Sunday, October 3, 2010

Only Doing Our Duty

Sheepscott Community Church October 3, 2010

2 Timothy 1: 1-14

Luke 17: 5-10

Only Doing Our Duty

Waiting in faith for the fulfillment of promise has been widely demonstrated scripturally. We need only look at Abraham, old Abraham, to whom God promised descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. How he could look at his wife Sarah, who was almost older than God at the time, and believe––well, that’s faith. Faith in the word of God as revealed to us, a willingness to set aside what we see with our natural eyes to focus instead with our spiritual eyes on what God promises and shows us.

And whether or not that promise is fulfilled in our lifetime, we need to resolve to continue to go back and plow the field again with faith that the crops will grow. If we look around and see a temperature of 113 degrees, as in California this last week, or 25 degrees below zero, which we will probably see this winter, either way we need to keep believing that God will give the harvest.

I am talking about the harvest in this church, a harvest of souls living in surrender to the will of God, and consequent inevitable service to the human community. As you probably heard or read, Tony Curtis died this last week. I heard a recording of an interview done with him wherein he said, “Service to others is the rent we pay for our time on the planet.” Nice. How far we are along that path of surrender to God’s will will determine just how we feel about that statement. Are we still naming what the will of God is for our own lives, serving ourselves and our definitions of the godly life? We need to be careful.

Let’s consider this morning’s gospel parable as we think about being careful. Before we do that, let me quote from the reading in 2 Timothy: “Join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God who has saved us and called us to a holy life––not because of anything we’ve done, but because of his own purpose and grace.” Why on God’s green earth would we ever consent to suffering, whatever that might entail, and actually actively join, by an act of our will, in suffering for the gospel. In a profound sense it is true that no man, no woman makes a sacrifice, in this case, to join in the suffering for the gospel. In the area of our duty, which is what today’s parable is about, there is no room for the sense of pride or merit that is usually part and parcel of the concept of sacrifice.

Too often, what passes for religion today is the gospel of health and success. All we have to do is be baptized and establish a personal relationship with Jesus and we will live the good life, the kingdom of God on earth. Would that it were that simple; would that that were entirely true, but it isn’t. Life isn’t like that. The gospel today makes that clear, and the word and life of Jesus are a sharp corrective on the gospel of easy salvation. Yes, Jesus has already done the Big Work, but we need to work as well. We will have times of the comfort, the balm of Gilead, which we sang about last week, the healing medicament of the Holy Spirit of the Living God, but it is the epitome of presumption to think that we either deserve to have that all the time or have somehow earned it by the decisions we have made.

When we begin to think that way, that we have earned the rewards of God, let us remember today’s gospel, which is a cure for self-righteousness, self-pity, pride and an imagined sense of merit. If we make a note to self when reading about the peccadilloes, the sins of others on line, or in the newspaper, or hear about them on the broadcast news, if we think to ourselves, “Hmm. I’ve never done anything like that. I’ve never failed my family and friends in that way,” watch your step. It’s like reading the obits and not finding ourselves there. While there may be satisfaction, there is no merit. Jesus has clearly said that no man ever makes God his debtor. As I noted earlier, there is a profound sense in which it is true that no man makes a sacrifice; in the realm of duty there is no room for pride in sacrifice or merit.

While this parable is not the whole truth about God and that One’s relationship to human beings, it is a truth, part of the whole picture, because the fact is that the demands of duty are never fulfilled when we surrender our lives. It’s ongoing and lifelong. . Think of that old saw, “A man’s work is from sun to sun, a woman’s work is never done.” And speaking for the distaff side, it isn’t ever done. And that is true of the servant in the parable. He comes in from the field after plowing or keeping the sheep. Does the master say, “Have a seat, and I’ll get you your supper.” Hardly. Rather, as the parable lays it out, the master tells the servant to wait on him, the master, and after he has had food and drink, the servant can sit down and have his supper. After supper, he may have to clean up the dishes and turn down the master’s bed as well. There is no respite. That servant can never say, “For an hour I am not under obligation.” However honorably he may live or imagine himself to live, the only thing he can say is, “I have only done my duty.”

The servant is not concerned with long-term results, but only with obedience in the moment. The satisfaction that we get from going forward in obedience to what we understand is the will of God in our lives––including being here together on Sunday morning––is the joy that is greater and better than that of self-pity or pride. When a person is doing what he or she considers their duty and yet knows that in this life he or she can never fulfill the obligation but then continues to go forward anyway doing what he or she can, we can be sure that the mark of God is on that person, who is content to serve the Lord of heaven and never ask to enter the service of some lesser lord, whose patch of ground is narrow and whose work is soon done. Then that person can labor in quiet joy and leave the issue in God’s hands.

And we fail at our tasks and in our attitudes in relation to duty. It isn’t all sweetness and light in submission to the will of God. It’s treacherous, long, tedious, often thankless, except, except in the depths of our own soul where we meet God, whose love lavished on us when we fail is greater than the vastness of the failure itself, and we can go on. We can go on to work in harness with Christ, who has invited us to take his yoke upon our shoulders because it is a light and easy yoke. Jesus makes the difference to s who sometimes feel like the oarsmen below decks dragging that oar back and back and back again, until we think our back will break if we don’t have some relief. But then the music starts to play, and it turns out to be Jesus. His music makes every task possible because our hearts lighten when he is around. And I’m not making light of difficulties, whether of health or personal economies or seemingly unending troubles with kids, grandkids, friends and family.

All of that is not going away. We don’t live in the Never-Never Land that some religion promises. It’s work, it’s hard, it’s relentless, and finally we die, but God is in the midst with us, suffering with us, rejoicing with us, true thing, and Jesus himself, the Great Promise and Living Word of God is palpably with us. We can realize that this morning when we share communion together. Everything is possible for us because we have the living Christ in our midst. I’m not the one who said it. He said it on the night before he died. “Do this in remembrance of me. Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup there am I in the midst of you.” Or “When two or three of you are gathered together, there am I in your midst.” So we are together, we are praying, and we are about to share communion. Jesus is and will be in our midst.

Here’s where the faith comes in, the faith Jesus spoke of in the earlier part of the gospel, which was not particularly related to the parable but which is always deserving of restatement. If you had faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, you could tell this mountain to be moved into the sea and it would obey. Jesus is exaggerating once again to make a point. Part of that point is the power of the prayer made in faith. Don’t pay attention to what your natural eyes see, but pay complete attention to what your instinct is telling you, what your own developed and thoughtful conscience and conscientious mind are telling you. That is the built-in homing device that will bring us back to the dovecote where we commune with the Spirit of God, where goodness resides in us and can make its home in all people of good will who desire it.

That mustard seed of faith is the thrust of the soul into a future always hidden, but we do get glimpses of it. What is our future here in the Sheepscott Community Church as a people of faith? Do we have faith the size of a mustard seed to believe that God can bring his purposes out of our few numbers? Do we feel God’s joy in the children who are here this morning, who are the promise of the future? I have alluded to this before, I allude to it now; I will allude to it again in a future: This is God’s time in this church, for this church. While all time is always God’s time, there are moments and there are moments, and this is this church’s moment to heal, to be reconciled one with another, denomination with denomination, historical perspective with historical perspective, forgiving as we ourselves have been forgiven. And we can consciously act that out in our communion service this morning.

We are a powerhouse of prayer and song, faith and action. I do believe that when I look out at you and love you with God’s heart. Some have chosen to leave our congregation, but we have chosen to stay, to try to uncover and facilitate the life of God in this village on the coast of Maine. That’s our charge, that’s our duty, and our joy . I will stay and continue to do my best, which in my humanness is a limited best, but what I have is yours to try to realize with you God’s dream for this church. We will fail, and we will succeed. That’s the way of human endeavor, but we will do it together, strengthened by the body and blood, humanity and divinity of Jesus, who offers himself to us through the communion today. Let us share that communion in faith. Amen.

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