Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mid-Week Mini Sermon: It's Not Fair

Hear these words from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 20, verses 1-16:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o”clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o”clock, he did the same. 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 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.’ When those hired about five o”clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, 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.’ 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? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

There was a familiar refrain in my house growing up. Whether it was because my sister got a bigger piece of cake, or extra play time, or I got to go somewhere the other two didn’t, or the youngest got away with something we two older girls were never allowed to do, it was the same: “It’s not fair!” This was usually followed up by the just-as-familiar response from one of my parents: “Life is not fair.”

And while this is certainly true, we like to think of God as just and…fair, right? Well, not according to this parable. I don’t know about you, but I can definitely understand the point of view of the early laborers. I’d be pretty annoyed too, if I’d worked hard a full day for what I thought was a fair sum, only to turn around and have that same sum given to people who’d shown up an hour before closing time. That’s not fair! Why should they get the same?

I think it’s not too much of a stretch to assume many feel the same way about deathbed requests for forgiveness or expressions of belief—especially if it’s coming from someone who hasn’t led the best life up until that point. It doesn’t seem fair that we who try our best to be good people, get the same amount of forgiveness and grace as the ones who proclaim their faith just before they die. We protest just like the early laborers: “Now, wait just a second! I was baptized as a baby, went to church my whole life, followed the ten commandments, did good things in my community and be nice, and this guy, who lied, cheated, stole, hurt other people, wreaked havoc around him, never set foot in a church, was just plain mean, prays five minutes before he dies and he gets the same amount of grace I will?? That’s so not fair!!”

No, it’s not fair. That’s the point. Jesus was trying once again to explain how different the world is when God reigns. Those who arrive late, who don’t get the first chance, still get just as much as those who are first on the scene. As the landowner explains to the complainers, this takes nothing from those who work hard. We get just as much grace as we expect from living good lives, from being people who have held life-long faith. We don’t lose anything by God being generous. So if we’re not a person who had faith from the get-go, if we found Christ as teenagers or adults or are just settling into our faith now, we still get all that grace. The kingdom of heaven is not competitive, like the world—or at least the United States—is, where everyone needs to fight to be first, to get the best things, to do the most and receive the most recognition or money or status. The last shall be first in God’s reign. No, it’s not fair…it’s grace.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Doubts and Debts and Sins, Oh My! Luke 7:36-8:1

It is perhaps a familiar story. And it should be. This story of a woman anointing Jesus is found in all four Gospels, although, probably if we were asked, without hearing the text first, to tell the story, the details might get a little fuzzy, because there are variations between the four and so they get muddled up. In Mark and Matthew the dinner is also at the home of a man named Simon, but he’s noted to be a leper, not a Pharisee. And in those two stories, the woman anoints Jesus’ head, not his feet. In John, the woman has a name: she is Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ sister. In all three other versions, the anointing is protested because of the cost of the ointment, that it could’ve been sold and the money given to the poor, and it’s also connected to Jesus’ impending death, so if this seems like a Lenten story, well, that’s because that’s when we usually hear the other versions.

So Luke’s telling of the story stands out in a few ways. First, it occurs fairly early on in Jesus’ ministry, so there is no association with his death. Second, there is no focus on the cost of the ointment or Jesus’ famous “the poor with you will always be with you” statement. Of major significance is how Luke portrays the status of the woman as a sinner—and, by Simon’s reaction, a known sinner. Luke’s version is also a lot longer than the other three, giving us a little more detail, drawing us in to the scene a little bit more.

And it’s a poignant scene, isn’t it? The men have gathered, reclining on their sides at the table, enjoying a friendly meal, while this woman who is weeping—whether out of shame, out of sorrow, or out of relief, we don’t know—stands just behind Jesus. Her tears are numerous enough to wash the dust off his feet, and we can imagine them streaming down her face. Maybe her body is wracked with sobs, or maybe the tears flow silently. Tenderly she takes down her hair and uses it to wipe the tears and dirt off his feet before she begins rubbing them with ointment. Perhaps by now her tears have stopped, and she kisses Jesus’ feet, inhaling the scent of the ointment. She is deep into her ministrations, perchance so focused she is not even aware of anything going on around her.

But there are things going on around her, and that makes me think this scene is also somewhat…awkward. Have you ever been in a situation where someone is breaking social convention—whether intentionally or not? I don’t know about all of you, but I get nervous and tense when that happens. I kind of hold my breath a little bit, wondering how others are going to react. Jesus and Simon and the woman were not eating alone. There were other guests at the table. When we imagine this scene, our focus is usually on the woman. It’s like our mental cameras zoom in on her. But let’s back up and widen our view a little. What about everyone else who was there? Maybe they tried to carry on their conversations, and pretended not to notice what was going on while continually glancing at her out of the corners of their eyes. Maybe their voices dropped as they talked about the woman. Maybe eventually, everyone fell into an uncomfortable silence as they watched this woman break huge social and religious boundaries: not only was her hair down, but she was touching the feet of a man—which had sexual overtones, and not only that, but she was labeled a sinner, someone unclean, and she was touching not just any person, but a rabbi, a teacher, and a man whom some thought to be a prophet. I don’t see how the whole party didn’t just grind to a complete halt while all the men just lay gaping at the woman’s audacity and Jesus’ apparent oblivion. I’m sure it was not just Simon who was thinking that if Jesus was really a prophet, he would not be letting this woman anoint his feet like it was an everyday occurrence. Or, as Luke phrases it, Jesus would have known who and what kind of woman she was.

But Jesus does know this woman. Jesus knows her sorrow, knows her shame, her regret, her grief at being cast into the margins of society. He knows what’s in her heart, and he welcomes her expression of appreciation and love for the forgiveness and grace and peace he can give her. It can be so comforting to see ourselves in that woman, to recognize that Jesus knows each one of us just as well. Many people live feeling like imposters, believing that if people really knew who they were on the inside, they wouldn’t be so liked or loved or lauded for their accomplishments. But Jesus knows all of it, all our fears and insecurities, our guilt and shame and failure and regret, our judgments and mistakes and grudges and sins, and forgives every last one of them, and every last one of us. The grace of Jesus Christ is a powerful and moving thing. I think so many of us take our faith for granted, and we forget about that power sometimes. I hope that at some point in each of your lives, you have the experience of being with people who think they’re not good enough, or have made too many mistakes, or are unloveable, or unwelcome in the church, or are simply lost, and to look them in the eye and tell them that Christ knows everything about them—and forgives them what needs to be forgiven, and loves them. In fact, I think that each of us needs that reminder every once in a while. Christ knows you, and forgives you, and loves you.

It is indeed such a comfort to see ourselves in the story as that woman, known and forgiven and sent forth in peace. That being said, we cannot ignore the fact that we are Simon as well. Jesus tells Simon a little parable, and then asks him, “Simon, do you see this woman?” I wonder if Simon thought, in that split-second way our brains work, “Yeah, I see her—I see that she is a sinner and shouldn’t be here and has interrupted my meal.” Isn’t that how we often see, at first glance? We see someone driving a fancy car and we see a successful person, or a spoiled kid, or someone who is all about image. We see a person at a soup kitchen, and we see a drug addict or someone living off the system or a person not as privileged as us who we feel good about helping. We see someone who is different from us—someone who’s gay and we’re straight, someone who’s black and we’re white, someone who is from another country and we’re nth generation American, someone who’s liberal and we’re conservative, someone who’s in academia and work retail, someone who’s old money and we’re no money, someone who reads Us Weekly and we read the Wall Street Journal, someone who is pro-choice and we’re pro-life —and that’s all we see.

Jesus asks us, “Do you see this person?”

“Sure, Jesus!” we think. “We see that person wants to make our taxes go up and that guy plays his music too loud and that woman is undocumented, and that person is pretty dirty and smelly from living on the street, and that person over there just lives the perfect life that we want. Of course we see them!”

“No,” Jesus probes gently, “Take another look. Do you see them?”

We look again, and we see what Jesus sees: the children of God. Certainly we cannot possibly know each other as Jesus knows us, so we may never know if our first assumptions are “right” or not, but perhaps it’s possible that we can see each other as Jesus does and offer the same hospitality. Our last hymn today is the old favorite, “Amazing Grace,” and the first line ends, “was blind, but now I see.” Jesus not only offered grace to the woman, but to Simon, as well, that he might be freed to see beyond the first assumptions and judgment. Certainly, Jesus confirms that Simon’s thoughts of the woman as someone who had committed many sins. But it’s how the two men interaction with her that made the difference. Unfortunately, we can only guess whether Simon took the grace he was offered, or not, as Luke doesn’t tell us.

But our faith tells us that same grace is offered to each one of us—the opportunity to be known and welcomed with all our doubts and debts and sins, the chance to see each other as clearly as Christ and, having experienced Christ’s forgiving peace, the encouragement and strength to love as extravagantly and passionately as that woman did. May we all accept Jesus’ offer, and offer it to others as well. Amen.

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