Wednesday, October 5, 2011

God is Generous

I remember landing my first job after high school.  Money.  Freedom.  Just me and myself and my Subaru wagon, no more attachments, but true independence, well, and Mom and Dad to cover the insurance and, you know, the occasional tank of gas.  It was only reasonable to expect.  No, I wasn’t independent at all, but a step in that direction.  And I remember my dad being proud of me in an “it’s about time” kind of way.  But I do think he was proud.  Minimum wage, maybe more if I did well, working at the neighborhood True Value Hardware store.  My buddy worked there, too; he was the one who told me about the job opening. 

I applied, interviewed, got the job.  I think I was a little surprised to get it.  Maybe a part of me was disappointed, wasn’t ready to move on.  But I would have never said that then. 

No more summer misadventures.  I got up one morning, and it was the working world now: eight or nine hour days.  Wearing the blue knit polo with the red letters in script, assembling propane gas grills, moving palates of mulch on the fork-lift, in time, graduating to the rental department where I checked in paint sprayers and rototillers and drove a huge truck downtown a couple of times.  Even started doing on-site work with overwhelmed husbands who meant well but rented equipment they didn’t quite know how to use. 

Not bad for a boy who not two months before still took an the extra second and a half to tell a flat head from a Philips with any confidence. 

I remember telling Dad about the job, his being glad, and the silent pause as he thought it over for a second.  Then he gave me advice that I remembered for its strangeness at the time.  He said, “Don’t talk about the money with the guys you’re working with; I know some of them are real good friends.  Don’t ask how much they make.”

Not a big deal, I thought.  Sure.  And it wasn’t a big deal.  I never asked.  Never thought to ask.  Left it alone.  And so I still don’t remember how one day I found out that my best friend was making fifteen cents an hour better than me, but I did. 

And it made sense: he had worked there for over a year and a half, I was just starting.  He was more knowledgeable than me: they let him ‘work the floor.’  And more than that, he was getting what the boss had hired him for.  So was I.  Permanent worker versus summer help.  It made perfect sense.  Perfect sense.  So why couldn’t I not care?

Adding insult to injury, gospels like this morning's read the injustice of my situation backwards, imagining my story about me and my friend from my friend’s perspective: him, discovering that I’m making only fifteen cents an hour less than him.  The indignity!  The clowns who showed up late get paid the same as the long-time loyalists.  What’s with that?  Like the kid who couldn’t tell the flat head from the Philips is even in my league?  Outrage.  Suddenly this one-time happy situation has become unacceptable to us both.

So when the vineyard owner asks us: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?...are you envious because I am generous?” his anger fits me and my friend equally well.  Ironically, that we are both envious only proves that God has been generous with us both.  But sometimes it’s easier to see the richness in the other person’s hands.

This past week I discovered that this dynamic, the trade-off between envy and generosity, is not just true of first time job holders fresh out of high school at the local True Value.  I read an article the other day with this headline: "Facebook Makes Us All Sad Because Everyone is Happy But Us."

The article tells about a study out of Stanford that observed that people who used Facebook “noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others' attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. ‘They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life.’”

This would have been bad enough by itself, but as it turns out envy has implications.  Says the article: “...believing that others are happier with their choices than they actually are is likely to increase your own sense of inadequacy.”

What to do.  The answer isn’t simply getting off Facebook, either.  The article quotes Montesquieu - from the 16 and 1700s - who says, "If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are."

Grumbling about my circumstance.  The grass is always greener...  And God, somewhere in the mess of it all.

All of this got me thinking.  If you set your mind to it, if you really wanted to, you could become richer than others are.  Maybe have more friends.  Nicer cars.  Better homes and gardens.  Better jobs or education.  But you can never be more loved by God than others are.  You just can’t do it.  And if being loved by God is the most important thing that is true about you (and I happen to believe that it is), then this means that Stephen Colbert was right when he told a bunch of college graduates:

“You cannot win your life.”

You can’t win it.  Because unlike cars and jobs and cash, love is not a commodity to be collected, hoarded, or valued at the expense of another.  It’s not a zero-sum game.  Love doesn’t play by the standard economic rules that say that the less of something there is the more that it’s worth.  No, love’s value derives from the one who gives it: from God himself; the love that made the heavens and the earth, moved the mountains, sent his Son, and smiled a beautiful one smile one day and knit you in your mother’s womb.  God is generous and love abounds.

So the first rule of God, and also of love, is that there is always enough.  More than enough.  If you’re looking to win it, forget it.  But you can still join God in the game of loving others as much as God loves you.  There’s more than enough for that. 

But suppose you don’t like that game.  You don’t want to join it.  Fair is fair and hard work will get you where hard work will get you.  I hear you.  And you have some company this morning.  Jonah.  Look out for the fish!

When Jonah explains why he ran away from the people God wanted Jonah to warn, Jonah quotes the Good News as if it is very, very bad news.  He says that he knew that if he warned the people, and the people asked God’s forgiveness, God would forgive, because “the Lord is gracious and full of compassion...”  The same verse that’s the crown jewel of the Psalm this morning gets quoted with a repulsion on Jonah’s lips, as if the smell of it all makes him sick.  The promise of God become a revulsion.  Envy turns blessing into ugly words.  Or tries to.  It makes me wonder how many of my own ugly words stand to be turned over by love, restored to the praises of God, like gemstones mistook for ordinary gravel? 

But thank God for Jonah.  Would we otherwise have the courage to say how badly we wanted to win this life in the first place and how disappointing the goodness of God can be? 

What if, like Israel, I was supposed to be God’s favorite?  But what if, like Israel, the favor of God means becoming a blessing for the rest of the other people God loves?  What, when I remember that at least once upon a time, I was “just” one of the other people God loves?

Who am I to presume on the goodness of God?   

So forgive us, Lord, when we make idols out of how long we’ve worked the fields, or how long we’ve been here, or how much we give, or that we started that ministry, or God knows what else.  And forgive us, especially, when our idols make us love one another less. 

Let’s end with prayer.  This prayer is based on an optional prayer of the Rite I liturgy, prayed at the moment just before the Assembly approaches the altar to receive the sacramental body and blood of Jesus.  Let us pray.

O merciful Lord, we do not presume to come to this thy Table, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Amen.

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