Of “Nonessential” Federal Employees & Worthless Slaves

Preached with St. David’s for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.

“So you also, when you have done all you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves, we have only done what we ought to have done!'” -Luke 17:10, NRSV

So here’s what I think this Gospel is about: I think its about thankless work, about the kind of work that is so seamlessly integrated into the rest of our lives that we wouldn’t even think to be thanked for it, the way you shrug off someone’s thanks for something kind you’ve done that you don’t want to draw a lot of attention to. I think its about making God’s work such a similarly seamless part of our daily life. But all of this comes to us today in troubling language. I’ve been troubled this week as I’ve sat with it, and I hope you’ll take some time to be troubled beside me for a bit.

Another thing I’ve been troubled by this week is a friend who’s been deemed non-essential by the United States government. He just started working for the research wing of the National Cancer Institute this Summer, and many such federal public health initiatives are included in the initial wave of furloughs. He and his family should be fine, they have enough money in savings to make it through a certain amount of this, but they aren’t so sure about some of the other staff at the Institute, the clerks, the secretaries, the janitors, and others who may live paycheck-to-paycheck. In a capitalist economy, non-essentialism packs a strong punch. It is not only an assault on the personal economy of an individual who has cultivated for himself a skill set according to the monetary values of the broader culture, it can also be an assault on human dignity and personal worth.

So my ears perk when I hear Jesus challenge his apostles to think of themselves as worthless slaves. “Worthless” is a strong trigger for me, I’ve spent the majority of my adult re-entry into Christian practice focused precisely on the ways God makes us worthy to stand before him. It helps me to know that “worthless” here is translated as “unprofitable” elsewhere, that the Greek word ἀχρεῖος literally means “not necessary”. “Not necessary” at least has a remotely spiritual ring to it, some of the best things in God’s creation are not necessary, but it’s still not a word I’m going to use to describe any of the dozens of people who help me bag my groceries and pump my gas and make my coffee every day. Or the people who teach my neighbor’s children or treat folks who can’t afford it, or any of the other classic non-profit public workers who offer their service seamlessly and without thanks to the larger body of our community. What is it about these people, people who simply “do what they ought to have done” that Jesus calls our attention to? What would Jesus be asking of us, if he asked us to identify with those public servants deemed “not necessary” by our federal government?

Identifying with the nonessential goes against the very grain of what our culture instills in us. We spend lifetimes shoring up our own indispensable essentiality, our own personal marketability, crafting resumes to convince the world of our monetary worth. We are a nation, in fact, of individuals seeking our own essentiality. In the process we produce non-essential casualties. These casualties began long, long before the furloughs; the government shutdown is merely a mirror of the priorities we’ve already set for ourselves as a nation. It shouldn’t be surprising when our public health initiatives are among the first to go when we live in a nation where one in seven citizens lacks adequate and affordable access to basic health care. It shouldn’t be surprising that Head Start programs are also among the first to lose funding when we live in a nation where one in five families with young children had trouble keeping those children fed last year. We shouldn’t be surprised at what remains essential, either: military strength, self-defense, being armed to the teeth while our own children starve. Our national values are magnifications of our personal ones, and they depict a person who values his own safety more than the welfare of his neighbor, who must hoard everything he has for fear of losing, and who has become completely isolated by fear.

To be non-essential then is to be in good Gospel company, to be with those who need healing and those who need to be fed. It is to be vulnerable, to acknowledge that we cannot help ourselves alone, to at times to be unprotected and feel the sting of the world’s ingratitude and malice. These are the folks God favors, the lowly ones, the liabilities. They aren’t valuable by the values of the world, they seem to be a burden and yet God loves them for the same reason God loves anyone because God is God and to love freely and without reason is God’s glorious privilege.

Which I’m not about to pitch to my friend or any of the other one million federal employees out of work this month as any kind of consolation for the total disregard and indignity they have been shown. I only want to hold them up as an example, the way Jesus did with the so-called worthless slaves of the disciples, because they, too, have simply only done what they ought to have done. Most of these employees didn’t get into the work they do because they expected public accolades. Most of the Head Start teachers I’ve known didn’t get into teaching because they knew they’d be thanked every day for their work. Most of these public servants began their labor because they were compelled by the intrinsic, glorious worth they saw in a person or place not otherwise deemed worthy by society. A tract of unprotected public wilderness, a cancer survivor, a man with chronic pre-existing health concerns, a child who had not yet learned to read, each a liability to the capitalist economy, and each one an occasion for awe, and praise, and wonder, and love. Over generations of public service, through the labor of all who took time to care and fight for the non-essentials of this world, the budget and the character of our country evolved to include taking care of them as well. This is a part of Christ’s re-creation among and with us. To participate in it, to catch the glint of passion planted in us for someone or something seemingly worthless in this world, to labor in a way that seems to go against the grain of what’s supposed to be important, to love freely and without reason, this is our own glorious privilege to claim beside him.

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