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Inalienable Worthiness – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith Nelson

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

“We are useless slaves; we have done no more than our duty.”
“Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds awake when he comes.”
“Well done, good and trustworthy slave. Enter into the joy of your master.”
“Anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave.”

Slavery is impossible to avoid in the pages of the New Testament, as we see from a small sampling of well-known passages.This morning’s passage from Luke comes from a collection of four seemingly unrelated sayings addressed to his disciples. The apostles interrupt Jesus in the midst of this discourse with the request, “Increase our faith.” He replies with words clearly addressed to men who either are slaveholders or are former slaveholders, describing a normative domestic and social custom regarding treatment of slaves.That word in Greek, douloi, though sometimes translated as “servants,” unambiguously refers to a class of people legally owned by other people for the purpose of manual labor. Jesus’ use of this particular example is predicated on the utter, daily familiarity of this institution.But into this totally mundane recap of an average work day in ancient Palestine, Jesus inserts a reversal, as unexpected as a mulberry tree rooted in the ocean: the slave-owning listener is made to identify with the slave as an analogy for his own relationship with God.

Did the apostles own slaves? It seems unlikely that those who had been poor fishermen would have been slave-owners, but other apostles may have owned slaves at some prior point in their lives, or had slaves in their extended family households. We don’t know for sure. And while Jesus’parables frequently feature slaves, the gospel record of daily interactions between Jesus, the disciplesand others rarely mentions slaves as characters in their own right. Like women, they usually go unnamed or are identified by association with male heads of households. They are ubiquitous but invisible unless they are immediately relevant to the narrative. Slavery in the ancient world was an institution so pervasive, so widely accepted and so foundational to the existing social order that few people had enough conceptual distance from it to even question its morality, let alone its spiritual legitimacy.

While the apostles were subjects of Roman occupation like other Jews, they were at least free men. This legal freedom would have endowed their experience of daily life, especially their labor, with at least some measure of social worth and dignity. They would have been paid or compensated for it, and recognized as managers of their own households. The apostles have each undertaken a grave risk by laying aside a life of relative freedom and social recognition to follow an itinerant wisdom teacher all over Galilee and Judea. This Teacher frequently identifies himself with slaves, and is now asking them to do the same in no uncertain terms. He commands them: “When you have done all that you were commanded to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves. We have done only what we ought to have done.’”

Hearing these words probably made them as uncomfortable as it makes us. Up until now, perhaps the apostles had felt that their practice of virtue, their regular and devoted prayer, their total renunciation of property, family, and social standing were somehow justly earning God’s love and recognition. In this moment, any remaining pretensions that these very real sacrifices were automatically ensuring extra credit with God would have been painfully deflated. In that painful, precarious, totally dependent place, it is likely that they felt like slaves. They had asked “Lord, increase our faith.” In painful, precarious, radical dependence – and what human being does not, ultimately, match this description – they will receive their request. If they are to continue as Jesus’ followers, faith is the only option.

My own initial discomfort with this passage honed in on a single word: “worthless.” The footnotes in my New Jerusalem Bible, usually a source of great illumination and consolation, made things worse! They read: “This adjective hardly fits the context, since the accent is on the state of service itself, but ‘useless’ is the literal (and traditional) translation of the Greek.” What could Jesus have possibly intended his followers to gain by considering themselves useless slaves before God? The good news I hear in this passage is buried deep within this difficult question.

Jesus has described a daily situation with its accepted behavioral conventions, as he keenly observed them in the world around him. He does not evaluate or judge that situation, those assumptions or conventions in that moment of teacher-student encounter, however painfully we may wish he would condemn them. He takes at face value his listeners’ basic context, including their slave-holding or former slave-holding. But in that short turn of phrase – “so with you”—worthy and useful people who desire to increase the faith they believe they have become slaves before God– entities with no position or standing apart from their owner, entitled to nothing, not even their own bodies. Now, the Jesus I have come to know is an unusually perceptive judge of human nature. I believe that Jesus here perceives that it is impossible for a person who has owned another person as a slave not to absorb a subtle attitude of superiority – and an attitude of worthiness before humanity and before God that is founded entirely on the wrong basis. For such a person as that, the spiritual antidote to the pretense that they are more worthy than others is to stand before God and say, “I am a worthless slave. By giving you my whole self, I am giving You nothing more than what is already yours. Serving, rather than earning, is now my calling.” These words are a prescription for a specific kind of spiritual healing rather than a description of our situation from the perspective of God’s reality. They offer skillful training for a new posture of humility. They are like slow-release medicine for distorted self-worth. Jesus died the cruel and humiliating death of a slave or prisoner and performed the menial labor assigned only to the lowest slaves in washing the disciple’s feet. In reply to our authentic and humble surrender, the God revealed to us in Jesus will always reply: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. Enter into the joy of your master.”

At the heart of all of this is our living understanding of our personal worth, usefulness, or dignity. Do we feel worthy, dignified and endowed with purpose at our core? Or do we feel unworthy and useless? On what foundation are such self-understandings built?  Some of us have been enslaved or dominated by the will of powerful people or institutions. We may be victims of racism or classism, ageism, sexism, or heterosexism. If so, physical, verbal or psychological abuse has warped our life history and the false story “I am not worthy” has been planted deep. When such a false story has been bequeathed to us by our religious upbringing,the effects can be devastating for our relationship with God. False penitence—our own or that of others—singles us out as terminally blameworthy and spiritually deficient. If this has been your experience, saying to God, “I am a worthless slave” is not the right prescription! Genuine penitencegives voice to our feelings of guilt at our estrangement from — “those things of which our conscience is afraid”—but accepts the foundational truth that, while personal and collective sin is inevitable, it cannot displace our inalienable worthiness in Christ. By our creation we are made in God’s image. By the journey of deepening grace initiated at our Baptism, the likeness of Christ is restored to us day by day. No one who chooses it is disqualified from this sanctifying pilgrimage into the heart of God and our own true humanity. In light of that truth, we could adapt this morning’s collect and pray that God “give us those good things for which we have been made worthy to ask through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior.”

I confess that I am still on a journey toward accepting my inalienable worthiness in Christ. I am learning that this conscious experience of worth before God is essential for living in a world that often sees a vocation to monastic life as worthless or useless. Paul’s words are a great inspiration in such moments: “I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust.” The Christian vocation — whether lived within in a monastery or outside it – is to live as slaves of Christ: to live wholeheartedly and completely for Christ, utterly convinced of our worth and freedom in Him, open to how God will use us or not use us. Then our pure being itself will be of more use in God’s kingdom than any amount of useful activity performed in our own strength.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Eben Carsey on August 12, 2017 at 19:21

    Dear Brother Keith, thank you for this beautiful sermon. I, too, and I dare say many in our culture are on the journey of deeply accepting my worthiness, the same journey as that of deeply realizing the true source of my worthiness. I very much tend to question my worthiness and to see it as the key to being included in Love. Thankfully, however, I am coming to see that it is not worthiness–physical, intellectual, social, professional, financial, or even spiritual–that secures my place in Love but Love that makes me worthy of being secure with Christ in God.

  2. Richard on October 6, 2016 at 16:50

    Most Dear Brother Nelson…I don’t often comment as it for me to listen and to absorb as much of what I read as I am able. But, here I am most taken with your philosophical point in this sermon and cannot resist making a comment. The last paragraph especially, the closing two sentences registers with me most, particulary in light of the political climate going of our country at the moment. GOP candidates Donald Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, would do well to read the entire sermon. I wonder how either man, Trump whom I do not see as a Christian at all and Pence, the evangelical Christian, I wonder how either would ever be able to leave their “self” to “…live wholeheartedly and completely for Christ.” These two men scare the dickens out of me!

    • Meredith on October 8, 2016 at 07:20

      Amen!

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