“A Tale of a Servant Who Didn’t Follow the Rules”
“A Tale of a Servant Who Didn’t Follow the Rules”
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11;
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
August 14, 2022
Many years ago, this time of year I was at band camp beginning the very early rehearsals of our James Bond themed halftime show. Always this time of year some of those memories return to me, including one from that particular season that happened later in the fall.
It was a pretty cold, sleet-filled Ohio night. The field was muddy. And we were marching that halftime show with all we could muster given the conditions. And at one point there is this move where all the trumpets and trombones are marching forward in a horizontal line together and I see out of my peripheral vision that one of our trombone players has just fallen flat on his face into the mud, trombone underneath him.
My eyes get huge behind my trumpet, “What do we do?”
And without missing a beat our first chair trumpet, our section leader, he takes his mouth from his trumpet and starts calling out to everyone, “Keep marching. Keep marching.”
And at that time, we did not know why this trombone player had fallen and that he had just tripped and he was fine and he would catch up to us – as he did. For all we knew the guy just past out.
But I am telling you, it is a strange thing that happens when the one in authority, the first trumpet chair, calls out the orders and the music is playing all around you and basically begging you to keep the melody going, the formation keeps moving and so you feel the need to keep with it…it is really tough to break from the music, break from the formation,
…and walk over to check on the collapsed trombone player.
Our parable today is about a servant who does risk breaking with the formation, breaking from the show.
Now, at first glance we may wonder how that is. If we’ve been around the church some, we know this parable. It’s the one where we
need to remember to use the gifts God has given us. In this story, we’re the servants entrusted with gifts of all sorts, and we need to use them. Offer them. Invest them. Let them multiply in their goodness. And whatever you do, do not sit on them or bury them. And yes, the way Matthew’s Gospel tells this particular parable, that angle is very much there. But Luke’s telling goes a different direction.
Listen again to how our story begins… “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.”
Power – not to serve or lead, but power for himself.
13He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, “Do business with these until I come back.” 14But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to rule over us.”
Now that is striking. The people hate this nobleman – soon to be King.
And then also did you notice? The servants who show a return on their investment are not given “charge over many things” like the version in Matthew, but instead are given rule over 10 cities. Or 5 cities. Multiplying the funds results in an overt, distinct giving of political power. And then, of course, there is that ending where the now-king says: “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”
Phew…is Jesus supposed to be the nobleman who goes, gets power for himself, grants obedient investors with political power and then has his enemies slaughtered in his presence?
It helps to know in Jesus ’time there was a recent, well-known political event that occurred after the death of Herod the Great where there was dispute between his two sons about who would succeed him.
And the son who eventually got the greater portion of the kingdom slaughtered some 3000 Jews who opposed him…while, of course, securing his power by giving political gifts to those who did his bidding.
In other words, the earliest listeners knew a very real, contemporary story of a nobleman who was not liked and got royal power and ran a tight, fear-based ship for those who did his bidding and slaughtered those who opposed.
For the early listeners, this parable hits close to home.
And then let’s remember our context right here in Luke’s Gospel. Right away Jesus tells us why he is sharing this particular parable: “he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.”
He tells this story as a way of setting expectations about the kind of kingdom and kingship he is all about.
And then the very next thing Jesus is going to do after this parable… is process into Jerusalem and be slaughtered in the by the political authorities because at the end of the day – he simply would not get in step with their way of running the world, and so threatened the entire formation.
- What if Jesus is not the exacting nobleman, but the third servant – fearfully but courageously resisting the Empire’s music?
- What if he is not the one calling for business as usual, but the one stepping from formation?
- What if he is not among those taking their pound and letting the system work for them, but the only one who speaks the truth clearly: “I knew you to be a harsh man” – and then suffer the consequences?
What if Jesus is the third servant…and when you think about it, doesn’t that sound like Jesus?
You remember early in his ministry, he is healing all these people and doing these miracles and the crowds are really picking up and so one day his disciples say, “Everyone is looking for you!”
In other words, “Jesus, you’ve got crowds. Now build the momentum. Build the platform. Multiply your platform. Get the likes. The Shares. The comments. Everybody is looking for you – let’s go!”
And after having spent a night in solitary prayer away from all the noise Jesus says, “Let’s go a different direction. Let’s leave the crowds. We need to go to those villages. Preach Good News there.”
The music of celebrity…resisted in favor of faithfulness.
Or what about when the acknowledged, respected religious leaders of the day surround a woman caught in adultery and say to Jesus, “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” And you can feel the weight of their authority, the tradition, the stones that must be nearby if not in their hands.
“Let anyone who is without sin be the first to cast the first stone.”
The very real pressure to keep formation with religious authority and social norms…resisted in favor of forgiveness.
Or what about the fact that Jesus was regularly critiqued for eating with sinners and tax collectors and women? He ate with people with scandals and ugly wrongs associated with them and he ate with people who had way too much money and gotten it by ripping others off and…
The very real pressure to keep step with social convention and being with on the right side of things, the right people of things…resisted in the favor of fellowship.
Time and again Jesus simply will not stick to the music of this world…
- if there’s someone in the mud,
- if that someone is there because someone did it to them
- or if they are there because they did it to themselves…
- or if they are there because society has deemed their past, their ethnicity, their gender, their career, their politics mud…
It really doesn’t matter, Jesus came to love sinners. He’s going to kneel in the mud – and suffer the consequences of not keeping… the prevailing religious formation or the prevailing social formation or the prevailing political formation.
It goes without saying that the church has often struggled to witness clearly to this music-and-formation-breaking way of Jesus. Far easier, far more natural to just keep marching with the momentum.
Because fear is real.
- Fear that if we don’t follow what the moral or political or business or family authority has said is the way…in some form or another, we’ll be the one stoned for dissent.
- Fear that if we keep company with the wrong people or help them or talk to them or we defend them or show so sympathy or understanding with some of their perspectives…we’ll be shunned.
- Fear that if we don’t fight fire with fire for our way…we’ll get crucified.
And yet I am struck that in a parable where the chief thing gained by those who stay in formation with the king’s wishes…the chief thing gained is political power. “Here, go rule over 10 cities. Rule over 5 cities.” The third servant turns entirely from that.
He’s not going to march lock-step with political power. “My kingdom is not of this world.”
And perhaps the fears we keep about walking in the ways of Jesus are well-founded…because a week after marching into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey, he is not only without political power but crucified by it.
And yet, for 2000 years since the church has held that up (cross) as the fundamental definition of courage. Acting with complete vulnerability in the deep conviction that love is stronger than the worst they can do.
That even if we see…
- no way it’s going to work,
- no way it makes sense,
- no way the conversation will go anywhere if it’s seasoned with truth and love,
- no way the forgiveness will make a difference,
no way we won’t get hurt…
Courage is acting on the conviction that somehow, some way, vulnerable love wins. For Jesus is risen.
Where do we sense the stronghold of fear keeping us in lockstep with the world and the ways of the world? As a church? As individuals? And where is Jesus calling us to break formation? Political formation or social formation or religious formation in the name of faithfulness or forgiveness or fellowship? In the name of Jesus?
And lest we begin to think that breaking formation means taking a huge, bold stand – it may. But lest we begin thinking of really big things we are to do…remember how Romans chapter 12 puts the breaking with formation concept:
“Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but to be renewed by the transforming of our minds”…and then it follows in Romans chapter 12 to talk about what it looks like to not conform to the patterns of this world, to break from formation in the way of Jesus. And let your heart listen to the very practical things that make for formation-breaking faithfulness (from The Message translation):
9-10 Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
11-13 Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
14-16 Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
17-19 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”
20-21 Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.
Importantly, the third servant in our parable mentions his fear. Courage to step with love does not mean stepping when we finally feel no fear at all…courage is stepping with love right in the midst of the fear that is going to be there. Vulnerability by definition, assumes the feeling of fear.
But, we walk with a Savior… whose love has proven stronger than death, whose who promises never to leave us or forsake us, who assures us that he is for us and if he is for us, who can be against us?