Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cowboy Up

Proper 20a.08.St. Steven’s
I first read today’s Gospel lesson
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 on it 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 character’s 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.
Global warming becomes irreversible in 98 months.
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
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.