Saturday, September 20, 2008

19 Pentecost

September 21, 2008
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

Matthew 20. 1-16

This morning is really one of those wonderful moments. We are beginning a new chapter in our collective life together here at St. Stephen’s. It is a new beginning for all of us. And there is really nothing like beginnings.

The beginning is all about hope for the future. The future, normally, is not always a wonderful prospect. The future is often a time of unknowing. For some of us, it is a time to fear, because we don’t know what it holds. We don’t know what awaits us around the corner. We wander into the future blindly groping at whatever lies ahead.

But today, hopefully, we aren’t feeling quite that way. Today, we are looking forward with hope. And hope makes all the difference in the world. It is about looking ahead and seeing, at least for a moment, that the future is no longer such a frightening place to be venturing into. The future is actually full of great opportunities.

Now I don’t claim to be a visionary or a prophet or a fortune teller. No doubt if I got up here and claimed that I was, you would already start regretting your decision to allow me to be your Priest-in-Charge. But, although I am not a prophet or a fortune teller, nor do I have visions, I do see very clearly that St. Stephen’s is a place of fertile spiritual ground. One doesn’t have to have any special spiritual or metaphysical gifts to see that potential. And the potential at St. Stephen’s is great. The opportunity for ministry here is, in fact, limitless.

As I said at the forum with you after the Eucharist last Sunday, I do not see ministry as top-down management. As a priest, I don’t see ministry at tiered, with us ordained people up here and everyone else down here. If we look at the definition of ministry according to the Book of Common Prayer, it is very clear who comes first in the Episcopal understanding of ministry. In the Catechism, found in the back of the Prayer Book, we find this question:

“Who are the ministers of the Church?”

The answer is: “The ministers of the Church are lay person, bishops, priests and deacons.”

Lay persons are intentionally listed first, then the ordained ministers of the Church. And that’s the healthiest way of looking at ministry in the Church. Just because I wear the dog collar and the robes, it doesn’t mean that the ministry of this church is all about what I do as a priest. We are all called to be ministers in this church. And ministry doesn’t just mean preaching and doing liturgy. Ministry is all about taking our gifts and the things we have been called by God to do and using them for the betterment of all of us as Christians.

For me, I was called to be a priest and, at St. Stephen’s, I will do the things a priest can and should do. For those of you who are gifted to manage finances, you help in the ministry by helping manage the finances of the church. For those of you gifted to be artists, your ministry is to help beautify the church. Others have gifts of music, of outreach, of leadership, of compassion for others. None of us are better than the other. None of us are above the other. Rather what we end up doing together is working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, to bring about the Kingdom of God into our midst. Ministry is about a kind of equality. Yes, we have these gifts, but when we are doing ministry, we are doing it together, on the same level.

As I do so, as I join in the ministry all of you have been doing here for years, I can’t help but feel like the new kid on the block. I feel like I am hitting the ground running. Or to put it in the context of our Gospel reading today, I feel like one of the workers who has joined the work later in the day.

The parable Jesus tells us this morning is, of course, not just a story about vineyard workers. The story really, for us anyway, is all about ministry, even though it might not seem like at first hearing. If you’re anything like me, when you hear today’s Gospel—and you’re honest with yourself—you probably thought: “I agree with the workers who have been working all day: It just isn’t fair that these workers hired later should get the same wages.” It’s not fair that the worker who only works a few hours makes the same wages as one who has worked all day. Few of us, in our own jobs, would stand for it. We too would whine and complain.

But the fact is, as we all know by this time, life is not fair. Each of here this morning has been dealt raw deals in our lives at one point or another. We have all known what it’s like to not get the fair deal. But, as much as we complain about it, as much as make a big deal of it, we are going to find unfairness in this life. What we find in today’s parable is exactly what many of us have had to deal with in the Church.

The story of the parable is that everyone—no matter how long they’ve been laboring—gets an equal share. And in Jesus’ ministry, that’s exactly what happens as well. As one of my personal theological heroes, the great Reginald Fuller, once said of this parable: “[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.” The marginalized, the maligned, the social outcast—all of them are granted an equal share.

What does that sound like to you? To me, it sounds like the ministry we have all been doing here at St. Stephen’s, doesn’t it? It sounds very much like the ministry we have all committed ourselves to do right here. It means working toward the Millennium Development Goals so that we can do whatever we can, even in small ways, to eradicate poverty and hunger from out world. It means reminding others of the plight of African Christians and helping them receive better education and medical care. It means reaching out to make sure that gay and lesbian people are given full and equal status in the Church and the Community. It means organizing medical mission trips to places such as Guatamala. It means speaking out against violence, war and injustice in any way we can. It means reminding ourselves of the fact that God has given us animals in this world not just for food, but also as companions to look after and to protect. It means striving to make sure that all of us on this side of the “veil” get an equal share of the Kingdom of God. That is what we do at St. Stephen’s and that is what we will continue to do. That equal share is still here for people now in these days.

It also means not doing some things as well. It means not lamenting the unfairness of what an equal share means for us. Because for some of us, we could very easily do just that.

After all, some of us do the “right thing.” Some of us, although few of us would admit it, some of us are, in fact, the “righteous” ones. We follows the rules, we strive to live our lives as good Christians. We fast, we say our prayers faithfully, we tithe, we do what we are supposed to do as good Christians. Striving for the equal share for people, means not allowing ourselves to get frustrated over the fact that those people who do not do those things—especially those people whom we think don’t follow the rules at all, those people who aren’t “righteous” by our standards—also receive an equal share. It means not crying to ourselves, “It’s not fair.”

Because when we do those things, we must ask ourselves a very important question: why do we do what we do as Christians? Do we do what we do so we can call ourselves “righteous?” Do we do what we do as Christians because we believe we’re going to get some reward in the next life? Do we do what do because we think God is in heaven keeping track of all our good deeds like some celestial Santa Claus? Do we do what do simply because we think we will get something in return? Or do we do what we do because doing so makes this world a better place?

This is the real key to Jesus’ message to us. Constantly, Jesus is pushing us and challenging us to be a conduit. He is trying to convince us that being a Christian means being a conduit for the Kingdom of God. In us, the Kingdom breaks through. Without us, it simply will not. We do what we do as Christians because whatever we do is a way in which the barriers that separate us here from God and God’s world is lifted for a brief moment when we do what Jesus tells us to do. When we live out the Law of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, the “veil” is lifted and when it is lifted, the Kingdom comes flooding into our lives. It does not matter in the least how long we labor in allowing this divine flood to happen. The amount of time we put into it doesn’t matter in the least to God, because God’s time is not our time. Rather, we simply must do what we are called to do when we are called to do it.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Cynthia Bourgeault. Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest and also one of the “big wigs” in the Centering Prayer movement. She is best known for her wonderful book, Chanting the Psalms. But in her latest book, called Wisdom Jesus, she examines, or rather re-examines, the teachings of Jesus from the Wisdom tradition of Christianity. At first, as I began the book, I had my intellectual filter turned to high. Often books on the Wisdom School in Christianity are in fact complex and mind-boggling with all their strange talk of “special knowledge.” But not so with this book.

Bourgeault examines Jesus’ teachings from the perspective of seeing Jesus as a unique teacher of Wisdom—unique in the sense that few people in his day could quite fathom what he was getting at because it was alien to their usual way of thinking. Bourgeault writes that the parables were especially challenging for those first followers of Jesus, maybe even more challenging than they are for us today.

Bourgeault writes in this wonderful book that the parables are not “sweet little teaching[s] about people doing nice things for other people. [They are] a challenge to the basic structures, assumptions and beliefs about ourselves that keep the…mind firmly in place.” She goes on to say that parables are “supposed to challenge you; [they’re] supposed to make you angry—and [they’re] supposed to make you look at yourself more closely.” In other words, what Jesus does in the parables is turn our world upside down. He comes to bring an equal share to a world that is often—that is more often than not—an unfair place. And his command to us is that we do must strive to bring this equal share to this unequal world.

And that is what we’re doing here at St. Stephen’s. As we begin this new chapter in our lives together, we do so knowing that we are striving to bring about an equal share in a world that is often unfair. We do so, knowing that we are sometimes swimming against the tide. We do so, feeling at times, as though we’re set up to fail. And just when we think the unfairness of this world has won out—in that moment, the Kingdom of God always breaks through to us. And in that moment, we are the ones who are able to be the conduit through which the Kingdom of God comes.

So, continue to do what you are doing here at St. Stephen’s. Strive to do even better. In every thing we do, let us attempt to lift that veil in our lives and by doing so, let us be the conduit through which the Kingdom of God will flood into this unfair world. And let us do together what Jesus is calling us to do in this world Let us love—fully and completely. Let us love our God, let us love our selves and let us neighbors as ourselves. And let us go out and do what we have always been doing. As we all know, it’s important to come here and share the Word and the Eucharist on Sundays. But we also know that what we share here motivates us to go out into the world and actually “do” our faith. As the great Anglican bishop of Zanzibar, Frank Weston, once said: “You have Christ in your tabernacles.”—you have Christ here, present in your Eucharist—“now go out and seek Him in the highways and the hedges...”

The future is full of hope—a hope given to us by a God who knows our future and who wants only good for us. Let us go forth with a hope and with a joy that we are doing what we can to make that future glorious.

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