September 4, 2016 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proclaimer: Rev. Martha Kearse
Summer Sermon Series: STORIES TO LIVE BY
Sermon: Stepping Back
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
Thomas Merton’s life was a hot mess. Having been raised by his artist father in places around the US, London, Bermuda and Paris, Thomas Merton came into his young adulthood believing in several things: first, that life was essentially unstructured, except for school; second, that much that is difficult in life can be dealt with (or forgotten) with a few drinks and a few cigarettes; and third, that he was a free individual, competent to handle his own life. Having been given a fairly slap-dash education, with no regular connection with any community, much less a community of faith, Merton latched onto the life of an intellectual and a writer as the North Star by which he would guide his life. By most standards, Merton did appear to be competent—he did well in school and gained some recognition in intellectual circles as a scholar and a writer. He wasn’t particularly egregious in his debauchery—he drank some, he smoked, he claims to have been promiscuous (although he doesn’t mention many instances of this behavior). But he really doesn’t seem to have done anything beyond typical behavior for adults who have just become adults. He has no stories of crime, or deceit; he does not seem to have hurt anyone, except possibly himself. And yet, for Merton, this time of his life was one of rudderless despair—a time that was so bad for him, that it sets some standard for the happiness he experiences, having left that life behind. He tells stories of being very unhealthy—he gets so sick with an abscessed tooth and an injury to his foot that he gets gangrene and comes close to losing his life. He spends a fair amount of time sick, and tells some graphic tales of dental woes in 1930’s England. Merton says, “I was breaking my neck trying to get everything out of life that you think you can get out of it when you are eighteen.”
And then, just like Augustine, just like a million other human beings, Merton hears a voice. He is reading in his room and the voice says, “What are you waiting for? …Why are you sitting here? Why do you still hesitate? You know what you ought to do—Why don’t you do it?” He argues with the voice, he provides the voice with many reasonable arguments, good, logical statements about why he should not listen, why he should continue to live his life as he has. And then, he puts down his book, grabs a coat and walks out into the rain. And here is what he says:
“And then, everything inside me began to sing—to sing with peace, to sing with strength, and to sing with conviction.” Merton speaks of the “gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God: God’s own gravitation towards the depths of His own infinite nature, His goodness without end. And God, that center Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into this immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me. And He called out to me from His own immense depths.” Every story of a human encounter with the spirit of God contains this moment—this letting go of control and acceptance of someone greater into a life. There is always the battle, the confusion, the failure, the reason, the logic, the successes that feed the lie of control, and then the voice that says, “What are you waiting for?”
I know that we’ve all heard the parable about the laborers and the landowner before. If you’re like me, you might have thought, every time you heard it, “Yeah—I’d be kind of mad, too—I mean, if I worked 10 hours and that guy worked 1 and he got the same pay—well, that’s not right, that’s all I’m sayin’.” Parables always have a burr in them, one of those sticky seeds that gets caught on your sock and you find it hours later when it has burrowed into your shoe and is sticking directly into your ankle. Parables are uncomfortable, and this one is no different. And it may be that when we’ve heard this parable before, we’ve heard talk about generosity—the generosity or grace of God. That’s fine—that’s present. But let’s look at the context. In the previous chapter, Matthew 19, the disciples of Jesus have just watched him discuss heaven with a rich guy, and he has offered the man little hope. This rich guy has kept all the rules and wants to know if that will guarantee him salvation. He probably expects Jesus to say, “Sure! Good job, man! You kept all the rules—that’s all you need!” Instead, Jesus, in that annoying way he has of telling the truth, picks as the rich boy’s privilege—he says, “You’re never going to understand what it means to love God and love people with that bubble of money and privilege around you—get rid of that, and you’ll be saved.” And the guy just walks away—no one’s ever asked him to do that before.
The disciples are deeply disturbed by this. “Wait a minute!” They say. “If THAT guy doesn’t qualify, who does?” Jesus just shrugs—“It’s really not up to me,” he says. “Some things seem impossible, and then God does them anyway.” It’s at this point that the disciples start to get truly perturbed. They’ve sacrificed a lot for this guy, and they need a few guarantees—maybe even assigned seats! “Look!” they say. “We gave up everything! Doesn’t that get us in?” And it is in response to this question that Jesus tells them the parable of the landowner and the laborers. “Sure,” he says. “I promised you a place, and you will have one. But God doesn’t really do that first chair thing. In fact, a lot of times, the person who was in front gets moved to the back, and those in the back get moved to the front.” The question that prompts the parable is one of control—the disciples want to know what they have to do to get the good spots. In fact, it is just after the parable that the Sons of Thunder send their agenda (AKA their mother) to negotiate with Jesus over assigned seats in the throne room. They want to MAKE SURE they get all the good things they deserve and that their sacrifice has been noticed and will be rewarded.
This need to have some control is certainly understandable, isn’t it? I mean, they walked away from jobs and families and homes—they’ve been eating at off times with some fairly strange characters and there has been no talk of pay or reward or places in the cabinet in the new administration. Who can blame them for wanting to get the pecking order straight? That’s what we do as humans, isn’t it? Part of the task of life involves finding ways to have control over what happens to us. When we’re children, our lives are not ours to control, are they? At first, we’re just to dadgum short to control much, which makes climbing a highly valued trait in the kid world. Many a parent has gone to bed thinking their toddler was safely tucked away in a crib, only to wake up to find the kid has gone over the wall in the night and is downstairs talking to the dog and eating a cookie at 2am. We’re taught pretty early to sit in the circle and stop talking when the teacher talks. Eventually, we learn to sit in a desk. Some of us do this better and earlier than others. We learn to write between those blue lines, and to get the glue onto the construction paper and not ourselves, and not to spill our milk at lunch and how to navigate the jungle that is the playground at recess. We learn to control our bladder, to control our arms and legs, to control our language and even, at some point around age 14, to control our hair. And before we know it, we find ourselves to be teenagers, and then young adults, with the difficult task of deciding how to function without all those controls working on us from the outside.
Of all the issues that Jesus addresses through the use of parables, letting go of the need to control may be the one most difficult for those of us in this room today. This church is not a church of people who struggle with integrity. There aren’t many who struggle not to steal money from their place of work or for whom ethical dilemmas pose an ongoing challenge. But control—ah, that’s a tough one around here. This church is full of achievers—first borns and heads of class—bosses and administrators—this church is chock full of those of us who have boxes full of diplomas and accolades, and still get a little rankled when we remember that we only made it to second chair in the flute section of the concert band. Letting go of control is not our best thing. In fact, at times it is antithetical to the other thing that defines us—our belief in our ability to make things right. Injustice? We’ll stand up to it. Hunger? We’ll feed it. Cold? We’ll clothe it. Illness? We will by-God bring a casserole. We believe strongly in our own ability to affect good things, and while Jesus does not discourage people from working on behalf of each other, or from trying to do good things, his reply to the person who calls him “good” is to say that only God is good.
It’s a tough thing to balance, this idea of letting God control our lives. We grew up hearing the story of the guy caught in the flood—I’ll tell it, but just for those born after 1990. A guy is caught at his house in a flood. A boat comes by and the guy says, “No—I’m good! God will save me!” So the boat leaves. A while later, the water has risen even further and another boat comes by. The guy says, “No—I’m good! God will save me!” Finally, the water gets so high, the guy has to get up on his roof. A helicopter comes and drops a rope and the guy says, “No! I’m good! God will save me!” And then he drowns. And when he gets to heaven, he says to God, “What happened? I had faith in you and you let me drown!” And God says, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!” We grew up with that. It is written on our bones. “Take care of yourself. God’s got enough to do.” Or “Keep looking! There’s a helicopter out there somewhere!” And we live these lives, burdened by the need to do everything ourselves, to never ask for help, to be ok—be competent—be complete. We feel compelled to pick up the burdens of lots of others around us, but we will literally break our own backs carrying the load before we give up and ask for help. Do you know that the biggest arguments I get in when I go on trips with the No Limits group is whether or not I will drop them at the door. “No, no!” They say. “We’ll walk with you from the parking lot!” I have to practically threaten them to get them to let me do nice things for them. But I understand. I’m the same way.
Because receiving help means giving up control. If you bring me soup, it may not be exactly like I want it. If you fill my dishwasher, you might put the bowls on the bottom rack, God forbid. And if I cede the decisions of my life to God, I may not like the result. It’s fascinating to read about this process in Thomas Merton’s book The Seven Storey Mountain. He practically kills himself trying not to have faith, trying not to be religious. And then, when he lets go, there is such joy, such peace in his life. I understand him. Faith is dangerous. Religion is dangerous. Let go of those decisions and you might find yourself wearing a polyester robe in a pulpit the size of a compact car. Let go of those decisions and you might find that God wants you to work for a not-for-profit, or go to Hungary, or stop eating meat, or become a teacher, or learn Spanish, or buy a smaller house, or adopt a child in need. Letting go of the need to control everything might mean not permitting ourselves to be so angry at other people who don’t drive the way we want them to, or behave the way we want them to, or vote the way we want them to. It might mean we let them be, and love them precisely as they are, and—even if they are our children—respect their right to make their own balance with God.
The world is waiting for us out there. We’ve put another summer to rest, and all the adventures—the fantasies that we are sailors or Jeremiah Johnson in the wilderness or underwater explorers or able to afford Disney World—all those fantasies get put away in favor of work and school and sports and church. The rhythm of our lives takes over, and we have little control over many of the things we do every day. Today, we asked God to bless our hands for the work each of us must do—and that is probably the best we can hope for. That God takes our hands and makes our work a blessing, sometimes with our help, sometimes in spite of our help. It can actually be a comforting thought that for God, we are, at times, like a three-year-old with a vacuum cleaner—equally likely to clean up our Cheerios off the floor and to vacuum up the cat.
The poet Wendell Berry wrote this:
When despair grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting for their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
We are assured that we are not alone. That the generosity of God is beyond all imagining. That the grace of God is as present in our lives as sunshine and rain. We are assured that we matter immensely, and we are assured that our lives are part of something much larger than we can possibly imagine. On this day before the very last day of summer, the last day of rest before the juggernaut of the fall, consider the “peace of wild things,” or, as Jesus put it, “the lilies of the field.” Lie down in the field—or sit down on your porch—and consider this thought: you’re in—we’re in. No more effort is required of us to stay in, and no amount of effort can get us more in than we are, right this moment. We are loved, and cared for—we are in the best of hands. So, consider letting go—after all, what are you waiting for?