Dignity, Deserving, and Disciples
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: future, disciples, dignity, forward, unhappy
September 20, 2020 • The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Saint James’s Church, Florence
Text: Matthew 20:15b: “... Or are you envious because I am generous?"
There are a lot of unhappy people in the Bible today. There are a lot of people complaining about their circumstances, or their situation, or the way they feel they have been treated.
We don’t know with any precision the date of the Exodus of the people of Israel, or of their forty years of wandering in the wilderness; but whenever it may have been, it was at least centuries before the time of Jesus. But while the people in our stories today are separated by hundreds of years, they have this in common: They are equally miserable.
Equally miserable, yes, but miserable for different reasons. One group, the Israelites in the wilderness, they are unhappy because they are comparing their present with their past. Maybe they are free now; but before they were fed. Maybe they are God’s own people now; but before they at least houses.
The other group, the workers in the vineyard, they are unhappy because they are comparing their own lot with the fortunes of the people next to them. They came to work, and others came to work, and still others came to work, and the paymaster paid them all the same, even though some of them came at the last moment.
The ones who came first, and worked longest, they aren’t really remembering the agreement they were happy to make at the beginning of the day, back when all they wanted was a chance to get paid. Now, they are only thinking about what the others got, and wondering why they didn’t get more.
There are a lot of unhappy people in the Bible today. They are looking backward, toward the past, or they are looking around, measuring themselves against what others have.
There are a lot of unhappy people in the world today. They are looking back to what they feel was a better time, a golden age—a moment when maybe things weren’t perfect, but they sure seemed better.
Maybe we weren’t as welcoming as we should have been. Maybe we weren’t as innocent as we thought we were. But we felt more powerful, or more influential, or more secure, or just more comfortable.
Or they are looking around and comparing themselves to the people around them. They look at the car they drive, or the clothes they wear, or the vacations they go on, or the number of people who follow them on Twitter or like the pictures they post in Instagram, and they resent the other people who seem to be doing better, or having it easier, or being more influential.
Now let me just stop right here and ask you: You don’t see yourself in either of those groups of unhappy people, do you? You never look back and wish things were like they were in the good old days, right? You don’t just quickly add up all the little things you notice about someone else and make a fast calculation about whether they’re doing better or worse than you are, do you?
You’re never unhappy in those ways, are you? Are you sure?
Today we are offered a teaching about the direction in which disciples look. We are offered a teaching, if we are willing to learn it. And we are offered a teaching in how to measure ourselves, what standard to hold ourselves up to—if we are willing to listen to it.
The first lesson is that disciples don’t look backward. If we are disciples then the past is no fit place for us to live; if we are disciples, then what has come before is there for one purpose only, and that is to equip us for what lies ahead of us.
And here is one thing more: disciples don’t look sideways. We are do not measure our worth by comparing ourselves to the people next to us—and in the same way, we do not measure their worth by comparing them to us. Disciples begin from the understanding that every one of us has the same worth in the eyes of God.
The world we live in works by means of comparisons. The culture we live in wants you to feel like you have to be better than, richer than, more beautiful than, healthier than, more powerful than. We are never taught to ask and give thanks for what we have in absolute terms; we are taught to regard what we have compared to others in relative terms.
Our culture seduces us this way because of something deeply true about us that has been living inside us ever since we ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; we are hard-wired to compare ourselves to others, and to imagine that is the way our worth is measured.
God knows this because God made us. God knows our weaknesses much better than we do, and God sees just how they keep getting us into trouble again and again. And that is why God keeps trying, again and again, to teach us, not what to believe, but how to behave—how to act, how to discipline our thoughts, so that we don’t fall into those traps.
Disciples don’t look back in longing. They do not rest in the past. Disciples look ahead—because that is where God is, and where God calls disciples to go.
Disciples don’t measure themselves in terms of others, and disciples don’t measure others in terms of our own ideas of what is worthy or righteous. Disciples remember that the worth of all people comes from one thing only: The fact that we are created in the image of God, redeemed by the love of God, and called to be children of God, all of us, equally.
The Israelites in the wilderness are anxious about earthly things. They remember when they made an easy trade of freedom and dignity for food, and now that they are hungry they wonder what value their freedom really has.
The workers in the vineyard are anxious about earthly things. They are measuring their worth in terms of their paycheck, and everyone else’s paycheck. They use that as a measure of deserving. We were here first. We were here longer. We worked harder.
But that is not how disciples see the world. In the Kingdom of God, there is no need to deserve dignity. Because in the Kingdom of God, dignity is not earned. It is assured. It comes with being made in God’s image. It is implanted in us without our doing, given to us without our deserving.
And what is asked of us in return is just this—that we recognize it, see it, celebrate it, and respect it in each other, and in every next person we encounter.
Sometimes we want a God who will distribute the goods of heaven according to the way we think justice should work—maybe the reverse of the way wealth works in this world, or maybe to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
But God gets to choose what God does with what is God’s. And what God offers us is one thing, whether we show up early in the morning or late at night; God offers us redemption and the dignity that comes with being claimed as God’s people, whether we are working in the vineyard or wandering in the desert.
So, brothers and sisters, whether we are wanderers or workers, let us resolve to be disciples. Let us resolve to live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ, keeping our eyes fixed on what God has set before us, not what people before us did or what those around us think. Let us press on toward the goal, and be joyful—joyful!—that if we have anxiety at all, it is about the things that will last, the things that endure, the things that God has prepared for those who look forward, and follow. Amen.