What is a servant? We all know some pretty bad examples: There’s the British “Gawh, Guv’nah!” variety, the cocky, ignorant Cockney whose primary task seems to be accounting for the missing family silver.
Then there’s the Contemporary “Coffee Klatsch variety, who dwelleth in offices and liveth upon caffeine in the corner, taking as little responsibility for the actual work of the office as possible.
Whatever the race, age, or nationality, we tend to view ‘servants’ as being of a lower class (lower than ours, at least), with less education and motivation than the rest of us (that being you and me).
Servants have to be told what to do because they won’t take the initiative to act independently. Servants exist in order to serve my needs- which is to say that they don’t really exist at all. You can look right through the waiter pouring your water, continue with your conversation, act as if he isn’t there… because in a real sense, he isn’t. Unless, of course, I happen to want the water just then, and then he exists to fill my cup.
So… what’s the great honor of being called a ‘servant of God?’ Monday to Saturday, we act independently, responsibly, and decisively, running our lives and communities. But the minute we walk into a church, we’re suddenly reduced to mindless, non-motivated lackeys? Gawh, Guv’nah! I don’t think so!
And you and I both know that a ‘servant of God’ has nothing to do with those humiliating archetypes of servanthood. Listen to the words of Isaiah 42 again, as he describes the servant of God: (Isaiah 42:1,4-7)
“Behold My servant, whom I uphold, my Chosen in whom My soul delights; I have put My Spirit upon this servant, to bring forth justice to the nations. My servant will not fail or be discouraged till they have established justice in the earth; And the coastlands wait for the servant’s law. Thus says God, who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread forth the earth and what comes from it, Who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people; a light to the nations: to open the eyes that are blind; to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
- The servants of God are those called forth to help bring about God’s Realm of justice
- The servant of God has been chosen to strive with heart, soul, mind and strength against the powers of evil and oppression in the world.
- The servant of God makes history, initiates change, takes responsibility for God’s creation.
The servant of God does not hang around the coffee pot until lunch. When Scripture speaks of a servant, it speaks of someone who has been given authority to work creatively for their Master’s good.
It is a charge, a mandate, a gift: a power derived from One who is greater. In the Ancient Near East, the high ministers of state were called the ‘servants of the king’, meaning that the king entrusted them with the responsibility of maintaining and advancing the kingdom.
Rather than having to be told what to do all the time, the servants of the king is noted for their ability to take initiative, to think creatively and independently, to act with integrity. The king is dependent on those servants for their insight, wisdom, and ingenuity- because no one can run the Realm alone.
Not even a king.
The Gospel of Matthew tells a wonderful parable of what it is to be a good servant (Mt 25:23). It tells a story of a man who is going on a journey, and he calls his servants into him, and entrusts them with all his treasure: to one he entrusts 5 talents of gold; to the second he entrusts 2 talents of gold, and to the third he entrusts one talent of gold. Now, a talent was about 15 years’ wages. We’re talking big money.
As the story goes, the Master of the house goes away for a long time, and during that time, the servant with 5 talents takes initiative, invests it, and doubles the Master’s money. The second servant does the same: takes initiative, invests, and doubles the investment. The servant with one talent… gets nervous. Doesn’t want the responsibility. Instead, he takes his talent of gold and buries it until the Master’s return. When the Master returns home, he asks for an accounting.
First servant: I took a risk, but I doubled your treasure. Here’s the original 5 talents and 5 more. Master: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful in little, so I will make you responsible for even more. Enter into the joy of your master!”
Second servant: I took a risk, but I doubled your treasure. Here’s the original 2 talents and 2 more. Master: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful in little, so I will make you responsible for even more. Enter into the joy of your master!”
But the servant who just buried his talent got nailed for his fear, his lack of initiative, his unwillingness to get creative. Master: “You wicked and slothful servant! Cast him out into the darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth!”
The lesson? Servants who take initiative are respected. Creativity- responsibility- taking an idea and running with it for the good of the Realm: That’s what God is looking for in Servants.
Jesus said that the one who would be great among you must be the servant of all: The one who is willing to take responsibility for getting the work of the Kingdom done; The one who is willing to act creatively, seeking the Good of the Whole Realm: That’s who gets the “Well done, good and faithful servant” from God.
Servants: We are highly trusted, responsible, motivated people who are called by God, given authority by God to work for the good of the Kingdom.
So someone comes up to us and says, What gives you the right to lock arms and chant for the rights of transgender people when the government wants to eliminate their protections under the law? What gives you the right to lobby for free breakfasts for kids in this neighborhood? What gives you the right to stick up for refugees? What gives you the right to say, “This is what God requires of us”? And the answer to all these questions is: It’s not WHAT, it is WHO gives us authority. And that WHO is God.
Jesus, the servant of God- sometimes did perfectly outrageous things. Like knocking over tables in the Temple and throwing the moneychangers out. Like healing on the Sabbath, and forgiving sins, and raising the dead, and restoring prostitutes. Jesus worked independently, creatively, responsibly, usually bucking the system. And so the Pharisees came up to Jesus one day and demanded (rather nastily), “What gives you the right? Who gave you the authority to do these things?”
Jesus isn’t ruffled, In essence, He says, “Who do you think?” Jesus knows that He is doing God’s work. He doesn’t try to defend Himself or prove Himself, because at His baptism, God has already given Jesus the authority to do what he is doing.
Jesus had spent His whole life seeking God’s will, praying, submitting His will to God’s will, so that when the crunch came, and the servant had to take responsibility for His actions, Jesus was able to do so. Freely. Yes, I knocked over the moneychanger’s tables. Yes, I forgave sins and raised the dead. Yes, I touched the prostitute, and accepted her as my sister.
A person under authority- a servant- is responsible to only one Lord, and they work with initiative and courage. They keep the Big Picture in mind. What is needed to bring about a world of compassion, and justice and light as God has commissioned us to do? And when we do these things, sometimes we have to take their lumps in the world because of it.
The servant keeps the Big Picture in mind: What is needed to bring about God’s world of justice, of compassion, of healing, of light? What can I do to make my corner- the part of the world I’m responsible
Think of those who are the servants in our own little congregation- the people who take responsibility for the vision of this place without being asked. The people who get creative and take initiative without being called on the phone.
- Tom and Ron, working tirelessly to maintain our church;
- Tyler and Amanda, always showing up with food for our New Common Ground ministry;
- Kathy, working tirelessly to find creative ways to pay our bills;
- Peggy and the teachers, going out and finding good, free curriculum to teach our kids.
- Sue & Charlene, pulling together Family Promise every quarter.
- I know I’m missing lots of other folks; call out the name of someone in this church who works with creativity, initiative, and hard work…
These are God’s good and faithful servants. Look around you, and see the many good things that have been done. And then think of the people- the servants of God – who thought of it, and carried it through. In this community, we have the freedom to act with responsible creativity for the glory of God. We have the authority to make beautiful things, to touch people in love, to build people up and bring people in.
At Emmanuel, we have the right to make a difference… we have the responsibility to make a difference. Because at Emmanuel we are servants of God, under the authority of Christ.
Who gives us the authority? Jesus! Who gives us the power? Jesus! So go out into the world with a creative, and daring, and tender love. The world is waiting.
In the Name of the One who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Scripture for November 11, 2018
ISAIAH 42:1, 4-7
Here is My servant, whom I uphold; My chosen, in whom My soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon them; they will bring forth justice to the nations. They will not grow faint or be crushed until they have established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for their teaching. Thus says, God… “I am the Lord. I have called you in righteousness; I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, to bring from prison those who sit in darkness.”
MARK 10:42-45; 11:27-33
Jesus called His disciples, and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; among you, whoever wishes to be great must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” …Then, as Jesus was walking in the temple, the chief priests and elders came to Him and said, “By whose authority are you doing these things.” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer Me, and I will tell you by whose authority I act. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ then He will say, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘John came from human authority,’ the crowds will rise up against us since they think John was a prophet. So they answered, “We don’t know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by whose authority I am doing these things.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.