Sunday, September 24, 2023

Pentecost 17, 2023-A: Choosing to celebrate divine grace

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

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. 

I love avocadoes, and anyone else who loves them knows how important it is not to miss that tiny magic window of their ripening. One of my favorite memes on social media says it like this, in the voice of the avocado… “Not ripe… not ripe… not ripe… I’m ripe. Eat me now!... Too late…”

At our Bible study this week one of our members told us about his son who has a vineyard in CA that grows grapes for wine. He says that when the grapes are ready to harvest, there is a small window to get them all picked before they go bad. It’s possible that the whole vineyard might have to be harvested in a single day, requiring lots of help. He talked about there being a sense of urgency, and that his son would welcome anyone who could come help any time during the harvest.

This urgency, and the welcoming of anyone who will help with the harvest, is reflected in our gospel story today. It’s a story that is rich in teachings about the differences between the way of heaven and the way of earth, about faith and reward, and about our sense of justice vs. God’s. Also, like last week, it comes down to our choice.

The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is disturbing. It pricks our sense of fairness. Why should someone who worked only an hour get paid the same as someone who worked all day?

We move easily from that question to the faith-related one: why should someone who has lived a lifetime of sin be able to have a last-minute conversion and receive the same reward as those of us who have lived a good and moral life all along?

It makes me wonder… are we jealous of them? Is living sinfully more appealing than living virtuously? Would we, if we could, choose to get away with living sinfully for as long as possible, then start living right just before we die?

And what exactly is the reward we are seeking? Is it admission into heaven after we die – or the avoidance of eternal hell and damnation?

Sadly, the Church has spent a lot of time holding up our eternal reward as a carrot on a stick, an enticement. The metaphor implies that if we don’t go where the carrot leads us, we will get whipped by the stick as punishment. Effective, but not faithful, and on behalf of the Church, I apologize to anyone who received this message.

The truth is, God doesn’t hold up any enticements for us. They aren’t necessary. Neither is God waiting to punish us if we don’t go where we’re led or do what we “should” do. The choice to follow God, to live in the life of God on earth, is always ours to make. When we choose that, then cry out in distress because things went wrong, God is there, listening, loving, and sustaining us.

As we heard in our reading from Exodus, even when God’s people balked and complained, God remained with them, responding to their needs and providing all that was necessary as they journeyed to the Promised Land.

And what is the Promised Land? I’ll tell you what it isn’t: it isn’t a place in the same way the kingdom of God isn’t a place. The kingdom of God, in Greek the basileia of God, is about God’s dominion, God’s power, and God’s way.

God’s dominion is over the totality of all that is, ever was, and ever will be because God is the creator of all. God’s power is love, emanating again and again into physical form in what is created, transforming sin by forgiveness and division into unity, in other words, earth into heaven. Finally, God’s way is becoming one with the created, first in Jesus, then by our Baptism, in all of us, dwelling with us on our earthly pilgrimage, and, at the end of our lives, reconciling us back into the love that created us.

Our Promised Land, our reward is living our lives in the eternal presence of God, becoming aware of our oneness with God in our hearts, minds, spirits, and souls. How blessed are we who get to know this for most or all of our lives? How much, then should we rejoice, each time someone comes to know and live this reward - no matter how late they arrive at it?

Let’s look more deeply at these latecomers. Beginning with the story from our Scripture, the day laborers were unemployed, very poor, and had little to no protection. They were desperate, which made them vulnerable to cruel employers. They usually earned a pittance, barely enough to feed themselves, much less their families. They would never get ahead on their wages. They could only survive day to day.

The day would begin for them standing outside in the town square waiting to get “picked” for work. Some might say that those who came early were motivated to work and, therefore, more deserving of being picked than those who came later. Unless… they had a sick family member or little ones at home they had to prepare to be alone all day. Unless… they themselves were sick or worn out from their labor the day before. Unless… they had arrived early and were picked by a cruel employer, so they left there and went back to the town square to try and get picked again.

Each day, these laborers would wonder if they would survive the day. They’d fret over not earning enough to feed their families and stress over whether or not they’d get picked to work or get picked by a cruel employer and what that would mean for them. Would they survive unhurt? Would they get sick from poor food, intense labor, or unsafe conditions?

These laborers weren’t getting away with anything. The grace the vineyard owner showed them was divine grace. Their suffering was known, and someone cared about them enough to provide what they needed. The amount they received was the right amount in the way of heaven, even if it seems unfair in the way of earth.

Those laborers who were picked by the vineyard owner early in the day enjoyed a full day’s labor in safe conditions. They received the payment they were promised. Their hard work was rewarded. Their expectation that they should receive more than someone else, someone who didn’t work as long or as much as they did is the perspective of the way of earth, and its focus is on the self: I worked all day. I deserve more than that person over there who only worked an hour.

The way of heaven is different. Remembering the urgency of the harvest and the need for help, what if the laborers chosen in the morning celebrated each time more help arrived? What if their focus was on the harvest, and not themselves? What if the community of laborers bonded in solidarity with one another, celebrating what they had been given rather than complaining about what they didn’t have compared to someone else? That would be the way of heaven happening on earth.

Now let’s consider how this metaphor works regarding faith. Do we celebrate that one who had been lost and now has been found, that one who had been separated and is now reunited in the family of God?

The way of heaven on earth is not a zero-sum game. One doesn’t get reconciled to God by kicking another one out. The love of God is inclusive of all who are created of God - which is everyone, anywhere, in any time.

Remembering that sin is separation from God, one another, and even oneself, when someone is living a sin-full life, they aren’t getting away with anything. They are lost, alone, desperate to be truly loved and to belong to a community.

They may look like they’re OK or having fun in their debauchery, but they aren’t. That’s just their public face, which is a defense against their pain and loneliness. Behind closed doors, there are drugs or alcohol to numb their pain, licentiousness to help them feel connected to anyone in any way, and self-harm to punish themselves for their unworthiness – or just to feel alive, instead of like the walking dead.

How can we not rejoice when one of these finally recognizes that they can choose to receive the grace God is continually offering? How can we not celebrate that by this choice, their suffering and loneliness are ended, they know they are loved and cared for, and that they are part of something big and wonderful: the family of God?

Reconciliation is God’s justice. It is God’s grace, God’s gift to all of us. How can we do anything but celebrate whenever it happens?

Let us pray: Generous God, thank you for setting us free to receive the abundance you always have ready to give to us. Help us to remember that you created us all, you love us all, and you choose us all. Unite us into one body by your Holy Spirit, that we may rejoice to serve you, working to make life on earth more like life in the kingdom of heaven. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

16 Pentecost, 2023-A: Co-creators of heaven on earth

 Lectionary (Proper 19): Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35 

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

Our Scripture today is all about relationship: God’s relationship with us (the way of heaven) and our relationships with one another (the way of earth). As Christians, it is our mission to make the way of heaven and the way of earth the same reality, the only reality – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Our Scripture stories teach us that the way of heaven is characterized by mercy and forgiveness while the way of earth is too often unmerciful and unforgiving. While the words of our stories today may be jarring and difficult to hear, the overriding message is such good news! The ultimate plan of God is for the redemption of the whole world, the reclamation of all back into the love from which we were created.

Forgiveness is complicated. We often have to offer it in the absence of satisfaction. It’s only natural to want to be satisfied that someone knows we’ve been wronged and makes it right again, but often, what we seek as justice is really retribution or revenge.

In addition, the one who sinned against us may never acknowledge their sin or accept our forgiveness. That doesn’t matter because when we offer forgiveness, it isn’t to fix a problem or heal a wound. It’s to let it go, to release it, to loose it, and trust God to do the rest.

Ultimately, forgiveness is a gift of freedom. It frees our thoughts from the tyrannical presence of the sinner and the sin. It frees our bodies from the stresses of the hurt and pain. And it frees our souls from the bleeding of the ruptured relationship.

I share 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.”
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 - just for 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.

Sometimes God’s save hold feels like that.

In our story from Exodus God tells Moses to stretch out his hand. God is asking 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.

The part of this story that jars us is the end of it. What about those Egyptians who lay dead on the shore? How can God destroy people like that? Aren’t they also children of God?

The answer is yes! There is a traditional Jewish midrash (commentary) that says, “on seeing the drowning Egyptians the angels were about to break into song when God silenced them declaring, “How dare you sing for joy when” my children lay dead on the ground? (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b).

God’s plan is for the reconciliation of the whole world. Therefore, it always includes reclaiming the least, the lost, the hated, and the hateful. Reconciliation re-establishes relationship with them which restores the family of God to wholeness.

By our Baptism, we have been made co-creators with God. As we heard last week, what we hold bound on earth, is held bound in heaven and what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. This is how we co-create the reality in which we live. We choose it.

The sin, the hurt, the wound we cling to remain in us. The rupture in relationship caused by the sin takes up space in our thoughts and eventually affects our bodies. Anger, resentment, and tension become stomach aches, headaches, high blood pressure, and lots of other somatic symptoms. Is this the reality we want?

Our other choice is to forgive. When we forgive, we set the sin and the sinner loose. We release it from ourselves, our bodies and souls, and trust God to bring about justice and reconciliation – remembering that God’s plan includes the reclamation of all – even the one who sinned.

It may take a moment, or it may take years. Sometimes justice and reconciliation may not be something we get to see happen in our lifetime, but it will happen. That’s the promise.

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 from God and one another. It is when we are in that state of separation that we do those things that are wrong and harmful.

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, bringing down all barriers that separate us from God and from one another.

In his most miserable, painful, humiliating moment as a human, as he was dying on the cross, Jesus’ prayer takes our breath away: “Father, forgive them…” At our most miserable moments, when we have been unfairly treated or wronged, 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 adjacent 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, written in the tile on the floor, are the words: “Father forgive” and every day they offer Noonday Prayer in the bombed-out shell. They do not forget, but they continually forgive.

We all must continually forgive every time the hurt or anger rises up in us again. It’s a process.

Since 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 repay. 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. Shouldn’t you have forgiven them as I forgave you? By not forgiving, you have held that sin bound and condemned yourself to an eternity of torture by your choice.

When we refuse to forgive, we are the ones who suffer. Whether we refuse to forgive another, or ourselves, or even when we refuse to forgive God, we suffer because our relationship has been disrupted. We, who are one, become fractured. If you’ve ever broken a bone, you know how painful a fracture is. The same is true of a fractured relationship.

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. Forgiveness is a spiritual muscle we must develop and practice and church is where we do that. Offering our prayers and praise to God and sharing in God’s holy food of Communion strengthens and unites us. We need to eat together, pray together, and play together. We even need to disagree together.

Church is where we co-create the way of heaven on earth. It’s 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 held bound by sin.

Each one of us is created by God, treasured of God, gifted and sent by God to co-create the way heaven on earth. Our church equips and supports us to accomplish this. After our worship today we will enjoy time together at our Homecoming Picnic with Community Matters & Ministry Fair, connecting the dots, that is, listening for how God is gifting us in this moment of our Christian journey, then finding the ministries of the church that enable us to use those gifts as we work together to make the way of heaven and the way of earth the same reality, the only reality. Amen.