Friday, September 22, 2017
September 24, Proper 20, Space, Practice, Vision # 4: Welcome to the Wilderness
Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
Monday morning, I sat up in bed and I said to Melody, “Another week of trying to get people to do stuff. And they already have too much to do.” Am I complaining? I love my job, it’s my privilege to be your pastor, but privately I’m a constant complainer. If I act nice in public, under my breath I’m always grousing and griping. It is a trial for my wife. I went with her to Costco last week and as we came back out to the parking lot she said, “I’m never taking you here again.”
So in the parable, that would be me complaining about the landowner’s generosity as a case of unfairness. In Exodus, that would be me filing a complaint about our hunger in the wilderness. I take offense at suffering. That would be me who is challenged by St. Paul in Philippians, that our suffering is a privilege, at least when it’s for Christ. And I suspect that challenges you as well.
In the parable, the joke is that what the vineyard workers complain about is grace. Not the principle of grace but the effect of grace. The principle of grace is that you get gifts from God you have not earned and do not merit. The effect of grace is that other people can get gifts from God that you don’t get. “Hey, yes you gave me enough, but they suffered less for it! This grace thing feels unfair.”
One of the difficult lessons of the Christian life is that God is not accountable to our human notions of fairness. That the world is unfair we learn to cope with from an early age. But when God feels unfair, well that’s like growing up with unfair parents: your brother got a better bike than you did, your troubles did not receive the same attention as your sister’s. It takes real faith to keep believing in God when the lives of other believers seem more blessed than your own.
This living by faith is in itself a kind of suffering, suffering as endurance, as enduring while not receiving. Having faith in a God who does not answer to your experience of fairness is a kind of suffering, the suffering you do for Christ, which St. Paul calls your privilege! St. Paul can be such a Calvinist!
Everybody knows that the ethical life is choosing for the right against the wrong, for what is fair against what isn’t fair. But what about when choosing for the right will cost you unfairly, or cost you things that other people get to keep? That too is a kind of suffering, and that too requires to live by faith, that the right thing is its own reward, that the cost is itself the benefit. You have to live by faith that love wins, because with love the cost is the same thing as the benefit.
It sounds glib when it comes from me. What do I know of real suffering? That I’ve been treated unfairly by the denomination that I love? First world problem. So don’t take it from me, take it from St. Paul, who knew of what he spoke. He wrote these words from prison. He had to spend his most productive years in prison, like Muhammad Ali, like Nelson Mandela, and his imprisonment was totally unfair. False incarceration. He was confined in conditions of isolation, and yet, from his soul he extended out across the empire a great space of unconditional welcome. His privilege.
Last week I spoke about the space of unconditional welcome in very glowing terms. This week the plot thickens, because that space does not exclude your suffering. The space of unconditional welcome can be a wilderness. A place of testing and temptation. A bare and empty space, that gives you no accouterments, no conveniences, no comforts and no furniture. No groceries. All cost and no benefits. And maybe no vision, no vision of the kingdom of heaven to encourage you, just the empty space with no conditions of comfort.
Into the wilderness God welcomes the Children of Israel, this god they do not know from Adam. The gods and goddesses of Egypt they understand, but not this new god who has forced them here. Is his palace on that legendary mountain where they have to go to meet him?
Whoever he is, they’re now his guests, in his realm, and as his guests they feel he is obliged to feed them. Or maybe they felt like they are the slaves of this god who bought them from the Egyptians at the price of blood, and so as his slaves they have the right to rations. In either case, it’s up to God to feed them. Their complaint seems to be legitimate. God does not contend the point.
What upsets Moses is the way they ask for it, the tone of their complaint, insulting God, and slandering the liberation God has won for them. Talking about their former enslavement as the good old days. Ingrates! Well, they’re hungry. And afraid. And traumatized by the violence of their liberation. They had not asked for freedom, only for relief. They have no experience at freedom, and freedom is scary. They don’t know what to expect from this god, and their slavery has trained them in distrust and resistance. They are passive-aggressive, untrusting, always acting victimized.
God designs their daily rations to be a testing, a proving, a training in obedience. Not the old obedience of slavery but the new obedience of freedom. The obedience of trust instead of the whip, by faith instead of force. You go out every morning to collect your food, but you get only enough for each day. If you keep it a second day it spoils, except what you collect on the sixth day, which will be twice as much and will not spoil for the Sabbath Day. “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Notice it’s not, Give me this day my daily bread, because no matter how much or little you collect, everybody has just enough. So too in the parable of the vineyard, every worker got the same pay no matter how long and hard they worked. They grumbled that the landowner made them equal! Socialism! What happens to initiative! Making everybody equal isn’t fair. Give me this day my daily bread! But the bread God gives us is to share. In the parable, it’s to share and share alike, but in Exodus it’s to share according to our need. In the wilderness God trains in communion.
This training in obedience is a training in receptivity, the receptivity to grace, because it’s grace that will get you through the wilderness. You need training in receiving grace. You resist receiving it even when you need it, so God trains you in receptivity, and for that God welcomes you into the wilderness. Are you in a wilderness in your life? How much baggage are you still depending on?
What was the wilderness in Philippi, what was the suffering of the Philippians? The effect of their baptisms was to make them undocumented aliens in their own land. Dreamers whose DACA status has been revoked. Worse yet, allegiance to the Lord Jesus was treason against the Lord Caesar. This was the threat they lived with every day. A constant low-grade suffering that might break out in violence and beatings at any time. Unfair indeed, because for Jesus’ sake they kept honoring Caesar far more than he deserved. Their freedom in Christ was worth it, the benefit was more than equal to the cost, but living by faith is its own kind of suffering, enduring, holding on and holding up.
The space of unconditional welcome can be a wilderness, and it’s God who welcomes you into it. And when you find yourself complaining, it’s precisely in your complaining that you must seek for God. You must look deeper into your wilderness to see God’s glory.
I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking. I’m not talking about turning mountains into goldmines and lemons into lemonade. I’m saying that what you are complaining about is what God is testing you in, your wilderness is your proving ground. “The flame shall not hurt you, I only design / your dross to consume and your gold to refine.” Your gold is your collection plate, your bowl for gathering manna, not your success but your receptivity to God’s grace within your life, God’s presence in your life. I can attest that this has been true for me, and I myself did not welcome it, it was painful and I was afraid and I complained to God, but it was true and good and hopeful, because what I was given was God’s self.
One last thought. When the space of unconditional welcome is a wilderness, we’re still called to be a community of Jesus, especially then. And that means that when you are in your suffering, it is the privilege of the rest of us in this community to suffer your complaining and make space in our lives for you, to welcome your emptiness into our lives. As unconditionally as we know how. We give you the gift of ourselves to go along with the gift of God’s own self, and sometimes the gift of ourselves may have to stand in for God when God feels absent or unfair.
You don’t have to earn this gift of ourselves from us, it is grace, and you don’t have to worry that it might cost us, because the cost is the same as the benefit, because it is love and that’s the way it is with love, when it’s the love of God that needs no benefit and spares no cost.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.