Sunday, September 24, 2017

Pentecost 16A, 2017: The fairness nerve

Lectionary: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

“Is thine eye evil because I am good?” That’s the KJV of that 2nd last sentence of our gospel. God asks: Is my goodness to someone else making you sad, causing you pain, or annoying you?

Why? Because they didn’t earn it?

This parable touches a nerve most of us have. I call it the fairness nerve. If a person works a full day, they should get a full day’s pay, but if they work only an hour or two, their pay should be pro-rated to the number of hours worked. It’s only fair.

Perhaps that’s true in earthly matters, but this parable from Jesus makes it clear that it is definitely not true in the kingdom of God. There are two important points here: 1) grace is God’s to give to whomever God chooses in whatever measure God chooses; and 2) grace is a gift; not something we earn.

That can be an irritating rub. Deathbed conversions, for example, really bother us. Why should someone get to misbehave their whole lives, repent at the last minute, and still get into heaven? Because isn’t it everyone’s goal to misbehave and get away with it? No. That isn’t the rub. The rub is that they don’t have to work for the kingdom ahead of entering it... like we do.

In today’s parlance: why should someone who doesn’t have a job get welfare, or citizenship, or healthcare? It isn’t fair.

Perhaps we who are Christians might look at all of this differently – from the heavenly perspective given to us in Scripture. St. Paul says, “To me, living is Christ… [Note: what the word ‘Christ’ means is ‘anointed’ to serve the people of God on behalf of God.] …If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me…” In other words, while I live, I desire to live as if I’m chosen and gifted by God (Christ) to serve God’s people.

It isn’t about getting away with anything, and it isn’t about getting something for nothing. It’s about being able to use our gifts, individually and corporately, and every minute of our lives to work to make the kingdom of God a reality on the earth.

How do we do that? The answer is in Jesus’ parable: A landowner (God) goes out to the marketplace in order to find people who have no job. He goes out early in the morning, then again at 9am, then again at noon, again at 3 pm, and finally at 5 pm. To this last group, the ones who have done no work all day, God asks, “Why are you standing idle all day?” They respond: “Because no one has hired us.” In other words, we have gifts to offer but no one will offer us an opportunity use them.

Opportunity on earth is not always fairly or evenly doled out. Neither are rewards. So for Christians, our work is to live so that God’s will is “done on earth as it is in heaven.” Isn’t that what we say each time we pray the prayer our Lord taught us?

And God’s will, according to Jesus in this parable, is to open up opportunities for each life to matter; for everyone’s gifts to be used in the kingdom of God. The landowner went out over and over again seeking those people who had no work, not because the vineyard needed more laborers, but because the laborers needed the opportunity to work…to matter… to be part of a community… to use their gifts.

People needed and God provided –as God always does.

Isn’t that what today’s story in Exodus is all about? God’s people are out in the wilderness grumbling at Moses complaining that they’re hungry. God hears them and provides for them: meat (a real luxury under all circumstances!) and manna – a staple for their survival and a leader to help them recognize this new means of their provision. These flakes were not known to them. Moses had to tell them what it was.

People needed and God provided. It’s what God does.

The provision isn’t always what we think it’ll be though. The manna God rained down on them was new and strange, and it was constituted so that they couldn’t hoard it. They ate eat as much as they needed, then stopped. They didn’t – in fact, they couldn’t – save it or store it up for later use. God provided for their need each day and their journey gave them opportunity to learn to trust that. Our journey does the same for us. See if this is familiar: “Give us this day our daily bread…”

Do you think someone witnessing this Exodus scenario would have complained that the Israelites hadn’t labored for that manna and therefore shouldn’t have been able to eat it? That’s precisely what Jesus is teaching us in this parable. People do complain just like that. They always have… and they still are.

But God is still God, providing as generously as God always does and to whom God chooses. And God chooses those who need – whether they need food, employment, love, community (aka citizenship), forgiveness, or healthcare.

People need; and God provides. And God chooses us to be instruments of that provision today.

We are God’s partners in the work of reconciliation (see the Catechism in BCP) which is why St. Paul instructs the people of the church in Philippi:, “…live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ… standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind…” That’s what church is, and what church does. Church is an unique gift from God, it’s a mystical body that binds us one to another in faith and love. It unites our spirits and provides each of us the opportunity to labor in God’s vineyard – for living is Christ, and living means fruitful labor.

I commend to you a letter our Episcopal bishops sent three days ago asking President Trump and Congress not to end DACA (The Dreamers Act). This is the church in action.

Before you cringe and complain about my preaching politics, hear what Bp. Provenzano, the author of the letter, says: “At times, the teaching and preaching of the gospel can look like it’s making a political statement when it’s really about following the teachings of Jesus. This is what bishops are supposed to do. This is nuts and bolts,” Provenzano said. “It’s not a debatable issue. The kind of protectionism being promulgated in this country is contrary to the gospel.”

As Paul says: “live your live(s) in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ."

Jesus says very clearly – in today’s parable and elsewhere in our gospels - that those who are last in the world’s estimation are first in heaven’s priority; and therefore must be first in ours. Jesus uses today’s parable to teach his followers (us) that our labor must look like the landowner’s: going out over and over, all day long, seeking out those who have need and welcoming them in.

For our God is generous and provides for those who need.

If God desires to provide for those who need, and we desire to be in sync in the will of God, then we must desire as God does. Then living truly is Christ, as St. Paul said. For we have been anointed in our Baptism; chosen and gifted by God to serve in exactly this way.

We are God’s instruments of reconciliation in the world today. We seek out the people who need, welcome them in, and God provides for them.

I have found that in the realm of God everyone wins, so living as Christ benefits us as well. Here’s how: shifting our perspective from an earthly one to a heavenly one as we’ve discussed here today, relieves us of our anxiety about earthly things. Trusting in God to provide the meat and manna to satisfy the world’s needs today, we can focus on our labor, standing side by side, in unity of spirit, working to make the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

We labor in peace and joy and those whom we serve receive the grace of God through the labor of our hands and hearts. It is to that, as our Collect says (quoting St. Paul), that we hold fast and endure through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pentecost 15A, 2017: The gift of being forgiving

I had the privilege today of supplying at Ascension Episcopal Church in Hickory, NC. What a deeply faithful and joyful community of faith they are!

Lectionary: Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114 , Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

When I was a teenager, I was on a swim team with my younger sister. We used to practice in roped off lanes between
the docks on our lake. During one swim practice, my sister got a cramp and began to go under. When I jumped in to help her, she – like many other people who fear they are drowning – began to fight me.

I was trained as a lifeguard and she was an experienced swimmer, but the problem wasn’t about swimming. I knew my sister could die if I didn’t connect with her just then; and surprising even myself, I called out to her: “Sissy, do you trust me?”

The question caught her attention and she stopped flailing for just a moment. I used that pause in her panic to grab her into the save hold. Once in the save hold, her head was near mine, so I could speak assurances to her as we headed for shore.

In our story from Exodus God tells Moses to stretch out his hand. When I hear this I hear God saying this to Moses: Do you trust me? Will you go where I lead you, even if it’s into the sea where you might drown? I have promised to lead my people to the Promised Land, God says. Do you trust me? Take my people with you. Some are going to fight you. They’re just afraid. Hold onto them anyway.

Isn’t that the challenge facing every church community now? Within each faith community are people in various places on their spiritual journey. St. Paul refers to them as strong and weak in faith – which I think is a teeny bit judgmental, given his later advice, but…

As the early church struggled to evolve from being exclusively Jewish to being inclusively Christian, St. Paul cautions the people to refrain from passing judgment on one another, and from despising one another, reminding them that God has welcomed them all. But then, as now, people do pass judgment; and they fight, sometimes to the point of despising one another – yes, even in church! I know it’s probably never happened here, but it does happen – trust me.

Thankfully, our gospel reading addresses this issue directly. Peter asks Jesus, “if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? times?” Seven being a solid Biblical number. Jesus answers, “Not seven… but seventy-seven times.” In other words, as many times as it takes to free yourselves from the sin that interrupts your relationship.

We all sin.

Most of us talk about sin as those things we do that are wrong or harmful. That’s partly right. Theologian Karl Barth talks about sin as a state of separation – separation from God and separation from one another. It is in that state of separation that we do those things that are wrong and harmful.

So, it’s kind of like the disease versus the symptoms. We know there is a disease by the presence of the symptoms. We can treat the symptoms, but unless we cure the disease, we are not healed. That’s why Jesus brought us redemption by the forgiveness of sin, by bringing down all barriers that separate us from God and from one another.

Jesus didn’t just treat the symptoms, he cured the disease. In his most miserable moment, his most painful, humiliating moment as a human, Jesus prayed, and his prayer takes our breath away: “Father, forgive them…”

At our most miserable moments, when we are being unfairly treated, when those with power over us are acting corruptly, is this our prayer?

Years ago I visited a place in England called the Cathedral at Coventry. The city of Coventry was bombed into near oblivion during WWII and the cathedral was destroyed. When you go to the cathedral now, you will see that they didn’t clear away the rubble from the bombing. They simply built the new cathedral and attached it to the bombed out shell with a walkway.

The very first thing you see as you walk into the narthex of the new cathedral, built into the tile in the floor, are these the words: “Father forgive.” And every day they offer Noonday Prayer in the bombed out shell. They do not forget, but they do forgive.

We all sin. We all need to be forgiven. And we all need to be forgiving.

Jesus makes this very plain in the story of the wicked slave in the gospel. The slave-owner (God) forgives the slave who begs for mercy on the debt he can’t pay. Then that same slave goes out and cruelly and violently punishes those who owe him. When the slave-owner learns about this, he becomes enraged: You wicked slave! he says. I forgave you all your debt ... Shouldn’t you also have forgiven? For your lack of forgiveness, you are condemned to the punishment of eternal pain.

The lesson here is: when we refuse to forgive, we, like that wicked slave, are the ones who suffer.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “Forgiveness is a choice we make, and the ability to forgive others comes from the recognition that we are all flawed and all human. We have all made mistakes and harmed someone. We will again… Each of us has the capacity to commit the wrongs against others that were committed against us.”

And so we work to forgive those who have hurt us, harmed us, betrayed us, angered us, ignored us, demeaned us, made us feel ugly or worthless or embarrassed. We work to forgive those who shut their eyes and cover their ears to the truth – to our truth – whether it’s because they can’t hear it or because they won’t hear it. We work to forgive those who should have known better, who should have loved us better, but didn’t – or couldn’t.

To forgive is to trust that God will bring about divine justice, reconciliation, and wholeness from every experience of brokenness on earth. When we try to do this ourselves, it’s like trying to save ourselves from drowning. We can’t.

Each of us will need to be forgiven at some point in our lives, and each of us will need to forgive someone else – from the heart, as Jesus said. As Episcopalians we have the unique gift of the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent to help us get there. (BCP, 447) I highly recommend this rite. It’s what used to be called Confession.

I often hear the penitent, say that upon hearing the words of absolution spoken, they have an experience of release and freedom that is surprisingly intense – and transforming. I know that’s my experience as a penitent.

Forgiveness is a spiritual muscle we need to develop, and that’s what we do each Sunday together at our celebration of Holy Eucharist. We need one another, and we need to share in the nourishment of Word and Sacrament regularly together because that what strengthens us and unite us. We need to eat together, pray together, and play together. We even need to disagree together.

Church is where we learn and practice forgiveness so that we can take it out into the world, because as you know, our world remains sorely divided and enslaved by sin.

I close today with a poem from Mpho Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s daughter. It’s called “I will forgive”

“I will forgive you.
The words are so small, but there’s a universe hidden in them.

When I forgive you, all those cords of resentment, pain, and sadness
that had wrapped themselves around my heart
will be gone.

When I forgive you, you will no longer define me.
You measured me, and assessed me,
and decided that you could hurt me,
that I didn’t count.

But I will forgive you because I do count.
I do matter.
I am bigger than the image you have of me.

I am stronger. I am more beautiful.
I am infinitely more precious than you thought me.
I will forgive you.

My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you.
When I forgive you,
my forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me.”