Monday, September 25, 2017

It's Not About Deserve

'When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”'
--Jonah 3: 10-4: 11

'Jesus said, “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.”'
--Matthew 20: 1-16

The best super-hero movie I have seen, and the best movie of any kind I have seen this year, is Wonder Woman.  If you haven’t seen it, go do so as soon as possible!  And I don’t say that because I’m a comic book nerd but because the message of the film is powerful.  It preaches.  At the film’s climax, Diana of Themyskira—also known as Wonder Woman—is battling Ares, the god of war and her half-brother.  As they fight, Ares justifies his crusade to end humanity by pointing out that they deserve nothing but destruction; after all, they create chemical weapons to destroy one another, they cheat one another, they steal from one another, and in the end they will only look out for themselves.  Ares says to his half-sister, ‘They do not deserve us!’  Humanity does not deserve the mercy of the gods, according to Ares. And then Diana, Wonder Woman, tells him with great strength and vulnerability, ‘It’s not about deserve.  It’s about what you believe.’  I get chills every time I see that!


It’s not about deserve.  It’s about what you believe.  This week's stories from the prophet Jonah and the evangelist Matthew both echo this sentiment.  We find Jonah at the very end of his story.  He has, reluctantly, accepted God’s call to be a prophet and has preached hellfire and damnation to the people of Ninevah, who were a sinful and deplorable lot in God’s eyes.  Yet after his prophesy , in which he stated that God would destroy them in 40 days, something happens.  God’s mind is changed when the people repent of their sins, and God decides to spare them.  Jonah, understandably, goes into a rage.  Not only does this make him a false prophet—which means they’ll likely kill him—but it also angers him to no need.  Ninevah deserved to be destroyed.  But God spared them because of what God believed in.

Fast forward to the Gospel and Jesus, once again, using a parable to try and explain what the kingdom of God is like.  He compares the kingdom to a vineyard and God to the vineyard’s owner.  Needing folks to tend to the vineyard—to grow the kingdom—the landowner—God enlists laborers early in the morning.  Then later in the day at 9:00, noon, and 3:00, the landowner enlists more help, and then finally does so again late in the evening before dark.  When it comes time for payment the folks who only worked an hour get paid first, followed by the ones who worked half of the day, and finally the ones who worked the whole day.  But didn’t the ones who worked the whole day deserve more?  Weren’t they more faithful, more dedicated?  The landowner’s response is ‘I choose to give to this last the same as I give to the first.’  So everyone gets the same amount, everyone is rewarded, not because of what they deserve, but because of what the landowner—God—believes in.

During that final battle with Ares, Wonder Woman tells him, ‘It’s not about deserve.  It’s about what you believe.  And I believe in love.’  That’s what makes her different, what makes her story the best super-hero story yet.  She believes in love.  In spite of humanity’s failings, she believes in the power of love, and it is that power that ultimately defeats Ares—spoiler alert!! For a video of the full scene, click below:

That's why God saves Ninevah.  God believes in the love God has for them, the love they have for God, even though it takes a near-disaster for them to realize it.  In Jesus’ parable the landowner gives to everyone the same amount because he loves all those who go to work in the vineyard, no matter when they do it or how much effort they put in; that is, God loves anyone who works on behalf of the Kingdom, regardless of who they are.  In neither story does God act based on what humanity deserves.  Yes actually accepting this idea is really hard and flies in the face of everything we know about both achievement and punishment. 

We have all been told that folks get what they deserve.  If we work hard enough we will be rewarded.  If we screw up we’ll get the punishment that’s due.  The same is true for the afterlife; we will get what we deserve there, either heaven or hell, based on how we lived our lives here.  Furthermore, like the folks in Jesus’ time, we tend to think that those who have been in the church their whole lives are somehow more special, more deserving of ministry chairs or vestry positions, just because they have been laboring longer.  

Yet Jesus deconstructs this whole narrative.  God’s ways, after all, are not our ways, which means God’s standards are no ours, that God does not act in relation to us based on what we deserve.  Thanks be to God for that, otherwise, very very few of us would inherit the kingdom.  God literally knows all the things I have done, all the hurts I have caused, and if I got what I deserved, then there is literally no hope for me.  Blessedly, grace doesn’t work that way.  Grace cannot be earned or quantified, and it is not handed out based on how much we deserve, how much we pray, or how long we’ve been going to church.  It’s handed out freely to all of us based solely on the fact that God loves us, and God believes in that love.  This is the love that was poured out in our creation, given human flesh in Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwells in each of you and enables you to show God’s love and mercy and be agents of God’s grace in the world.  God believes in love, and God believes in you. 

Worshipping and serving God isn’t about hoping we will get something in the end.  We are not called into the Christian life with the promise that, if we do so, we'll get a special prize that's better than everyone else.  Jesus isn’t a cosmic vending machine that hands out tickets to heaven to those who put in the right number of quarters!  It’s tempting to think so.  However, our Scriptures today remind us that everyone gets a ticket, even those who don't deserve one.  Mercy and love are dispensed by God, not based on human standards, but through nothing short of God’s grace. 

One of my closest friends, a Freewill Baptist, likes to say that when he gets to heaven he’s gonna be surprised by who he sees, and those folks are gonna be surprised to see him! He gets it.  Ours is not to reason why God grants that grace, ours is to believe in that grace, that we may share it with all we meet. It’s not about deserve.  It’s about what you believe.  God believes in love.  I wonder what our lives might look like if we truly believe in love.

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Real Christian Relationship

'Jesus said, “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. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."'
--Matthew 18: 15-17

Before we address this very important piece of Holy Scripture, let's take a moment to hear some words of wisdom about relationships from that great philosopher Homer Simpson:

Too much communication...

There are NEVER conflicts in the Simpson family!  Every other relationship falls apart, but not Homer and Marge.  No sir!  They've got this thing down!  Of course, that's not true, and there certainly are conflicts; in fact, later in the episode Marge will confront Homer to let him know just how wrong he is about communication.  

It’s been said by counselors and therapists and pastors countless times that the key to a relationship, any relationship, is communication.  That goes for your relationship with your partner, your circle of friends, your co-workers, even your church family.  Speaking of the church, one of the things that the Gospel writers set out to do was to lay the groundwork of a Christian ethic for this new fangled church thing. Jesus had come and gone, so as they told the stories of Jesus years after the fact, the communities of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John attempted to give Jesus words that would steer folks in particular ethical and moral directions.  In the case of the above passage from Matthew, we get the Christian ethic for how to deal with relationships, namely what to do when conflicts arise. 

Contrary to what Homer would say, Jesus makes it clear that the key is communication.  If someone has wronged you, tell them directly.  If that doesn’t work, bring along a couple of witnesses—this connects back to Deuteronomy, chapter 19.  If that doesn’t work, then bring it to the larger community. Even if you can’t get through to the person, even if reconciliation just does not seem possible, you keep talking, you keep communicating, until the matter is solved.  Still, if all else fails, you should treat the other person like a tax collector or Gentile; that is, like Jesus would treat them, not like nearly everyone else would treat them.  Jesus, of course, treated such folks wit compassion and mercy; in fact, Matthew the tax collector was among his apostles, and we saw a few weeks ago how Jesus changed the whole scope of his earthly ministry after an encounter with a Gentile, the Canaanite woman.  The point here is that you must still engage that person with mercy and compassion because that's what Jesus always does.

This is because conflict, as far as Jesus is concerned, cannot be avoided, for it can only be solved through open, honest, and direct communication. To ignore a conflict or to bury it is not part of the Christian ethic.  Jesus does not ask us to ignore conflict because he himself did not ignore it. He engaged with people, like scribes and Pharisees who trapped him all the time.  When he saw what was going on in the Temple he didn't gossip about it to Peter.  Instead, he confronted the folks therein, even making a whip out of cords.  What's more, whenever Jesus saw unacceptable behavior, even among his own apostles, he called them out on it. Unlike Homer Simpson Jesus didn't see communication as a bad thing. He didn't think problems would go away magically if a person just didn't talk about them. He saw communication as the pathway to reconciliation.

It’s easy to hear how this Gospel would work in the context of church matters  since Matthew uses the term “member of the church.”  (As an aside, we must remember that there was no "church" in Jesus' day and that Matthew's efforts here are to lay the ethical groundwork for the church within that particular community.) To be sure, yes, this is how matters within a faith community are to be settled.  If you have a problem with your neighbor, even if that neighbor is your priest, you go and talk to that person directly, rather than gossiping about it or brooding over it so much that it starts to poison you.  Most of the time this action is enough to resolve the matter.  Yet if that doesn't work you are to take along a pair of witnesses, usually from the congregational council, who can help facilitate the resolution.  Still, if that doesn't work then, and only then, do you take it to the council itself.  This is an important model for the church, especially today, for it keeps communities from gossiping, keeps us from brooding over whatever is bugging us, keeps us from poisoning ourselves--for when one is poisoned so is the community at large. 

The Cristian ethic is to sep out in faith and confront someone directly, just as Jesus would. Hiding a grievance or trying to avoid the matter altogether will only lead to more pain and mistrust.  Trying to cover it up will always lead to the truth coming out, thus it is always best to admit the grievance and take that first step toward confronting the other person. In my days as a chaplain we talked about loving enough to confront. For someone like myself, who actively avoids confrontation and tries to please everyone, this seemed paradoxical.  However, it's true. To love someone does not mean staying silent when there is a problem, and it certainly does not mean letting your frustration fester to the point of poisoning you.  To love someone, in any context, means to be able to go to them directly and tell them what's going on.  It's scary, but Jesus is in it, and he'll hold you both.  It works for the church, and it is meant to be applied to all of our relationships. It is, after all, what Marge eventually does, and from their confrontation Homer realizes what he has done wrong and pledges to do better.  Imagine any relationship--a marriage or friendship or church--that is grounded in the kind of love that is strong enough to confront. That’s a relationship that is healthy and helpful for all parties involved.  

Homer was very wise, but he was so very wrong about communication.  You gotta talk!  You gotta be open and honest and love each other enough to confront in healthy ways.  If doesn’t work the first time, you keep on trying, you keep on communicating, and you keep at it from a place of compassion and mercy.  Such a practice will lead to a relationship that will be able to withstand nearly any storm.  You'll have yourself a relationship that is grounded in the ethics and morals of Jesus Christ.  You’ll have yourself a real Christian relationship.