s194g01 Sunday 27 7/10/01
"We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done" Luke 17.10
One of the less agreeable aspects of Christianity is the propensity for us to make a virtue of putting ourselves down. I vividly recall some years ago a triple certificated nursing sister, a friend, who attended worship once. She was not a regular attender. After the service she said to me: "Do you realise that you put yourself down three times during that sermon!" And we Anglicans have made it an art form, with the beloved "wee donut", the prayer: "We do not presume ..."
I still find it difficult, when I am (on the odd occasion) in the congregation, to stand for the prayer of consecration. I always kneel; but perhaps that's not just because I'm recalcitrant. After all every time I celebrate, I am standing at the altar. I actually get little practice in kneeling, so it's nice to do it sometimes.
As I have said before, F L Cross (in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church p1323) notes in an article for St Ignatius: "The substitution of Sunday for the Sabbath was the commemoration of the Resurrection ... which gives the day it's joyful character; thus there is to be no fasting or kneeling on this day." - not even during Lent!
Somehow we have got it into our psyche that God likes suitably humble people much more than those who use their initiative.
I have long since expunged the petition in the "old service" that the confession should be said with the people "meekly kneeling upon their knees". It seems as inappropriate to exclude those who can't kneel, meekly or otherwise, as it is to exclude (by implication) women in the economy of salvation, saying "If any MAN sin, we have an advocate with the Father ..." 1 Jn 2.1 (BCP).
What are we to make of these words: "We are worthless slaves"? Does Jesus want us to be forever berating ourselves? In the words of Psalm 51.17: "The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." Are we to express our Christianity by endlessly berating ourselves?
This is one of the reasons I am not at all keen to include a portion of the psalms between the Old Testament and New Testament lessons during the services. This would be to exalt the psalter to an importance above even the gospels, to have a lesson from that one book each week. Even the gospel comes from one or other of Matthew, Mark Luke or John. I rather like the sentiments of St Ignatius of Antioch who says: "We are fond of the prophets, and they did indeed point forward to Him in their preaching; yet it is the gospel that sets the coping - stone on man's immortality." (ad Philadelphians 9 quoted from "Early Christian Writings" p114 ed Baldick and Radice Penguin Classics).
I have said before: I have no doubt whatsoever that God's way of having the kingdom advanced is not that all those Jesus died and rose again for, are now meant to become doormats for the unrighteous - doing just whatever they ask when they ask it. As the old joke goes, when they ask us to jump, we reply "how high?".
Right throughout the Bible humanity falls in prostration before the divine, and each time he or she is lifted up. People are not left to grovel at the feet of God. It is we who feel we must, but God always lifts us up. We as humans were made by God to stand upright.
But I think it means a little more than this. As I am want to remark occasionally :-) Jesus sat down and ate with sinners, and in doing so he accepted their contributions and made them feel worthy. So the whole of the ministry of Jesus was about him going about making others feel worthy by accepting their offerings. This was his prime objective - to raise the self esteem of the people with whom he came in contact.
So we are bidden to do likewise, and to see that our task is to make others feel worthy. When we concentrate on our ministry, and what we are going to do for other people, how we are going to help them, so often it is our egos which are being boosted, rather than those other people.
So, yes, we are "unworthy servants" but not in the sense that we put ourselves down as less worthy than others. One of the lovely sentiments I hear said to me is when someone is sick. People often say they don't worry, because there are so many worse off than them. It is a lovely sentiment, and I am sure it brings much comfort in times of great distress and pain. Yet God loves all, and God wants all to know of that love - not just those more in need or more worthy ...
We are unworthy, because our worth is not what we are focussing on. We are forever focussing on raising the self esteem of others.
How often has the Church been viewed as trying to raise the esteem people have of the Church? In the past it was thought that people would go to hell if they didn't conform. But even now we focus often on changing people's lifestyles or teaching them about the nature of Christianity. Both of these still assume that we have something worthy to pass on to others. So we have to wait for others to realise that we have something of worth that they don't, and that they want that thing of worth before there is any use offering it ... I think the real question is when are we, as the Church, going to see the worth in other people, just as they are - to see how they can contribute to our lives.
I think personally it is also a 'cop-out' to suggest that, yes we are not worthy, saying: that of course, our worth comes from outside ourselves ... God has made us worthy.
St Paul himself goes to some lengths to make the point that Jesus died for us irrespective of any merit on our behalf: "While we were still weak ... Christ died for the ungodly ... while we still were sinners Christ died for us ... while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son ... (Romans 5:6-10)
St Paul continues to know his own weakness and his writings are littered with examples of how he used his weakness as the cornerstone of his own proclamation of the gospel. So he says: "I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. (1 Co 2:3). He makes the same point: "I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved." (1 Co 10:33). And "We rejoice when we are weak and you are strong." (2 Co 13:9).
So when Timothy is told: "to rekindle the gift of God that is within you ... for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Tim 1:6-7) - that is couched in terms of suffering (vs 8,12) which goes hand in hand with the proclamation. It is not that if we proclaim boldly people will object and persecute us, but that our proclamation is not of our worth, the worth of the Church or even of God's worth - but of other people's worth.
The saying of Jesus: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (Mat 7:21) is the ultimate rebuke to those who might think our personal relationship with Jesus is the important thing (magnifying ourselves). No, the important thing is that we do the will of our Father, as Jesus did the will of the same Father, and sat down and ate with sinners trying to raise their self esteem.
Indeed our faith is that we see God in others, others who are different from us. When we do have faith like this, we will find the truth of the saying: "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you." (Luke 17:6).
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