..."Will any one of you who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and recline at table'? Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink'? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'"
I have not always been an Anglican! In my late teens - in the days following my rather dramatic conversion experience - I found myself gravitating naturally towards the more charismatic end of the church. Maybe it was because it was more youthful and energetic. Maybe it was because I felt at home with so many people who were struggling with drug and alcohol issues. Or maybe it was because I enjoyed the dramatic testimonies.
"Tell us about your life before you met Jesus, Bob
Well pastor, before I met Jesus I was living in a caravan. I was bankrupt, my family had fallen apart, and I was drinking myself to sleep each night.
And what about now, Bob?
Well pastor, since I met Jesus I haven't touched a drop of grog, I now run a multi-million dollar cosmetics business and, hey, have you met my new wife? "
We've all heard stories like that, haven't we - stories of people who have met Jesus and so have gone from strength to strength, people for whom Jesus has been the answer in every area of their lives - spiritual, emotional and financial, people for whom the Christian life seems like nothing but one glorious celebration after another! Well have we also heard this story?
"Will any one of you who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and recline at table'? Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink'? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'"
You may remember a few weeks back I brought in my copy of "The Positive Bible" - that specially edited version of the New Testament that promises you "all the good stuff and nothing else", and I did so with a view to pointing out that the passage I was speaking on that day did not make it in to "The Positive Bible".
You could be forgiven for assuming that I'm giving a sermon series on passages that didn't make it into "The Positive Bible". I'm actually just working my way through the Gospel of Luke. It was the "Hate your mother and father" passage (in Luke 14) we were looking at last time I produced this. That was followed by the less-than-cheery story of Lazarus and the rich man, and this week we get this slap-in-the-face story that compares the life of discipleship to slavery, concluding with the admonition: "So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'"
Once again, it's not very positive, is it, and it hardly makes the Christian life look like an attractive career option!
Frankly, the whole image of the master and slave seems entirely distasteful. We, of course, do not have slaves who plough our fields or tend our livestock, but even if we did I suspect that we would not treat them with the quite the degree of disdain that this master seems to be treating his slaves with.
Is this master really supposed to be a metaphor for God - the God and Father of our Lord Jesus who himself came among us not to be served but to serve? Is this how we envisage God dealing with us when we have done all that is asked of us? What happened to "well done, good and faithful servant?"
And after all, We who have been schooled in the humanistic phenomenology of Carl Rogers know full well that human beings perform best when their self-esteem is at its highest, and so we know that the key to managing staff is to affirm them at every opportunity. We like to be told that we have done a good job - that we are good at what we do. Nobody likes to be told that they are worthless! What sort of way is that to treat your team?
Moreover, the whole master-slave concept is a painful one, as it depicts the Christian life as nothing more than the living out of the 'd' word - ie. duty!
Despite the fact that Robert E. Lee credited 'duty' as being 'the most sublime word in the English language', nobody likes the 'd' word any more. It evokes images of heartless toil and endless routine, and is akin to other 'd' words, such as 'discipline' and 'drudgery'.
Nowadays we don't respect people who act only out of duty. "We would have split up years ago but stay together for the sake of the children!" "I married my pregnant girlfriend because I thought it was the right thing to do!" "Putting mum in the nursing home would have been easier but I thought it was my duty to look after her."
It all seems so old-fashioned - so 'the generation of our parents', so unliberated, so pre-enlightenment. We don't want to live lives that our bound by convention and social obligation. We want to live spontaneously and follow our hearts. We want to go with our emotions and do what we feel like doing. We hardly want to live a life of slavery!
And then of course there is the Biblical question of what on earth this story has to do with the discussion about having faith that preceded it?
In truth, I think the broader discussion about faith is the key to coming to terms with this parable, and indeed perhaps not only the discussion on faith immediately preceding the parable but the whole dialogue that starts at the beginning of Luke chapter 17.
The passage in Luke that we are looking at is a part of Jesus' great travel dialogue, where Jesus is walking and talking, as He edges ever closer to His city of destiny - ie. Jerusalem.
Chapter 17 opens with Jesus urging His disciples to take care of the 'little ones' - specifically, members of the faith community who are weak. The disciples respond by saying, "Give us more faith!"
For me this passage seems a little reminiscent of the passage in Luke 9 where Jesus was trying to tell His disciples about His impending betrayal, but where His team wanted to know 'Which one of us is the greatest?' (vs. 43-46) Here Jesus is trying to talk about caring for weak members of the community but the disciples bring the focus back to themselves, and I think we need to see Jesus' statement about 'faith the size of a grain of mustard seed' as a reprimand.
The disciples are asking for more faith. Why are they asking for more faith? I assume it is, again, because they want to be great, and they want to perform great miracles such as Jesus does with His amazing faith.
Now I appreciate that it is hard to know whether Jesus is happily joking when he uses the metaphor of the mustard seed and the deliberately ridiculous image of planting mulberry bushes in the ocean, or whether He is speaking out of exasperation, but I am suggesting to you that it is the later.
Perhaps there is still something of a twinkle in His eye when Jesus says this but I do believe that this whole response comes out of frustration. For the disciples do not in fact need more faith. They just need to be acting out faithfully the faith they already have! The disciples are quite capable of doing crazy things with the amount of faith they already have. They don't need more faith. They just need to do more with it!
I am embarrassed to say that I have had a number of people come up to me over time and say, "Oh, if I had faith like you do I'd give up my day-job and do the sort of things that you do", which I always find entirely exasperating!
I've always responded to such people by saying something along the lines of, "if you really think that there's something I'm doing with my life that is more worthwhile than what you are doing, then do it! Don't wait until you have more faith or more anything. Just do it!"
Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement, once had someone say to her, "You are a saint!". She apparently responded, "don't you write me off that easily", and I imagine for exactly the same reason. There is nothing special about me, she was saying, such that you could not be doing exactly the same sort of thing with your life should you wish to. Just do it! Don't wait to become a saint. Just do it!
Now I appreciate that I might be risking infringement on Nike's copyright by using this phrase repeatedly but I do think that "Just do it" is the basic message we get from both the mustard seed illustration and from the parable.
For it seems that the disciples are wanting to wait for a greater influx of spiritual giftedness before they get on with doing the work that they've been called to do, and they don't need to wait. They just need to get on with it.
And the servants in the parable - it's not their place to wait around for anything either - be it greater faith or a special bonus reward for having completed their work on time or any show of gratitude or for anything of the sort. They just need to get on with their work and do it!
It's not a comfortable image - the whole master-slave relationship - but it is a depiction of a master-centred world where God is God and we are not, and where God's requirements are the business of the day and where our needs, our faith, our goals and our rewards are sidelined somewhat, as we lose ourselves in a world that is much bigger and more significant than any of us individually.
I started today by saying that I haven't always been an Anglican but was initially more attracted to churches with high energy and lots of positive success stories, and I must be honest and say that I think one of the reasons I gradually drifted away from those types of churches was because it became increasingly difficult for me to identify with the sort of success stories I was hearing week by week.
I'm now 30 years in to my walk with Jesus and I can't pretend that it's been one great and glorious string of victories - far from it! Indeed, while not wanting to deny that the Lord has been able to do something with me over those years, I'm very conscious of the fact that the things I struggle with today are not that much different from the things I was struggling with back then!
And that is one of the reasons I like Anglicanism (or at least Anglicanism in the form in which it is demonstrated in my community) with its emphasis on comprehensiveness. Comprehensiveness means that there is room for everybody in the Christian community - the rich, the poor, the slave, the free, the sinner, the saint, the guy with the great success story and the guy more like the rest of us.
For in the end it doesn't matter whether you have a great story to share, just as it doesn't matter if you have great faith or a great bank balance or great prophetic powers or great anything else. What matters is simply that we get on with doing the work that God has called us to do.
For most of us I suspect that our walk of faith is a conglomeration of these stories. Sometimes it is a glorious tale, and sometimes it is just hard work and seems entirely thankless. But don't wait until you feel good about it. Don't wait until you have more faith. Don't put off stepping out in faith until your self-esteem has reached a level that makes it come natural. Just do it! Amen.