The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's not fair

Pentecost 14A, Proper 20

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This is a difficult parable for many of us to hear: those who do the least are rewarded the same as those who do the most.  Particularly to our American ears - so steeped in the Protestant work ethic and the promises of meritocracy and against the dominant cultural symbol of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.  It just doesn’t seem to add up against everything that our culture teaches us.

It might be particularly troubling to hear this lesson in these days of a down economy.  Prices for nearly everything that we need to buy keep rising, but wages aren’t keeping pace.  The basic structure of this parable resonates with us: unemployment rates have remained too high for too long, so many of us understand what it’s like to be the late laborers - looking for work, perhaps even just enough to get by on, and too often without success.  And even those of us who haven’t experienced that anxiety directly know someone who has.

So why have these people in the story been compensated for work that they didn’t do?  Moreover, why did those poor laborers who had been working all day get the same as those who just worked for a bit?

It’s not fair.

And we’re not the only ones to think so.  When those workers who had given their whole day received their pay, “they grumbled against the landowner 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.’”  In essence they were saying, “It’s not fair!”

And it’s not.  At least not the way we usually define “fair”.

The story we read about the Israelites’ time in the desert from the Exodus offers another perspective.

They, too, were grumbling against their leaders.  Times were hard, wandering through the desert.  Resources were scarce.  The people were afraid, and they began to wonder if being freed from Pharaoh’s bondage was really the best thing for them after all - slavery had been hard, but at least they hadn’t been starving!

God heard the people’s grumbling and said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.”  In the evenings quail came and gave them all the meat they needed.  In the mornings, the bread for the day was scattered across the desert floor.  In this way the people of Israel were sustained.

They were sustained with enough for the day.  Not with storehouses of food, but just with enough for the day.

They couldn’t rest on a one-time gift from God that brought them through the forty years of wandering.  Each day they went out to get ‘just enough’.

In God’s economy, the defining measurement is not fairness, but enough-ness.

We often talk about God’s abundance, but that doesn’t mean the streets will be paved with gold, or that our pockets will be overflowing with money.  It doesn’t mean we will have resources to waste, and certainly not that we’re guaranteed to have as much as some of the people around us.  It only means that we will have enough.

Think about the Lord’s Prayer - those familiar words written on all of our hearts.  When Jesus taught us to pray, he said: ‘give us this day our daily bread’.  Not ‘give us this day our winning lottery numbers’.  Not ‘give us this day as much as our neighbor’.  And certainly not ‘give us this day what is fair’.  (The truth is, none of us want that.)

But no, it’s ‘give us this day our daily bread’.  Give us this day enough.  Help us get through today and we’ll think about tomorrow when it comes.

It’s a humble prayer.  And it’s how we were taught to interact with God.

The people who worked in the vineyard for just one hour earned enough to sustain them for the day.  So, too, did the people who had worked all day.  They didn’t get rich; they got sustained.  They got enough.

God’s grace is not bestowed on us according to how much we deserve it, but according to how grace-filled God is.

It doesn’t make sense in a capitalist system.  It doesn’t make sense to a culture that teaches and values the concept of meritocracy.  In God’s economy no one ‘pulls themselves up by their bootstraps’.

We are all sustained, not by our own merits, but by God’s grace - God’s overflowing and abundant, though never wasted grace.

It’s certainly not fair.

Thank God!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering and Forgiveness

Pentecost 13A, Proper 19

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It feels strange to be talking about forgiveness today - on this the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001.

But really, that’s one of the gifts in the lectionary cycle of readings for worship.  Other churches or church leaders might sometimes be tempted to look past some of the more difficult readings, or the way certain readings interact with world events, but in our tradition that’s not possible.  We read and reflect on the text appointed for the day.

And today we’ve been given this - forgiveness.

“How many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?  Seven times?”

“No.  Seventy-seven times!”  Or some sources say, “Seventy TIMES seven times.”  (If you’re curious enough to think it through, that one comes out to 490 times for forgiveness.)

But the point isn’t the number of “times” we offer forgiveness.  Even if you take the larger number, it’s not like saying to your neighbor, “Okay, that’s one.  489 more times and we’re done!”

That’s not the point.

The point is that forgiveness is an ongoing process.  Forgiveness can’t end.  A truly forgiving heart draws from a well of love and grace that never runs dry.  When you can’t forgive anymore, that’s when it’s time to dig deeper and find a way.

Just as is so much of the Christian message, this, too, is a difficult message to hear.

In the church we know - at least intellectually - that we are charged to replicate the kind of forgiveness that has been extended to- and modeled for us.  But the problem with that is, too often we try to rush forgiveness without doing the work that true forgiveness requires.

Because we think it’s what we ought to do, we often proclaim forgiveness before it’s real.

In his book Don’t Forgive Too Soon, Dennis Linn compares the process of forgiving with the process of overcoming grief.  Just as recovery from grief can’t be rushed, we, also, can’t be rushed into forgiveness if it’s to actually mean anything.

You’ve all probably heard about the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance - but Linn writes about those as five stages of forgiveness.  Recognizing the close relationship between forgiveness and grief, he uses that same framework to examine how we can move beyond pro forma expressions of expected forgiveness, into genuine forgiveness that springs from a place of deeper truth.

And the truth is, if forgiveness does not come from a place of truth, it will breed resentment.

A common (though unattributed) quote in twelve-step, recovery groups says that resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.  Without forgiveness, we are destined to breed resentment in our hearts.  And it will kill us spiritually.

Even if our brother or sister might only cause offense once - even then(!) we have to forgive “seventy times seven” times.  Only then can it begin to come from a place of truth.

The fact is we do hurt one another.  We do offend the heart of God.  We exploit each other.  We are unfaithful to each other.  We fail to recognize the humanity in each other.

We are all victims, and we are all guilty.

But we must learn to forgive.

So on this, the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001, we hear a call to forgiveness.

It doesn’t make sense.

It can seem all but impossible.

But we have to do it.  We have to find a way to forgive because it’s the call of Christ; and, because it’s necessary for our own spiritual health and wellness.  We have to keep finding ways to forgive, even in the face of our deepest pain; because even these ten years later the work is not yet done.

In these past ten years there has been a lot of talk about justice.  As a country, we’ve been seeking justice against the perpetrators and supporters of the horrors of that day.  We’ve taken a lot of steps - for good and for ill - at doling out justice around the world.  Too often we’ve mistaken revenge for justice.  But in the end, I believe that true justice will only come through deep forgiveness.  It’s only in a world where forgiveness is a way of life that we can ever hope to find that justice is a reality.

And forgiveness will only become a way of life when we keep practicing it.  Seventy-seven times.  Seventy times seven times.  Whenever the hurt and the anger and the fear are renewed, try to forgive again.  Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because doing it will make things right.

How many times are we to forgive our brothers and sisters when they sin against us?

As many times as it takes.

This is part of the hard work of following Christ.  May we all gain the strength to do this that we are called to do.  Amen.