Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
October 6, 2019
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Duty. What a dirty word!! When I was a kid my mom would tell our dog, “Do your duty.” That was another word for telling her to go potty. We must have had one smart dog who could go on demand!!
Today part of our reading is, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:10)
Duty is like a number of other “D” words – dull, drudgery, discipline. It connotes blind obedience, mindless reaction, habit rather than a joyful choice. It is the “have-to’s” and “got-to’s” of life. Duty is just a dirty, desperate word.
A lady named Ellen Glasglow mentions her father in her autobiography. For all of his life he was a pastor in the Presbyterian church. She said he was “full of rectitude” (sounds like a terrible disease, doesn’t it?) and “rigid with duty.” Then she says, “In his long life he never committed a pleasure.” Duty can be a chain around our neck. It can be overbearing. It can sap all the strength and joy out of our life. But Jesus says of this, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
Jesus looks at duty in a different way. He looks at it in a new light and as a higher and nobler path. In this section He mentions a few duties that a disciple of His must exhibit. The first duty we have is the guidance that we would provide to other people. “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. So watch yourselves.’” (Luke 17:1-3a)
You have a duty to everyone that you come into contact with. Never teach a person how to sin. Never teach a person to do evil. Never lead a person away from God. I saw a man this week who, when he was a child, was molested by a clergyman. From the moment of that abuse he doesn’t see anyone who wears a collar and has the Stoll around his neck in the same light. That man, in that moment, was led away from God. Shame on the man who did such things.
We live with a duty, a sacred trust, that we never harm another. “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come.” When it says that it would be better to be drowned in the sea than to cause one of the these “little ones” to sin, “little ones” is not just little children but as some writers have said, it is the weaker, the more vulnerable, the new believer, the poor, the sick, the outcasts and rejected. It sounds like it is every person who gives us their trust. We live in a great duty in the lives of so many.
Here’s another duty. Forgiveness. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:3b-4) Think about that. 7 times in a single day!! But if they get to 8 they’re on their own, right? No. Jesus wasn’t counting.
We have a duty – one that we don’t like at all, by the way, to give forgiveness to people who have sinned against us. That is that Lord’s Prayer thing, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
I know that duty isn’t one of those great words – we would rather have words that choice and decisions and doing something for a much higher purpose, but duty is actually a great word. William Willimon has this great word about duty, “Have you ever been truly in love with someone? If you have, you’ll know what I’m talking about… Have you ever been so in love that you find yourself doing all sorts of things, many things you would have never done on your own, things that really bring you very little enjoyment in themselves, all because they reflect the wishes of the one whom you love? Someone once changed your diapers out of nothing more than love. Being a disciple is much like being in love.” (Pulpit Resource, October 4, 1998, Page 5)
Do you know what duty is? It is love. You stick with somebody not because your heart beats a mile a minute anymore but because of the duty of love. You take care of another, go out of your way for them, not because you’ll get some word of kindness, or anything at all in return, but because you have the duty of love.
Last Sunday I had the funeral for Jan Hodne (born in Oslo, Norway, by the way). His wife Lois tells the story of Jan being dragged to Kohl’s while she is trying on some cloths. (What an exciting afternoon, right??) Lois needs to try on lingerie. So he takes a seat in the lingerie department and waits and waits and waits. But he doesn’t see her leave the dressing room to go to the other departments in the store. Pretty soon the security people approach Jan, this man sitting in the lingerie department, and ask why he is there. He says “I’m waiting for my wife, she is trying on some bras.” But when they send someone to check on her she is no where to be found. He got into trouble all because of the duty of love.
When I hear the words of Jesus, I think of Jesus. “When you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” Duty was a delightful word for Jesus. It was His duty to save us from the awful outcome of our sins. It was His duty to bring us forgiveness and salvation and eternal rescue. The day before He was to go to the cross and suffer physical torture and spiritual anguish so that our lives would be eternally rescued, this is what He said, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” (John 12:27-28a) Duty, right? It is a duty that He loved, because He loved us. In the book of Hebrews we read this word about His love of Divine duty, “Let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) Duty. Delight. Love.
But this duty thing is still hard, isn’t it? When Jesus spoke about this duty that they had because they were His followers, when He spoke to them that they were not to cause sin in the life of another and that they had to live a life of forgiveness, His disciples pleaded with Jesus, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5)
That is what we need as well. Bigger faith. Greater faith. Jesus then told them the kind of faith they needed to live in the delight of such duty, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to the mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” (Luke 17:6) You don’t need the biggest faith in the world to do such things, you only need a small faith. But your faith, even small, must be in a great God. He can do in you that which you cannot do in yourself. Our faith is in our great God who lives with a duty to give us a wise, forgiving and serving heart. Paul says of this God, our Savior Jesus, “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” (I Thessalonians 5:24)
When Harold Kaestner retired from Trinity Lutheran Church in Sterling 30 years ago I suggested this text for his final sermon. He was an old man by then. He had served for many years in a number of parishes. I wonder how many sermons he preached, how many visits he made, how much sacrifice he had made? I’m this new buck just out of seminary suggesting that this be the final word about his ministry, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
But maybe I was right. Ministry and discipleship are duties. We have a duty to care for the least, to forgive the broken, to have a simple faith in a great God and to see, in humility, the duty that Jesus had to make, to make us His. Duty – another word for deep love. Amen!!