The readings for this coming Sunday are very interesting ones. Yesterday, my parish celebrated the Feast of St. Francis with a Blessing of the Animals, so we used the propers for St. Francis rather than the lectionary readings for the Sunday. So this week, we will come back into our flow from Exodus and Matthew, and we will be hammered over the head with them.
We’ll hear the Ten Commandments, then sing praise to God’s law in the psalm, listen to a reading I found rather inscrutable from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, and finally stand up to hear the parable of the landowner and the tenants. It seems like a Sunday in which we’ll get to hear everything we’re doing wrong, with the climax being the chief cornerstone falling upon us and crushing us. Now, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be confronted with our flaws, to have to come face-to-face with God and know just how very much we are lacking. But it doesn’t feel good. It isn’t nice. Rather, it’s terrifying. We know that are failing to uphold all ten commandments. Heck, we know we do a pretty lousy job at the TWO that Jesus gave us (Love God. Love everybody else.), so you can forget TEN! And then we see ourselves being thrown out of the vineyard and put to death; we are broken to pieces and crushed by the cornerstone. This is not exactly fun stuff. Rather, it’s the kind of thing that makes us shuffle our feet, wriggle uncomfortably in our pews, and avoid making eye contact with anyone else, for fear that they, too, will see our sin written on our face. Yes, I say sin, in the sense of separation from God or missing the mark, not so much in the sense of disobeying your mom by going across the street without holding a grown-up’s hand. This Sunday, we are confronted with our sin, and with what we deserve from God.
Two weeks ago, we heard a different parable about a landowner. It was the one where he goes out three times during the day to hire people to work in his fields. At the end of the day, he gives everyone the same wage, even the people who had been working only an hour. Of course, the workers who were hired first thing in the morning feel aggrieved; they’d been working in the heat all day, and these guys who had just been hanging around got the same amount of money as they did. In what universe does this seem fair?
Well, in God’s universe.
Looking at that parable again through the lens of this Sunday’s readings, the workers hired late in the day are like those of us who have the most sin on our souls. And the most sinful of us will receive the same wage as any Mother Theresa or Thomas Merton. Is it fair to Mother Theresa and Thomas Merton that the same ‘wage’ of salvation is offered to Charles Manson and Adolf Hitler and even, dare I say it, the CEOs of the banks that are failing? Yes. In God’s universe.
The Collect for Sunday is particularly beautiful, and I’ll parse it into smaller lines like a poem, to slow myself down as I read it:
Almighty and everlasting God,
you are always more ready to hear than we to pray,
and to give more than we either desire or deserve:
Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy,
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid,
and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask,
except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
This Collect speaks directly to the readings this week, and to the readings from two weeks ago as well. In his sermon that Sunday, our rector said more than once, Thanks be to God that God does not give me what I deserve. And each time he said this, I nodded my head and internally added a deep Amen. I don’t particularly want to be taken down by the cornerstone, nor do I want the landowner to have me executed. I want to be with God, perhaps not as deeply as God yearns for me, but I do.
God is always more ready to hear than we are to pray. I’ll admit, there have been plenty of times when I’ve wanted to tell God exactly the best way to handle things. After all, I’m right here, in the middle of it, so who else would know better than I do? Well, God would, of course. (Dangit!) Over time, my prayers have become less and less specific, as I’ve become more willing to let God be God and to take care of things in the best way possible.
God is ready to give more than we desire or deserve. Okay, this one is a little harder. How do you preach on this line to a single mother who has to choose between picking up prescription for herself or feeding her children? I’m sure she desires a whole lot more than what she has; if God is ready to give her more than she desires but is holding out on her, then God looks like a big fat jerk. How do you preach on this line to the man who is watching his beloved wife die of cancer? Does he desire to witness her suffering? Does he deserve to live in grief and loneliness? More big fat jerk points there. And how do you preach on this line to the AIDS orphans in Africa or the children starving in Haiti or to those who have lost everything to a hurricane? How do you talk about God’s abundance and generosity to someone who feels like he has nothing? Those of us who come on Sunday to sit in our nice clothes, in the pews of a firmly middle-class congregation – it’s easy for us to nod along with discussion of God’s abundance, when the hardest decision we have to make this week is whether to drive an extra five miles to the grocery store that has Porterhouse on sale this week. And you know what? I’m not going to try to answer any of these. I can’t. This is a lesson that each of us has to learn in our own individual journeys. I don’t desire to live in chronic pain, facing medical bills and mounting debt. I like to think I don’t deserve this, either, but maybe I do. But I do know that this line from the Collect – God is ready to give more than we desire or deserve – is absolutely, one hundred percent true. I don’t know how or why, but I know it is true.
Forgive us those things of which our conscience is afraid. This is a very powerful one. Sit in silence for a moment, and then speak those words out loud. Listen to the words as you speak them. The things of which our conscience is afraid are the most deep, most painful wounds that we have inflicted upon ourselves or upon others. These are usually things we are afraid to admit to ourselves, much less to anyone else. We are frightened to bring these out into the Light, to reveal them to God (who already knows what they are, by the way), so we keep them hidden as deeply as we can. And yet, in this prayer, we ask God to clean those stains from us, to wash way the deepest hurts and wrongs within us, the ones that bring us the most fear.
Give us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask. On the surface, this seems just as hard as God being ready to give us more than we desire or deserve, but I believe that the good things here are much more powerful and real than mere possessions. The good things for which we are not worthy to ask include God’s boundless, scandalous love; God’s limitless forgiveness; knowledge of our need for others; perfect acceptance of ourselves, just as we are, warts and all. Of course, this doesn’t even include all the little love notes that God constantly sends our way – the sight of a butterfly on one of those mornings when you have Had Enough Thankyouverymuch, or the warmth of a puppy snuggling into your lap, or a baby sleeping on your chest, or the husband calling on your way home to say “Don’t worry about cooking; I’m ordering out tonight.” These are all good things, and I know God loves to pour these out upon us.
So this prayer, this Collect, I believe it says, God, we know we’re the tenants who slew your servants and finally your Son. We know we’ve failed in just about every way we can to be who you want us to be. But we know you love us, and we really do want to do better for you. Please help us, God. Help us to see you and hear you, and help us to not be the ones who are crushed by the falling cornerstone.
After all, the judgments of God are more to be desired than gold, and sweeter by far than honey dripping from the comb. If the heavens can declare the glory of God, then certainly, God can revive my soul. And yours, too.
God is not a big fat jerk. God does not give us what we deserve.
Thanks be to God!