Thursday, September 15, 2016

COWBOY UP


In the Parable of the Vineyard,
         some work dawn to dusk,
         some work noon to quittin’ time,
         others work just for the last hour of the day;
         but they all get paid the same.
Jesus says God’s Kingdom is like that.

I first read this story about 50 years ago,
         and it didn’t make much sense to me then.
I studied it in seminary and I’ve heard
         at least a dozen sermons on it.                                               
In fact, I’ve preached a few myself.
But I never felt like I got it until this year.

It clicks for me now because I’m looking at it
from a new perspective.
My new perspective comes from a lot of years
         laboring in the vineyard of the church
         and from the novel I’m reading these days.
Sometimes literature can shed light on Scripture.

So let’s start with the novel.
I am reading Larry MacMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
The principal characters in Lonesome Dove are driving a herd of cattle
from the Rio Grande Valley to Montana.
Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the mini-series,
         I’m sure you get the picture.
The crew has to work together, hard work,
         dangerous work, facing and surmounting hardships.
There isn’t any room for ego-pampering.
There isn’t time for jealousy or competition.
There isn’t any tolerance for whining.
The only thing to do, day in day out,
         in good times or in bad,
         is to cowboy up and get on with the drive.
The heroism of Augustus, Captain Call, and the other characters,
when they are heroic, is just this: they get the job done.

I have always read this Gospel lesson
         from the standpoint of the laborers
         and I have accepted unquestioningly
         that their purpose in working is just to get paid.

But let’s look at it for a minute from the perspective
         of the landowner.
His goal is to produce a crop of grapes.
He may have paid those who worked an hour
         the same as those who worked all day
                  out of some eccentric view of justice.
But more likely he just wasn’t that interested
         in his personnel costs.
He didn’t want to buy a time clock,
or hire a human resources department,
         a comptroller, and an EEOC compliance officer.
He didn’t bother to keep track of the time sheets.
He was just trying to grow some grapes.
If it doesn’t help you to imagine this guy
         as Robert Duval in Lonesome Dove,
         then try Henry Fonda in Sometimes a Great Notion.
Sometimes you have to just get the job done.

Now what do the laborer’s care about in today’s parable?
At their best, the real heart and soul cowboys
in Lonesome Dove cared about the cattle drive.
They cared about the cattle
         and in their cantankerous Texan way,
         they sometimes even cared about each other.

Would it be too much to hope that vinedressers
         might care about the vineyard?
Sure they would expect to get paid what was promised,
         but assuming that was done,
         their minds might be on the vineyard
                  instead of competition.

They might be more interested in whether
they had properly pruned or tied the vines,
         than in how the landowner kept his books.
When they begin whining about someone else
         getting too much pay, the landowner replies
         in a way that sounds to me a lot like,
         “Just cowboy up and get on with the drive.”

Jesus is teaching a religion here,
         but it isn’t the one we may think of as Christianity.
He’s talking about the Kingdom
         which turns out not to be a reward for our morality
                  but a way of life committed to doing God’s will.
 God’s will is to give us a mission.

We Anglicans spell out that mission
         as five fundamental projects.
1.    To proclaim the Gospel to the world – that’s evangelism.
2.    To Baptize and educate new believers – that’s Christian formation.
3.    To respond with mercy to suffering – that’s charity and pastoral care.
4.    To challenge unjust social structures – that’s prophetic advocacy.
5.    To sustain and renew God’s creation – that’s earth stewardship.

At stake are the lives of children.
A child dies of hunger related causes every five seconds
while more of our foreign aid goes to buy guns
than to buy food.
At stake are the hopes of people falling into despair
in a culture grown cynical and grim.
At stake is the survival of our planet.
Our mission is bigger than a grape crop, bigger than a cattle drive.
There is no room in it for pettiness, jealousy, or ego-agendas.

Yet the typical parish church spends half its energy and attention
         making sure everyone who wants their way
gets it often enough.
I have seen church people at each other’s throats
         over the kind of floor covering to put in a parish hall,
                  while the polar ice caps are melting.

Likewise, dioceses dissipate their energies making sure this parish
         does not feel slighted by some attention to that parish.
Then there is the competition of denominations,
         and jockeying over moral superiority
         or whose theology can be more orthodox or erudite.

When I look at Church squabbles, I hear Christ say,
         “Cowboy up and get on with the drive.”
Unless and until we do that,
         I don’t know why people outside the church
                  should get mixed up with us.

I used to think the pettiness, jealousy, and bickering
         in churches was just human nature.
Maybe it is, but I think there is also something wrong
         with our religion that makes these vices worse, not better.
Too many of us have gotten the idea that Christianity
         is about doing something, or believing something,
                  or having some kind of experience
         that is our ticket on the Wonderland Express of salvation.

It may be moral living or orthodox thinking
         or spiritual giddiness – but the idea is to earn some spiritual wage,
         to get the gold star of God’s blessing.
And we would like to be more moral, more orthodox, or more spiritual
         than the next guy so we can get more of the blessing
or be more sure that we have our religious nest feathered.

But Jesus says in this parable, “it isn’t about that.”
The kingdom of heaven is not like Oz at the end of the yellow brick road.
It is like this story of the vineyard.
The kingdom is laboring in the vineyard for the sake of the vineyard.
We don’t save the planet to get a Nobel Prize.
We do it because we love the planet.

We don’t share the gospel to show how good we are.
We do it because we love the gospel and the people we share it with.

Suppose we lived -- not just our church lives --
         but all of our lives without so much concern
                  for getting our fair share of credit.
Suppose we lived like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.,
         Theresa of Avila or any of the saints who were
                  so caught up in the mission they lost themselves in it.
Suppose we found our true lives
         by losing our egos in God’s Kingdom.
Then we might come into ourselves and live life fully,
         enjoying the game for the thrill of the game,
         not distracted by keeping score.

That kind of life would be living in God’s Kingdom.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

MAKING JERUSALEM GREAT AGAIN


After 60 years of captivity in Babylon,
the Jews returned to their hometown, Jerusalem,
to find the wall of their city torn down.
Back then, the city wall was the national security system.
To live in a city without a wall was like
living in a bad neighborhood in a house with no door.

But security also meant having God on your side.
To keep God on your side, you needed a Temple for God to live in.
No Temple, no God was how they saw it.
But the Temple had been destroyed. It was rubble.
If they didn’t have a Temple,
         they didn’t think they could get by
         agriculturally, economically, or militarily.

 So they set out to make Jerusalem great again
         starting with building the Wall and the Temple.
But it wasn’t going well.
The capital fund drive flopped.
People were squabbling with each other,
         blaming and blame shifting, left and right.

They felt poor -- and the  poorest among them,
         the am ha-aretz, the people of the land,
         were a burden on the better off folks.
The better off folks weren’t mean or stingy or greedy.
They were just afraid.
They were financially, militarily, and spiritually afraid.
They didn’t have enough army, enough police, enough wall,
         enough Temple, enough anything.
Scarcity and fear were the hallmarks of the day.
So they hunkered down. They pinched their pennies.
They launched a campaign to deport    
         immigrants from their neighbor country, Moab.
They adopted a fortress mentality -- suspicious of outsiders
and even of each other.

Then along came Isaiah with this surprising message from God.
“If you want to restore your City,
you’re going about it all wrong.
you gotta do it different.
Here’s how:

If you remove the yoke from among you . . .
if you offer your food to the hungry,
         and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light will rise in the darkness
         and your gloom be like noonday.”
The word of the Lord.

They added up the construction costs
         and saw there just wasn’t enough money
                  in the building fund.
So God said, “Not a problem. Here’s what you do.
          Take some of that money in your building fund
                  and put it in outreach.
You don’t have enough construction workers on the wall project?
Send a few of them over to tutor the children of the poor folk.”
 “Just do it,” God said, “and watch what happens.
“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt,
         you shall raise up the foundation of many generations,
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
         the restorer of streets to live in.”
The word of the Lord.

God is saying something completely backwards:
When you don’t have enough,
         take some of what you’ve got and give it away.

It doesn’t make sense, does it?
That’s because God doesn’t play by our rules.
God also said through this same prophet,

         “'My thoughts are not your thoughts;
         nor are your ways my ways,' says the Lord.
'For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
         so are my thoughts higher than your thoughts
         and my ways higher than your ways.'”
 God says that at the deep down core of things,
         when you get to realest possible level of real,
         the take it to the bank truth of life,
         everything we think we know is wrong.

It’s wrong because everything we think we know
         is based on fear and scarcity.
Our basic assumption is that life is a zero sum game.
There isn’t enough of it to go around.
But God says “not so.”
Jesus said,
“I came that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly.”
Life isn’t something to be seized by fang and claw.
It’s a gift to be received in faith,
         and the test of faith is generosity,
-- the courage, when we don’t have enough,
                  to give away some of what we have.

Crazy? Of course it’s crazy.
Some spiritual traditions call it “crazy wisdom.”
I know churches that live like that.
I was once at the budget meeting of our congregation in Pahrump.
They adopted a deficit budget without blinking an eye.

Then they began expressing their concerns, their real worries.
They had heard some other congregations were struggling
         and they wanted to help.
So they added a line item to support another parish.

They got an unexpected gift and they sent it to a local ministry.
We sent them their assessment rebate.
They gave it to St. Jude’s Ranch For Children.
You just can’t help some people.

I’m describing faith, a leap into the dark.
It is a leap into God’s ways – the ones that are higher than our ways
         -- God’s ways of faith, hope, and love.
It’s like exhaling in the faith that the air will still be there
         so we can inhale again.
It’s crazy like that.
But you know that crazy little congregation somehow
manages to pay the light bill,
         and last year they bought additional land.
How do they do it?
They don’t. It’s a God thing.

I like to see a congregation walk by faith
         because that’s the only way
into the Kingdom Mission;
and the Kingdom Mission is what makes life count.

But the best thing about it is a faithful congregation
teaches its people how to live faithfully.
It doesn’t just talk about faith and trust.
It shows us what they look like.
Such congregations teach the art of breathing.
You have to breathe out all the way so you can breathe back in.
One basic thing I’ve noticed about living churches and living people:
They breathe – in and out.
The heart of being a Christian is living
by God’s ways instead of human ways
-- by faith instead of fear.

When we are baptized,
         we take our stand on this earth as believers.
Believing is our trust.
We don’t just say, “I believe that God exists.”
That’s just an opinion.
An opinion and 2 bucks will get you a tall coffee at Starbucks.
We say “I believe in God the Father. I believe in Jesus.
         I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
I jump out of this burning building of mortal life
         because I trust God to be holding the net.

I know a young man in another of our churches,
         a financially prosperous young man,
         who carefully calculates the Church’s value to him
-- it’s the difference between his kids’ tuition at Camp Galilee
and the tuition at a comparable private camp.
He subtracts the Galilee tuition from what he’d have had to pay
         a private camp,
then he gives the difference to the Church at the end of the year
         after he makes sure all his other obligations are paid first.

And God says,
         “My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor your ways my ways.
         My measures of worth are not your measures of worth,
nor your calculations my calculations.”

Brothers and sisters, this isn’t about a bill we owe to God.
It isn’t about a moral debt we owe the Church or the Church
         owes the community.
It’s about a chance to breathe.
It’s about an opportunity to live in God’s ways of faith
         instead of our human ways of fear.

God’s ways are lighter, freer, happier, in every way – better.