September 15, 2008

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Hand Out

Exodus 16:2-15
Matthew 20:1-16

If you are not disturbed by this reading from the gospel, then you must not be paying attention. It is so counter-cultural for most of us -- down-right un-American. What Jesus is talking about is not the way the world is supposed to be. We believe that you should be rewarded for hard work and good behavior, that merit matters. What kind of a place would the university be, for example, if anybody and everybody could get in? And how about the work required of students? Imagine that you spend eight hours working on a problem set, your roommate spends thirty minutes and makes lots of errors, and you both get the same credit. Or you write a term paper that is twenty pages long with 35 citations, and your classmate turns in two-pages – double spaced – with no references and you both get an A. Not fair, right. Those who work harder ought to get rewarded for that. Those who produce should benefit. That’s the way the world is.

But Jesus tells it differently. He speaks of a world with a different set of rules. He speaks of the world of the kingdom of heaven.

A landowner – we’ll call him Robert Mondavi – goes out to hire some day laborers to pick grapes. He goes early, before 6:00 in the morning, before someone else gets all the most able-bodied and best workers. He sets those he hires to work with a promise to pay them the usual daily wage. But Mr. Mondavi must have a lot of grapes to pick because he goes back to hire more folks at 9:00 and again at noon and yet again at 3:00. He tells these additional workers that he will pay them what is right.

Finally, at 5:00 he goes back one more time to the Napa Valley equivalent of the New Haven Green and finds some folks just standing around doing nothing. You know who they are. They are the ones who might have wanted to work but they were too old or too young or too slow or too weak. They are the ones who were hung-over at 6:00 in the morning and couldn’t get out of bed. They are the ones who didn’t have a car and couldn’t get downtown to look for work. They are the ones who maybe can’t make more working than they get in their government checks, so they can’t really afford a full-time job. In other words, they are the ones that nobody in his right mind would hire. These folks are not productive. They are the ones usually just looking for a hand-out. But Mr. Mondavi seems to be lacking in judgment. He sends these folks to work anyway, even if it is only for an hour or so.

At the end of the day, all the workers line up for their pay. For some reason, our vineyard owner puts the welfare moms and the winos at the head of the line. And what do you know: those folks get a full day’s pay even though they only put in barely an hour and really didn’t break a sweat doing that.

Well. You can imagine the stir this causes up and down the line. The ones who have worked really hard, who have been there all day, the productive ones, are all excited, thinking about
how much more they will get since they have worked so much more –ten or twelve times more. There they are in line, mentally spending all that extra money, that money they deserve since they have worked more than the Johnny-come-latelies. Then, they get to the head of the line and put a hand out for their wages and what they get – is just what everybody else gets.

What an injustice! Everybody gets treated equally regardless of individual effort or the worth of one’s contribution. What kind of a system is this? You can understand their complaint, can’t you? It’s not fair. What kind of business owner would act like this? What kind of God would act like this? It makes no sense to those of us at the back of the line.

But maybe we should not be too surprised by this behavior. God has been engaging in these irrational acts since the very beginning. Out in the wilderness, the people complained because their new life was not to their liking. They had been freed from slavery, delivered from Egypt, they had seen the guiding hand of God, and they had the nerve to complain about the menu.
And how does God reward that ingratitude? By blotting them out from the face of the earth? By leaving them to their own devices? By sending them back to the fleshpots of Pharaoh? No. God gives them quail and manna, food in abundance. They don’t even need to work for it. It falls from heaven almost right into their hands. Do they deserve such generosity? No. No more than the day laborers in the vineyard, the ones who came in the morning and the ones who came at the eleventh hour.

That is how God is. God does not deal with any of us as we deserve. God is not controlled by our behavior. God acts in freedom, complete freedom. We do not convince God to hand out favors by doing good deeds, nor do we earn God’s wrath by our personal failures. The world may work that way but that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we are talking about here is grace.

Frederick Buechner, explains it like this:

Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. …

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. [And] maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
(Buechner, pp 38-39, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC)

That is grace. And in the kingdom of heaven, it is all grace – the gift itself and the giving of the gift and the ability to receive it. It is all grace. But how does that work in the world where we live?

For the past few weeks, we have watched the horror of the aftermath of several hurricanes. We have seen death, destruction and loss -- here at home and in neighboring island nations. We have seen people who have lost everything. And somehow, it seems, that the ones who lose the most are those how have the least to start with. The poor, the sick, the marginalized all seem to be hardest hit somehow. Just as in New Orleans three years ago -- all the least and the last and the lost, herded together and abandoned in the midst of what seemed like total destruction. Did they deserve that -- that kind of suffering and pain, that kind of devastation? No, of course not. That’s just how things are, isn’t is? Those who have the wherewithal to get of town do. Those who can afford generators have power. Those who lose a beach house have another house, or two, on higher ground. And the poor suffer disproportionately, but, unfortunately, that’s just the way the world works.

But remember this: it is not the way the kingdom of heaven works. It is not the way God is. In God’s eyes, we are all equal. We are not entitled to more because we have earned it. We do not get special blessings because we are smarter or richer or willing to work harder than others.

You see, the truth of the matter is this: we are all equal. God would give us what God would give everybody – the abundance of enough. Everything we have is a hand-out – a holy hand-out, given to us by the grace of God.

In the world out there, you will still have to compete. You will have to work hard, study hard, strive to be better than somebody else. That’s a reality. But it is not the sole/soul reality. Remember that you also live in the world of the kingdom of heaven – a world where everyone is equal, everyone is loved, everyone has enough. That is God’s way of doing things, God’s irrational grace.

And if we would be godly people, we would seek to embody that grace in our own lives: to see all others as we see ourselves, as valued, as precious, as loved; to promote an irrational equality; to understand that no matter what we give away we will still have enough.

It is hard to live in these two worlds, in the tension between the ways are and the way things are meant to be. We cannot do it on our own. We can only do it by God’s grace.

When we come to God's Table with our hands out, it is God who gives us bread – our daily bread. When we travel through our own wilderness, it is God who supplies the manna. When we are talented and bright and energetic and hard-working, God loves us just as much as God loves any other human being – but not more.

All that we are and all that we have are gifts from God. Open your hands and your hearts, and share God’s grace to you. In this time of offering, give abundantly. Give without expecting reward. Give in the same irrational way that God has given to you. And reach your hand out and receive more grace than you can ever deserve.

© Martha C. Highsmith

September 11, 2008

September 11

We have a soaring and lovely bell tower on our campus. Everyday at 5:00 p.m., a student climbs the steep, circling stairs to play the carillon. Students choose what to play. Sometimes it is classical music or pop, sometimes “Happy Birthday.” The music is always lovely, those giant bells singing out, but we hear it all the time and so it often fades into the background, an unappreciated gift from anonymous hands.

This afternoon I was walking across campus when the bells began. The music was “The Star Spangled Banner.” It made me think about baseball games and the Fourth of July, about veterans at parades saluting when the marching band goes by with the flag. The music played and, on campus, people were sitting on benches reading, walking with friends and laughing and talking, getting ready to leave work for the day, making plans for the evening. I don’t know if they were paying much attention to the music or not; certainly I did not see anyone saluting or placing a hand on heart. But the ordinary, business-as-usual activities seemed to be a good form of patriotism, a good way to celebrate freedom and the preciousness of life in the kind of country we want to have.

So we all went on with whatever it was we were doing, and all the time the sweet music of the bells was floating like a blessing over our heads in the blue September sky.

September 6, 2008

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

There’s an old saying about the church that paraphrases scripture: “Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be conflict.”

Apparently this is not a new phenomenon. When Jesus was among his disciples he gave them instructions for dealing with just this kind of situation:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. (Matthew 18:15)

It’s good sound advice – isn’t it? If you are having a problem with someone, go directly to that person and talk about it. No triangulating. Don’t talk behind someone’s back to other people because that quickly becomes back-biting or gossip. And don’t just stew over what you feel is an injustice; confront the problem head on and deal with it. But what if it doesn’t work? Well, Jesus addressed that too. Don’t give up try again but, this time, take a couple of trusted companions with you. Maybe they are there for moral support or as witnesses, but whatever the case, it is clear that we are not supposed to give up after one little try. It is possible, of course, that even the second measure will not be successful. If you fail to make peace on the second try, then tell the whole church about the matter. And now here’s where Jesus’ instructions get interesting. If you try all this, he says, and it still doesn’t work, than let your offender be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

In Jesus’ day, the Gentiles and the tax collectors were the outcasts of religious society, which was all of the society that mattered. Good Torah-abiding citizens would have nothing to do with them. The Gentiles were ritually unclean, failing to observe the purity laws and ignorant of the ancient teachings of the faith. And the tax collectors? Well, they gouged the rich and the poor alike, skimmed from the coffers, and lived it up on the livelihood of others. And when one who has sinned against you will not listen to you, Jesus says, then let him or her be to you like a Gentile or a tax collector.

What do you suppose he means by that? Traditional religious folks would have heard this as an instruction to avoid the one who refused to meet, to listen, to be forgiven and reconciled; to treat that person as an outcast, someone to be despised. They would have understood that Jesus was telling them that, after a couple of tries – three at the most -- it was ok to give up on making peace and reestablishing relationship.

But as with many of Jesus’ teachings, there is a catch. The Gentiles and the tax collectors, the poor and the prostitutes, the lepers and the sinners -- these are the ones to whom Jesus reached out. He spent his time with the outcasts and the rejects, with those written off by polite society. And he also spent his life on those who sinned against him at every turn.
I’d rather hear Jesus tell me that it is okay at some point to give up on the one who has offended me. And instead what I hear is that I must invite that person to dinner, sit down, talk, listen, and try for relationship, whether the other seems willing or not.

What I hear is that Jesus is never ready to give up, on the sinners – on us – and that if we are going to claim to be Christian, then we have to keep at it, too.

September 5, 2008

The Art of the Spirit

There are moments in worship where something indefinable somehow breaks open and you find yourself in a whole new space. That happened to me yesterday. My friend and I, both now “churchless,” were in chapel, and it was a really lovely service. The music was amazing; the preaching was good; there were warm welcomes and sweet blessings. And then – all of a sudden – we were in a new landscape. In ways too mysterious even to consider, there was an unexpected public affirmation of a ministry that had seemed now to be on hold, and the gathered community was shown a new understanding of art and spirit.

It was a carefully planned service, with every detail scripted out, I’m sure. But there are some things that transcend planning, and it was that part of our worship that brought tears and joy and the sharp mixture of regret at what has been lost combined with gratitude for what remains. In other words, the Spirit works in ways we do not control and when we least expect it, and we are bowed low with wonder and awe in Her presence. And so it was for me yesterday. Thank God!

September 2, 2008

End of summer

Every Thursday during the summer, we gather on our street for happy hour. The host provides some snacks and everyone brings his or her own drinks – beer, wine, soda, juice boxes, formula. We stand in the yard and talk. The kids ride tricycles and bikes, play with hula hoops, and write on the sidewalk with chalk.
The host house is designated by a flock of flamingos. We eagerly look to see who is hosting each week. In fact, my very young neighbors call the gathering itself “the flamingos.”
It is very sweet – all these folks who are bound together only by geography, this tiny slip of pavement called Hilltop Drive. We visit, we trade stories, we catch up with each other. We grieve with M-P and with J whose husband and wife, respectively, have died from cancer since our last summer’s gatherings. We celebrate with A and T as they wait for their new baby. We ooh and aah over T who is two months old and having breathing problems, still on a monitor but gaining weight and doing better, so his brand new parents are finally getting some sleep. We observe birthdays and anniversaries. We meet neighbors who have new dogs and new neighbors who have new houses. We talk about books we are reading, where we will go or have gone on vacation, what is happening in our work or life. We exchange phone numbers for folks who clean gutters and mow lawns and are reliable and charge fairly. We gently discuss politics, some ignoring the lawn sign of a candidate they do not support and others finding kindred spirits.
Winter will come all too soon, and we will retreat to hibernate in our snug little houses. But in summer, we are out and talking and sharing.
I hosted the flamingos this year. People came and stayed until it was dark and the mosquitoes were biting. It was very nice, standing in the twilight and laughing and talking, and feeling the preciousness of a summer evening on Hilltop Drive.
The pink birds have flown to their off-season nesting location, probably a roost in someone's garage. We are back to school and back to fall schedules and back to our own little houses. But we are neighbors, and we wave to each other as we drive off to our various heres-and-theres. We know we can call on each other if we have to, and we know that the flamingos will be back next year, calling us together once again!

September 1, 2008

A life line

Today I put up a clothesline. I washed and then hung the sheets and t-shirts and underwear up in the bright sunshine. It was almost meditative. I paid attention to my laundry -- the pillowcases with the hand-crocheted trim that my friend made for me; the comfy pants that I wore almost every day at the beach; the tablecloth we used for our outdoor brunch yesterday; my favorite pajamas. Usually, I just toss it all in the dryer without a second, or first, thought. But this little act of hanging up the wash was an occasion for thanksgiving, for the clothes I have, for the remembrances of friends and good times, for awareness of the warmth of the sun and the blue of the sky.
I know that, in many places, a clothesline is a necessity and a chore, something that takes time and energy: lugging the wet clothes out, hoping that it will not rain, washing and hanging and folding enough clothes for a whole family, and then doing it all over again the next week. For me, though, it feels like a little luxury, something unnecessary, almost frivolous, indulging my memories of childhood, and simpler times and places where the sheets smelled like sunshine.
And as we approach September 11, I find myself wondering where we would all be if the President had urged us to hang out our laundry instead of telling us to hang out at the mall and shop. Maybe we would have come sooner to an awareness of the need to conserve energy, to live closer to the land in our own ways, to give thanks for the small goodnesses of life. Instead, we got bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger mortgages, bigger national debt, and bigger conflict. Is my clothesline a life-line? I don't know. Does it make much difference in the world? No, of course not. But a million of them might. And as Rabbi Tarfon once taught: “You are not required to finish the work. But neither are you free to desist from it.”