Useless Servants! Put On Your Aprons!

A couple of weeks ago, the readings for the liturgy for one of the ordinary Sundays late in the year were powerful and contained what I refer to as a love-hate reading. This is the piece from Luke’s gospel when the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith and he tells them that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed they could command a tree to uproot itself (some say sycamore, others a mulberry tree) and plant itself in the ocean and it would obey! And then he continues with a seemingly disconnected parable of a master and servant.

Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” Luke 17:5-10

As I proclaimed those lines and began to preach I could see people cringing and grimacing at this piece of “good news.” I have struggled with this reading often wondering over its meaning and this time, a glimmer of insight was given. It has to do with the aprons! Yes, the aprons!

A friend I met who worked as a lay missionary in the Altiplano of Peru for more than nine years was my guide and traveling companion into La Paz, Bolivia and by bus through the country, across Lake Titicaca and into Puno, Peru. It was a bitter-sweet time for her an d her family because after nearly a decade they were leaving to take their son home to spend time with his grandparents and they were reluctant to leave, even with their plans to return in a couple of years. As I was getting acclimated and doing some teaching, she was trying to say goodbye to the communities she had worked with and served for so long. These communities were primarily Aymara and Quecha women setting up health care clinics dealing with basic hygiene, birth and care of themselves and their children. And she was given an apron as a gift of thanks and appreciation. I remember laughing and she laughed through her tears…neither of us owned an apron! But the gift meant so much—the women who wore aprons were those who had both served their people for long years and were trusted and respected. They had been given the right to belong to the people and to speak on their behalf. She was made one of them. Her service has drawn her inside the people, and given her the permission to speak to them as one of them. It was the most intimate and grateful gift they could give.

It was that apron that sprung the lock to the reading of the master speaking about his servant and what was expected of someone who had worked all day, tending sheep and plowing the fields—which of course are the works that bring the kingdom of peace with abiding justice upon the earth—planting/harvesting food and providing meat, milk, clothing and keeping the community together. And after the work, comes the responsibility and honor of serving the master at the table. The word servant is one that describes the role of the deacon at table, and among the people. The apron is almost the same word/symbol for a surplice—not the exquisite lacey ones worn at high masses but the serviceable sturdy aprons of those who work hard serving others and binding the community together.

As the year winds down and we begin to experience fall in the weather and trees, the smells of crisp air, smoke, fresh apples and the harvested fields, it is time for us to fall gracefully, and to harvest the year that has gone before—and prepare for a reckoning and a turning into another year. Has 2004 been a year that could have the letters AD (anno dominum) the year that belonged to the Lord written after them, truthfully, or was it like any other year in the world, rife with destruction, human misery, war and violence? And this was the first reading of the Sunday from the prophet Habakkuk, crying out, lamenting the state of affairs in the world.

How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen!
I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene.
Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery?
Destruction and violence are before me;
There is strife, and clamorous discord. Habk. 1:2-3

Seems the world hasn’t changed much in all these passing centuries. Today we list the casualties, excuse me ‘collateral damage’ in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Palestine and Israel and so many other places where the innocent are butchered in the name of a cause, a group or a god. But the Lord answers the prophet and the reply is staggering in its hope! “Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision has its time, presses onto fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.” We are reminded and heartened once again, we are the people of the vision: the vision of abiding peace, sustained by justice for all the earth. We gather weekly to keep the vision alive and to push one another towards making the vision a reality in the world, if only in pockets and small places of refuge and sanctuary among us and in the places where it is most needed, in communities of resistance, no harm and compassion.

And the last line of the Word of the Lord is the judgment and it is point-blank clear. “The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of faith, shall live.” There are only two kinds of people in the world, it seems: the rash and the just. And you can see clearly who is who—by what is left behind in their wake of words/decisions and actions. There is either, violence, ruin, misery, destruction, strife and clamorous discord or there is peace with abiding justice for all. And it was on this Sunday in Washington, D.C. that believers in the vision gathered to protest the war in Iraq and the war at home against anyone who might look like hope. And many of those that marched that day were the families of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, crying out like the prophet Habakkuk: “How long, O Lord?”

The responsorial psalm for the day echoed a refrain that cut to the quick of the heart: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Ps. 95 And as always, it was a command in the plural for we hear his voice and respond or refuse to repent and act with grace, primarily as a community, with others. This day, Sunday’s worship is not a private affair, but a public accounting, a renewal of our baptismal commitments to witness to the world what is the truth, according to God’s vision about our world today. And fittingly enough the second reading, from Paul’s letter to Timothy exhorting him and all of us to use the strength of the Spirit given to us to stand up for what needs to be said and with those who need a shoulder to lean against or a heart that listens. This Spirit of God is one of courage and power, of self-control and love. And we are all given realistic counsel: “bear your share of the hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” (2 Tim. 1:8) We’re not to be surprised when others resent our words and presence, and resist what we try to add to the discussions or the decisions about politics, economics and morality.

So I quoted a contemporary prophet Giovanni Lajolo who was speaking on behalf of John Paul II, as a Vatican official at the United Nations, September 30, 2004, reminding the gathered delegates of the Holy See’s opposition to the US led military intervention in Iraq and its dire consequences for that country, and around the world. He said: “The position of the Holy See concerning the military action of 2002-2204 is well known. Everyone can see that it did not lead to a safer world either inside or outside Iraq. Forgiveness, refusal to resort to violence—this clearly requires greater moral courage than the use of arms.” There was silence after the quote, the silence of truth.

And so we are back to the opening request of the disciples to Jesus: “Lord, increase our faith!” Our faith, like theirs is miniscule and yet even in a tiny seed there is power beyond reckoning for faith consists primarily in obedience to the Word of God. Even a small amount of obedience to the Word can uproot trees and transplant them in unlikely places. A dot, a speck of faith can unsettle a world, shift the course of history, and make the world lean towards justice. And we are called by our baptisms to be servants of the Word made flesh among us. We are to be about the work of plowing the fields, tending to the sheep, making peace, working the harvest of justice and keeping the world together. And of course, we’re not very good at being servants. We wince at the words and cringe at the idea of actually serving others, all others. We have a long way to go before we serve gratefully, honored that we have been given the vision and have been transplanted into the kindom of God. We still come to church on Sundays expecting God to wait on us and obey our every whim, instead of coming to heed the voice of God, take the vision to heart and wait on God, obey God and tend to those most in need—those who are the victims of the rash ones of the earth that bring misery and strife, violence and war among us.

As the year turns, we are exhorted again, that the Spirit can do what appears impossible, and use us to do it! The Spirit is given to stop the violence, to stop pre-emptive strikes and wars, bombings and the sale of bunker bombs to other countries, aggravating tensions. The Spirit is given to us to curb the greed and nationalism that is more a religion than the one we claim to practice and to stop using religion as a club on one another in house and on others. The Spirit is given to us to take up our cross and to bow to no sign power in our lives other than the power of the sign of the cross: the Trinity. This is what the gifts of the Spirit were given for this past year. This is faith. How did we do this year 2004? No wonder we turn long before the fiscal year turns and hope for Advent to come towards us again with God’s vision, God’s hopes for earth and humankind and God’s presence among us in the One who is Peace on earth to all who are of good will, who are obedient.

There is an old Jewish story about a man who was born into the mines and lived there below ground until he was in his twenties. Then one day the King’s attendant died and he was brought up from the mines and chosen to be the King’s attendant. Overnight his life was radically altered. He lived in sunlight, and ate and was clothed in fine garments and dwelled close to the king. The king and he became friends and so, in a short period of time he was not just the king’s personal servant, but friend, advisor and counselor, even given the keys to the king’s treasury. And so, in his fast rise to power and influence, he made enemies.

These enemies kept telling the king that he was being taken advantage of, and that the servant was stealing from him. Everyday he went into the treasury and locked himself into the vault with all the king’s jewels, gold and valuables, stayed there for about an hour and came out. They were sure that he was filling the hidden pockets of his long vest and garments with jewels. The king refused to believe them, but finally he had a hole drilled in the wall of the safe so that he could spy on his servant-friend and see what he was doing in his treasure house. He watched and the man entered, locked the door and took out a bundle from inside the safe area…he took off his garments and redressed in the clothes that he had worn when he came from the mines. He lit a candle and began to pray. “O Lord, help me remember that I am your servant only. I may be the king’s servant and have more power than I ever imagined but it is you alone that I serve.” And he prayed like this for nearly an hour. Then he undressed and put back on his fine garments, wrapped the old ragged ones up in a bundle and placed them back in the safe. He pulled himself together, unlocked the door and walked out into the corridor. The king was waiting for him there. And it was the king who bowed low before his servant and spoke to him: “My servant-friend, my court has warned me repeatedly that you are a thief and that you spend your days stealing from me and I did not believe them. But you are a thief! You have stolen my heart! You have reminded me as no one else ever has that though I may be the king, before God I am only his worthless and useless servant and that is what I will be judged as when I stand before God. Please, you must promise me that you will remind me of this always so that I too will serve God alone.”

This is the story of the servant who lived in such a way that he stole others’ hearts to return them to God. Do we live in such a way that we too are about the work of stealing hearts and waiting on God? It’s time to turn again, as the year closes, and to ask one another if we are truly servants, prophets and those sealed with the power of the Spirit of truth, courage and love? Come! It’s time to put on your aprons/your surplices and wait at table! Yes, your aprons, and tie one another to God and have a great feast of peace. May this year 2004-2005 still be a year of favor from our God. Amen.

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