Friday, September 26, 2014

You can't always get what you want (Rick O'Brien, Sept. 21, 2014)

Four million.  That is my number.  Four million dollars.  I have given this a great deal of thought and I think that is the right number.  You see, I am in my late forties and hope to live for another 35 – 40 years.  Four million divided by 40 would give me an income of $100K a year, before Uncle Sam takes his portion.  I think that will do nicely.  My wife and I live a fairly simple life, but like everyone we have bills to pay.  We have three kids that we are trying to get through high school and college.  We have a mortgage on our home.  We both drive older cars.  It would be nice to not have to worry about paying for these things.  Four million dollars would certainly pay off our mortgage, assure our kids of a good education and leave more than enough for us to drive fancy new cars.

But I don’t want to give you the wrong impression.  It’s not only about us.  We would like to be able to give more money to the church and to other worthy causes.  We would like to take some mission trips to other parts of the world.  I wonder if Royal Caribbean cruises to such places?  OK, I guess I have to admit that it is mostly about us.  And, I suspect if you are honest, it is mostly about you too.  Who here has not had that fantasy of winning the lottery or hitting the big jackpot down on the strip?  We all want more than we have.  I think that is part of the human condition, to always want more.

The Israelites wanted more.  God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, then parted the Red Sea to lead them to safety when Pharaoh changed his mind.  Then he closed the sea again to destroy the army that pursued them, assuring their freedom.  They composed a song of praise and sang it to the Lord to celebrate his glory! “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode”.  That was chapter 15.  But as we hear today, by chapter 16, all of that is forgotten.  “If only we had died in Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill us with hunger.”  Notice that they don’t say, “Gee, I am hungry and wish there was some food here.  No, the Israelites appear to have quite the flair for drama. 

So God, being kind and loving, sends them manna to eat.  And that is good.  For a while.  In Numbers, the same story appears and tells us that manna was not enough either.  “If only we had meat to eat!  Our strength is dried up and there is nothing at all but this manna.”  God literally provides for them the bread of heaven, and it is not enough for them.   And God answers their plea and sends quail each evening.  Of course you know the rest of the story.  The Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years and complain bitterly at every turn.  “Why did we ever leave Egypt!” “ If only we had died in Egypt”  “If only I had four million dollars”

Oh wait.  That last one was me.  I guess it is very easy to fault the people of Israel for their lack of faith.  But it is not their exclusive province.  For just as they wondered why they couldn’t have meat, I wonder why I can’t have $4M.  In other words, why does God answer some prayers, but not others?  Why won’t he just send me the money?

It is at this point that Fr Barry would provide you a quotation from a great philosopher or an ancient mystic.  I can never hope to match his level of erudition and won’t even try.  But I do have something germane to the conversation to share.  It is from a 20th century prophet whom you may know.  He is a fairly unlikely prophet, but his message here is spot on. I refer of course to the great prophet Mick Jagger.   “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”  I find this to be excellent advice, even if from an unexpected source.  God does not always give us what we ask for.  God is not some candy shop owner in the sky who will give us a lollipop whenever we ask for it.  But God does give us what we need.  The Israelites were given freedom, protection, water and food, but they wanted more.  God has given me good health, a wonderful family, and the privilege of being your priest, and still I want more.  I think we all need to listen to Mick and focus less on what we want and more on the blessings that God has sent by giving us what we need.

Matthew’s Gospel today is a favorite of mine.  It is the type of story that can make you want to pull your hair out.  I have heard passionate debates among clergy and scholars railing against the sheer unfairness of the landowner in this story.  No matter the group, this story is certain to provoke heated conversation and often leads to a discussion of today’s political arena.  Now before you start squirming in your seats, I am not going to turn this sermon into a political discussion.  A wise priest friend once told me that sermons are far too important for that. 

But I am going to see if we can make some sense of this story.  On its face it does appear to be unfair.  Why should those who work all day get the same as those who just showed up?  Shouldn’t some get more and others get less? 

I think the problem we have with this story is that it is about money.  We take money far too personally.  It is fine to talk about God and faith and service, but when the conversation turns to money, it is as if we have crossed a line and are now in very personal territory.  So let’s turn the parable around a bit.  I think we can agree that the landowner in the story is God.  God goes in to the marketplace and finds several people ready to work in his fields and he puts them to work.  He goes back later and finds more people ready to work and puts them to work too.  This happens again, and again and again.  And when the work is done, all of the workers stand before God for their wages.  And God gives them their pay.  Eternal Life with Him in heaven.

This story is not about money at all.  It is not even about the work.  It is about God loving us so much that he will bring us home to be with him when our time on Earth is done.  It matters not whether we have worked our entire lives for him or if we were baptized on our death bed.  We all get the same reward.  He can’t give some more than others because this is one-size fits all gift.  There is no greater hope for us than to be with God for eternity and there is nothing we can do to earn it.  Jesus paid the entry fee for each and every one of us.

So why then should we labor in the fields for the Lord?  Why not just sit back and wait for the good things to come?  Because that is not what God wants us to do.  Jesus tells us to make disciples of all nations and we do that by bringing them the good news of the gospel.  We are commanded to work for the Lord, not because it will earn our way into heaven, but because we know that our life is better by having God’s light in it.  Walking with Jesus in our lives is a miraculous gift and we would be selfish if we did not share that with other people so that they may have the same joy that we have.  Spreading the love of God does not dilute His love, for that is impossible.  So how can we not share this amazing love with others?

God knows this and equips us for that purpose.  Saint Paul speaks often of the gifts of the Spirit and how they equip the saints for ministry.  Each of us is blessed by the Spirit with gifts that enable us to work together to serve God’s purpose here on earth.  We don’t all have the same gifts, but listen well when I tell you that we ALL HAVE GIFTS.  Your gifts are not like mine and mine are not necessarily like yours, but we all have them.

When I spoke to you a few months ago about evangelism I mentioned that we would be holding a class on gifts discernment.  That course will begin on October 5 at 9:15 and run for six Sundays.  Together we will explore what gifts are and use some practical tools to help each of us discover the gifts God has given us.  I promise you that you have gifts that you don’t even recognize, and learning about them is the best way to begin to use them.

Did you wonder in this gospel story why some folks were ready to work at dawn while others trickled in over the course of the day?  Some were not ready to work because they were too caught up in their own lives.  Some were not ready because they were too busy complaining that they didn’t have everything they wanted, that they didn’t have their $4M.  Others were not ready to work because they didn’t know that they already had the skills to do the work.  Let’s work together to be satisfied with the blessings we have and discover ways to use the gifts we have been given to bring others to God.  For there is no greater joy than having God in your life, and we can work together to bring others to that same joy.  That is our mission.  That is evangelism.  That is how we are the people of God.