mind.

Another reason to let Luke’s Jesus off the hook is that there is a parable in Luke which is similar to this one, but also very different. In Luke 12:35-38, the head of the household returns from a wedding banquet, fastens his belt, has his servants sit down to eat, and the master served his slaves.

So in today’s parable, the slave who is probably exhausted and dirty from working in the fields all day returns home only to have to prepare and serve his master dinner. In the parable in Luke 12, it’s the reverse! The master has the slaves sit down, and he serves them dinner.

Discovering this reversal reminded me that it’s a mistake to over-scrutinize and attach meaning to the details of these stories, details which are sometimes complex and confusing. It’s better to view the components as signposts that point to a higher and deeper reality. The parables invite us into a mystical awareness of God’s relationship with us and with the world. 

So we need not get hung up on a parable about the domination of a master over his worthless and miserable slave. Instead, we realize the deeper mystical significance of a story about finding enough faith in ourselves to do what needs to be done without complaining or expecting reward.

A final reason to let Luke’s Jesus off the hook is remembering that Jesus, himself, freely assumed the role of a slave to resist empire and subvert the power of domination and control. Today’s parable about a dutiful slave entered Luke’s account when Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem, where he would suffer and die. He would be a servant even in his own death. He would be faithful to God even though it meant facing an untimely end. Despite the cost, he simply did what he was supposed to do, as a servant does what a servant is supposed to do…that is, put on an apron, prepare and serve supper for the master, without expecting any thanks or reward. 

I mean, really, how can we fault Luke’s Jesus for his slave story when Jesus assumed the role of a slave himself to demonstrate that the power of love is greater than the power of empire.

As followers of Jesus, we are responding to his invitation to do as he has done, serve others without thanks or reward.

As an older guy, this speaks to me also. “Ken, you can’t do what a younger man can do. But as an older guy, just do what you’re supposed to do. Keep on serving others as best you can without expecting any thanks.”

As we age, we become more and more aware of our limitations. But some of us simply keep on keeping on. We continue to show up at church, take a class, participate in a discussion, support our guest family, visit someone who is sick or homebound, pray with someone with a life-threatening illness, bring communion to someone who can’t make it to worship, or forgive seven times in one day (which is the teaching of the first few verses of Luke 17). We may not have the energy and vitality of youth, but we can do what we can do with joy and thanksgiving.

Joy isn’t available only to the young and strong, but also to the old and feeble! There, I said it, “Feeble.” I’m growing more and more feeble, and I’m learning to be ok with that. Or as my partner always say, “we put the fun in dysfunction!”

Faith, as Luke’s Jesus describes it, is doing our job, doing our duty, not for reward, but simply because there’s a lot that needs doing. Faith, in other words, is doing what needs to be done right here right now.

In the spirit of Jesus, we will show up and do what needs to be done:

  • going to work
  • caring for those in need
  • protecting the vulnerable
  • reaching out to the lonely
  • befriending the friendless
  • contributing to the common good.

It’s all the ordinary stuff we do all the time but, taken together and blessed by God, it’s pretty darn extraordinary.

AMEN

 

  

 

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