Posted by: dacalu | 23 July 2012

Imperfection

I had the pleasure of joining Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church this morning in Tucson Arizona.

Collect (one of my favorites, and a Cranmer original)

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Readings:

2 Samuel 7:1-14a (The Lord tells Nathan that David should not build a cedar Temple)

Psalm 89:20-37

Ephesians 2:11-22 (“You who were once far off”)

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

 

Sermon

America today has been infected by a horrible strain of relativism.

It’s not the “relativism” so common in the rhetoric of religious conservatives –

the idea that morality is not fixed,

but rather a matter of opinion and private conscience.

I see that on occasion – just as much in conservatives as liberals – but no.

I want to speak about another type of relativism,

when we insist on seeing our gains only in contrast

to what our neighbors have.

 

It appears most clearly in the concept of “market value.”

Mind you I think modern capitalist economics gets many things right.

I’m not going to pick on that, either.

I am going to pick on how we feel about it.

How many of you have paid a perfectly acceptable price for something –

be it clothing or food, or perhaps an airline ticket –

only to discover that someone else got the same thing for a lower price?

How did that make you feel?

Did you feel cheated?

 

Let’s pick something more personal.

What if you found out someone else was paying half as much as you,

for the same size apartment.

Worse yet, what if you found out a co-worker was getting paid 50% more,

to do the exact same job.

We cannot help but feel offended.

Perhaps it’s genetic, I don’t know.

We want things to be fair.

 

I think Jesus had something to say about that.

In fact, I know there’s a story in Matthew’s Gospel;

It’s called the parable of the workers in the vineyard,

and Jesus commends an employer who gives a day’s wages

to everyone who worked his farm that day,

those who worked from the early morning,

and those who only worked one hour in the afternoon.

The workers who served for the whole day felt they should

have made more than the others because they did more work.

It didn’t matter that they got fair pay for the day;

What really mattered was what they got relative to others.

How many of you have begrudged God or someone else,

for giving you a perfectly good gift,

simply because someone else got more?

 

It works in the opposite direction as well.

How many of you have put up with some indignity,

some pain or unnecessary hardship,

simply because everyone else put up with it?

 

This insidious relativism, the need to get a fair price,

or keep up with the Joneses,

or not stick out;

this sort of peer pressure can stop us from asking

the most important questions.

Can I afford to pay this much?

Am I giving the seller a fair price, one that she can live with?

Is it worth this much to me?

 

I’m afraid it stops us from asking the right questions in church as well.

So many people want to know if they belong to the right church,

they worry about the church growing…or shrinking.

They worry if we get it as right as the fundamentalists,

or the Catholics.

Don’t even get me started on recent questions

about devaluing marriage –

as though anyone else’s marriage could add or subtract

one whit from the grace in your own.

God’s economy is not one of exchange.

It’s not a question of balance, or even of fairness.

God’s economy has to do with gifts given freely.

 

That doesn’t mean there is no cost involved.

Indeed, I must constantly ask myself,

can I give this away?

And sometimes the answer is no.

Sometimes God asks that I keep my energy or my money or my time

so that I can use it for something else.

Because God really does ask us to make use of limited resources.

God does ask us to push ourselves to the very limit

of our patience, charity, love, and faith –

but not beyond.

 

Our God is a God of abundance,

extravagance even,

but not infinite gifts.

God may be infinite, but God asks us to be stewards of limited goods.

We have a limited environment,

limited wealth,

limited time,

and limited ability to love,

though we strive to make that share ever larger,

with God’s help.

 

Mark’s Gospel speaks of Jesus and the disciples,

tired by the crowds.

They had no leisure to eat and tried to sneak away

for some private time,

but the crowds came and found them.

Even Jesus needed time out, though he was gracious with his time.

 

 

Our church is not a relative church.

We do not believe that our salvation depends upon others going to Hell.

We hold that it’s enough to say God may be found here,

without saying God cannot be elsewhere.

We are open to other faiths – not as the same as ours,

but as genuine attempts to find the Truth.

As the Anglican Theologian, Richard Hooker said,

Everything necessary to salvation may be found in scripture,

but that doesn’t mean everything in scripture is necessary to salvation,

nor that these things may not be found elsewhere.

Or more pithily, “All may, some should, none must.”

Our truth is not a relative truth,

nor our value a relative value.

The reason we can be so self-secure,

is that we have actually found something,

something real,

that something that made the crowds follow Jesus.

We have found the love of God, which is infinite,

and the ability to find that finite spark within us,

which mirrors God’s fire,

and kindle it, nurture it, and grow it into a blaze.

 

Paul says:

“you who once were far off

have been brought near

by the blood of Christ.”

You may have come to Christianity recently,

or you may have known God for as long as you can remember,

being baptized as an infant.

Either way, you know what it is to be less bright than you wish,

less full, less loving, less faithful.

But you also know what it is to grow in God, to grow in love.

 

Christianity is hard work.

It’s hard because our gifts our limited,

but worthwhile because our gifts grow.

It can be harder to “evangelize” as an Episcopalian,

hard because we have no threat of exclusion,

no my way or the highway,

But it should be easier to spread the good news.

It should be easier to say “God loves you,” and “You can love one another”

because neither one of these things is about being an Episcopalian,

though being an Episcopalian should always be about these things.

 

Let me say that again, Love does not require membership in the church,

But membership in the church requires love.

 

We have a real gift here.

I know; I’ve seen it.

You love one another.

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,

but you are citizens with the saints

and also members of the household of God,

built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,

with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

Each of you is a stone in that house,

only a finite stone,

but you must admit, it’s a rather fine house.

There may be other houses,

but that doesn’t really matter,

because this one is warm and bright.

(Wait, we’re in Tucson.  This one is cool and dim.)

This house is a place of refreshment.

 

Each of you has found something here.

Take a moment and think about what that is…

 

Each of you, like a stone in a house,

or a dab of paint on a canvas

contributes something particular,

something limited, but important for the whole.

Take a moment and think about what that is…

 

Think about your particular gifts.

Now think of that, not relative to, not compared against,

but added to the gifts of others…

For billions of people and thousands of years.

 

It’s something remarkable, and wonderful.

Not because it’s perfect; it isn’t.

Not because it’s infinite; it isn’t that either.

It depends upon the unique contributions each one of us make.

It is a place of support and encouragement, but not one of rest.

It is a place of peace, but not one of inactivity.

Our finite nature makes that so.

Our imperfection makes that so.

Because God never calls us to be perfect independently;

God calls us to be good together.

The church cannot be good simply because of the alternative.

The church is good for what we find here:

ourselves,

one another,

God.

 

This week, I ask you to think about your gifts and your limitations,

and how they fit with the gifts and limitations of others.

Find answers that satisfy.

Find food that fills.

Find love that binds you to one another,

and faith that binds you to God.

Make a community that fans the flame of God within you.

 

It was never about being right or being first or being best.

It’s only about whether there is something here worth having,

and whether you can share it.

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Responses

  1. You observe well that we tend to compare ourselves and the rewards we receive or the price we pay to what others receive or pay. Comparison often breeds resentment and anger — when we get the short end of the stick — or smugness when we come out ahead of others. Still, the longing for an equitable world is deeply ingrained. I find it awfully hard to swallow that the bank CEO should get paid 800 times as much as hard working teller, and that petty thieves get harsh sentences while those who defraud people of their life savings are rarely held accountable at all.
    You are right: it isn’t about being right, first, or best. My deepest admiration goes to those who have little, but receive all that they do have as a blessing.
    — Elizabeth Maupin

    • Dear Elizabeth,
      Thanks for the comment. The trick for me is to care more about people getting what they need than getting what’s fair.
      Lucas

      • Beyond air to breathe and food to eat, how do we rightly judge what we need as opposed to what we desire? Do we need individual shelters that we can inhabit over time, or is it sufficient to share space with strangers who come and go? Is it okay for people only to have a mat to sleep on indoors for 6 to 8 hours and then have to carry everything they own about with them the other 16 hours of the day? We do need love, but how much love, and in what form? Do we need cars, computers, cell phones?
        I love a little congregation here that prays weekly for discernment to know how much is “enough” and for the wisdom and discipline to use just enough resources so that all may have enough. I believe that he trick is to move away from thinking about what’s best for me and to think about what benefits the community as a whole. Yes, it is important to get away from comparison, but it is also important to cry out with the prophets that great disparities in the distribution of resources destroy communities. The problems of inequalities aren’t all in the mind. The unequal distribution of health care is sometimes a matter of life and death. It angers me to see my homeless friends dying in their 40’s or younger from preventable causes. It is better for the soul if we do not compare our lot with others, but I think it is unrealistic to ask of those who have been kicked to the curb and left to beg for their daily bread in the midst of a land of plenty. It is a hard sell even to those who have the basic physical necessities but are not accorded respect, or given the right to be seen and heard as creatures of equal worth.
        I realize, however, that this is probably not the crowd you intended to address.


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