16th Sunday after the Pentecost (Lectionary 24)
Sunday, September 16, 2007
note: first sermon at my internship site
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
When my stepmother was growing up in heavily Italian,
heavily Roman Catholic South Philadelphia,
The priest at St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, at 7th and Christian,
once preached about heaven with an analogy.
The priest encouraged this Italian-speaking parish to think of the journey to heaven
as a passage across the ocean –
Not hard, since many of the parishioners had arrived or
were descended from immigrants who arrived via crowded ship
at the Washington Avenue terminal.
The priest said that Roman Catholics would cruise to heaven as if on a luxury ocean liner.
Great food, first-class service, dancing, you name it.
Good news, for sure, to immigrant ears.
Protestants, too, would enter Paradise, but their journey was less grandiose.
They – we – would paddle our way to Paradise in a leaky rowboat.
To the Roman Catholic ears of her generation
this analogy affirmed a belief in the truth of the Roman Catholic Church
and the hope of a better life, a better journey to come,
while acknowledging – however begrudgingly –
that Protestants, too, had a rightful place in paradise.
And if a Protestant were to, well, protest their position in this priest’s parable,
I imagine that he would respond by saying,
“Whatcha complaining about? You’re still going to heaven!”
Whatcha complaining about?
Those words could easily flow from Jesus’ lips
in any number of his parables or encounters with the Pharisees.
In the chapter prior to today’s reading, Jesus was at the house of a Pharisee leader,
attending an invitation-only dinner.
If you were here on Labor Day weekend, you heard Jeff Carstens preach eloquently on this story.
Surely you can imagine the kind of people who would receive an invitation
to a Sabbath meal at the house of a Pharisee leader.
These were the “in” crowd, the law-abiding,
perhaps folks of certain socio-economic means.
Just a chapter later – today’s reading –
the meal had ended and the conversation had spilled out into the streets,
where walls no longer limited the discussion to a members-only affair.
Insulted that Jesus would walk and talk with the unclean masses,
especially on the heels of an elite gathering of the high and holy,
the Pharisees grumble.
And I can imagine Jesus, much like my step-mother’s priest –
though perhaps without the Italian accent –
I can imagine him turning to the Pharisees and saying:
“Whatcha complaining about? You had your turn – now, it’s their turn. Chill out.”
My daughter can grumble.
You see, Tali has a pretty good DVD and Barbie collection for a 4 year old,
I’m embarrassed to say.
Yet it never ceases to amaze me that despite the dozens of Dora, Diego, Barney and Elmo DVDs,
there’s always another DVD at the grocery store or mall
– displayed at 4 year-old eye level –
that she doesn’t have, that she suddenly needs.
Or the Barbies. Tali’s Barbie collection
is an assortment of the dolls my wife and her sister used to play with 25 years ago –
including some with some eccentric hairdos and
clothing that were stylish in the 80’s –
and some new dolls with darker skin and more versatile clothing,
reflecting the times and trends of today.
Yet, nonetheless, we can go to the store or to a friend’s house and inevitably find other Barbies,
or Barbie accessories, that Tali doesn’t own, that she suddenly needs.
And it is at times such as this that I want to say to her,
“Look what you already have! Whatcha complaining about?”
But, I would be disingenuous – and a bad father –
if I only highlighted my daughter for this image,
for surely it is not just the 4 year-olds in our midst who get jealous of a neighbor’s stuff.
Some of you know that I am an avid baseball fan.
For years my father got Phillies tickets
at old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia in the second row,
just a few feet behind the catcher and umpire.
We could hear the ball hit the catcher’s mitt,
we could see plain and clear the exasperated expressions –
and sometimes even hear the exasperated words –
of batters who were called out on strikes.
We could peer into the Phillies dugout,
and cheer or heckle the players and umpire,
knowing that they could actually hear our choice words.
Souvenir foul balls came our way constantly,
and the umpire’s locker room was located next to the small concession stand
that serviced our limited access seating area.
We were so close to the action that I even once heard Craig Biggio of the Houston Astros,
shortly after being rung up on strikes,
pound his baseball bat against pipes along the visiting clubhouse wall,
directly behind our seats.
Yes, these seats were a baseball fan’s dream,
and I sat there dozens of times.
Yet, as grateful as I was to be in those seats,
to sit closer to home plate than did the teams’ managers,
I found myself, at times, saying . . .
“Man, I’m in the second row. Why can’t I be in the front row?”
Whatcha complaining about, Chris?
You’ve got your foul ball, your great seats,
and the umpire has heard loud and clear your diagnosis of his vision.
Whatcha complaining about?
In his commentary on the Gospel of Luke,
Dr. Alan Culpepper recounts a Jewish story of the good fortune
that had come to a hardworking farmer:
The Lord appeared to the farmer and granted him three wishes,
but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer
would be given double to his neighbor.
The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle.
Immediately he received a hundred cattle,
and he was overjoyed . . . until he saw
that his neighbor had two hundred cattle.
So he wished for a hundred acres of land,
and again he was filled with joy . . . until he saw
that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land.
Rather than celebrating God’s goodness to him,
the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted
because his neighbor had received more than he.
Finally, he stated his third wish:
that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.
Yes, my daughter, the farmer, and I –
all richly blessed, to be sure –
yet unable to see the blessings we have received,
and especially unable to celebrate the blessings others have.
Or, put another way, we are so turned in on ourselves,
that we scarcely are able to love God or love our neighbor.
Yes, we have it tough!
Second row seats, cattle and acreage galore, barbies and dvds out the wazoo.
Yep, we sure suffer some real harsh inequities in our lives.
Life just ain’t fair.
And, as these Bible stories attest, God ain’t fair, either.
Our God might be a God of justice, grace, love, peace, and many other wonderful things,
but nobody should ever accuse our God of being fair!
Look at today’s reading –
Not only is Jesus rubbing elbows with the elite one moment,
and with the dregs of society the next,
violating all kinds of ancient – and not so ancient –
understandings of order, propriety, and piety,
but Jesus tells the story of a shepherd who neglects 99 otherwise well-behaved,
properly located sheep –
you know, the kid of sheep that got straight A’s at sheep school –
he leaves these good sheep behind to go out and find one that strayed,
the one that struggled, the one that got lost.
Upon finding the wayward animal, he throws a party,
while the 99 otherwise well-behaved, properly located, straight-A sheep
graze appropriately without any special attention.
And again, he tells the story of a woman who neglects her various household chores –
cooking, cleaning, family responsibilities, you name it –
to go after one measly little coin.
When she finds it, she throws a party,
probably spending those other coins on party supplies and food for her festivities.
It just ain’t fair for those 99 well-behaved, properly-located, straight-A sheep.
It just ain’t fair to those 9 coins that stayed put,
or to the people and tasks the woman neglected in order to find
that one stinking little coin.
It just ain’t fair to give so much attention to one small, lost coin,
to one small, lost sheep.
It just ain’t fair!
And it isn’t just in today’s readings.
The Bible is choc full of God’s unfairness.
What about the laborer who worked only a few hours,
but who nonetheless got paid the same as the laborer who worked an entire day?
That ain’t fair.
What about the God who chose a rather small, insignificant, wandering, rebellious
and otherwise poorly behaved tribe to be His chosen people?
That don’t make any sense.
What about the God who promises to lift up the lowly,
and throw down the powerful?
Huh? That ain’t fair.
It was in a Religious Studies class on Roman Catholic thought at William and Mary
that I first heard the expression,
“A preferential option for the poor.”
This is a Roman Catholic social teaching
that states God’s preference, God’s priority for the poor among us.
At first I was confounded and befuddled by this teaching.
God has a preference for some people over others?
That seems, well, unfair.
It is a teaching that first began to emerge in Papal encyclicals in the late 19th century,
but which truly echoes the teachings of the prophets, Jesus, and saints of every age.
It is a teaching that articulates God’s desire to hold close to the lowly, the poor,
a teaching about the priority God gives to those in need.
Just as a doctor devotes most of her attention to those who are sick and suffering,
so too is God’s attention turned toward those who suffer, who struggle, who are lost.
Hard, perhaps, for us to hear. Hard, perhaps, for us to appreciate.
Why do some get more of God’s attention than others?
Enter the priest from St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi – whatcha complaining about?
Chris, you got good seats at the ballgame, whatcha complaining about?
Tali, you got quite a good collection of DVDs and Barbies – whatcha complaining about?
Farmer, you got 100 cattle and 100 acres – whatcha complaining about?
Pharisees, you just shared meal and conversation with Jesus,
you are law-abiding people who know your spiritual inheritance
and the promise of God – whatcha complaining about?
Like the disciples who bickered about who would sit at Jesus’ right hand in heaven
rather than live in grateful response to the gift of heavenly grace here on earth,
we are prone to constant comparisons and jealous quarrels.
When we complain about comparative piety or righteousness,
or grumble that others are disproportionate beneficiaries of God’s grace,
it’s like we’re rearranging deck chairs for the passage to paradise!
If the Kingdom of God is like a banquet feast,
as Jesus spoke and the church has echoed for centuries,
then perhaps yes, perhaps there are seating arrangements at this heavenly table.
Perhaps God does choose who will sit at the Lord’s right and left hands,
perhaps God does have a preferential option for who sits where at the banquet.
But . . . what are we complaining about?
Regardless of who sits where, we are invited to the banquet feast,
we grumblers of God’s grace.
By nature of our baptism we have a promise
that we will pass through the waters of death and rise on the other side in new life.
We began our worship today not with a confession of our sin,
as we usually do,
but with a recollection of and thanksgiving for our baptism,
reminding us that God has bathed us and claimed us and sealed us with the Holy Spirit.
We are baptized, we have been given a promise of salvation,
we have a seat waiting for us at the Great Table.
We can sit around here and complain or wonder about our seat,
or we can celebrate that God has called us to a feast,
a great feast we share here each week with, ironically,
a measly piece of bread and a splash of wine,
unimpressive amounts not unlike the unimpressive coin of little value
or that one unimpressive little sheep that left the herd,
or that unimpressive leaky little boat
the priest suggested that we might row into paradise.
Yet this simple feast of bread and drink are God’s chosen means of grace.
God has claimed you, dear friends,
God has sought you out.
God celebrates that you’ve joined the feast.
That’s grace for us grumblers, dear friends,
and that’s Good News.
Thanks be to God!