A Relaxed Grasp

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I have a younger sister, and her birthday is in January while mine is in August. My grandparents had an interesting custom when our birthdays came each year. They knew that we were a bit competitive—well, more than a bit sometimes. So, they did what I have since learned to myself on the birthdays of nieces, nephews, goddaughters, etc. When it is one child’s birthday, you still get the other one a small gift.

An odd mixture of feelings took place. When it was January, on my sister’s birthday, I would see her open her presents. I was a bit jealous, but then, my grandparents would give me a small gift too. Suddenly, the world was a better place. That was a wonderful custom! But come August, when the tables were turned, and I saw my sister open a small gift on my special day, the day that I was supposed to be the center of attention, the day when I was supposed to be the one receiving the presents…well, what an awful idea. Why should she get a present on my special day!?

The ego is a tricky thing indeed, a very necessary but often limiting part of ourselves.

Ask yourself, if you had worked all day, out in the field in the sun, bent over cutting grapes off the vine…or, insert any hard manual labor into the image…

If that had been you, and you saw someone walk out into the field at the end of the day and work about an hour…then you saw them get paid the same amount you did… well, I would risk to say that there isn’t a person here whose ego wouldn’t be pinched a bit.

What do you mean they get the same thing I do? They haven’t worked hard at all. I have worked harder. I have earned my pay. I deserve this….it is mine…not theirs….that’s not fair….

This is the sphere of the ego mind. Self-centeredness, pride, frustration, anger…

I love the words of the landowner (who of course is God in this story), even as they frustrate me: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am so generous?”

And there it is: that awkward place where our envy raises its head when we encounter generosity where we feel we deserve more. It’s my birthday, why is she getting a present? I worked harder than you, how come you get paid the same thing I do?

Of course, so much of our view of this text is shaped by our protestant work ethic—even though we Anglicans don’t really consider ourselves “protestant.” We are something else: Anglican Catholics who are far more concerned with forming a community at prayer than adhering to some published doctrinal formula. It’s what makes us special…and extremely frustrating at times!

But our Protestant work ethic has been drilled into us in our culture: work harder and you will get more because you deserve it. We see this in our jobs: work harder, get a ‘promotion’ or a better job, get a good evaluation, get a raise, move up, get more power, and keep going…all because you, of course, deserve to get more because you worked harder.

This might be all well and good with modern economic theory, but the problem comes when we begin to think that the Creator of the Universe operates by the same rules that multi-national corporations do. That’s where we get pinched…we get so caught up in our culture that we fail to recognize that God so often challenges the “norm” of how we feel things should operate.

That’s a piece of what’s in the collect for today: “Grant us, O Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure…”

As always, we are called to discern just what we believe…and discerning what we really believe about God usually entails separating out the assumptions of our culture from how we see God acting in the world.

God is a God of the underdog…of the oppressed….of the less fortunate…of the poor….of the judged….of the ostracized….of the rejected…..

God is of course the God of all, but we always get shocked when we realize that God reaches out to everyone, and that God seems to have an affinity for the poor and oppressed. Or, maybe it’s just that we perceive God having an affinity for the poor and oppressed because we are surprised and shaken up when we realize how little we have noticed them…

And once again we realize that faith is complex… I told someone the other day that it always makes me nervous when I see televised worship services and everyone seems happy day after day after day…and no one is challenged to think beyond themselves…

There is a particular strand of spirituality within the broader Christian tradition that challenges us to get outside ourselves, as it were. St. Paul picks up on this in his Letter to the Philippians when he writes about the deep, rich, complex dynamic of Christian faith and suffering.

Paul knew that the community at Philippi was encountering struggles. Faith was not easy for them. And St. Paul challenged them to see themselves as participating in Christ through their circumstances. He tells them, “For [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…”

For St. Paul, belief in Christ had nothing to do with staying focused on oneself, having all of one’s struggles eliminated. Rather, belief in Christ meant participating with Christ’s mission in the world, sharing in Christ’s Presence… Christian hope then, is not about eliminating all suffering from life—or thinking that faith is supposed to be ‘easy.’ Rather, hope is the greater realization of one’s identity within Christ through the circumstances of life…getting beyond oneself…especially if one has a place of privilege.

That is why the all-day laborers struggled so much in today’s parable.

When I asked a few folks last week about this text, all of us said we were frustrated by it, even if we can see the deeper meaning. One of the most honest and revealing comments came when someone said, “it just feels like the folks who worked all day were shortchanged.”

It does, doesn’t it. It does feel like they were shortchanged…

But, the truth is that they were not. They received the usual daily wage that they were promised. Nothing changed for them. The landowner honored the promise made to them… No one was shortchanged. Rather, those who received the day’s wage for working less time received a blessing…

The question that has hooked me with this situation is this: why is it that when some person receives a blessing sometimes—often—it seems like I am being shortchanged?

It continues to shock us that God doesn’t work in a zero-sum reality. God does not work in a world of balance sheets and limited resources… God does not reach the end of the month, look at the debits, look at the amount of grace left in the account, scratch his head and wonder how he will pay the bill.

Grace exceeds all our expectations…all we can imagine…

Here’s an image for us this week: maybe God’s “god-ness,” God’s divine nature, is to ‘simply’ pour out grace…. That’s what being “God” means: to create, always, to pour out grace, always… it almost feels reckless at times…God’s constant shoveling of grace into the world…shovel full after shovel full…more and more and more…..pouring down on us in our lives…like manna from heaven…

But the problem comes when we, like the Israelites in the wilderness, begin to think that we somehow ‘deserve this,’ that we have ‘earned’ this grace…and we begin to gather it up and store it away for ourselves….and grasp it and horde it and hold it tightly….and convince ourselves that there isn’t enough to go around….

Amazing grace….how sweet the sound…..

The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Proper 20, Year A
Philippians 1:21-30; St. Matthew 20:1-16
September 21, 2014

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