Duty to God

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and Luke 5:1-11
© Stacey Steck

Those of you who have ventured into the Happy Place before Sunday School know that you will usually find Dunkin Donuts there rather than Krispy Kreme. There are many reasons for that, but one of the most compelling is that I don’t want to put Fred the Baker out of business. You remember good old Fred. (Watch video clip.) Yes, back in 1981, Fred saw his 3:30 a.m. role as his sacred duty – “time to make the donuts” – a sacrificial duty in the service of those customers like me who love those Dunkin Donuts.

“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” So begins the Scout Oath, words of promise really. From its very beginning, Scouting has taken seriously the spiritual formation of the boys who are part of it. Every year, the Cub Scouts must complete a unit focused on their duty to God, a commitment recently reaffirmed by the Boy Scouts of America at a time when other national scouting organizations around the world have chosen a more secular path. The BSA holds the same duty to God it asks of its Scouts. Indeed, the founder of the Scouting movement, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, once said, “We never fail when we try to do our duty, we always fail when we neglect to do it.” I am pleased to have the Webelos of Pack 476 helping us again this morning to demonstrate that we do not neglect that aspect of our Scouting program.

The word duty comes from the Latin root meaning to “owe” someone something, to be in their debt in some way. When you borrow something from someone, then you are duty-bound to pay it back or there are consequences. Your mortgage lender certainly believes you have a duty to repay your loan. Of course, the word duty has evolved toward the sense of moral responsibility, of doing the right thing. We have a duty to protect children, not because we owe them anything but simply because we have no other morally acceptable alternative. Perhaps our duty to keep our environment clean has some sense of payback about it, seeing how much it has provided for us, but also because morally, our life together depends on keeping planet earth in good shape. Duty calls, and we respond, not always because there’s something in it for us directly, but because there are larger concerns at stake.

But when we talk about duty to God, it sure seems that the older understanding of the word duty has some currency. In a very real sense, we owe God everything, from our very existence, to our sustenance, to our salvation. We always have been, and we always will be, indebted to God. If we believe that God created the world and everything in it, to turn our backs on repaying God would be the very definition of dereliction of duty. And yet we do it all the time, don’t we? We give good lip service to doing our duty to God, but since God is not actively foreclosing on our mortgages, it can be easy to let our payments slide. Even with a lender like God, who gives us the most favorable of terms, we still can’t seem to make regular payments. Of course, I’m not even talking about the financial part of the account. I’m talking about how easy it can be to look back at the end of one’s day and see it lived entirely for ourselves and not for anyone else, much less God. I’m talking about how easy it is to take our accomplishments for granted and take credit for them as if they’d been all our own doing. I’m talking about how easy it is the be consumers of grace and not producers and distributors of it. I’m talking about how easy it is to think that God’s good news is all about me.

In our reading from First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul seems pretty clear that it is his duty, and the duty of the Corinthian church, to proclaim the Gospel. But his duty to the Gospel comes from his understanding that he owes his life to God. “But by the grace of God I am what I am,” he says, “and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul knows that there is no Paul without God. He knows there is not even a Saul without God. He knows that it is his duty to tell the story of how God changed his life, and the life of the world through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. He knows how much he owes God, and he is trying to convince the Corinthians to see it in that light. He even reminds them, in case they forgot, that he certainly wasn’t worthy of what God had given him, but he received it none the less: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Paul has a lot to be grateful for, and his gratitude issues forth in duty.

Maybe something similar is happening in the Gospel story for today when the disciples “left everything and followed” Jesus once they had caught so many fish with his help after they had caught nothing on their own. They’d given up for the day, rowed back into shore and were washing their nets to get ready again for tomorrow when Jesus appears followed by crowds who want to hear him teach. We aren’t told the content of the message, but from what follows, we can imagine that it had something to do with dependence on God and gratitude toward God. When he’s done speaking, Jesus punctuates the verbal lesson with an object lesson. “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” And so they humor him and put down their nets and get the surprise of their young lives, a catch so large it threatened to swamp two boats. And Peter, like Paul, recognizes his unworthiness, falls on his face and asks for mercy. But in that gracious Jesus way, our Savior simply says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And the “left everything and followed,” perhaps because they felt like they owed him something in return for what he had done, but most likely because, like Paul, they recognized their duty derived from gratitude rather than obligation.

It would be nice to think that Jesus just frees us from our obligations so that we can follow him and leave everything behind. You could sort of get that reading from this story, right? That since they had brought in so many fish, they could take a little time off for a change? I would love to be able to tell you that God is going to make sure you win the lottery so that you can quit your jobs and go out proclaiming the Gospel all day long. But the truth of the matter is that what Simon Peter and his friends realized is that there was something even more valuable than the largest catch they’d ever made. And so they followed.

John D. Rockefeller once noted that “Every right implies a responsibility; Every opportunity, an obligation, Every possession, a duty.” If Rockefeller is correct, that every possession implies a duty, what is it we possess that creates a duty? Our Scripture readings this morning suggest that the value and virtue of gratitude is what should be behind every Scout’s, and every Christian’s, duty to God. We’re mistaken if we think we can actually pay God back. If we can’t even pay attention very long, how can we pay God back! But the good news of the Gospel is that God’s grace doesn’t demand repayment. Rather, it invites a response of gratitude, like Paul’s, and like Peter and the first disciples who followed Jesus that day. These guys possessed and professed a gratitude which changed their lives, and the lives of countless others.

And what did this duty look like as it was lived out every day? It was hard work, Paul tells us. “I worked harder than any of them,” he says. It was probably awe-filled, if Peter’s experience of Jesus tells us anything: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” It was probably frustrating at times, because if you think waiting around all day for a fish to bite is frustrating, imagine fishing without luck for human beings, as fickle and faithless as we often are. But at the same time, we have to believe there was joy and satisfaction in their duty. Over and over in his letters Paul writes of his joy in sharing the Gospel, despite his hardships and prison sentences. The early church had a way about it that attracted people, and not just because they were healing people and handing out food. The Flemish playwright, Maurice Maeterlinck, was on to something when he said, “Remember that happiness is as contagious as gloom. It should be the first duty of those who are happy to let others know of their gladness.” I think that’s what those new followers of Jesus were about, that’s what made their way of life so attractive. They did their duty with joy, from a place of gratitude, and it made all the difference.

You know, we don’t usually say, “It’s my duty to play.” We don’t say, “It’s my duty to enjoy my life.” We say, “I have jury duty.” We appeal to a sense of duty when we want to compel someone to do something. Our duty is all wrapped up in our culture and our shame and our guilt about not doing enough. And we have largely turned duty into a list of things to do, to check off the boxes of the things we think we are supposed to be doing. Duty is almost always attached to other words which make duty seem like a pretty unpleasant thing. An officer appears at your door and says, “It is my duty to inform you that there has been an accident.” Duty, responsibility, obligation. Not much fun in there. Duty always seems to be about “having to do something.”

But what if I told you that to God’s way of thinking, we do have a duty to play. That we have a duty to enjoy life. That in the kingdom, the word duty is synonymous with opportunity, with joy, with gratitude. It’s the difference between, “I have to do this or that” and “I get to do this or that.” Following Jesus, our obligations get reframed. “I have to get up and workout,” can be re-framed as “I get to get up and run this morning through the beautiful landscape in my neighborhood.” “I have to get this presentation done,” can be re-framed as “I get to work on this presentation that will now be even better.” “I have to meet with this difficult student,” can be re-framed as “I get to meet with this student who has been difficult in the past, but this gives me another shot at getting through to him – and that would be a huge success.” Gratitude reframes our “have-to’s” of debt and obligation into our “get-to’s” of joy and satisfaction. And that make duty to God a blessing rather than a burden.

I have seen our Scouts of all ages in action and I believe they are learning that duty to God is more than just the exercises they have to do one a year to move up a rank. My prayer is that they will always take the time to be grateful for all that is being invested in them by their families and schools and churches and scout leaders, and that when given the opportunity to “do a good turn,” they will find the same joy and satisfaction Paul and the first disciples found as they did their duty to God. And my further prayer is that this church will understand its duty to God through Scouting as a source of joy and satisfaction as well, grateful for the opportunity to pass on, like Paul did, what we have received, the message of the Gospel and all that has been shared with us down through the years. At times we may feel like a groggy Fred the Baker waking up at 3:30 in the morning to make the donuts, but we know there is joy and satisfaction in our labors. May we all respond to the wakeup call of God’s grace with our joyful duty to God. Amen.