No Thanks

Luke 17

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Shortly after I arrived at Incarnation, the Bishop of New York came to install me formally as Rector. The installation took place on a weekday evening so that local clergy could attend. After the church service, a gala reception followed in our Assembly Hall and Parish House.

Everything went very well, and the next day I prepared an announcement to go in the Sunday leaflet to thank all the people who had worked on these events. I showed what I had written to my secretary – a venerable woman named Mrs. Morgan, Mrs. Morgan had been a church employee for years, and she had a very precise sense of how things should be done!

Mrs. Morgan felt that there was no need for the announcement to mention the members of the Incarnation staff who had worked on the service and reception. She said, rather tartly, “We never thank the staff; they get paid for what they do.”

I realized that Mrs. Morgan had a point. Jesus seems to display a similar attitude in the Gospel lesson for today. He remarks to his disciples, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?”

“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” Jesus assumes that the answer to that question is “No.” There was no need to shower the slave with gratitude; he had merely done the job he was supposed to do in the first place.

Jesus then concludes his teaching by observing that his disciples are in a similar position to the servants at dinner. He says, “You also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done’”

This is not, however, the usual attitude we find today toward recognizing achievement. Benefit dinners, for example, conclude with long lists of thanks for people who have helped with the event – including the paid employees of the organization. Authors now write pages of acknowledgements for their books; they express gratitude to their agents and publicists and secretaries – even though these people have “only done what they ought to have done” in producing the books.

Yet Christ’s point in this passage is a subtle one. For Jesus isn’t against gratitude! On the contrary: he taught his disciples to give thanks to a God who is so loving that he can be counted on to provide food for the birds of the air, and to clothe with beauty the lilies of the field.

In this Bible passage, though, Jesus is not talking about our attitude to God but about our attitude toward ourselves. We shouldn’t worry about getting credit for what we do, because we are put on earth to serve in the first place! We don’t need thanks because we are only practicing the faith we have been given.

Notice, too, that Christ’s parable about service is placed by the Gospel writer, St. Luke, just after another incident in which Jesus speaks directly about religion. His apostles ask Jesus to “increase their faith” and He answers, “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.” But Jesus points out that our faith won’t grow if we demand rewards like being patted on the back for our good deeds. Faith grows when it is put into action. Rewards are secondary. Serving others is what Christians do

A remarkable example of such religious practice was in the news recently, when some Christian missionaries in Afghanistan and their assistants were murdered by the Taliban. The missionaries were doctors and nurses, not preachers; they had been helping the poor of Afghanistan for decades. Not only did they receive little official recognition .for their years of work but, in the end, they were falsely accused of evangelism and then cruelly executed. After the murders became known, people were amazed by the survivors’ calm acceptance of the fate of their colleagues. The Christian organization is still determined to keep serving the people of Afghanistan. Jesus would have approved; the missionaries were “only doing what they ought to have done.”

We can also see the point Christ is making in the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis, whom we honor this week. In the prayer, we ask to be made “instruments of God’s peace.” As instruments of God, we shouldn’t seek votes of thanks, for we are simply doing the work we are called to do. So, according to Francis’s prayer, we ask not to be consoled but to console. We ask not to be understood but to understand. And we expect not to be loved but to love.

So when we offer this prayer, we buy into a completely different way of looking at the consequences of our actions. Indeed, as the prayer concludes, we acknowledge before God that “it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

While each of those last phrases is crucial, it is the first that cuts most sharply against the grain of our ordinary thinking. Recently, I was speaking with a longtime Murray Hill resident and I asked her if she had ever attended Incarnation on a regular basis. She said that she hadn’t because she didn’t go often to church; in fact, she wasn’t particularly interested in organized religion. I often meet people who a similar disinterest. But since organized religion is a topic of some importance to me, I claimed that the faithful practice of religion enriches a person’s life. I mentioned my view that if religion doesn’t make people happier and more content with themselves, it isn’t doing its job.

Yet if I had wanted to offer a quick summary of why organized religion is a good thing, I could simply have said, “It is in giving that we receive.”

The servants in Christ’s parable shouldn’t expect to receive thanks because they are serving; they have no choice! They are indentured “servants” – as our translation says, “slaves”. Slaves by nature slave away without expecting rewards.

So, too, Christian servants serve. Yet, as Jesus points out, in the whole picture, the servants of God “have their reward”. They receive not worldly thanks but the inward reward of knowing that they are doing God’s will.

Granted, this expectation does go against common sense. Some who have never tried this formula for living may find it hard to believe. But countless others have attempted to understand even if they aren’t understood; they have tried to love even when they are not loved. And in not seeking to be thanked for their efforts, they have discovered the profound truth of Francis’s prayer: in giving, we really do receive.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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