Saturday, September 23, 2017


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, September 10, 2017


Christian essayist, Anne LaMotte, said,
         Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison
         and waiting for someone else to die.
Holding a grudge against another person
         might or might not do them any harm.
But it’s guaranteed to do us harm,
guaranteed to be a blight on our own lives.

Conversely, forgiving another person
         might or might not make them happier.
But it’s guaranteed to make us happier.
Theologian, Lewis Smedes, said,
         To forgive is to set a prisoner free
         and discover the prisoner was you.
Lady Julian of Norwich explained it this way,
         For when the soul lingers over other people’s sins,
         a thick mist . . . falls across our eyes and . . .
         we cannot see the beauty of God.

The Bible, medieval mystics, and modern theologians agree:
Forgiveness is the key to our own peace of mind.
It isn’t just a nicey nice religious platitude.
It’s medical science.
The Mayo Clinic says that when we forgive our enemies
         the result for us is:
         Healthier relationships
         Psychological well-being
         Reduced stress, anxiety, and hostility
         Lower blood pressure
         Less depression
         A stronger immune system
         A healthier heart,
         And higher self-esteem.

Forgiveness starts with our own self-interest.
We do it for our own peace of mind.
But how do we do it,
         when our neighbors can be so insufferable?

There are three steps.
The first one, the moral step,
 isn’t easy, but it’s simple and doable.
It doesn’t require us to reduce our anger one whit
         or change our feelings an iota.

It’s as simple as tearing up an IOU.
When someone hurts us,
         we have a right to see them suffer.
In the law, we call it a cause of action, a right to sue.
In the moral world, we call it a grievance.
Like Shakespeare’s Shylock,
         we have a right to extract a point of flesh from our enemy.

The first step is: We just cancel the debt.
All it takes is a simple statement to God,
who is the arbiter of such things.
We just say,       
         God, the wrong they have done me, I forgive.
         Let no harm come to them.

It may not be easy.
But it is simple. It is possible.
We grit our teeth, and with God’s help, we can do it.

But if we want to reap the spiritual benefit
of that act, we need to take the second step,
         the theological step.
Our ability to forgive in our hearts
depends on what we believe about God.
The word God stands for our vision of the highest good.
God is what we strive for.
God is who we want to be like.
How we think of God the most important thing.
We become more and more like the God we worship.

Many of us have been taught to worship an angry vengeful God
         who punishes people for bad actions, bad feelings
                  or bad beliefs.
That God sits on the edge of his throne
         waiting to pounce on the guilty.

There are political reasons people portray God like that.
It scares us, keeps us in line, makes us behave
         even when no one is looking.
There are also psychological reasons.
Lady Julian and modern psychoanalysts agree
         that we project our own anger onto God
         and imagine he feels the way we do deep down.
Even some of the authors in the Bible painted that
         grim picture of God.

The problem with that kind of religion though
         is that it makes us into angry vengeful people.
In that mental state,
         we are in the words of the mental commitment laws,
         a danger to ourselves and others.
Worshiping a judgmental punitive God over a lifetime
makes us cruel and miserable.

Our best spiritual guides, like Jesus, Paul, John, and Julian of Norwich,    
show us a better God.
St. John wrote,
         God is love.
         There is no room for fear in love,
         for perfect love drives out fear.

Lady Julian almost died of the plague in 1395.
While a priest held a crucifix before her dying eyes,        
         she had 16 visions.
She survived and told us what she learned in her visions
         in the first book ever written in English by a woman.
She said she saw no wrath in God.
The wrath, she said, was all in us

Instead, she said,
         It is the most impossible fact . . . that God should be angry
         . . . . For he that dispels and destroys our anger
         and makes us humble and gentle must surely himself
         be the same, loving, humble, and gentle.
         all of which is the opposite of anger.

If we want to be free from the prison of our anger,
         we need Lady Julian’s god,
         not Jerry Falwell’s and Franklin Graham’s.

The third step we take right along with the second step.
It’s the spiritual step.
We work out our relationship with God
and our relationship with each other at the same time
because they are two sides of the same coin.
We practice heart forgiveness thorugh prayer.

Jesus said,
         Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
                  that you may be children of your father in heaven.
         He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good . . .
In order to love unconditionally the way God loves,
         in order to get free of the bonds of grudge and grievance,
         we practice praying the way the Bible teaches

Paul said,
         Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse.
Jesus said,
         Pray for those who persecute you.
The Lord’s Prayer even contains the words,
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Bottom line: we don’t wait for our hearts to change.
We go ahead and pray for our enemies now.
We pray first and let the heart change over time.

If we want the thick mist of anger to disperse
         so we can see the beauty of God,
         if we want peace of mind,
         if we want to be set free to love as God loves,
         we cancel the moral debts of our enemies,
         we believe in a God of love,

         and we pray for our enemies until one day we mean it.