Plenty, but not too much

Below is my sermon from September 24, 2017, focusing on Matthew 20:1-16. Take a minute to read the parable if you haven’t heard it recently, because it’s definitely a more thought-provoking one. I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments–what does this parable reveal to us about what God is like? About what human beings are like?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“It’s not fair!” Parents of toddlers and small children, how many of you hear these words at least once a day? It’s not fair! In seminary, my classmates and I had to act out this parable during the chapel service, and I was assigned the part of the all-day laborers. The professor wondered if I had it in me to be whiny enough. I assured him, ever since I was born as the younger sibling, I was ready to play this role and declare the unfairness of it all.

If there’s one thing we’re born with it’s an innate sense of what is fair and what isn’t. Just try giving a slightly larger piece of cake to one sibling and see what the other one thinks is fair. It’s not a bad thing, this sense of fairness. Developed to maturity, that sense of fairness is the foundation for justice and equality.

It’s not fair that some people have access to quality education and others don’t. It’s not fair that some people’s water is clean and others’ is filled with lead and chemicals. It’s not fair that some people can afford to see a doctor when they’re sick and others can’t. It’s not fair that some people don’t have enough food to eat while others fill landfills with their excess. That’s the good outcome of a sense of fairness.

But, more often than not, our sense of fairness tends to be ego-centric. It’s certainly true of toddlers, but I think it’s still often true for us adults as well. We assess fairness in terms of what seems fair for us. In terms of our own needs, hopes, and expectations, often with little—or at least secondary—regard for the wants and needs of others.

And so we come back to our parable. What seems great to some seems unfair to others. If you’re like me, this parable offends your sense of fairness. It might be equal, but it isn’t fair. Some have worked all day, through the hot sun of the afternoon, and they receive the same as those who only came an hour before work ended. It’s not fair. They expect to have so much more than these late-comers.

We shape our identities and sense of worth by constantly comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. Rather than being content with what we have or who we are or what we’ve accomplished, we so regularly look to those around us to decide whether it is enough based on what others have or are or have accomplished.

But the problem with this parable isn’t that some people get better things or more than others—it’s that they all get the same. And they don’t all deserve the same. It’s not really about the money, it’s about what the money represents—superiority.

Which is why I love that alongside this parable, we have the story of manna in the wilderness. The Israelites have escaped from Egypt, but are beginning to despair. They have no food in the wilderness and some begin to think they should go back to Egypt. So God provides manna. Appearing on the ground, this miraculous substance gives the people of God all they need.

But manna is a gift that cannot be hoarded. In fact, a little later in the story, when some try to take more than they need, it becomes rotted and maggot infested overnight. Manna is there for one day, and there will be more the next day. Everyone gets plenty, but no one has too much. The leaders of the people and the lowly servants, the people who work all day and the people with little to do, the able and the disabled—all get the same: plenty, but not too much. And it is all a gift.

Wherever we find ourselves in this story, whatever part of the parable we identify with, at the end of the day, the landowner’s question can be asked of us: Are you envious because I am generous? Are we going to be grateful for our blessings, or envious of others? The thing about gratitude and envy is, you truly can’t live by both at once.

Do we count our blessings or our misfortunes? Do we pay attention to areas of plenty or do we only pay attention to what we lack? Do we live by gratitude or by envy? Is our sense of fairness turned outward towards our brothers and sisters and a true sense of justice, or does it only focus on ourselves?

Each week we pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” Give us. Not me. Not my family. But us. This prayer is a prayer not only for ourselves, but that all people might have what they need. In Martin Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, he asks the question: what does daily bread mean? His answer: Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright and faithful rulers, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, and the like.

He includes plenty, but not too much. We ask for it for ourselves, and also for others. That all might have plenty, which is enough. Luther also says that, “we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.” To recognize that our blessings are not our own. They are not earned or deserved, and it is not up to us to decide whether it is enough compared to others.

And so, might we pray that this week we recognize what is our daily bread and to receive it with thanksgiving. May we pray that we can find moments for gratitude this week, to take time for gratitude this week. Gratitude, not just for our own blessings, but for the blessings that others receive as well. May we give thanks with them, and for them, and continue to work towards a day when all truly have plenty. Amen.

Breaking the Wheel

Below is my sermon from September 3, 2017, focused on the Gospel reading from Matthew. If you’re going to take a peak at the Gospel, I recommend reading it along with last week’s: here. My Bible professors were always fond of telling us, “Context, context, context.” This is especially true in today’s reading, which comes right after last week’s. Enjoy!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This is one of those times when, in order to understand what’s happening, we need a “previously on” segment for the Gospel. This week’s reading follows directly on the heels of last week, but, well, that was a whole week ago! We don’t necessarily remember everything.

Last week, Jesus asked his disciples who people said that we was. There were varying answers: a prophet, Elijah, John the Baptist. Then Jesus asked them who they said he was. And Peter, ever eager, stepped up and said—you Lord are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Because of that act of confession, Jesus declared that he would be known as Peter, and it was on that rock that he would build the church.

Well, from its very beginnings, it appears the church has always been fallible. When, in this week’s reading, Jesus teaches the disciples what it means that he is the Messiah—that he has come to suffer and to die and to be raised again—Peter rebukes him. Jesus reveals the truth of his mission, and Peter cannot handle it. He goes from firm rock and foundation to stumbling block in the course of a few verses.

The most obvious question is why? Why does Peter rebuke Jesus in the first place? Well, when we hear that the Messiah is going to suffer and be killed, it makes perfect sense. We know the end of the story, after all. We have to remember that Peter doesn’t. And although he proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, he had very particular expectations of what a Messiah would be like.

In Peter’s imagination, and much of first century Palestine’s for that matter, a Messiah would be liberating warrior, who would throw off the bonds of the Roman Empire and then lead the kingdom of Israel as an earthly ruler. The Messiah comes with a show of force to free God’s people.

And so Peter naturally reacts poorly to hearing that his Messiah would in fact die at the hands of his oppressors. Peter’s vision isn’t unreasonable—a warrior king coming to save the people—it’s not unreasonable, but it doesn’t change anything.

Who is in charge might change, but it simply replaces one forceful power with another. And pretty soon a more powerful force will show up to start the cycle all over again. No matter who is in charge, the wheel of force and violence keeps turning.

It reminds me a little of a speech given last season on Game of Thrones. Bear with me if you’re not a fan. The show is set in the fictional world of the Seven Kingdoms. For a long time they were independent lands, each ruled by their own king or queen. Since they were united into one country, with one ruler, the various noble families have sought to gain ultimate power for themselves.

The rightful heir, exiled since her birth, intends to take back her family’s throne and crown herself ruler. But she has this to say about the ongoing power struggle: “Lannister, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell [these are all the different families], they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s top and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel.”

Of course, if you’ve watched any of this season, you know that she goes about breaking the wheel with many of the same old violent tactics she criticizes. This is just one of the many, many ways Jesus is different from Game of Thrones.

He truly realizes that violence cannot be stopped with violence. He knows that Peter’s expectant triumphant Messiah would only beget more violence and hardship in the end. And so instead Jesus introduces a different logic. A logic which runs by forgiveness and mercy and love instead of retribution, violence and hate. A logic where an instrument of torture and death brings about redemption and reconciliation. A logic where there is always more than enough, instead of scarcity and lack. A logic where losing your life means finding it.

“Can you imagine a new way of doing things?” Jesus is asking. A way that is marked by the cross. We often hear these words of Jesus of taking up our crosses and immediately jump to a phrase that’s nowhere in the Bible: “That’s just my cross to bear.” But a way of life marked by the cross does not mean putting up with something that is damaging, or life-taking, or threatening.

Following Jesus in the way of the cross is described so well in our reading from Romans. In this previously on, Paul has just spent eleven chapters describing God’s grace and how it is a free gift for all people. At the opening of chapter twelve, he turns the focus with the word “therefore.” What are the implications for God’s grace in our lives? What does it mean to live shaped by Christ’s cross and the grace that it brings?

Paul writes: Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Persevere in Prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; associate with the lowly. Do not repay anyone evil for evil.

Living in the way of the cross means this kind of daily self-sacrifice. A daily losing of our lives, so that we might live for others. A cross-shaped life is more than putting up with adversity and suffering—although sometimes it is that.

But it is also joining Jesus in imagining a new and different way. A way that doesn’t simply replace what is bad with more of the same. But instead a way that seeks change—seeks for the good of all, for the justice of all, for the wholeness of all—by a new path. A path marked by humility, by accompaniment, and by dying to self and finding one’s true self in God. Amen.