Someone needs to write a book about the excuses that Highway Patrol officers hear when they pull over someone for speeding. My friend got pulled over for speeding once. When the officer got to her car she looked at him with panic in her eyes and blurted out, “Officer, I have to got the bathroom!” She got off.
Not so for the Dean of my seminary. When he was stopped, he handed over his driver’s license asking, “Do you give clergy discounts?” (I’m going to remember that one.)
Here’s one that worked. When the officer asked the driver, “What’s the hurry?” The speeder replied, “I’ve got to beat my wife home. Don’t ask.”
Speaking of excuses, did you catch the clever excuse the disciples used in this morning’s Gospel passage. Jesus was teaching his disciples. Now, you throw 12 guys together for three years – day in and day out – there’s going to be a little friction from time to time. So he told them: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, I repent, forgive him.”
And their response is NOT, “Yes Lord, we’ll do it.” No! Their response is: “Lord, increase our faith!” It’s an excuse! The unstated message is: ”YOU need to give US more faith.” It’s God’s fault, not theirs.
What’s Jesus’ response? He says, “Boys. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.’” In other words, Faith is not what is lacking here.
Mustard seeds are very small. So we tend to hear this Jesus speaking about a quantity of faith that is need. It’s not about how much faith you have. The apostles don’t need more faith. What they lacked was heart. The apostles didn’t have a servant’s heart. You can have all the faith in the world, but without a servant’s heart, you’re not going to accomplish much for God.
That said, Jesus’ parable is kind of hard to warm up to. There’s no heroic figure like the Good Samaritan. It doesn’t tug at our heartstrings like the Prodigal Son. This parable is more prosaic. It’s about “your servant.” He labors long hours in the field. And then after a long day’s work, he is expected to fix dinner for his master before having anything to eat himself. As prosaic as it might sound, this parable illustrates the kind of servant’s heart that Jesus commends.
First, a servant is satisfied doing the ordinary for his master. There’s kind of a romantic, adventurous view of being the Lord’s disciple. To give my life for Christ, to pour myself out for others. Francis of Assisi gave up everything – literally stripped himself of the clothes that his father provided him – and began his ministry. Mother Teresa cared for India’s poorest.
I knew young priest who came out of seminary willing to be a martyred for the Lord. Twenty years have gone by and today he’s divorced and working as a landscaper. But is God calling his disciples to do big and bold things?
Look at the parable. Jesus begins saying, “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep? Plowing or tending sheep is entry level work AND at minimum wage. Doing the Lord’s work isn’t necessarily glorious and romantic. It can be as simple or mundane as entry level work.
It could be taking someone to Fresno for an appointment. It’s writing a note to someone who needs some encouragement. It’s helping out with a ministry like Martha’s Market or teaching Godz Kidz. It’s giving time to Helping Hands or Manna House.
Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love day in and day out. Because a servant is satisfied doing the ordinary things.
Second, a servant humbly fulfills His Master’s expectation. Jesus asks his disciples three rhetorical questions: “And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come at once and sit down to eat’?” “But will he not rather say to him, “Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’?” “Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not.”
We live in a world of labor unions and 40-hour work weeks. Most corporations have HR departments to ensure governmental compliance with labor laws. So this part of Jesus’ parable might seem heartless to us. After a long hard day in the field, a servant surely has earned the right to a little appreciation and some comfort. But Jesus builds on the prevailing customs of his times. A servant coming in after working in the field all day would not expect his master to say, “Sit down and take a load off while I get you dinner.” Just the opposite. That servant would first prepare the master’s meal and wait on him. When the master was finished, then the servant could eat.
Jesus did not comment on the relationship, He neither approved it nor condemned it. It was just the way things were. And it illustrated true servant hood.
The closest analogy we would have to day is the relationship between the corporal and the general. The corporal expects no thanks from his general. He understands his role as a corporal and he’s just fulfilling his duty. A servant humbly fulfills His Master’s expectation.
Third, a servant knows no entitlement.
Doing the right thing without being praised or rewarded brings a kind of satisfaction of its own. One man, call him Jake, tells of the early days of his marriage when there was a little friction between him and his wife – Melinda. You see, Jake assumed that Melinda would do all the housework, even though they both had full-time jobs outside the home. After several confrontations about this, he finally realized he’d been unreasonable, and so he decided to help out. The first thing he tackled was the kitchen; He did all the dishes, He wiped down all the counters. He swept and mopped the floor.
Then he waited for Melinda to come home. He looked forward to see how pleased Melinda would be with him. He would just smile and enjoy her praise. But that’s not what happened.
When she did come home, Melinda hung up her coat and put her purse in the bedroom. She went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. If she noticed all the work Jake had done, she didn’t say anything. Jake kept waiting for some kind of recognition. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer. “Did you see I cleaned up the kitchen?” “Yes,” she said.
He waited, but Melinda had nothing more to say. “Well, don’t you appreciate it?” “I’m glad you’ve done the work,” she said, “but we both live in the house. Keeping it clean is just part of our responsibilities. I’ve never been thanked for all the housework I’ve done, and I don’t expect to be. Why should either of us be thanked for doing what’s necessary to live decently?”
Jake got the point. Enough so, that he kept doing a share of the housecleaning. And, even though he never particularly enjoyed the work, he began to take a certain satisfaction in keeping the home reasonably tidy.
Jesus says, “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.”
We are God’s servants. Or to make it even more politically incorrect, we are God’s “slaves.” Slaves have no rights. The Pharisees argued that their good works earned them a claim upon God for due reward. But can anyone put God in debt? God owns us because he created us. But even more, God paid to redeem us from sin, so he owns us twice.
Let me suggest a concept closer to home. By April 15th next year you will be expected to fill out an income tax form and submit it along with all the supporting facts and figures. Along with this form you will be expected to send a check for any additional taxes that you might owe. It’s a lot of work and a lot of expense to prepare tax forms, maintain tax records, and fork over that check each year. Now, do you really expect a call from the IRS thanking you for your work? Of course not. Paying our taxes is our duty.We expect no thanks, but we can expect punishment if we don’t pay those taxes. So it is: a servant of God knows no entitlement.
Finally, a servant understands that his master may reward faithfulness . .. . . but not because he has to. . . because he chooses to. God owes you nothing, but God intends to reward you richly.Paul wrote of a crown of righteousness, (2 Tim. 4:8) which would be awarded to the faithful. Peter wrote of a crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4). And John recorded Jesus’ promise that he would bring his reward with him when he comes, “Behold I come quickly and my reward is with me.” (Rev. 22:12).
Jesus had a little problem with his disciples. They were more interested in making excuses than they were in following their teacher. They didn’t need more faith, they needed a servant’s heart.
Walking with the Lord will test your heart. Are you God’s boss or his servant?
Last week, I read a story in the paper of one of God’s servants who had a faith crises.His name is Andrew Brunson. Andrew grew up in a missionary family and knew at a young age that he too was called to the mission field. So after graduating from Wheaton, he and his wife set off for the mission field in Istanbul.
They started a church in the red-light district. And that that church grew, surrounded by transsexual prostitutes soliciting from nearby balconies. But the church members treated their neighbors with respect. And those neighbors kept an eye out for the church during the night while they plied their trade. So those prostitutes would look after the church, because they’re up all night.
In 2016, the Turkish President Erdogan clamped down after an attempted coup. Brunson was arrested, even though he had nothing to do with the politics of the country. The government figured they could use Brunson to extract benefits from the U.S. Iran had done it a few years earlier.
Now we hear stories of Peter and Paul’s imprisonments and how God miraculously freed them. But I was struck what goes through the mind of a modern-day servant of God who is imprisoned for his faith. Brunson says that he was in a high security prison. The conditions were squalid. But the torture for him was uncertainty. Would he be released the next day, or would he be held for the rest of his life?
He wasn’t singing in prison like Peter did. Instead, He cried a lot and he lost 50 pounds. He was overcome with stress and anxiety. It didn’t help that he shared his cell with devout Muslims who considered him to be an infidel. He says that they made the shared cell more intense than a mosque.
There’s a certain expectation that, if you’re doing the Lord’s work, he’s going to step in and rescue you. Brunson says that in these circumstances, he expected a supernatural sense of God’s presence. When I didn’t get that, it really shocked him. God was not living up to the servant’s expectations.
It caused him to experience a real crises in his faith/ He wondered if God had abandoned him. Hear his words: “With this sense of being abandoned by God, and in this very, spiritual environment of Islam, am I going to be able to hold on?” Brunson was afraid of losing his mind. But more than that, he was afraid of losing his faith.
Then Brunson stopped to rethink his situation. He realized that he needed to fight for his faith because if he lost his faith, he would lose everything in life. He stopped looking to God as his servant. He stopped expecting God to act according to his terms.Instead, adopted a servant’s outlook. He would discipline himself to wait on God with joy. He would focus on enduring in his circumstance.
The apostles sang praise songs in prison. Brunson would start dancing – regularly. Even if he didn’t feel like dancing, he danced. He says it was more a discipline than a joy at first. It took time but the experience gave him a new confidence took him into a deeper intimacy.”
And then things began to change. Brunson couldn’t have known what was going on behind the scenes half way across the world in Washington D.C. A new President in the White House was going to make Brunson’s imprisonment a cause célèbre. The President personally raised the case when Mr. Erdogan visited Washington in May 2017. That’s when Mr. Brunson began to see himself on television in his cell.
Later that year, the Turkish government subjected him to show trials. They trumped up testimony from convicts looking for a deal and former disgruntled church members. They were testing America’s resolve. Brunson was brought to his final court appearance. He gave up trying to defend himself. In his defense, he just told the court: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.” They were the words of a faithful servant.The Trump administration hung tough with Erdogen and Turkey finally released the pastor to return to the U.S.
Brunson bears some scars from the ordeal. That happens when you are on the front lines for truth. He has nightmares about prison and bouts of depression. But he sees God’s hand in the experience. You see, God had spoken to him years ago saying: ‘Prepare for harvest.” He believes his ordeal was part of God’s plan to raise up millions of people around the world who would pray for him. And, by praying for him, God would be using him as a magnet to draw prayer into Turkey. That’s a servant’s heart.
In his inaugural speech, President Kennedy challenged America saying: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. It’s not unlike the message from today’s Gospel. Ask not what God can do for you; ask what you can do for the Master.
We all face challenges in life. And we might feel powerless to fix the situation and wonder “where’s God?” When the challenge comes, it’s not faith you’re lacking. Jesus tells us we have all the faith we need.
When the challenge comes, face it with a servant’s heart – eager to please the master. Find a way to dance with a servant’s heart focused on the master. Find a way to sing to God.
It will be a discipline at first. It will go against everything our culture teaches. It will go against everything you’re feeling. But do whatever you can to face the challenge with a servant’s heart. Turn the focus back on the Master. And just keep dancing.