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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Get Your Head In the Game

The Rev. Bob Honeychurch
Proper 23 Year A
October 9, 2011

It doesn’t get much better than this. For couch-potato, remote control addicted, sports junkies like myself, this time of year is the “perfect storm” of sorts, as so many activities are flashing on the television screen, where other people are working hard while I’m passively observing it all, that I hardly know where to focus my attention.

College football is at the mid-point of its season already, with USC and UCLA still making an effort to look respectable. Professional football is giving countless people legitimate excuses for missing church and staying home on Sunday mornings to catch the early game. The National Hockey League started its new season this past week (although most folks here in southern California can’t even name the two professional teams in the area). NASCAR devotees will know that their season is in the final stretch, with only 6 more races to go before the end of the year – and there is nothing more fascinating than watching cars drive around in circles for hours on end at 200 miles per hour. Golf enthusiasts are getting to see whether Tiger Woods will perform another meltdown routine at a tournament up in San Jose this weekend. The National Basketball Association, on the other hand, is currently experiencing what labor negotiators like to call a “lock out” while all of the grossly overpaid players argue with the grossly over-rich owners about who is going to get a bigger share of the revenue pie. But the best show in town, at least in my book, is the final countdown of the Major League Baseball season. After a week of thrilling games, we are down to the final four teams still in the hunt for the World Series title.

I was watching a game this past week where a rookie fielder on one team made several blunders in a short span of time. One of the commentators remarked: “He just doesn’t have his head in the game yet.” Apparently, this aspiring young athlete had showed up physically to play, but mentally he was still in the locker room. “He just doesn’t have his head in the game yet.”

Woody Allen, that great American actor, director, and playwright, is purported to have once said that 80 percent of life is showing up. I think that there is a lot of truth in that idea… but I also think that it’s about showing up 100 percent… that is to say, having your head in the game. It’s not about showing up 80% of the way, but being fully present, fully engaged, fully in the moment.

This morning’s gospel lesson recounts what I can only describe as a rather unsettling and, at times, confusing allegory about a king hosting a wedding feast for his son. For many of us, we may have listened to this story today… not quite the way we remember it. You see, we heard Matthew’s version of this story, while Luke’s version is the more popular one. It was, in fact, Luke’s telling of this story that inspired that old church camp song:
I cannot come… I cannot come to the banquet,
Don’t trouble me now.
I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow.
I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum.
Pray hold me excused… I cannot come.
That’s the story that many of us know ... the “G-rated” version, appropriate for all audiences. But that’s not the one we heard today.

Today we heard the PG-version… or maybe it ought to have been rated “R”. You see, in this version, the people flat-out refused to come when asked not once, but twice. And the king was so enraged that he sent in his army, killed all the people, and burned down their houses. But wait, now who was going to come to the party? So the king sent his servants back out to gather in everybody who was left… all the folks who didn’t make the original guest list, as Matthew says, “both good and bad.” It’s more important, apparently, for the king to have a full house than to have the “right” kind of people in the room. But then there’s that one last uncomfortable twist to the story. It appears that some poor schmuck showed up without his party clothes on. He didn’t have his head in the game. And how did the king react when he saw him? Well, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation of this text: Then the king told his servants, 'Get him out of here—fast. Tie him up and ship him to hell. And make sure he doesn't get back in.'

I’m not going to stand up here this morning and try to soften the edges of this harsh story. And I’m not going to second-guess either Matthew or Jesus by saying something like, “You know, what Jesus really meant to say was…” And I most certainly am not going to tell you that I understand exactly what Matthew’s point was in having Jesus relate the story just this way. Maybe there should just be a margin note in the Bible identifying this as a “cautionary tale” – a story meant to caution us against being like any of the characters in the story.

What I can say is – despite all of the violence, and the seemingly capricious actions of the king in the story – that all God wants to do is to throw a party… and all God wants of us is that we show up… 100% show up… with our head in the game, and our party clothes on. God is constantly setting before us new opportunities… new possibilities… new potentials… new prospects… new alternatives – all of which can draw us closer to God and closer to one another… all of which can help us to be more the person – and more the community – that God is calling us to become. And all God asks of us is that we believe that is what God wants… and then act accordingly.

This past week, one of the most influential people of our day died at the far-too-young age of 56. Frankly, for people over the age of 56, the death of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, may have held their interest for a news cycle or two. But especially for people under the age of 56, Steve Jobs changed the world. It wasn’t just the endless array of electronic gizmos and gadgets that rolled off the assembly line – from the Mac computer, to the I-family (you know, the I-Pod, the I-Phone, the I-Pad), to Pixar Film Studios (which revolutionized the movie industry), to I-Tunes (which revolutionized the music industry). All of those things were important, and made investors a whole lot of money along the way. But it was because of Steve Jobs’ vision of new possibilities that no one else could even envision that we, as a culture have re-imagined what it means to be connected to each other. All of those products which came out of Apple were just that – products, products of the underlying vision that life is about showing up… and showing up in ways that people never even imagined 30 years earlier.

For the last 7 years of his life, Steve Jobs battled a particularly virulent form of pancreatic cancer. Not long after his original diagnosis, he offered the 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. In that speech, he offered the graduates – and us – some of the most profound thoughts for living life with one another to the fullest, living life as though it was a banquet. “Remembering,” Jobs told the class that day, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

My friends, we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by embracing the banquet that God has set before us. So seize the moment… grab the brass ring… join the party… and your life will be changed… and God will break in… and you will be a new creation.


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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Whiners' Sunday

Pr. 20, Yr. A
Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16
9/18/11 – Homecoming Sunday

In the Episcopal Church, we like to name things. Every season gets a name, every object and aspect of architecture gets a name—a special ecclesiastical one—and every Sunday gets a name: 17th Sunday in Pentecost, 4th Sunday after Easter, All Saints' Sunday. Because we like doing this so much, we even give some Sundays nicknames. There's Low Sunday, the one after Easter Sunday, and Rose Sunday, the 3rd Sunday in Advent when we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath. There used to be Stir-up Sunday, on which the collect began "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord…" and which was a reminder that one had better stir up one's fruitcake if it was to have time to age before Christmas…but then the prayer book planners moved the collect much too close to Christmas for it to serve that purpose anymore. Here at Saint Mark's, we have Consecration Sunday coming up in November, and Graduation Sunday in the spring, and Homecoming Sunday today. And then, of course, there's that national feast, Super Bowl Sunday!

However, based on today's lessons, I'd like to suggest today be granted yet another nickname: Whiner's Sunday. Honestly, the Israelites in the desert and the all-day workers in the parable rival a 6 year old in their ability to lay it on: "Are we there yet?????" "Do I have to?" "It's not faaaaaaaiiiiirrrrr." They clearly have not learned one of the mantras of life in the preschool here at Saint Mark's: You get what you get and you don't have a fit!

Not that they don't have some basis for whining in both cases. The Israelites are exercising a big bit of selective memory in forgetting about how miserable they were in Egypt, but still, life wandering around in the desert is no picnic…especially given the lack of food, and—in the previous chapter—decent water. In our problematic parable, sure, the first-hired were paid what they'd been told they'd receive, but it doesn't seem right that the last-hired got paid just as much. It would, in both cases, be disingenuous for me to suggest that what's going on is, in fact, fair…because it's not, not by our standards at least. As our mothers told us when we complained about having an earlier bedtime than a sibling, or ending up with the smaller serving of ice cream, or not getting to ride in the front seat: life isn't fair.

However, the lack of fairness doesn't really merit the whining. There are all sorts of people for whom life isn't fair who aren't whining about it. Which leaves me wondering what's really behind our complaints? Sometimes it's boredom, as on a long car trip, kind of a "There's nothing else to do so I might as well whine" attitude; by day 45 wandering around in the middle of nowhere, one certainly can imagine that kicking in. There's also an inflated sense of entitlement sort of whining that arises from believing that I am the center of the universe and the world owes me exactly what I think I deserve.

I think the most common, though, is whining that comes out of a mindset of scarcity. If I believe that resources—time, money, food & shelter, attention, love—are limited, then I'm going to worry. Will I get my share? Will I be secure? Will I have enough? Pretty soon that worry is going to express itself as whining; if we keep it up, eventually it'll become a habit, a way of looking at life that makes us anxious, angry, and acquisitive, as we wonder both whether we'll have enough and whether someone else is getting our share, leaving us lacking.

That's a burdensome way to go through life. It's quite a weight always to be trying to take care of ourselves, to be in control of getting enough…because we're not always going to succeed, and that'll only raise our anxiety levels, leading to more worry, more resentment, and more whining. That seed of concern has been around since the serpent planted it in Adam and Eve's mind with the idea that maybe they'd be best off being able to take care of themselves without relying on God.

Contrast that with the alternative perspective in today's readings, one that represents God's mindset, so different from human worries. "You don't trust me for what you need? I delivered you from all those plagues and brought you safely out of Egypt and led you across the Red Sea, but if what you need now is food, no problem; I'll give you food, too, and then maybe you'll remember the other stuff as well and believe that I'm going to take care of you." And, as the abundantly generous landowner, "I have so much that I can give everyone enough—enough to buy that day's bread, enough to take care of the family, enough that for this day no one has to worry—and it will be my delight to do so." Fairness has nothing to do with this; it's about God giving us enough. This applies to us individually, but just as much so as a community. On this Homecoming Sunday, as we celebrate the relationships and the ministries which make us uniquely Saint Mark's, we do well to trust that, by God's grace and generosity, our resources are enough, our skills are enough, we are enough for whatever it is to which God calls us.

Worrying doesn't sit well with an attitude of abundance. When we're busy whining, it's hard to be grateful and content. When we're trying to act as if we're in charge, it's impossible to rest in the confidence that God is control and that that's a good thing. If your hand is closed tightly around something, you can't receive another gift—even a better one—until you let go of the first. If we're holding on tight to our worries and sense of scarcity, we can't open our hearts to accept the wondrous blessings God has for us.

[index cards…on one, write a whine, a resentment, a grudge that's burdening you down; on the other, write a blessing, a gift, a thanksgiving. Hold them, face down, one in each palm.] The physical weight is the same, but the spiritual and emotional weight is very different. Choose which you want to keep, which you want to nurture and have grow in you—because you can't feed both of them—and give away the other one; let it go. [pass baskets]

That's our choice, again and again, to follow the path that was shown to us by Jesus when he answered the fears and anger and sense of scarcity of those who were threatened by him, not by responding in kind, but by offering abundant love and abundant life. With open hands and open hearts, may we receive that blessing.

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