Common Faith, Common People

Revised Common Lectionary Reading: Luke 17:5-10
This American Life Episode 172: 24 Hours at the Golden Apple

Never do what others can do for themselves. Those words, by Saul Alinsky, easily grabs the attention of anyone who has worked as a community organizer. I have not done any actual work as a community organizer but I have been involved in various initiatives speared by community advocacy groups. I did, however, participate in a small, one-night training session in which the community organizer leading said, “never thank a person for signing a [union] card.” That stuck with me. In a world where your “please” and “thank you” make up almost the totality of politeness, a lack of gratitude seems deviant. Yet, this person had in mind Alinsky’s words – people ought to do what they can do themselves, some times they do not and so you have to motivate them. But, when they finally do whatever it is they are supposed to be doing, do not thank them. Why thank someone for something they ought to be doing in the first place?

Luke’s reading this week might seem troublesome at first glance. Jesus seems to tell his listeners to be worthless slaves – a pejorative idea in today’s context. I doubt however, as other Biblical commentators do, that Jesus’ intention was to have every listener behave as slave or a worthless person. Instead, Jesus merely uses a common day example, just a description of what is going on at the time, to get a point across – do what you ought to be doing. 

This reminds me of an episode of This American Life in which the show’s staff spends 24 hours at a diner in Chicago. Their goal: simply talk to people at the diner. At first glance, this episode seems disconnected to the reading from Luke. But, just like Luke’s placement of this story says something about faith and Christian attitude, so can this episode shed light on what Luke is trying to say about such faith and Christian attitude.

The Golden Apple is a dinner in Chicago that’s open 24 hours. Many people go through the diner every time, thus creating an interesting pool of people and stories. Scott and Tom are introduced immediately on the show. They seem to have a normal, not necessarily interesting story. Yet, we find from host Ira Glass that Scott has just finished a bartending shift where he was giving free drinks to his friend Tom. Tom, nonetheless, appeared ungrateful at his friend’s generosity.

Eddie, a regular at the diner, comes in a few times a week and plays his harmonica, mostly unnoticed by other diner patrons. Joe tells the story of working, at the age of 10 or 11, for a dime an hour at his father’s construction business. He has now passed that same business to his 2 sons. This American Life contributor Nancy Updike describes the early morning atmosphere as a comfortable silence; contributing to a sense of community though everyone is OK not talking at all.

We then hear about Donna, a waitress working the night shift at the Golden Apple for 26 years. And, we hear her story – a divorced woman in her 20s with three young children. She moved from Oklahoma City to Chicago with no education and takes the night shift so she can spend the day time with her children. She often goes to plays starring actors who work, just like her, waiting tables at other restaurants. She listens to demo tapes of bands and looks at artwork done by artists, all customers of the diner and people she’s had the opportunity of getting to know. On Christmas, she bakes cookies for the homeless, cab drivers or old men who might happen to come by that night.

Manuel, a retired carpenter who immigrated from Mexico in the 1960s and one of the construction workers for the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) comes in and asks the waiter for help with a letter he received in the mail. It seems to be a common theme of people coming in just to talk to the waiters or ask them for help with things like correspondence.

During the late night ours the diner gets a bit more hectic, specially with drunk people coming off the nearby bars that have just closed. There’s Allison and Danielle, two teenaged best friends who seem to be opposite. Danielle says Allison is mature for her age and cares a lot about people. Danielle is not like that but they remain best friends. And then, you have Norman and Clark, two Chicago police officers who have been partners for a long time. They talk about how the know each other, in other words, they’re not just partners but friends.

So what does all this have to do with what Luke is trying to say? First, let’s look quickly at the passages from Luke. The reading begins with the disciples asking for more faith. Jesus basically responds by saying that having faith pretty much equates with things that cannot naturally be done. And then, Jesus jumps to telling his listeners how they act as masters and then how they should act as slaves. Some think that the thematic changes in these few verses is too drastic. However, some argue that Luke is trying that faith is not something to be build up. Instead, faith is divine and the best we can do is to be dutiful Christians. This does not mean that Jesus tries to establish a master-slave relationship among us but uses that as an example to show that we must do whatever it is we ought to do, not in order to receive praise or gratitude but simply because it is what ought to be done.

This episode of This American Life reminds me of this passage in Luke because the entire show is made up of stories by every day people who are just that – every day people. People who give their friends free drinks even if the friend remains ungrateful. People who play music, unappreciated. A waiter who takes a night job for 26 years so she can spend the days with her kids. Or, the same person who goes beyond serving food and doing little things that help out the people she meets on her job. Or about a man who was part of constructing one of the tallest buildings in the world, yet whose name will probably never appear on any plaques or awards. These people are being friends, carpenters, waiters just because that is what they ought to be doing and not waiting for gratitude from others. They are not heroes; they simply do whatever it is they ought to be doing. And, Jesus tells that dutifully doing what we ought to do helps our faith as Christians.

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