Friday, September 30, 2011

Sept. 18, 2011

Matthew 20:1-16
1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, "Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard.' 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9 When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.”  You all probably know the rest, or at least some part of the rest.  That hymn is about as deep in our bones as any one hymn can be.  So deep, in fact, that we tend to gloss right over what is actually being said, or as, the title of one popular Christian book puts it, “What’s so amazing about grace?” Well, to answer that question, we have to pose a few others, a few like, well, what is grace to begin with?  And also, why do we experience it to be as frustrating as it is amazing? 

One of the reasons I love spending time with my nieces, apart from the obvious, is that they are wonderful instructors in what it means to be human, just like all children.  There it is, human pride, joy, anger, trust, love, resentment, all of it, right there in the raw.  And if there is one thing that I have learned from spending time with the seven dwarfs, if you will, is that kids, like us all,  have an innate sense of fairness.  The instant one of my nieces suspects that I am paying more attention to a different niece, I am called on it: “Uncle Justin, you have only pushed Annika on the swing; that’s not fair.”  And try as I might to rationalize the complexities, morally speaking, of all this, how Annika is my goddaughter, how she and I bonded during my brother’s divorce, how I feel especially protective of her because she can often get pushed to the side and does not get as much adult attention, none of that matters.  For they are right in terms of how my time is being divided.  Annika probably does get more attention from me, and you know what, it is not fair.  Deep beneath those other issues and complicating factors is the glaring reality of whether or not I am being fair; there is nothing quite like seven nieces to cut you down to size a bit.  

And it is precisely this issue of fairness that stalks us from the background of these particular stories, and it is this issue of fairness that can make grace not amazing but frustrating, maddening, infuriating, even.  Look, if you will at the Gospel.  The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is like a land owner who will pay everyone the same regardless of the amount of work that they have done.  It matters little if you clocked in on time and have been doing all those little things that go unnoticed or if you showed up horribly late for your shift and managed to again, get away with it.  Now please do not gloss over your gut reaction to this; you are right, this is fundamentally unfair.  From our perspective, it makes little sense and it is more than a little frustrating.  What kind of God is willing to do this sort of thing, to doll out payment it seems, with no regard to how much labor has been done, how much effort put forth and how much sweat dripped from the brutality of the mid-day sun? 
What is so very interesting about this reaction of ours, though, is that, rather than first being some sort of commentary on what we think about God, it reveals some deeply held belief we have about ourselves.   It would be impossible, you see, to respond with anger, like Jonah, to God’s mercy and grace if we did not first assume that we were somehow more worthy of that unearned love and mercy, that absurdly generous paycheck.  For reasons that are personal and communal, we believe ourselves to be the first workers.  Some where along the way, the faith that we have been gifted, the love that has been shown to us, the Christ who calls to go work joyously in his kingdom, some where, we mistook the gift for something that was ours to possess.  And it is not that this is one time affair, but it seems to be something that we do constantly.  When this happens, there is nothing waiting for us but frustration and resentment.  Resentment towards those whom we believe have not earned God’s grace as we have, and resentment towards God, as we cry along with Jonah: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  

The fundamental mistake that we make can be heard in God’s answer to both Jonah and to those first workers: “Is it right for you to be angry?” and “am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”  Yes, in both of these questions, utterly rhetorical one might add, the reality is being named: we do not possess God’s mercy and we are not given the authority to determine where that mercy ends up or whom it may come to name.  To put this as simply and forcibly as possible, God does not consult us before extending divine love and care to both our neighbors and our enemies.  And if we are in the business of wanting to reduce God’s mercy to our sense of what is fair or unfair, if we believe, like those first workers, that we can somehow tell God what to do with those things that belong always and only to God, this will strike us a dead end.  We will bang our heads against God’s own incomprehensibility and wish, perhaps a touch less mellow dramatically than Jonah, to just be done with this whole mess.  

But, this is by no means the only option for us.  Because in our more honest moments, when that odd mixture of pride and despair dissipates in Christ’s  warm light, we realize this: we are not the first workers, none of us. None of us stands in the position to rightly dole out Christ’s mercy and grace, and to make this presumption is both arrogant and foolish.   No matter how long or well we have lived lives of faith, no matter how well we believe we have behaved, or how committed we believe ourselves to be, none of that allows us to possess the gift as though it were only ours.  Instead, we, all of us together, and the whole church down through time and space, yes, all those whom Christ has called and continues to call, we are all those workers who were found just a short while before closing time who somehow receive a day’s wages.  And rather than this being a burden, or a blow to our spiritual self-esteem, or point of utter frustration, this is actually what grace means.  It means that you have been chosen by God in Christ Jesus and called to live into the utter giftedness where you receive so much more than you could even possess.  It means letting go of our attempts at controlling God and simply enjoying the fact that Christ’s mercy has found and named us, and that He has given us all that he has:  that Christ has given, through the waters of baptism and in this Holy Supper, his own body, his own blood, his peace which surpasses all human understanding and the love that the Father has poured out onto him from everlasting to everlasting, to say nothing of the blessed Holy Spirit that sustains and upholds, that keeps Christ close by your side through all darkness and strife.   All of that, quite literally all of that, is the gift that you are given again and again and again.  This is something much wider than we can possess, instead, it possesses and animates us. And with all the saints of God, all those whom Christ has called and continues to call, you have been gathered to go find this Christ who has already found you.  For you have been given the vision to see Christ in the hungry neighbor or the restless poor; in the lonely child and the mourning widow.  With the full knowledge that even who we are is an utter gift,  we are free to explore how this same God is calling and naming others. For you belong to Christ, and in him, you have all things.  Is it fair, no, it is not, and we can thank God for that.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Sept, 11, 2011

Matthew 18:21-35
21 Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, "Pay what you owe.' 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Along with expressions of the value of  hard work, personal responsibility and caring for others, typical among lists of parents’ wishes for their children, my father had another refrain that I recall from my childhood.  As a one who deeply values studying history and had lived through some interesting history himself, my father would frequently tell my siblings and I that he “hoped we lived through interesting times.”  Now, I do not know exactly the specific content of that phrase, but I am certain that he did not mean the events that transpired on Sept. 11, 2001.  I am certain of this because he was the first person I called after a new dorm mate of mine informed me of what was happening, as we were brushing our teeth in a communal bathroom.  I remember returning to my dorm room, turning on the tv, and promptly calling my father.  He was steady and reassuring, in that way that fathers tend to be, though I could tell that he too was shaken up.  Shaken up because, in spite of that paternal steadiness, there were no answers that could be easily accessed, no answers for his sobbing son who was already having a hard time adjusting to college, no answers that could rationalize the radical evil that that was now being broadcast on every television channel across the country.
And ten years have past, ten years full of political and economic strife, ten years in which we have become increasingly divided in our politics, though oddly unified in our belief that we have nothing to learn from the other side, ten years and two wars, the question of radical evil remains, and it is just as stupefying as it was on that horrible Tuesday morning. The questions persist, and though we can hazard answers as to the geo-political and in some cases religious realities that gave rise to this brave new world, none of that is fully satisfying.  None of the analysis, regardless if it comes from Foxnews or MSNBC, can actually make us feel any safer, and if there is one reality that has persisted and grown in these ten years, it is the awareness that the world is perhaps infinitely more dangerous and our own stations in life infinitely more fragile than we once believed.  The impossible was being broadcast into every living room and there were no easy answers available to make any sense of it all. 
And while this horrific event may have shattered our collective notions of invincibility in a new way, that the world is a dangerous place and that we are implicated in this danger, this is a reality as old as humanity itself.  Take, if you will, the first reading for the day.  What we have before us is the culmination of one of the most marvelous stories in the whole of Scripture: the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers. As beautiful as the passage is on its own, when taken in the context of the whole story, it is almost too wonderful for words.  So, to remind ourselves as to why Joseph’s brothers might be a bit afraid of him, let’s briefly look at the entire story.  If you will recall, Joseph’s father, Isaac or Israel, loved and cared for Joseph more than his other brothers, Joseph being the youngest. One way that Isaac demonstrates this love is by giving Joseph an absurdly expensive coat, the one of amazing Technicolor dream fame.  What is more, this Joseph is not exactly the victim who receives this extra attention with any sense of awareness or humility.  Instead, this boy, given to ecstatic dreams, informs his brothers that they will someday bow down to him, an act that occasions even the rebuke of his doting father. This is not what one would call keeping a low profile. To put it frankly, and this might be the middle brother coming out in me, Joseph is a bit of a brat, a bit spoiled, protected as he is by his father’s strong hand.   The other brothers, understandably jealous and tired of the unfair treatment, stop just short of killing Joseph, instead putting him a pit and then selling into slavery in Egypt.  Now, as these things tend to go, the brothers end up relying on Joseph in a way they could have never anticipated.  Turns out that that whole crazy dream thing Joseph had going actually ended up being quite an asset.  It lands him in the halls of power, his dreams being politically useful, predictive as they are of a coming drought and famine, allowing Egypt to be prepared with enough food to make it through.   You can see where all of this is headed, the brothers literally on starvation’s inhospitable door, and now unknowingly dependent on the mercy of the brother that they submitted to treatment a tad bit more harsh than typical fraternal hazing.  Though there is a scene of reconciliation prior to this reading, a scene in which Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and extends forgiveness, the brothers, still rotting from the guilt of their pasts and with father Isaac now dead, his controlling influence gone with him,  need a bit more reassure.  Realizing that their fate rests entirely in the hands of Joseph, they need to know that past grudges are forgiven so that their futures may be secure.
And you can’t really blame them for this due diligence or their expectation that forgiveness from young Joseph might still be a ways out, given what they did to him.  Sibling rivalry and jealousy are givens, we all know this from our own life experience; literally selling your brother off is quite another.  Dr. Phil, then, does not have the market cornered on family dysfunction.  So, having been ground down by the harsh unpredictability of life, they throw themselves on the mercy of their brother, hoping, it seems, for the bare minimum, a cease fire, a truce.  But what they receive they could have never anticipated.  They, for what feels like the first time, actually receive their brother.  Amidst their own tears and recollection, they are given back to the brother that they never really had.  They are given the joy of relationship with the brother they had envied, hated and left for dead.  In a word, they are given grace.
What, then, compels Joseph to behave this way, holding all the cards and yet throwing them away in favor of fraternal embrace?  Well, it is this most remarkable statement: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”  It was the realization that not even the evil intentions of his brothers could preclude God’s activity; which is perhaps the deepest mystery that we can fathom.   That God remains active in a world where brothers will sell each other off out of jealousy and men will turn commercial airplanes into missiles.  That however fragile we are in this world, and make no mistake, we are indeed fragile, God’s love and care will continue to uphold and sustain us.  This is what Joseph realizes: the profound mystery that God can use human evil and make of it something life-giving, even to those who perpetuate that evil.  This is the story that Joseph learns, and it is the story that will continue to be enacted until God, in the flesh of Jesus Christ, suffers our evil and gives in return the life, peace and joy he shares with the Father and the Spirit through all eternity.  There is no way to rationalize radical evil, not the radical evil we saw ten years ago nor the evil that is radical in its subtlety, asking us to dehumanize those with whom we disagree until all manner of chaos ensues.  To this, there is no human answer, but there is a divine one.  Even this evil can be used by the God of cross and open tomb for divine good.  This we cannot explain but only offer our deepest praise and thanksgiving.  In Jesus’ name, amen.