Gospel for the Commemoration of Ambrose of Milan
‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. – Luke 12:35-37, 42-44
This is a story about a master and his slaves. The slaves had jobs to perform, namely waiting for the master to come home, making sure the place was clean and neat, a meal or snack was ready for him and, most importantly, the door opened before he reached it and he would have to knock for admittance. Of course, like a number of Jesus’ stories, this one turns things upside down and backwards. In the story, the master comes home, finds all of his servants awake, alert, and doing their jobs. Food has been prepared for him and the wine is waiting, but instead of being served by his employees, the master served them instead. The master had a good steward to oversee the work and that steward was rewarded for his diligence. Jesus told the story as an illustration to the disciples, a description of what a faithful disciple should be doing to prepare the world for judgment. Even if the master were delayed, they should not let up in their work.
There’s an old gag line that says “Look busy, the boss is coming!” In the workplace that means to be actually doing something— writing something down, typing, talking to a client on the phone, filing or even moving purposely from one place to another with papers, blueprints or packages in hand—and not just standing around the water cooler talking or sitting there staring out into space. Everyone has a job to do and it is expected that they will do that job. The success of the company depends on it. It’s no different in the world of ministry, whether done by ordained clergy or just ordinary folks meeting the world’s needs and anticipating yet other unmet needs.
In a sense, this passage seems to have Advent overtones in it. Advent is a time of waiting, preparation, expectation. Just like a with a pregnant woman, Advent brings an expectation of something wonderful at a point in time in the future but there are still dishes to be done, a job to go to, and other things that need to be tended to in the meantime. The candles on the advent wreath are lit, one by one, each one bringing a little more light a little closer, in the anticipation of the birth of the Christ child. While everyone is busy preparing for Christmas and all the festivities that come with it, Advent people are busy preparing too. It’s more than buying and wrapping gifts, decorating the house and yard within an inch of their lives, sending Christmas cards and letters to people with whom there is contact only once year, and cooking enough food to feed a small army which, sometimes, is just one’s own family. Like a mother-to-be reading all the child-rearing books she can find, Advent people read from the prophets who spoke of a different world, a much better one than they experienced in their time, and a leader who would unite the people and rule this different world. The key was to be busy and awake because no one knew when that time would come.
The prophets spoke of the kingdom of God as something in the future but that required people to bring it about. That kingdom was and is a world where all people have value, even the ones who are seen as the powerless ones: the children, orphans, the elderly, poor people, sick people, prisoners of conscience, and even those who were dying. In Jesus’ time these are the people who had no voice, no standing in the community other than whose relative they were, what they could bring into the family coffers through labor or marriage, and/or whether they brought glory to the family or shame on it. For Jesus these were the important people. Everybody listened to the rich, the leadership of the temple, the heads of families, but nobody listened to the little guys. In God’s kingdom, those little guys were just as worthy of having someone to open the door when they approached as the richest man in the world. In God’s kingdom, everyone was a servant and yet was an important person, an odd balance where each sought to help one another and who accepted the help of others with the same grace and without thought to whether or not the help could be reciprocated. We’ve been reading this story and others like it for a couple of millennia now, and I wonder if we are any closer than we were.
With Advent we prepare: we keep the candles lit, and we stand ready at the door to welcome a newborn infant who we know will change the world. Our job is to welcome that child but then to welcome all those who stand outside the door and wonder what all the fuss is about. Our task is to make the kingdom of God on earth a reality, not a continuing prophecy and not something intended for only specific people who happen to have large bank accounts and a lot of prestige. The first visitors to the Christ child were there at the invitation of angels but who were simple shepherds, among the lowest on the totem pole of status. There’s a lot of truth in the old joke that God must love poor people because God made so many of them, but instead of being a joke it’s almost like the biggest test question in the world. Our response will dictate whether we pass or fail. Who will we welcome? Who will we help? For whom and for what are we waiting?
Today’s reading tells us to be awake and aware. It should also be a reminder not to leave Advent at the church door on Sunday morning after services. There is kingdom work to be done out in the world and the arrival of a King to prepare for, externally and internally, so be awake, alert, and have the doors of readiness and welcome wide open with compassion and love to anyone and everyone.