Sunday, September 21, 2008

Life on this side of the comma (Proper 20A) Sept. 21, 2008

The play Wit is about a 40 some odd year old English professor who is dying of ovarian cancer. In one scene the play flashes back to her grad school days when her principal professor takes her to task for her analysis of a poem by John Donne based on an inferior edition. The older professor says, “It should read ‘Death, comma, thou shalt die.’ Only a comma separates life and life everlasting.”

A lot of people seem to have the idea that religion is mainly about life on the far side of the comma – life everlasting. But Jesus’ parables strongly suggest that religion is more concerned with what comes on this side of the comma, with life in this world rather than life in the next.

Jesus spoke of a merchant going about his business who was set upon by thieves and how a member of a despised minority rescued him. He spoke of a woman who scoured her house from top to bottom to find one of ten coins that had been lost. He spoke of a young man who demanded that he receive his inheritance from his father while the older man was still alive. He spoke of a shepherd who went after a single lost lamb, even though ninety nine were safely in the pen. And in today’s gospel reading Jesus speaks of three groups of workers who receive the same wages even though the first works all day, the second a half day, and the third only an hour.

Did you notice a common thread in all these parables? They all show an interest in and an awareness of the details of money, business, and commerce. The parable of the good Samaritan is about a merchant traveling along one of the principal routes of commerce in the ancient Near East – the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The woman in the parable of the lost coin had lost ten percent of her savings. The shepherd in the parable of the lost lamb seems to be making a foolish decision in putting 99 percent of his wealth at risk to search for one percent. The younger son in the parable of the prodigal son is invoking his inheritance rights as specified in the laws of Israel.

It almost seems too coincidental that the parable of the workers in the vineyard comes at the end of a week of economic news so bad that one could almost describe it as apocalyptic. What does Jesus have to say to us at the end of this week of meltdowns, bailouts, and bankruptcies?

First, I take comfort from the fact that Jesus displayed familiarity with the workings and details of finance and commerce. Make no mistake: Jesus took the side of the poor and blessed them. He told the wealthy and pious young man who sought everlasting life to sell all that he had and give the profits to the poor. He told us that the wealthy would find it as hard to enter heaven as a camel who tried pass through the eye of a needle. But he did not curse wealth or the wealthy; the well-to-do Joseph of Arimathea was one of Jesus’ disciples and provided a resting place for Jesus’ body. For Jesus wealth presented a spiritual problem but was in no sense a sin.

Second, today’s parable does not take sides. The point is not that the employer was unfair in giving less to the workers who worked all day than to those who worked only one hour. Nor is the point that the workers who worked only one hour took unfair advantage of the vineyard owner or of their fellow workers. The point of the parable is that God’s gifts do not get distributed evenhandedly, and that those who enjoy a greater share of the good things of this world are not more loved by God than those who enjoy a smaller share.

So, what message, if any, is there for us in this parable after this week’s extraordinary economic news?

I think there is both a message of comfort and a warning.

We can take comfort in the fact that no matter how late the workers showed up at the vineyard they were rewarded. God is generous and provides for the needs of his children. Furthermore, God gives us more than we deserve, although seldom as much as we desire.

However, in the last words of today’s gospel reading, as well as in the parable itself, there is a warning.

We do well to pray and sing “God bless America.” By and large, America has been a good global neighbor. The Marshall plan rebuilt America’s adversaries after World War II; NATO checked Soviet expansion; and the Peace Corps brought education and health care to isolated parts of the world.

But it would be a mistake to assume that America’s wealth is a sign that we are in some way God’s favorite or that we are being rewarded for being especially virtuous.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard tells us that, like the vineyard owner, God distributes his gifts without regard to deserving. In world terms, America is a young nation. We are, if you will, workers who have come at the end of the day but have been rewarded for a full day’s work.

What will tomorrow or next week or next year or the next century bring? Americans are a small percentage of the world’s population but enjoy a percentage of the world’s wealth far in excess of our numbers relative to the rest of the world. Perhaps tomorrow we will be the workers who work an entire day and receive no more pay than the workers who sign on at 5 pm.

The final words of today’s gospel reading sound a more ominous note: “the last will be first and the first will be last.” The 20th century was the American century but what will the 21st century bring? Will we be first or last or somewhere in between?

Pres. Reagan frequently described America as a “shining city on a hill” and I believe that in some sense that is true. He borrowed that image from Puritan leader John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” who, in turn, borrowed them from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. But the words are more ambiguous than they seem. Jesus said, “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” In other words, the city on a hill would be an example to others: an example for good if it succeeded or an example of failure if it did not succeed.

Winthrop linked the success of the Puritan settlement in New England (and by extension, all of American history) with Micah’s admonition to “love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly before God.”

"Now the only way to avoid… shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to [modify our own desires and needs], for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace… [God] shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, 'may the Lord make it like that of New England.' For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. "

Whether the stock market goes up or down, whether the 21st century is as much the American century as the 20th century was, whether our financial institutions succeed or fail are beside the point. We shall be the “shining city on the hill” if (as Winthrop said) we “uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality… delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”

I can do no better than conclude with the prayer for America by Katherine Bates, who also invokes the image of America as “a shining city on a hill:”

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.

America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.