The following story comes from a church newsletter from the United Church of Christ in Douglas, Wyoming which is the congregation I served before retiring.
A prison work crew in Tampa Florida was working on the side of the road repairing concrete medians. An obviously distressed motorist approached. His one-year-old daughter had been accidentally locked inside the car. The girl’s father had strapped her into the rear car seat, dropped the keys on the front seat and closed the doors, not realizing the vehicle doors were now locked. Could someone please help him? Such irony!
Among this prison work crew would be those who had experience getting into locked vehicles without the key. The work crew was halted. As the deputies oversaw and the anxious father stood by, one prisoner reshaped a piece of wire. Two others skillfully used it to pop the lock of the car. The child was freed in less than five minutes.
“Thank God for the criminals in the world,” the father exclaimed and went on to say “For your help I respect y’all.” The County Sheriff agreed, saying “a lot of [criminals], like these individuals, they know they made bad mistakes, bad choices, but they want to do the right thing in life.”
Jesus says: “When you have done all that you have been commanded to do, say, ‘We are simple workers. We have done no more than our duty.’”
My first response to the words, “no more than our duty,” was one of discomfort and even distaste. I was reminded of the cliché, “just doing my Christian duty”—that kind of begrudging response inwardly wishing someone else would volunteer. This characterization has no appeal to me. I wondered if there might be a loop hole—something in the translation that might free us from the concept of doing our duty.
The NRSV (The New Revised Standard Version) translates it this way: “we have done only what we ought to have done!” Perhaps a little softer, a little easier to hear. However! The actual Greek word is “duty” as in “to be bound to, to be under obligation.” When we have done all that we’ve been commanded to do, we’ve simply fulfilled an obligation. No loop hole!
So what if there is a Christian truth in that cliché of just doing our Christian duty? What if those words originally derived from Jesus’ words but in time became a kind of unattractive characterization. If this morning we ask to whom are we obligated to do our duty we’d answer “God!” Of course! Duty then equates to God-guided duty. To use a sport’s analogy we’re on God’s team. We’ll never be traded. We’ll never be too old. How many on this team – too many to count! We are among those who hear Jesus’ invitation to act on the faith we already have. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed” (and you do!). And we do. Keeping in mind the size of a mustard seed – we do! As one theologian says: “What counts is simply faith, not the quantity of faith”
In this morning’s story, “One Duck Stuck,” the duck stuck in the muck needs help. It’s a simple image but it is an image of life. Sometimes we are the one stuck. Sometimes we are the one giving aid. Help needed. Help given. Stuck. Unstuck. In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Habakkuk desperately asks: “How long God am I to cry for help while you do not listen?” The prophet goes on to speak of injustice and of people who desperately need help.
One of my favorite theologians has said this: “Sorrow and sadness must be given words so we can face and endure them.” Once again, scripture encourages us to be forthright with God. Once again scripture urges us to pray with no tip-toeing around. A simple prayer might be:
God I’m stuck.
I need help!
The sooner the better.
Habakkuk remains faithful to God. He says “I will stand on my watchtower and take up my post on my battlements watching to see what God will say to me, what answers God will make to my complaints.” Perhaps standing on the watchtower is a metaphor for looking at the bigger picture? We choose to be alert to what we cannot yet see. Habakkuk is given a vision. He is to write it down with large and legible letters. We might see this as Divine help. Struggling despairing folks can see with ease and enabled to hold onto a vision of better days to come. Habakkuk hears this Voice of Love say: “If it is slow in coming, wait for it – for come it will, without fail …”
A vision that is not our own often requires us to wait—to wait patiently and expectantly on God. Receiving help may come in unexpected ways from unexpected people. Who in their right mind would look to criminals to rescue their child? Who among those in that prison work crew began their day envisioning the rescue of a one-year-old child? A new vision may come through a friend or a stranger, a poem or story, hearing a casual remark or reading a meditation, and of course through prayer and scripture.
Perhaps we are inclined not only to discount the amount of faith we have but also discount the help we so often give. Doing our duty, our God-guided duty, may never make the evening news. Even those, whose acts do make the news, often say words akin to “just doing my duty,” doing what I could. Some of you will recognize the title of the book: “Extreme Heroism” and you know the author, John Prochaska, who encourages us to claim and live-out our indwelling hero. Guided by goodwill we do what we can to respond to an injustice. Guided by Jesus-like-love we do our duty. We do our little bit and it is enough.
Today’s epistle reading from 2 Timothy has these words for the early church and still so contemporary, words for us:
“For God didn’t give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power, of love, of self-discipline.”
We have what we need. We have enough of what we need. How then shall we respond?