In the Fields of the Lord


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

October 8, 2017

Text: Luke 17: 5-10

      On July 1, 2004, about a month before I was to go to Indonesia, the Rev. Susianti Tinolele was shot as she preached in her church in Central Sulawesi. Although I had already booked my flight and agreed to do a one-week seminar at UKIT, the Christian University in Tomohon, I have to admit I had trepidations regarding the trip. That year had seen a great deal of violence from members of a radical Islamist organization, and the area where I was to be, about six hours away, had experienced sporadic but non-lethal violence.

      My host for that incredible week, Dr. Willy Roeroe had visited the United States the year before and actually had worshiped in this church. His study of ministerial training programs for American pastors led him to believe that Indonesian pastors needed more practical training, especially in community organization. He asked me to teach a seminar on the practical aspects of community organization. And I thought about Susianti, only 29 years old.

      But Dr. Roeroe looked at me when I asked about her. He knew what I was thinking; he lived with it every day–I would only be there for a week. I felt stupid and ashamed of my fear. This man had been working in the fields of the Lord for all his life with-out any expectation of even a thank you.

       At that time and now, I think about what I used to tell myself: gird up our loins, you coward! I did and although I had some experiences that travel agents don’t particularly want to include in their brochure, I obviously survived.

      “Gird up your loins” is certainly an interesting expression. It’s used several times in Scripture, primarily as a figure of speech that someone is now ready to assume a task. Literally it refers to the kind of clothing used in ancient times, not especially useful for taking on serious business. Usually it meant to pull up the inner robe covering so that the loose material will not interfere with physical activity such as swordplay; in other words, put your pants on and get with it!

      I thought about that phrase as used in the Gospels as I heard stories of how some in attend-ance at that fateful concert last week moved quickly to save others even before thinking about them-selves. Some covered others with their own bodies; others dragged wounded persons as they were still in the line of fire. Those who did so had girded up their loins so that nothing interfered with their work of saving others without expectation of reward.

      That’s the meaning of this parable this morning, told to the disciples, right after they have been told that it—if—they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could move the mulberry tree into the sea. Jesus then told the parable because his disciples at least seemed to be more interested in possible rewards for bringing the good news of the kingdom than in simply doing the job.

      It’s only human to want some recognition for doing any job. A church secretary wants to be recognized for preparing a nice bulletin just as any of us working for the community of faith really want some form of recognition for all the work we do. That is only human. So Jesus’ parable here is a nasty shock to our egos, which we all have. It doesn’t matter whether what the task is, Jesus tells us to have no expectations of acknowledgment for our work.That’s not nice.

      Jesus here is telling us to put our egos aside because we are simply doing what we are supposed to do, not easy for any of us, to be sure. Over the past several months our Nation has experienced several terrible hurricanes, and many people have stepped up to help others without any expectation of reward; they have done so just because they see it as a moral responsibility.

      Another word for moral responsibility is duty. In the musical 1776, John Adams faces up to Thomas Jefferson telling him it is his duty to write the document which would, as Jefferson himself had stated, “place before mankind the common sense of the subject in words so plain and firm as to command their assent.” “It’s your duty, man!” shouts Adams and Jefferson relents.

      The word duty, once a noble word, has fallen onto hard times lately. As a rule, we don’t demand an action from someone as their duty. Instead, we tend to think of duty as a negative, the kind of attitude that drove the 600 cavalry into the cannon fire in the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, an obvious military blunder.

       The word duty is usually associated with battles and their heavy losses or other such unwise actions. The British fisherman who rescued the Army closed in at Dunkirk responded to a call of duty. The men who landed on Normandy Beach also did so from a sense of duty although they knew, they really knew, that many would not survive. Here duty was mixed with patriotism. 

       We usually don’t associate the word duty with filial love, at least not in this century, although in times past, filial relationships were discussed in terms of duty. Brother may have murdered brother over a throne, but it was the rare son who murdered his own parent. Even in King Lear the aim of Goneril and Regan is to destroy Cordelia so they get more of the kingdom.

       One could look at this parable in terms of our relationship to God. In other words, don’t expect a reward. It’s difficult to put this aside because part of the theology of heaven is based on the idea of a reward for a life well-lived. Many of our hymns contain this idea. Live right, do right, and you get your reward in the sweet bye and bye.

      But this parable just tells us to keep working because that’s what we are supposed to do. End of story. We know how we feel when we really work hard on something and are never credited for our work. Aggravated is probably a mild word for that feeling. Even saints probably felt they at least deserved some credit for their work.

       There have been only a few people I have known who have not wanted any credit for their efforts in building God’s kingdom. Some of you knew Alice Rounds, a real saint, who did not claim credit for her many deeds of kindness. Mac McCullough was a driving force in creating services for persons with AIDS in the 1980s, which became The Center in Asbury Park. Like Alice, he never asked for credit. He just saw the issue as a moral responsibility, a duty, if you like.

      Over the course of his earthly ministry, Jesus’ relationship with his disciples changed. This is reflected beautifully in the Gospel attributed to John, when Jesus tells his disciples that they are now no longer disciples, followers, but friends. The gift of friendship is reflected in this parable as well for when we befriend someone else in return. Friends do not expect from the other, but they do share a moral point of view. Here, duty has morphed into something else.

      In his 1995 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam examined the varieties of civic engagement in our society noting that they created what he called “social capital.” He as well as others have com-mented that the idea of civic engagement to mean only voluntary community service make such actions akin to the idea of a duty, an obligation.

      This negative connotation of duty is a central reason for the rise of radical political groups. If people bristle at the idea of “doing their duty” by participating in local, state, or national politics, then the extremes take over. We Americans want liberty without the requirements of what could be called eternal vigilance. This year’s gubernatorial election is a case in point.

      Tonight at 8 PM you can watch Steve Adubato on the show “New Jersey’s Next Governor” and hear the two candidates discuss the issues, answer tough questions and try to show that neither one is the reflection of their prior party’s governors. That’s part of civic engagement. But how many will make at least this minor attempt to understand what is actually happening here in the state?

     Look at the numbers of people who do not vote. In 2013 just 38 percent of New Jersey registered voters voted in the Christie-Buono race and in 2016, only 68 percent voted in 2016 in the presidential election. Many other nations have much higher voting percentages and many are only in parlia-mentary elections to determine leadership. Look at Singapore and the Nordic countries, all around 85 to 94 percent. And voting is the least involved form of civic engagement.

      Duty, like virtue, has its own reward. It is just part of who we are supposed to be. My old friend Dr. Roeroe knew that. In a nation that is only 8 percent Christian, he continued to teach and train new pastors to be sent out to churches throughout Indonesia. Some like Susianti paid for their sense of duty with their lives. Others just still preach and work with their communities.

      Dr. Roeroe told me that he was once asked about the reward Christians would receive after death. He looked at the young seminary student who had asked the question and told him that those who worked in the fields of the Lord in hope of a reward were responding to God’s call to service for all the wrong reasons. He smiled as he told me that one of the worst ideas that Christianity had was the idea of heaven because it corrupted our motives. We shouldn’t be working for heaven’s reward but out of love for others.

     My old friend died this year. His reward is the legacy he left and can be found in the lives of his students who continue to work in the fields of the Lord as did he. As I think of others I have known, Alice and Mac, their legacies were their rewards as well. May we be grateful that we had known such people.

      Let us come to God in prayer: You who have called us to serve others, help us to do so in the spirit of love as we remember our moral obligation to do so. In the name of him who taught us how to live, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.