How many wheels are whirling around in your head right now? How many plates do you keep spinning at any given time?
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells about a slave. This is a very busy slave who must go out into the field in the morning and plow all day or take care of sheep, moving them from one pasture to another for food, chasing off dogs and thieves and running down the occasional sheep that gets lost. After all that, you can’t just come home and relax for a few minutes and then eat. No, when you get home you have to make supper for your master or mistress, and put on an apron and serve her or him, Then, after your owner has eaten, then you can have some supper.
Does that remind you of anyone you know? You guessed it. Jesus is telling this parable about us. We are the busy slaves.
I have two things to say about the Gospel lesson for today. First, it is about slavery. Slavery in Jesus’s day was widely accepted as an economic reality. Slavery in our day is widely condemned as a moral atrocity. So there is a block between us and this parable.
Especially in our country where we are still trying to repent from the influences of slavery, slowly and imperfectly, as all repentance is, but still trying, we have to acknowledge that slavery is damaging to our souls. It is not just a crushing burden to those who are being enslaved, and indeed it is a miracle of God’s Spirit among human beings that people survived, and made music and art and philosophy and theology from those times. Slavery is not just a crushing burden to those enslaved, it is also a poison to the souls of those who were once slave owners. For slave owners, the illusion of superiority sinks its fangs in deep, and the acid rot of fear-born hatred eats away at the joy of God’s life, the vision of God’s true freedom.
In other words, for us, with our history, reading this passage, we need to make it clear that we are never, ever, ever, ever going back there to slavery again.
So Jesus’ parable has a block in front of it, an obstacle to our understanding.
Nevertheless, Jesus is saying something really important here that we need to understand. In Jesus’ day, slaves made up about thirty or forty percent of the population. When you were a slave, you did not really have an identity or personhood of your own. Yes, you would have a name, but if someone asked you who you were, you would say, “I am Andy and my mistress is Miss Jane.” If someone asks you “What are you proud of?” you would say, “Miss Jane is one of the most prominent women of the city.” If someone asks, “What achievements make you feel good about yourself?” “I am Miss Jane’s launderer. I wash her clothes. She looks sharp and fashion forward when she walks in the marketplace among the people.” You see how it would go.
So if we are slaves to God, then we do not really have an identity alone. Someone asks us, “Who are you?” We say “I am a child of God. I am a servant of Christ.”
But look at how Jesus, as usual, spins us around with his disorienting hope. Yes, we are slaves to the most high God, but this God is the God of freedom. God brings the people of Israel out of slavery and gives them the Ten Commandments. God says “I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the house of bondage.” So yes, we are slaves but we are slaves to freedom.
We are servants of Christ. But look at the Christ we serve. Jesus says of himself. “The Son of Man,” that is, the one who is coming to bring God’s freedom to the world, the one who is coming to turn the world back toward God’s life, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Yes, we are servants of the Lord, but we are servants of the Lord who serves. People ask us what we are proud of. Paul answered that question. Pauls says he boasts of nothing but the cross. Yes, we are proud of our Lord who does not just come to us in the places and times when we are prominent and sharp and fashion forward, but also when we are broken and humiliated and brutal and cruel. Our Lord comes to us at the cross and saves us there. So we also take up the cross. We also show this love which is deeper than slavery, deeper than death itself.
People ask us what achievements we are proud of. I mentioned last week how you all provided twenty dollars so that we could help a father and son get home, how God reached through your hands to hold hands with this man as he prayed when he was scared, how your offering made it possible for God to work through us all the time. And indeed, when you come to church, your presence helps everyone else sense the power of God. Your singing touches everyone else with God’s song. The attitude with which you work together, the time you spend, the money you share all participate in God’s work here.
But God’s work here is not the only thing. Maybe not the most important thing. We come to church to be reminded and strengthened to feel God’s love in our everyday life, and to show God’s love in our everyday life. We come here and take the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ into our bodies, our sinew and muscle and bone, so that we can be the body of Christ every day.
So people ask us what we do that we are proud of. We might say, “I serve God by being an accountant. I serve God by doing a good job as a custodian. The care with which I mop the floors glorifies God. I serve God as a garbage collector. We need garbage collectors. Where would we be if that job weren’t done? Wouldn’t be pretty. I serve God as a physician.
I serve God as a father, a grandmother. I serve God as a friend to an elderly person.
I serve God as a citizen. I serve God by voting, by standing up for what’s right in my community, my city and nation and world. And I’m sorry if we don’t see whether we are doing any good. God never promised us a golden victory party. Nine times out of ten we are not going to see the good God brings about through us. Nevertheless, God calls us to do it.
I serve God by taking some time for myself, to rest. Jesus took time to go out in the desert to rest. God Almighty took time. Made this vast universe of wonder around us, and then rested on the seventh day. If God rested, don’t you think it might be a good idea of we rest too?
I know many of us are very busy. I know that’s not always a good thing. But when we do our busy things as a way of serving God, what we do is still good.
This is who we are. We are slaves to the God of freedom. We are servants to the Lord who serves. We are a people of the cross, a people of hope.