Well done, Good and Anxious Servant
A sermon on Matt. 25:14-30 and Judges 4:1-10.
[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Ian on Unsplash]
I have to start out by confessing that I struggled with my sermon this week.
I could blame it on a busy schedule, with an extra dose of decision-making and responsibilities piled onto an already very full plate. Or, I could blame it on yet another confusing and apparently dire parable that does not seem to offer much in the way of hope to a hurting world. But as I sat in my office late on Friday afternoon, staring at a blank computer screen, watching the light fade and wondering what in the world I could find to say that would be life-giving and faith-affirming when I was feeling so exhausted and drained… I realized what my real problem was.
When I looked at the readings for this Sunday, I was relating to the “wrong” characters. Or, at least, that’s how it felt.
I have been looking forward to preaching on Deborah’s story. She is not only one of the strongest female leaders in scripture, but she is also a shining example of wisdom and faithfulness. Hers is the kind of story I love to tell. But as I meditated on the 4th chapter of Judges this week, I found myself relating not to Deborah, but to Barak.
I felt my shoulder’s droop at Deborah’s challenge: “Hasn’t the Lord… issued you a command?”, and I resonated with the fragility of Barak’s plea “if you’ll go with me, I’ll go… but I’m not going alone.”
I know we are “supposed” to judge Barak as weak and lacking in faith, but all I could think was “I’m with you brother!”
There are so many good, and righteous activities calling for my action and commitment, but I feel beaten down … and I’ve faced nothing compared to 20 years of violent oppression! But, just because someone tells me that God is on my side, doesn’t mean I suddenly feel strong enough to take on a fight. So, I don’t want to judge Barak for saying he needs Deborah to go with him. I want to give him credit for going at all!
And then there’s the parable, with two good and trustworthy servants being welcomed into the joy of their master, while the third - who was paralyzed by his anxiety – gets thrown into the outer darkness. I have a plaque on my desk that reads “well done, good and faithful servant.” It was given to me by a former colleague as a celebration of my anti-poverty advocacy work, and as an affirmation of my call to become a pastor. It has always made me feel proud and grateful for the chance to pour myself into both of these callings. But this week, this month, this year… I often haven’t felt like the good and faithful servant. I have felt like the servant whose anxiety has taken over: always whispering “this is too much… you can’t do it… if you try you will only fail… you’ll be exposed.”
In other words, it’s the “losers” in these stories who call out to my soul. The ones whose weakness is exposed. The ones who clearly cannot handle the task set before them in their own strength. I understand where they are coming from. I see myself in them.
Maybe some of you can relate. Maybe you too are feeling overwhelmed and worn down – by grief, and anxiety, and conflict, and decision-fatigue, and so many layers of loss and stress.
Now that I think of it ... maybe it’s part of the silver lining of this virus that we can start to admit it when we just can’t power through anymore. Maybe a national trauma is what it takes to break through the toxic lie of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps American self-sufficiency mentality … the myth that tells us it is dangerous to admit our weakness, and that needing help means we are a failure.
Because that is a lie. Whatever shaming message we might hear in a cursory reading of today’s scriptures, make no mistake: the glorification of self-sufficiency is toxic, and it is not of God.
It may be the most unbiblical, un-Christian doctrine to ever claim authority in Christ’s church.
Think about it. How could we confuse self-reliant, independent individualism with a Christian virtue? The Jesus who willingly empties himself, who takes on human fragility and willingly succumbs to the cross doesn’t spurn weakness, he embraces it! And he does so in order to be the Savior that we need… because we cannot save ourselves. We cannot earn our way into God’s favor. We cannot produce our own grace. And once we have received God’s grace as a free gift, we are called to share it. To form a community of loving interdependence, where all the members of the body do their part, but none of us can be whole on our own.
This is the heart of the gospel. Need… need acknowledged and met with love is the heart of the gospel.
And, actually, I think todays readings offer us important access to that truth. I think the apparent losers in these two stories can be our teachers.
Barak, at least, willingly models for us the need to ask for help. He is called by God to command God’s army, and he fulfills that call… but not alone. He needs a partner. Someone who hears God’s voice clearly. And he is not afraid to ask for the help he needs. And while Deborah warns that this request means Barak won’t get the glory for the victory… why would that be a problem? The point is to free the people from oppression, not to build his own brand. And that freedom is what happens. The Israelites are victorious. Sisera is defeated. And because Barak was willing to ask for help, the faithful of all the generations since have had the inspiration of not one but two strong, courageous women: Deborah and Jael (the prophesied woman who slew Sisera).
The third servant in the parable teaches us in a different way. He does not show us how to ask for help, but his anxiety and unwillingness to risk reveals the consequences for us and for society when weakness in unacceptable. His quagmire reveals the underside of idealized Individualism: a topsy turvy morality that places profits over people.
The master in this parable is interested only in himself. He even admits that his wealth is unearned: that he “reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter.” His other two servants probably learned from him, for you cannot double your money simply through trading without some dishonest strategies. They have learned how to prosper in a world dominated by money and power, where each person is only out for themselves. But that is hardly the life to which Jesus calls his followers.
And thus, the third servant teaches Jesus’ followers about the situation in which we find ourselves in a world that has rejected God’s design of loving inter-dependence. As my friend and teacher Dr. Audrey West writes:
“it’s a lose-lose predicament: damned if he digs, damned if he doesn’t. He is so far down in the hole there is no way out. No way out, that is, unless there exists a Savior. Not a Savior who thrusts the predicament upon you and leaves, but one who promises to be present always, even to the end of the age – no matter how deep the hole.”
So if you, like me, have felt stuck in the hole more often than not in these long, painful, pandemic days marked by conflict, and finger-pointing, and an apparent inability to work together for the good of the whole … if you find yourself relating more to Barak than to Deborah, and identifying with the anxious instinct to just bury the responsibilities that feel too heavy for your shoulders…
Well, then I say to you: well done, good and faithful servant! For you have taken the first step toward confessing your need for a Savior who can do what you cannot. You have rejected the lie that you need to prove your worth by facing every challenge and winning every battle. You have been honest enough to say you cannot do this on your own.
But you don’t have to. For the truly good news of the gospel is that we do have a Savior who promises to be present always, even to the end of the age – no matter how deep the hole.
Thanks be to God.