Reflection for September 21, 2014

Jonah 3:10-4:11, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

When I was a young boy, just starting school, in a small town in Iowa along the Mississippi; about this time of the year, when summer lingered as it does sometimes, I realized something special about my particular school. It was located along a city street beside a large open meadow, usually left unmowed all summer long. Of course there were many things to the start of school in September: the sense of new clothes, seeing friends I had not seen for a while, the smell of the classrooms of an old building slowly warming as the day continued, new books to open. All of those things I remember.
But most of all I remembered how special I thought my school was because my school was the special home of the butterflies. During recess from the first days of September until perhaps mid-October, my school was adorned with monarch butterflies. I remember how the butterflies must have loved my school. All summer long, the butterflies on my block were small and yellow, flying very fast. But then I would come to school and there would be these amazing monarch’s with their brilliant color and graceful flight. I wondered what the butterflies liked about living at my school and how the school took care of them. Certainly the teachers must have come early to have make ready for their coming. And my teachers were amazing people because they were mysteriously and intimately connected with the butterflies that stayed until it grew colder and we all began to wear our coats. My teachers had the capacity to cultivate these amazing creatures. Or maybe it was the principle. Maybe that’s what principles did: tend to the butterflies. I was not sure.
At least that was my understanding of the matter until perhaps third grade when some of the science lessons kicked in, and I began to understand more about the world of insects and the importance of meadows.
But it was many years really, before I understood more fully, that the butterflies were not so much a part of my school’s special ways, but something that involved a larger cycle of nature. The butterflies were on migration, and this was the place they stopped each fall on a grand circuit that moved across the Americas. I had begun to sense my place in the world, and the larger calculus of God’s creation.
But frankly, only after many decades of life, did I realize the inter-generational aspect of this grand migration of which I witnessed only a small sliver. For the entire migration circuit requires several generations to complete. Somehow the way of life and flight is passed between the generations as the flocks move along their way.
And even more frankly, I must admit that I still do not understand how this all works, how insects pass on knowledge, how wisdom is passed between the generations of creatures. I doubt that I will ever understand the physiology of insect brains let alone human brains that makes this all possible. How do the cells work together to give each creature its unique capacity to know where to be when and how to get there on time. But at least now I realize how little I knew in my innocent childhood delight in my school. And I’ve sensed more about that divine calculus by which all creation is bound together as all things move in a mysterious harmony of the spheres that also feels deeply intimate as it touches our souls.
The divine calculus: that sense of how things are constructed in such a way that whatever the purpose and whatever the appearance, things will be as they must and should be. God apparently has a way of assembling the stuff of life in such a way that things become what they must and should become.
Yet as we try to sort things through, we often know only a small slice of that calculus, highly shaped and defined by our own experience and situation, joy and pain. What we experience as the delight of the butterfly on a school playground is something more: part of the great migration of life. It is difficult, often very difficult, to get the bigger picture, to understand what is going on, and to view what might be happening really and why. Especially on those difficult, tragic, and sometimes messy days, when things are not coming together and it seems like the good is not even close to prevailing, and when our own sense of the way things should be; our own sense of calculating justice and fairness seems to disintegrate.
Frustration with the divine calculus. That’s what the kingdom of God is like on some days: especially for Jonah and the day workers in the vineyard in the readings today.
The story of Jonah is complicated where we pick it up this morning.  Jonah is a reluctant prophet who resents his assignment. He has not been given the best venue. Nineveh is a big city. But it’s Gentile and heathen. After graduating from prophet school, Jonah was given the bottom of the barrel for parish assignments. No nice Jewish Jerusalem suburb assignment for Jonah. No, he has to proclaim his message to heathens. And the message is not particularly attractive. He is to tell the swarming, pork eating heathen masses to repent. And if they don’t, they’ll all die. That’s the sort of thing that can get you killed.
So Jonah tries to escape on a boat. A storm causes the sailors to ask why God is angry. Jonah is the cause. They throw him overboard. He would have drowned, but was swallowed by a great fish which vomits him up on the shores of his assignment. He then half-heartedly walks through Nineveh mumbling something about repenting, hoping secretly that no one will notice and that God will destroy these unclean, violent, and disreputable heathens as is only proper. But Jonah is actually heard, the people repent, and Jonah’s desire for God to destroy the wicked is thwarted by his own effort.
And now Jonah is extremely frustrated with the divine calculus. He should not have this assignment. He should not have been vomited by a fish. The wicked should die. They should not get by with saying they are sorry and have God let them off the hook. He’s frustrated with God’s calculation of mercy. And he sulks. Why does a good God let good things happen to bad people?
God does not answer the questions of Jonah, nor change the assignment, but uses Jonah’s feelings about a plant to provide some insight into the deeper calculus of divine pain at the loss of even one creature regardless of its personal history, ethnic background, genetic composition, or the savory nature of its character. God it turns out loves everything, everyone, even heathens. And that, according to the calculus of Jonah, is just unfair.
In the story of Jesus, the workers of the vineyard are frustrated with the divine calculus as well. Certainly those who work the most should get paid the most. That’s the calculus of this world. The earliest workers are frustrated by the wages of the late comers. That’s perfectly understandable. It’s not fair that all should receive the same wage.
But the axioms and the theorems of the divine calculus bring God into the embrace of sinners whenever they show up and regardless of the length of their journey to get to this vineyard. All are forgiven, regardless of the length or breath or depth of their sin. God it turns out will forgive anybody anything. And that, according to the calculus of the first forgiven, is just unfair.
That unfairness to the good, long suffering, and genuine died in the wool Christian will always be felt as long as we remain in our first grade perspective on monarch butterflies and their love for our school.  Of course we live our lives and shape our thoughts of God around our own vision of life and our own situation. Of course, there should be gradations of good and evil according to the just merits of each sinner. Doesn’t that make sense?
But God just gives it all away. The scorecards of life we thought so much of do not matter to God. Our sense of fairness is but a small sliver of the cycles of creation and redemption as all creatures great and small wing their way back into the arms of a waiting God. And in the meantime God wants us all to love one another simply and as best we can through the generations of our lives.
That axiomatic truth about divine desire to bring all into one common creation generates a most strange calculus in which we find ourselves learning to love Ninevites, drinking with all the migrant workers at the end of the day regardless of where they came from or how long we’ve been friends, being happy with ourselves and the people around us, deciding to share what little we have with others, thinking about the need for not mowing the meadows, wanting in the end not to count the beans but to rejoice that we have some beans to count and share.
For the world is a great big place. As generations rise and fall, the horizon of the great cycle of nature becomes visible. And the greater cycle of creation and redemption, although eclipsed by human design, will bend the sliver of our understanding until it arcs along that graceful line that never ends, eventually bringing all of us to where we are meant to be, in the loving arms of a waiting God.

Reflection for September 14, 2014

-Genesis 50:15-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Happiness. That is what we want. For ourselves. For the ones we love. For everyone really. But what is happeness? And how do we get there? And why is it so illusive? Why are we all so miserable?
These are some of the basic questions of religion. Many of our words for happiness are deeply religious: joy, peace, blessedness, well-being, salvation, and deliverance are all rooted in religious language and stories. For centuries, religious communities have focused on happiness as the outcome of faith and practice, speaking of Nirvana, Paradise, or Heaven. Through the practice of faith we move beyond the difficulties of this life into a different place, a sacred place, a joyful place, both temporary and eternal.
But regardless of the religion one holds, and the strength of our convictions, we know that this thing called happiness is a tangled complexity. Some people spend years in therapy trying to find it. Often it involves an injustice we sense for ourselves or others. Sometimes we lack the things we need, or we become aware of the pain of those suffering around us. Sometimes it seems a disaster has marked our lives forever. Sometimes we have lost a basic sense of safety or security. Sometimes we are in pain. With all of these things swirling in our hearts and minds, happiness becomes something hard to find in this life or the next.
For me, the readings this morning speak to three different doorways into deeper happiness. These doorways are only three ways into the deeper presence of God. And they may not fully untangle the mess our lives have become. But they are helpful to us as we move more deeply into the happiness we seek.
The first doorway into deeper happiness is forgiveness. Forgiveness in the family is the theme of the reading from Genesis. After his brothers sold him into slavery, Joseph had a difficult life in Egypt, was thrown into prison, and eventually made it through that struggle into a position of leadership in Egypt. At this point in the story, he has been leading the storage of food in Egypt for the famine that has now hit all of the Middle East. Following the death of their father, his brothers now have come to Egypt for food. The tables have been turned.
But here is the story of forgiveness and reconciliation. Joseph recalls how God used even the bad intentions of his brothers to accomplish a distant good. And Joseph recalls what it’s like to have family; he weeps tears of reconciliation, and enters with his brother into happiness through the doorway of forgiveness.
In the gospel reading, Jesus takes the speed limit off forgiveness. Forgiveness moves beyond the reasonable seven times into infinity. For forgiveness opens the door to happiness, and to be happy we need to forgive.
Sometimes it is resentment, a deeply felt and fully justified hurt, a wrong never righted that is filling our hearts. This hurt will not allow us to be happy. Regardless of what other people have done, and regardless of whether or not they repent, our own souls will perish if we do not let go of the hurt and move on. It will take some time, of course. Notice we are in chapter fifty of Genesis. It’s taken a long, long time and many chapters of the Bible to get to this forgiveness point.  But even if the journey is long and slow, we need to move into forgiveness to be happy.
Sometimes we need to forgive ourselves in order to find happiness. Overwhelmed by guilt, we need to release ourselves from the burden of our sense of failure, hearing the words of confession, acceptance and forgiveness, so that we can get over our anguish and move on.
In order to find happiness in our hearts and happiness in our world, we need to forgive. Forgiveness is the first threshold into happiness, well-being, peace and joy. In your own journey into happiness, it may be time for you to either give or receive forgiveness.
The second doorway into deeper happiness is found in the second reading. It involves holding our opinions less firmly and ending our judgment of those who differ from us. This is the advice of Paul to the Roman congregation struggling over what dietary laws should be followed, if meat purchased in the emperor’s market should be eaten, and if certain festivals or fasts should be practiced. These were the hot issues of the day, and they were hotly debated. Paul says it really doesn’t matter that much. Whatever. He even views having a strong opinion on such matters as a weakness. Imagine that. Paul, one of the more obstinate people in the Bible telling people to lighten up.
Now having strong opinions is a good thing. As long as we remember that they are our opinions. People will not agree with us. Our opinions need to be tempered by realizations that humans will disagree about almost everything, and that almost everything we think is absolute is actually mostly relative to our own view of life in this time and place.
But it is easy to become prisoners to our own ways of thinking and to begin to judge those who differ from us as wrong or misguided.  Pretty soon we drown in our own intellectual juices. What we thought was the certainty of our conviction becomes the concrete that keeps us stuck in unhappy relationships with others and dead end solutions as honest intellectual regrets deepen with the passage of time.
Gradually, if we want to be happy, as individuals and as a community, we must move beyond our judgment of others, learning to accept our own limited vision and appreciate our neighbors despite all their obvious flaws and their opinions regarding the emperor’s market place, what we should do and how we should satisfy our hungers.
Over the course of the years I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that I’m wrong about this, that we should all stand firmly on our convictions,  that the Bible provides us the with certain proof that some people are wrong, and if I would only follow the Bible strictly; then I would be better off. I listen to all of that, and then I check to see if the person still has both of his hands. If he does, I sense that there must be a problem somewhere with all this certainty and strictly following the Bible, and I begin to look for the logs rather than the splinters.
And the third doorway into deeper happiness is gratitude.  Here we are in the third reading, with its emphasis on gratitude for forgiveness received. As we realize what we have been given and how we have been forgiven, we embrace the importance of thankful appreciation and how we might express that to God through others. Gratitude is appreciating what we have been given: forgiveness, the blessings of life, the health we have had, the gifts of family and friends, a stable country and community, good fortune when it has come our way.
Gratitude, we have learned from recent studies of happy Danes, is nurtured by tending to the details of the present. We become more grateful when we focus on the small things in life: the meal we share with a friend, the textures, smells, sights, and sounds that compose the tapestry of the moments of life, the way the sun shines after the rain, the internal sense that all is well as we reconcile with family or friend, the hope that rekindles after a night of tears. These things enkindle a grateful heart. And when we are thankful, we find ourselves walking back into a happiness we may have lost. For when we are thankful, our hearts warm to the world around us. Forgive. Move beyond judgment. Be thankful. These are three simple thresholds into the happiness we seek.
There are of course other doorways into happiness. Some need to move beyond jealousy or envy. Others need to focus on addiction or anger. Some need to go through deep transformational change. But a great measure of that illusive happiness is found in these three things from these three readings. Forgive. Move beyond judgment. Be thankful.