Everybody stretch your shoulders a minute for a brief exercise, if you are able. By a show of hands, how many of you here today are cradle Episcopalians, meaning you’ve been Episcopalian since your infancy? . . . (keep ‘em up, if you can) How many of you have been Episcopalian for 20 years or more? . . . How many of you have been here at All Saints’ since its beginning in 2007 or have been in The Episcopal Church at least 10 years? (you’re probably getting tired, cradle folks–hang in there!) Five years or more? For how many of you is this your first visit, or you’re not even part of The Episcopal Church but have landed here at this point in your spiritual journey? Here’s the thing:
All of you are welcome here, in this place and at this table.
(You can put your arms down now.) All of you are invited now as ever to taste and see God’s grace and mercy. Is there more grace and mercy available to you if you’ve always been faithful and devout? Do you have special privileges if you’re an old timer, get more bread at communion for holding your arm the longest? No. It’s the same for everyone, infinitely and abundantly the same. The kingdom of heaven, according to our gospel today, shows no partiality amongst its workers.
This is good news. We are all equal, have the same access to God through Christ, receive gifts of the Spirit. Why can’t we leave it at that?
Well, Jesus said, “the last will be first and the first will be last.” All I hear at first glance is that there’s a first and a last, and Jesus knows I want to be first. I want to be rewarded for my efforts. I want it to show how much I love and serve, how close I am to Jesus as His number one fan. Last week (I’m sure you remember) I mentioned that Peter’s question about how many times to forgive was a question of quantity: just how much do we have to do to be good or right? This is a humanly economical thing to do, to quantify something so we can measure rank or amount, put “stock” in something. With such a measure, we can gauge our self-worth, estimate our value. We can also judge others. I want to be first in my devotion and faithfulness, not the least devout and most unfaithful. In my striving to be the best and most, I compare myself to others. I might even begin to think that I don’t have what it takes to be first. So focused am I on increasing my value in the system that I complain when things fall short, I complain that I don’t have enough. I might even think that I am not enough.
When we lived in Fayetteville from 2004-2012, I noticed this increased lingo about who was “native” or not in Arkansas, especially in Northwest Arkansas. Returning to the area of my nativity, I can’t help but notice that this distinction between natives and non-natives has reached almost a fever pitch, as if only those born and raised here have a right to give voice to the way things should be, now or going forward. We’ve been here longer than they have, so we have greater value.
Consider also the young children brought here with their aspiring immigrant parents, parents who were hoping to find their place in the economy, establish their value in the social and cultural constructs. These children, many now adults, are struggling to maintain a sense of security in the only place they know as home. They are looking to the others who have been here longer to help them, to protect them. Somewhere along the way they heard and believed that people were to look after the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, that people were to love their neighbor. As they clamor to rush paperwork, our DREAMers are trying to navigate a system that sees them as another statistic, another number.
With our emphasis on earthly things, we cling to our human economy, constantly compare, and make our value judgments based on what we determine matters most. We get anxious thinking that we will come up short in this valuation, afraid that we won’t measure up.
And then Jesus goes and affirms that if we’re first, we’re going to be last.
That makes us even more anxious, unless we understand the love and compassion Jesus shares in these words. Can you hear him saying that you can be first, third, 50th, or last; what matters is that you’re part of the kingdom. You’re in. Notably, however, we’re not the boss. We’re the hired laborers doing the work, tending to the resources made available to us by nature of our position. We tend to think that the materials we work with, the resources we use, the compensation we’re given is all ours. So we hold onto it. We might even do a really good job of tending it well, watching the quantity multiply. But holding it to ourselves traps it, in a sense, keeping it from being in circulation. Whether it’s money or time or products or anything valuable, if we hoard it, we prevent it from being in the flow, being part of what Eric Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute calls “holy currency” (he has a whole book about it). Healthy congregations, healthy societies, healthy systems reap the cycle of blessings when the holy currencies are enabled to flow and fulfill the will of God, to manifest the Kingdom.
At one of his workshops, Eric Law shared with us an example of how not just someone but a community rallies to perpetuate an economy determined by values of the Kingdom, where everyone and everything has value. It did take the resources of one to help make it happen, but it has involved the whole community to keep it going. It’s the JBJ Soul Kitchen in New Jersey. (JBJ for Jon Bon Jovi, of course.) It’s one of those kitchens with great chefs and many hands and many patrons. Where some pay for their meal with cash, giving whatever they can afford but at least the minimum donation, and some pay with an hour of their time to volunteer, paying for their meal with dignity. What is most valued here is LOVE.
Love is God’s economy, and we can’t get it fully because it defies our understanding. In our human economy we are so predisposed to focus on scarcity, of there not being enough, that accepting even the possibility of there being enough for everyone seems improbable. It’s improbable if our systems adhere to human economy. Enough for everyone is provided by God. We, as caretakers and workers of Creation have imposed our earthly values. Gold is just another metal except that “its rarity, usefulness, and desirability make it command a high price.” What if we replaced greed with love? What if we gave power to those who truly exemplified the love of Christ? What if we frame our hope for the future around a kingdom of heaven that does welcome all, that values love above all things, and requires us to be good and faithful workers in the field, doing whatever work we are gifted to do?
I’m an optimist. Of course I can imagine a place in time where we make the Kingdom a reality this side of heaven. I’m also realistic, so I know that the odds are not in our favor for the whole world to coalesce into a single hum of peace and love. But if we keep making pockets of the kingdom, we are doing good work. We support places like Soul Kitchen–places that affirm and support the dignity of all persons and pay attention to their stewardship of creation. We realize that whether we’re native or alien, we are here together–whether that be in Northwest Arkansas or in this country. Our job is to love one another. That might look like protecting one another. It might look like getting someone out of a ditch, carrying them to the one who has the cure, or standing or kneeling beside them in their deepest, darkest grief. We might have done this all our life or just realized that this is what we’re given to do. Either way, we don’t push our way to the front of the line.
We make a bigger circle so we can gather around the table and marvel at the beautiful tapestry of the heavenly kingdom revealed as beloved community on earth.