You Have One Job

. 8 min read

Thanks to Joel Shuman for preaching on Oct 6 while I was on vacation!

You Have One Job…
A Sermon for the
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Christ United
Methodist Church
October 6, 2019
The Reading:
The apostles said to the Lord,
“Increase our faith!”

The 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.

“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’? Would 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’? Do you
thank the slave for doing what was commanded?

So 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!'”

Getting Real about the
Jesus. About the time you think you have him figured out – when you think you
have a handle on what he’s up to – he goes and does something like this,
calling his closest friends, and by extension all of us, “worthless slaves.”
Such language seems unbecoming, especially from someone who’s always talking
about love and forgiveness and every other kind of pleasantry. Surely there’s a
mistake here: maybe a dyspeptic medieval scribe who thought the gospel needed
to be edgier, or a translator who lacked an appreciation for the nuances of
koine Greek?

that these things were so. But the standard Greek New Testament has no
footnotes suggesting inconsistencies among ancient manuscripts, and there’s no
easy way to make the Greek word doulos
mean anything other than “slave”; in fact, doulos
is the word used to describe someone who’s born a slave, rather than someone who’s a slave because of
circumstances like extreme debt or being on the losing side of a war. On its
most fundamental, literal, level, the text means what it says, and I, for one, neither
care for it nor understand why Jesus, of all people, would say such a thing.
It’s disquieting. Why would the man whose life inspires the author of 1 John to
declare that “God is love,” the man who in another gospel calls the disciples his
friends (John 15:12-17) and washes their feet, here call them slaves? What’s
going on here, anyway?

One Job:

we want a satisfying answer to the question of what’s going on in this text, we’ll
need to do two things. First, we’ll have to look beyond these five verses to
the way they fit into this part of Luke’s gospel, which will give us a sense of
the work Luke wants them to do. Then, we’ll need to see how this passage might
fit into the much larger story of what God’s up to, from the Covenant with
Abraham to the New Jerusalem of Revelation. And because both of those tasks are
about stories – about learning to see our stories as part of God’s story – it’s
only fitting that we begin with a story.
youngest grandchild, Mr. Wyatt James Shuman, has in recent months emerged as
the Platonic ideal of a two-year-old. This is on the one hand a very good
thing; his personality, as bright and quirky as his parents’, has blossomed,
and he can suddenly do all kinds of fun things, like running and climbing and
talking a blue streak. On the other hand, though, Wyatt’s “two-ness” is less
salutary, because his personality and capabilities have been placed in the
service of a two-year-old mind. Epic tantrums, running away from his parents,
climbing where he shouldn’t, and talking back, among other things, are now
daily occurrences, which a couple weeks ago led our daughter-in-law to dub him
their “demon spawn.” That was about the time he walked up behind his dad, our
son Amos, and bit him hard on the back of the leg, exclaiming gleefully, “I
sting you like a bee.”
parents aren’t dumb, and they caught on pretty quickly to what most parents eventually
figure out: you cannot stop a two-year-old; you can only hope to contain them. Amos
and Jennifer’s containment strategy is relatively simple and seems to be as
much for their own amusement as modifying Wyatt’s behavior. “Wyatt,” they told
him, “you have one job. Your job is to be
.” Since then it’s become commonplace for them to respond to his
misbehavior with two questions: “Wyatt, what’s your job?” And then, when he finally
responds, “Be nice,” they ask, “Wyatt, are you doing your job?”
it turns out, what Jesus is saying to the apostles and his other followers in
these verses is something pretty similar; he’s reminding them (and us) that we,
like Wyatt, have one job – although that job entails a good deal more than simply
being nice.
Location, location,
location (of the text, that is)
the scheme of Luke’s gospel, our text sits in the middle of an at best loosely related
collection of Jesus’s teaching, some obviously directed to his disciples and
the apostles, some to more distant. This location suggests that these five verses
are there to give us a way to see how the different sayings hang together. The
previous chapter (16) begins with the baffling parable of the dishonest manager
and ends with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The paragraphs immediately
following our text include a warning about the alarming suddenness with which
the kingdom will come, and then, at the beginning of chapter 18, the parable of
the rich young ruler. That story, you’ll remember, ends with Jesus declaring
the extreme difficulty the rich face when they seek to enter God’s kingdom – he
compares it to a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle – which leads
the astonished disciples to respond, “Then who can be saved?”
to our story’s location in the midst of all this hard teaching about the
kingdom gives us a better sense of what it’s about. Importantly, the text doesn’t
begin with Jesus likening us to worthless slaves, but with the apostles’
petition: “Increase our faith!” At first glance, this part of the passage seems
to be misplaced; it’s just sort of sitting there, disconnected from the stories
that precede or follow it. But it’s unlike Luke to be that haphazard; he is a
careful theologian and an excellent writer with a tremendous command of the
we read the text in Eugene Peterson’s translation of the scriptures, The Message, we get a picture of what
Luke’s up to. There, to the disciples’ plea for more faith, Jesus responds, “You
don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith”
– which is to say he’s suggesting that if the apostles have any faith at all
(which they obviously do), they already have
all the faith they need. In this
light, their petition is exposed as a kind of diversionary tactic, a not-quite
whiny way of saying, “Jesus, this stuff is hard. You’ve given us a tough row to
hoe. If you’d just give us a little more faith, we might be able to do some of these
But Jesus sees
what they’re up to, and is having none of it, which is why he so quickly
dispenses with their request for more faith and then rather forcefully changes
the subject – to slavery. His invocation of the example of slavery is neither to
talk about slavery per se, nor to
suggest that the human relationship to God is best understood as that of slave
to master; rather, it’s to use the normal social expectations attending the
relationship of masters to slaves in that culture as a simile for the
relationship of his apostles to their Lord. Masters don’t typically dote on
their slaves or bondservants, nor do slaves and bondservants expect to be doted
upon, because doting is not characteristic of that relationship. It’s just not
the way it works.
So what Jesus is
doing, then, is disabusing the apostles and disciples of the notion that there’s
anything heroic about doing the things he says they – or we, or people in
general – should do. Actions like giving away the excess wealth that threatens
to destroy our souls, or becoming poorer for the sake of the planet and its
impoverished inhabitants, or attending to the concrete needs of the
conspicuously dependent with whom we cross paths as we go through our days, or
stepping in, rather than looking away, when we witness bullying or racism or
other forms of bigotry: these are not things that require extraordinary faith;
they are things that require ordinary faithfulness.

Made for this:

if such actions are ordinary, why do so rarely see them performed, and why do
we find them so difficult or impractical? Why, in other words, do we see them
as extraordinary? Perhaps it’s because we haven’t the slightest idea about what
“ordinary” truly is. There are two things I know to be true of every one of us,
the first by virtue of our being human, the second by virtue of our being
inhabitants of this world.
we are made by and for self-giving love. The two
fundamental commandments of the Hebrew scriptures, to love the L
ORD God of Abraham with all our being
and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, are not impositions on our will by
an arbitrary and capricious master. They are affirmations of the very fabric of
our being as creatures made in the image and likeness of the God who is Love.
Love is our fundamental vocation – our job – and this is so just because it sits at the very center of
who we truly are. Properly speaking, concrete acts of love, including those seemingly
tough ones Jesus taught, are as natural to us as breathing air.
because our world, our society, and we ourselves are not quite right – the
theological term for that is “sin,” by the way – what is truly natural is not natural to
. Thomas Aquinas, a really smart guy who thought a lot about these
things, says that “natural” can mean two different things; it can refer to
things as we understand and experience them, or to things as they are made and
ought to be.
society we live in says that our basest, most selfish impulses are “natural.”
It says individualism and self-reliance, unbridled competition, and suspicion
or fear of those unlike us are ordinary. So even though we are designed to set
aside our own comforts for the sake of our neighbors’ needs, there’s something
in us that thinks Jesus is crazy or doesn’t really mean it when he tells us to
love our enemies, or give away our wealth, or take the side of the powerless
and downtrodden.
which Aquinas says heals and perfects nature without destroying it, begs to
differ. The healing power of grace draws from within us what remains of our true nature, and through the deliberate,
lifelong process of discipleship, re-forms us, freeing us from what one
theologian calls “egotism’s nervous and oppressive grasp.” Grace empowers us to
abandon the convenient fictions that skew us toward self-absorption and lead us
to think of Jesus as a naïve idealist or a fanatical prophet destined merely to
be admired and ignored. Grace calls us away from the pervasive fear and greed
and violence that characterize our world and invites us to the truthful speech,
vision, and action that characterizes the lives of the saints.
saints, at least for us Protestants, are not only those women and men of
history like Saints Peter and Paul and Francis and Claire, whose lives have
long been recognized as worthy of imitation. They are not only women and men
from more recent history, like Dr. King or Dorothy Day or Cesar Chavez or Mother
Teresa, whose words and actions call forth and animate the better angels of our
nature. The saints are also those in our midst whose lives are unremarkable
except for the fact that day after day they quietly find ways to make Jesus
present to the world around them. They are the ones who understand that their
one job is to love and serve God and their neighbors; even more, they
understand that same love to be the very thing they’re made for. May we look to
their example and become, like them, ordinarily faithful.
the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.