Sunday, October 6, 2013

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Habakuk 1:2-3 2:2-4;  2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-10

I don’t know about you,
but there is something about our Gospel reading
that has always bothered me.
After all that we have heard from Jesus in the past few weeks
about those who exalt themselves being humbled,
there seems something a bit off when we hear in today’s Gospel
about the master who expects his servants,
who have been humbling themselves all day long,
to serve him his dinner and only eat later,
and then proclaim themselves to be “unprofitable servants.”
While servants abasing themselves before their masters
and the masters hardly giving it a thought
might conform to the expectations of Jesus’s time and place,
we have come to expect something different from Jesus:
a radical overturning of those sorts of expectations.
It all seems a bit too conventional, a bit too Downton Abbey,
to be coming from the lips of the radical Jesus.

But perhaps Jesus is getting at something here
that is even more radical.
Though Jesus draws an analogy between service to God
and service to a human master,
perhaps we ought to focus on how service to God
is different from service to a human master.
Part of what makes a TV show like Downton Abbey fascinating,
even for us Americans,
is the way in which the “masters” of the manor
are so thoroughly dependent upon the servants:
Lord and Lady Grantham seem to be incapable
of even dressing and feeding themselves.
Their servants are hardly “unprofitable”;
indeed, it is the labor of the servants that makes possible
the manor’s elegant dinners
and hunting expeditions
and garden parties
and it would be simply a polite fiction
for them to declare themselves unprofitable,
when in fact their work is highly profitable
for the lord and lady of the manor.
The servants themselves, however, profit little,
except occasionally to bask in the reflected glory
of the glittering, though fragile, splendor of life in the manor.

This seems often, maybe always, to be the case
in the relationship between human masters and servants.
Things are different, however, with the servants of God.
Whatever service we offer to God truly is unprofitable,
inasmuch as we do not gain for God any benefit
that God does not already possess.
Indeed, our service of God does not produce anything
that God has not already bestowed on us;
everything we have that we might give to God in service
is itself already God’s gift to us,
and in giving it back to God
we truly are only doing what we are obligated by justice to do.
Unlike Lord and Lady Grantham,
God doesn’t need our – or anybody’s – service.

Of course, we want our service to matter to God.
And it does matter to God, because we matter to God.
It does not matter because God needs our service,
but because we need to serve God in order to be happy,
and God’s deepest desire is for us to be happy.
If we look around the world today,
whether the squabbling in Washington,
or the murderous violence in Syria,
or even the turmoil within our own hearts,
it can be pretty hard to believe that true happiness is possible;
it certainly seems to be something
that is beyond our power to achieve.
And this is why it is in fact good news
that we are unprofitable servants.
The vision of our world and ourselves transformed
is not something that depends on our unprofitable efforts,
but upon the promise of the God
who desires our eternal happiness.
As our first reading exhorts us,
if fulfillment of this vision is delayed,
we should wait for it,
because our salvation is not
something we earn by our service
but simply a gift from the God whom we serve.

To have faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed,
is to believe that the world of strife and clamorous discord
will be transformed into a world of love and harmonious peace.
To have faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed,
is to believe that this vision of a world transformed,
of ourselves transformed,
is a vision that still has its time,
a vision that presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint.
To have faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed,
is to believe that we, unprofitable servants, will one day shine,
not with the fragile and passing glory
of the earthly city of human lords and ladies,
but with the eternal glory of the heavenly city
of the Lord our God.
It will come as a gift, and it will not be late.
If it delays, wait for it,
for it will surely come.

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