Sermon 7 August 2016

Do not be afraid.

It is no secret around here that I grew up in a culture where it was normal to have servants. In fact even the servants had servants and there was a kind of endless pecking order. I think I am supposed to feel guilty for growing up in such a decadent world but I do not. I sometimes feel guilty that we didn’t treat our servants with the kind of respect they deserved and we could certainly have made their conditions of life better without cost to ourselves but I realise from today’s Gospel that actually our servants had quite a cushy time. The garden boys stopped work at 5.00 pm and the cook went home at 8.00.

Jesus today tells us of a different kind of servant who didn’t go home at any time. They had to stay at the door, ready to open it whatever time the master got home. They were, of course, slaves. They had no rights, no choice whether to work or not and they had to be ready for the master whatever time he came home, ready not just to open the door but to offer him a meal, or another drink, or anything else he wanted. It is rather shocking, when you think of it, that Jesus compares us to them. “You must be like men, waiting for the master to come home from the marriage feast….Blessed are those slaves, who are found waiting when the master knocks.” That’s us, waiting constantly for the moment the master knocks.

Now in theory that is not as bad as it seems. Our master is Jesus. He is a good master. He won’t come in drunk; he won’t beat us up just because he is feeling annoyed. He won’t make unreasonable demands on us. Or will he? The fact that some of us are sitting here, vowed to a most extraordinary life  - a life most people would think quite unreasonable suggests that Jesus does make unreasonable demands on us but we are persuaded to accept them. If we are honest, most of us will admit that there are times we don’t wait for the next demand Jesus will make with a very good grace. That’s not just us in the religious life but really everyone who is Christian. We learn a certain kind of deafness which doesn’t hear the knocking at the door. We stay away from the door where we know Jesus may want to come in. We learn not to look too carefully at the places where he might already be working, inviting us to work with him. Discernment for us in the Christian life means learning to see where Jesus is so that we can join him; learning to hear when he is speaking so we can obey him. Most of us know that these invitations to work with Jesus don’t always look very attractive at first. Usually they turn out alright, if we’ve got it right but at first they can look very unattractive and much better to be avoided.

Another disconcerting insight from our identification with slaves is that we have no rights. Slaves had to do what the master told them to do. They could not claim days off, time off, special considerations in the kind of work they did or anything like that. Nor can we as Christians. We do, of course. Much of our sin is to do with claiming time for ourselves, refusing to do what we are asked, insisting we have rights against God, although we may not put it like that. Christian life is a process of giving up those rights, learning total obedience and discovering that this is not a way of misery and imprisonment but a way of freedom and true selfhood. The more completely we serve Christ the more we are free; the more we are truly ourselves.

If that seems paradoxical how much more paradoxical is the Gospel we have just heard. Jesus tells us of the servants who wait up all night for the master to come home and when he does come and find them waiting he insists on serving them. Even in our egalitarian society where servants are called staff and have contracts and good salaries, it would seem pretty odd if we suddenly insisted on serving them. In Rhodesia it was almost unthinkable that the master should serve the servants. In the world Jesus is describing it is not only unthinkable; it would be such a turn around of values for a master to wait on his slaves that one could expect the world to come to an end, which is exactly what Jesus did think. “I come to serve, not to be served”. Jesus was the slave who died a slave’s death on the cross. It is a new world in which the poor, the weak, the downtrodden are the blessed ones and we are called to serve them; in serving them we find our joy, we find this is what life is really about.

Today’s gospel began with the rather extraordinary saying: “Fear not little flock. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”. This is always a surprise. God wants to give us the kingdom for nothing. Most of us think we have to earn it. Most Christian preaching seems to suggest we must deserve it. Even our own lives seem to tell us that we have to work hard year after year if we are going to be worthy of the Kingdom. Even the language of slavery which I have been talking suggests a pretty unrelenting life of labour to gain entrance to the Kingdom. Then we find it isn’t so. God wants to give us the Kingdom for nothing. Indeed he has already done so. The whole point of Christianity is that the Kingdom has already started with the Resurrection of Jesus and we are inside it. We don’t have to battle to gain entrance but we do have to discover the new rules of the kingdom and live up to its demands. It is those demands which frighten us.

Jesus says “Fear not, little flock...” and well he might for he goes on to say “sell your possessions and give alms. Make for yourselves wallets that do not grow old, lay up treasure in heaven". As soon as we hear that we start feeling awkward. Does Jesus really mean it? We start saying quickly that of course he couldn’t mean it, except for a few saints like Antony of Egypt, or St Francis. He doesn’t mean it for us. Doesn’t he? Some of us may assure ourselves we have already given up all we have to be in CR and to work for the poor and the weak. CR has vast possessions. Should we sell those and give alms?

I’m not going to answer that question. I don’t actually know what the answer should be. If the Gospel simply makes us uncomfortable, makes us wonder if we’ve understood it all, it is probably doing its job.

“Don’t be afraid, little flock. The Father is delighted to give you the kingdom”. That’s the good news, the joy. We don’t need to be afraid. God is delighted to give us what we really want. How can we respond to him?


Nicolas Stebbing CR