Do we choose fairness, or generosity?

Across the country, the typical day-laborer’s story goes like this: you show up very early in the morning at some unofficial, designated site—usually a parking lot; you hope for work; you take whatever job is available, such as roofing, pouring concrete, ditch digging; you work for eight-plus hours; you get paid minimum wage. The next day, if the job is still available and you’re still able (meaning, you are not sick, not injured; or, you have child care and reliable transportation) you repeat the process all over again.

The fringe benefits? None to speak of. No sick days, no health insurance, no job security.

Jesus’s parable today puts us squarely in that parking lot pick-up area, indeed into every labor market where men and women desperately needing work persistently press forward, hoping to be chosen. It is a scene repeated thousands of times every day around the world.

But this is a parable, and as parables tend to do, we soon see that fixed notions of how the world operates are overturned, and all attempts to make the story obey the rules of the “real world” fall apart.

In this parable, there is a virtual flipping of the order of the world. Jesus often relates this inversion to the kingdom of God, which he says can be anywhere, among us now, today, or in the future, after our death. The kingdom of God is present wherever there is grace.

When I first read this parable I thought that it was about the need of the landowner. But in fact, nothing at all is said about the need of the landowner. What is highlighted is the need of the workers. The landowner sees them “standing idle” and that sight prompts him to offer them a job. The order of the world is flipped since in the real world, the economy revolves around the need of the bosses, but this story is pulled along by the need of the workers.

Then there is the motive of the workers. Those who were hired first negotiate with the landowner to make sure they will be fairly paid. But the subsequent groups of workers go into the vineyard not based on a contract but simply trusting the character of the landowner that they will be compensated. The order of the world is flipped a second time, since usually in the real world you don’t offer services without a guarantee of reward.

Then there’s the issue of payment and compensation. The workers are paid in the reverse order of their hiring. The workers hired last, were paid first and received a denarius, a whole day’s pay. The workers who were hired first got exactly the same pay. “This is unjust!” they protest. The landowner responds in effect, “You have some nerve accusing me of injustice. You got just what you negotiated for in the beginninga day’s pay for a day’s work. The order of the world is thus flipped a third time since, in contrast to a real world scenario that operates on deals, bargains and rules of fairness, ithis parable, the whole thing revolves around generosity, and everybody gets enough to live on.

As one commentator keenly put it: “This parable allows us to enter for a moment into an alternate world, one that operates on generosity rather than greed, ambition, and competition. It allows us to experience a world in which those who stand ignored, idle, and discarded by society are nevertheless of great value to God – worthy, regardless of their circumstances, to live with dignity each day.

This story also clashes against our rules of fairness, and challenges us to reconcile those rules with our generosity. Are fairness and generosity so different from one another?

In recent days we have been embroiled in a public debate about generosity and fairness, specifically about whether or not to afford generous hospitality to Dreamers, those adults who have lived in the US since they were small children, whose parents brought them here undocumented. They have never known another country. English is their language. They have attended American schools all their lives, and many are now productive tax-payers, doing all kinds of skilled work and contributing to the support of this nation.

Yet, their status is still as an undocumented person living in the United States. DACA—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation– would allow those who fall into this category to stay here. But there is the opposing side who feel it is unfair.

Do we choose fairness, or generosity?

And in Jesus’ parable, the same reality is present. Those who worked the fewest hours would not have been able to live on the little pay that those few hours would have yielded. They needed a full day’s pay. Again, do we chose fairness or generosity?

Can the United States be a place where we have to do the difficult work of making room for people whose experience isn’t like ours, but who are just exactly the people we need? Can we reconcile our fairness and our generosity?

The parable today is about grace. And mercy. And hope. It is about sheer generosity; unexplainable, unfathomable generosity, for no reason at all. It is kingdom thinking. It is when we say each week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The kingdom of God is present wherever there is grace. And grace, by definition, cannot be computed or calculated. Where fairness calculates, love lets go. Where fairness holds all things in proper balance on the spreadsheet, love and generosity give everything away, upsetting the balances we have so carefully constructed.

When, for instance, we overlook the thousand kindnesses a partner or friend has bestowed upon us on our behalf, but nurse a grudge about the one thing they did to hurt our feelings, will we call for fairness, or will we live out of generosity and love?

And let’s be honest– living out of love? That’s really hard, because we seem almost hardwired to count our hurts and disappointments rather than our blessings. The owner of the vineyard asks those who have worked longest and (most likely) hardest for him, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

God was overwhelmingly generous in giving us Jesus Christ. And because of Jesus, God looks at us in love and therefore overlooks all those places we fall short and chooses to treat us with unmerited grace, mercy, and generosity. We are all equal recipients of God’s gifts. We are all God’s beloveds.

May the grace and power of God’s Holy Spirit enable us to offer to others the same awesome generosity that we ourselves have received.

Please pray with me:

We are thankful for all that you have given us. May our thankfulness overflow to all areas of our lives and may you provide us with opportunities to share our gifts with others. Thank you for giving us new life through Jesus Christ, and enable us to live in the reality of that new life today and in the days ahead.


Proper 20, 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

September 24, 2017

The Rev. Deborah A. Lee

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus, how often should I forgive?

In our Gospel reading Peter thinks he’s being extremely generous—like, really, really generous—when he wonders if he should forgive up to seven times. After all, it was the rabbinical custom to forgive up to three times, and then if the individual were to sin a fourth time punishment would befall them. Peter not only doubles this expected number, but he adds one to it. Good ole’ Peter, always going that extra mile to please Jesus!

Of course, Jesus’ response to Peter’s question doesn’t really provide an answer but rather points out the misdirection of the question itself. The issue is not how much or how often we are asked to forgive or should forgive. The act of forgiveness is already a limitless, measureless act. Forgiveness is never not present in our lives and in our relationships. How many times has someone committed an infraction against us and we, “let it go.” We forgive all the time. Forgiveness is part and parcel of the kingdom of heaven. It’s a constant. It’s not optional. It’s not a choice. But we want it to be a choice — and that’s at the heart of Peter’s question.

To punctuate his point, Jesus invokes a “kingdom of heaven” analogy that shows how seriously we are to take the admonition to forgive. He tells the story of a king who is owed a debt by his slaves. At the moment when the king expects to be paid, one slave is not able to pay—and as a result is to be sold along with his wife and children. The man pleads with the king and asks to be given more time. The king has mercy on him and forgives the debt completely—but then the slave does not extend the same mercy to a fellow slave who owes him a debt. When the king finds out, he reinstates the original debt and has the slave tortured until he can repay it. Rough.

Ten thousand talents—the debt owed to the king– would be over four billion dollars today. Needless to say, Jesus used ten thousand talents in this parable as a ridiculously exaggerated sum of money to make a point. In contrast to the outrageous debt of the first servant, the fellow servant’s debt of a hundred denarii was a mere trifle. Its equivalent is four thousand dollars. And we should also note that the king in the parable is not God, in the sense that God does not intend to sell his servants as slaves; he does not throw people into prison and torture them. One must look for the truth of a parable in the impact of the story as a whole. In parables, we have to pay attention to unexpected things that are significant, to surprising details.

For instance, it is unimaginable that a king would let himself be moved by the mere plea of his servant to forgive such a large amount, with no questions asked. That is an incredible exaggeration—quite unbelievable; such a king is not reasonable.

But neither is God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is not reasonable but is quite unbelievable, meaning that it flies in the face of common sense and is beyond all calculation.

In this parable, Jesus holds up a mirror to us each time we think we have to limit our forgiveness. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?” That question of the king’s is also the question that Christ asks us. To refuse to forgive is, in one sense, illogical for someone who has come to know God’s excessive forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The cross is our mirror.

This story illustrates how seriously God takes forgiveness because forgiveness is an essential part of Christian communal life. Reluctance to forgive disrupts, distorts, and ultimately disempowers a community. We can certainly understand how when someone transgresses against us that it has a disruptive effect on the relationship. Over time the transgression can lead to hurt and increasingly negative feelings. But what’s at stake is not only a matter of debt and repayment. Ultimately, this is about the balance and integrity of community.

In the parable, forgiveness of the debt may not have enriched the king’s coffers, but it would have maintained the integrity of the community and it demonstrates that mercy is the thread that holds the kingdom together.

There is no magic formula to determine what forgiveness should look like or feel like. But one cannot do forgiveness in a vacuum—we cannot do it alone; we need Jesus to help us, because it does not come naturally to us. We need Jesus to help us in the discomfort and complexity of forgiving someone. Forgiveness is not easy; it is hard. For me, pondering forgiveness brings up memories of those people I was reluctant to forgive. It sets in motion thoughts of those waiting for my forgiveness. It sets in motion reminders of those whom I thought I could never forgive. But no matter how difficult it seems, Jesus is the one who can help us negotiate those relationships.

Perhaps we can begin with asking ourselves some questions and being honest with the answers. We can ask ourselves:

What is holding me back? What quid pro quo—or, tit-for-tat/eye-for-and-eye attitude– am I holding onto to make my forgiveness more palatable or possible? What limits do I set to my readiness to forgive? And, why do I set them? How can what is unbelievable and excessive about God’s forgiveness transform my attitude towards those who are unjust to me?

Asking these question, no matter how uncomfortable the answers may be, opens up the path to God’s transformation. Forgiveness is a process, a journey. When we begin to ask these questions it is like we are saying to God, “Okay, God, I do not know exactly how this will unfold, but I trust You are with me in it and will make the path more clear as we walk together.”

Jesus linked receiving forgiveness with offering forgiveness in a sort of law of reciprocity. After all, week-by-week in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

We forgive because we’ve been extravagantly and radically forgiven. We can only long for ourselves what we lavish upon others.

So let us endeavor to move away from this false paradigm of quantification and the question of whether a person deserves so much forgiveness. If we are truly in relationship with God, a relationship built on love, then we will endeavor to forgive as God forgives, not as humans forgive; which is to say that humans usually forgive with conditions and a calculator. But, love doesn’t work that way!

As C.S. Lewis put it: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

May our forgiveness be grounded in the love and forgiveness that God has shown towards us. Amen.

Proper 19, 15th Sunday After Pentecost
Year A
September 17, 2017
The Rev. Deborah A. Lee
Matthew 18:21-35

Who Does God Say That We Are?

In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, we are continually reminded that our words have power and influence. What do our words say about us? What do the words that come forth from our lips uncover about our hearts? And, most importantly, how do our words honor or dishonor God and one another?

In today’s Gospel, words take on another meaning. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Questions have a way of marking important moments and events, and this one was a turning point in Jesus’ mission and ministry. Up until now, not everyone was sure of Jesus’ identity, with some believing he was a version of John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. Many Jewish people anticipated the return of Elijah and other prophets like Baruch.

But viewing Jesus in such terms only served to fit him into categories that already existed. This question, “Who do you say that I am?” cuts through all of that and allows Jesus to redefine people’s categories using his true identity. Peter is the one who jumps out ahead of the crowd with the gold star answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

In Isaiah 43, verses 18-19 we read:

 18 Do not remember the former things,

or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

Peter’s response to Jesus’ question pointed to the “new thing” God was doing in Jesus Christ. And, as Jesus explained, human insight and understanding did not disclose this truth to Peter, but it was God alone who was the author of this foundational revelation. Yet, even though it was such a wonderful revelation, Jesus admonished his disciples to keep his identity secret at that time.

Jesus knew that confusion and misunderstanding would continue to increase regarding his identity; the Jewish leaders of the day would continue to feel threatened by him. But he also tells the disciples to keep quiet because he was keenly aware that it wouldn’t be until after the resurrection (17:9) when the disciples themselves would be prepared to understand the fullness of the cross; and apart from the cross they would not be able to understand the real nature of Jesus being the messiah (16:21-28).

It seems to me, then, that Jesus held identity in high regard. It wasn’t something to be tossed around lightly, but instead considered thoughtfully. Since Jesus says that the knowledge of his identity could only have been given to Peter by God, one can draw the conclusion, then, that one’s identity is God-given. We tend to find and root our own identity in myriad entities—in our careers, in our families, in our gender, in causes that are close to our hearts, in our ethnicity, in what others say we are and their expectations of us—the list is endless.

But if one’s identity is God-given, as we see in the interchange between the Peter and Jesus, then who does God say that we are?

There is a lot of discussion these days about self-concept or self-identity. How do we view ourselves? That’s an important question. More pointedly, what is Christian identity? Judging from Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s response, Christian identity can be defined in terms of what God does to us and the relationship God creates with us and the purpose God appoints for us. In other words as Christians we cannot truly talk about our identity without talking about the action of God on us, the relationship of God with us, and the purpose of God for us. The biblical understanding of human self-identity is radically God-centered and is at the core of understanding the purpose for our existence.

God made us who we are so we could make known who God is. Our identity is for the sake of making known God’s identity to the world.

Therefore, being a Christian and making the excellence of God known are almost identical. We can make the excellence of God known when we stand against injustice in any form. We can make the excellence of God known in church services with preaching, singing, playing the organ, praying and reading; being acolytes or on the Altar guild. We can do so in small groups of conversation and fellowship as we tell each other what God has been for us. We made the excellence of God known through the backpack drive as we supplied much-needed materials for students. We do so through eucharistic minister visits to the homebound and through our FishPlay program with children. We can make the excellence of God known in a thousand different ways of love that suit our situation and our own personality. There are as many unique ways to show God’s love and faithfulness as there are people to receive it.

God made us who we are so we could make known who God is. Our identity is at the heart of that.

One of the difficult lessons that I continue to grapple with is learning how to fully embrace my true spiritual identity–how God sees me through the lens of Jesus. This is a daily exercise, because when I screw up, I don’t feel particularly embraceable. But it would do all of us well to remember –and this is what I have to remember each day–that our core identity is found in Jesus Christ and it is divinely given. It is rooted in Christ’s freedom-giving mercy and not dependent upon us. Our identity is that of a child of God, and as a joint-heir with Jesus. This identity is not something we only receive “when we get our act together” or “when we finally accomplish this or that” or “when we feel like we’ve been forgiven enough” or …well…you can fill in the blank. Our spiritual inheritance in Christ right now at this very moment is one of forgiveness, it is a relationship with Jesus, and it is the sustaining hope of eternal fellowship with God by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is this truth that gives us unconditional love, intimacy, and security. And it is not contingent upon our filling in the blank, but solely determined by what God has already accomplished at the cross.

Yes, words have power and influence. The words of scripture say, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, [he or she] is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV). Don’t let the enemy steal your true spiritual identity. God’s word says that you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14] and that nothing can separate you from His love (Romans 8:35).

Will you dare to believe it?

The Reverend Deborah Lee

Proper 16, Year A

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

August 27, 2017

Matthew 16:13-20

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