Saturday, October 1, 2016
Drop and Give Me Twenty : A Sermon on Luke 17:5-10
[Preached at the Deacon's Conference of the Episcopal Diocese of NY, October 1, 2016]
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
So since this is a deacon’s conference, I can probably ask this: How many of you here give your sermons titles?
I admit it; I always do. I’m a little compulsive that way…so every one gets a title.
Which, today, may be something of a problem. Because today’s sermon takes its title from the movie Animal House: “Drop and Give Me Twenty.”
As this is the first time I’ve ever preached in front of our bishop, this title makes me uneasy.
But—famous last words--I can explain.
The Gospel for tomorrow morning, which we’ve just heard read, is Luke 17, verses 5 through 10. Now, this reading contains two separate pericopes:
First, we revisit the parable of the mustard seed in verses 5 and 6, and then, in the second pericope, the rest of the reading, Jesus tells his disciples—that’s us—that 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.”
Which of course put me in mind of Niedermeyer, the ROTC bully, hectoring his cadets with “you’re all worthless and weak. Now drop and give me twenty.” Push-ups, that is. Twenty push-ups.
So, I’m confessing, in front of my bishop, that at first glance, this gospel has me worried. Almost as worried as the opening of this sermon.
Because Jesus sounds like a really harsh taskmaster here, doesn’t he? Oh, you’ve done all that you were told to do. Great. So what? Any slave does that. Now impress me.
Yikes. How? Where’s “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” when I need him?
And what else are we to do? How else are we to serve Jesus, other than doing what he has told us to do?
Maybe you know, Shirley, with the Soap Closet Ministry you founded at St. John’s in Kingston? Or Denise, bringing the Eucharist and lunch to the park through Ecclesia?
Maybe we all know, with our various ministries, each of which brings us in a special way to the service of God’s people where we find them.
See the two things needed there? Us, and the people of God. We find the people of God, where they are, and respond to their needs as we perceive them. Each of us, by being out and about among God’s people, as one of God’s people, spots the need that we are equipped to do something about, today. It may not be the need we envisioned addressing, but we’re there, we see it, we step in. We use initiative, and instinct, and we step in.
And there it is.
We’re not called to be slaves, merely following direct orders. We are called to be active. We’re called to use what we have to help where we can.
As deacons, we are out in the world, the secular workaday world. That gives us a very different ministry from those of our sisters and brothers who are priests. We have the challenge and the honor of filling in the gaps in that secular workaday world. Often, we get to think through how to respond to those gaps, and create an ongoing ministry. Like Shirley, like Denise. Like all of us, really.
But sometimes it comes at us hard and fast.
We are just a few days after the anniversary of one such experience for me, so let me share it with you. Three work colleagues from my day job and I were driving south from Saratoga to Albany after a work function. I was in the back seat with another lawyer; an administrator from my office, Kim, was driving. Kim saw a motorcycle come off the ramp, and the rider lose control. The bike skidded under an 18 wheeler, the driver went flying.
Even in the back seat, I could see that. I was stunned, but Kim wasn’t. She slewed the car diagonally across the highway to stop traffic. And when the traffic stopped, and other cars joined her, she started to cross the Thruway to get to the rider.
I followed her.
Not that I’m brave; I’m not. I just couldn’t let her go alone. So I followed her.
When I got there, it was clear that the rider was dying or dead. Two young women were standing by him, horror struck.
I felt so useless. There was nothing I could do.
Then I realized there was one thing I might do: Last Rites. I didn’t have my prayer book, or anything to guide me, but I had to perform last rites once during my Clinical Pastoral Training. I didn’t know the words, of course, but I had the sense of it—the topics and the flow of it.
As I fished out my crucifix to help center me, I heard Kim—who knew I’d been ordained just three months before this—ask, “John, will you pray?”
I knelt next to Andrew—that was the rider’s name—and lay my hands on his arm. I prayed for him, and felt Kim and the two young women draw around into a semi-circle. We prayed together.
In this room, we all know that I didn’t do anything praiseworthy that day; I showed up. That’s all. I filled the gap. I answered the call. I did what was required of me at that moment, in that place. I didn’t fail. That’s all.
But the choices we make as deacons to be available to step into those gaps—those choices to be vulnerable to the needs of God’s creation are not the choices of slaves. We have chosen to be accountable, to be responsible, to be present for the needs of the people of God, even if we can only stand vigil.
So we’re not worthless or weak, and not unprofitable slaves who only do the minimum and work to rule. Jesus isn’t looking for slaves, who need to be ordered to perform each task.
The whole point of the pericope is that we aren’t slaves at all. Paul in his letter to the Galatians helps to clarify the point of Luke’s story: We are not called to be slaves but children of God, and through God, heirs. [Gal 4:3]. Or, put it another way; in traditional art apprenticeships, the learner goes from being alunno (pupil) to amicus (friend). In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, “I no longer call you servants but friends.” [Jn 15:15]. They have graduated from their apprenticeship. We are walking the same path, following in the same Way, from pupil to friend, from foster child, to heir. And the more we embrace our calling, use our initiative and gifts, the more we leave behind the fear-based life of the slave for the full life in Christ that we are called to live. Never attaining perfection, but growing more and more every day.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
 See Robertson Davies, The Lyre of Orpheus (1987).