A meditation on Matthew 20:1-16
for the community of St. David of Wales, Shelton WA, September 24, 2023
“It’s not fair!” The words rang from my mouth as a child whenever the gifts or desserts or treatment my sister and I were given seemed unequal. And that concept of fairness, the compulsion to split everything equally, and the grumbling of “it’s not fair” continued with my own two daughters coming to a head in the infamous cookie incident. When my girls were school-aged, I’d make a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies every few weeks. I’d time the baking to finish just before picking them up at the bus stop, and consuming our cookie was a delicious, and fair treat on that first day: We each received two cookies on our little plates as an after-school snack, and two more for dessert.
The trouble would begin the next day when I was home alone doing chores, walking past the kitchen every hour or so and popping a cookie in my mouth with each pass. By the time my girls arrived home from school on day two, there would be one or two snack cookies, and another one after dinner, if they were lucky. It all came to a head when the oldest was in Junior High and my girls came home to a house devoid of cookies. In less than 24 hours I had consumed nearly the entire batch.
“It’s not fair,” they cried, and they were right.
Next time I baked cookies, I divided them equally into bags and labeled them by name. Of course, I devoured my bag before the rest of my family. And soon I was tempted by cookies that clearly belonged to my loved ones. I wasn’t going to steal them. But I wasn’t above begging. Would they like to give one to their mother, who had baked them? No, they would not.
Well, then, Would they sell me a cookie? For a quarter? For a dollar? No, they would not. They wanted what was theirs, what they had been promised. They wanted what was fair.
My daughters, like me, like the workers in today’s parable who’ve been laboring in the fields all day, want what is fair, what has been promised to us, what is ours. And my daughters, like me, like the workers in Jesus’ parable, are steeped in a mindset of scarcity. We think and act as if more for someone else means less for us. And in that anxiety about not having enough, we often want more than we need, and we can find ourselves pursuing, even hoarding, more than “our fair share,” so that we’re prepared for the inevitable future lack.
But is the future always one with limited resources? Will it always leave us unsatisfied and wanting? Back when I was baking cookies, decades before the global pandemic, and very real supply-chain shortages, I most likely had all the ingredients to bake a second batch of cookies. And if I didn’t have everything on hand, I lived less than a mile from a grocery store, and I had the means to buy what was missing. Aside from nutritional concerns, there was no reason I couldn’t have baked enough cookies for my family and I to eat to our heart’s content.
The scarcity I was operating under was one of my own creation, but I didn’t create it in a vacuum. My beliefs, even about something as insignificant as cookies, were and are shaped and molded by a broader economy and culture that has both reinforced and reflected human behavior for centuries.
The parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel comes shortly after he told the rich young ruler to give up all his possessions to follow, and his reward would be great in heave. But the ruler returned home, unable to give up so much. That encounter seemed to spur jockeying by the disciples over who is going to be first in this kingdom of heaven they’re helping to usher in. Soon in fact, James and John will send their mother to Jesus to plead for special privileges on their behalf. After all, they have given up everything to follow Jesus from the earliest days of his ministry, and they want to be rewarded somehow, with something tangible, like better seats at the table. Don’t they deserve that? Haven’t they’ve earned it?
Before I divided the cookies equally, I justified my gobbling with the same sort of thinking: I was the one who bought and mixed the ingredients and scooped the dough onto the cookie sheets and set the oven timer and cooled the pans. Didn’t I deserve more?
I’m sure Jesus’ disciples hearing the story of vineyard laborers identified with those first workers chosen, and I find myself right alongside them. As the oldest responsible and capable child, as a mother, household organizer and planner, as a person who makes lists of tasks just to cross them off when completed, I find myself grumbling and complaining, just like those weary ones who put in the longest hours, when I don't receive the full measure of what I think I’m due in terms of money, respect, praise, or even cookies.
But Jesus makes it very clear in his story that absolutely everyone is being provided with enough. The last become first, and that annoys the first, but the first don’t become last in the sense of being forgotten or dismissed or sent away with too little or sent away empty handed.
God’s economy, Jesus tells us, is nothing like our human transactions. God’s economy operates from abundance, by seeking everyone out, by bringing into the realm not just those who are usually chosen, but all who want to participate. God’s economy offers everyone enough to meet their needs and desires. God’s economy is steeped in grace. Grace freely given without regard to our efforts, or our effectiveness, or our affiliations, or our length of service. And unlike my cookies, grace doesn’t come in portioned bags that can be bought or coerced or stolen and consumed by others.
When we say yes to a relationship with God, Jesus tells his disciples and us, the grace we receive provides all that we need. And he goes on to say there are no limits on who or how many can come into relationship and receive. The invitation is offered again and again. The reaction of the early workers in his parable illustrates how difficult it us for us to understand and embrace God’s radical fairness and hospitality, especially when we identify with the early workers.
But what if we see ourselves differently in the story? What if we are the ones chosen at the last minute, the ones who have almost given up hope of working, the ones preparing to return home in shame and distress, unable to feed our families? Wouldn’t we be thankful for even an hour of work and an hour’s wages? Wouldn’t we then be overwhelmed with gratitude and rejoicing to receive the unexpected full wage that is enough to sustain us and those we love for another day?
It wasn’t until after Jesus’ death that the disciples finally understood what he’d tried to tell them about the expansiveness and inclusiveness of the realm they could not see. Which means there’s hope for us to reframe our thoughts about scarcity and fairness as global societies, local communities, and individuals. There’s hope for our churches to truly act as places of radical welcome and spiritual generosity, sharing our gifts with one another, trusting in the abundance of grace we have received to flow through us and out into a world hungry for hope.
I baked cookies for you today. May they be a token of that intention. May they be food for thought.
photo by Whitney Wright on Unsplash
A Meditation on Matthew 10:24-39 for St. David of Wales Episcopal Church
When I was in elementary school living in Southern California, I had to cross Pacific Coast highway to get to school. There was a bus stop at the signal where I waited for the crossing guard to usher me across when the light turned green, and on the bus stop bench was a billboard with a graphic of a four-person nuclear family: Dad, Mom, son, daughter, walking into a church and text that read, “The family that prays together stays together.”
My family didn't go to church, and we didn't pray together, and we didn't stay together. But when I felt God pour into my life in my mid-twenties, I didn’t think about the bus stop promise; instead, I was terrified that I was supposed to give up all my possessions and become a nun in response, because even someone who didn’t know anything about God knew what God required of God’s followers. But I was married. A month after my twenty-first birthday, while we were both still in college, my husband and I tied the knot. Having lived through my parent’s divorce from each other, and their divorces from their second spouses, I had vowed never to divorce, so I was going to have to figure out how to follow Jesus without jilting my husband.
Once I began going to church, I wanted the bus stop bench promise in my life. I wanted a life that was easy and perfect – which is what I thought happened when you became a believer. But I heard words like today’s gospel where Jesus says that he didn't come to bring peace, or to bring a happy little family that prayed together and stayed together. Jesus said he came to set family members against each other: parents against children and children against parents; stabbing at the heart of family relationships.
And not only did Jesus come to put a wedge between our primary relationships; he has the gall to declare that if we don't love him more than our parents, or more than our children, then there's really no hope for us. Curiously, Jesus doesn't say anything in this scripture about needing to love him more than one’s spouse. Maybe that’s because back then marriage was arranged, an exchange of property, not an endeavor of romantic love. But in our culture, romantic love is the pinnacle we all aspire to reach, a be-all and end-all that divorce does little to dissuade us of. Despite the four marriages and three divorces of my parents, I had steeped myself in the romantic ideal that finding the perfect mate would fill all the physical and emotional needs in my life. And if I had believed back then that I even had a soul, I would have said my husband was my soul mate. No matter that I was asking the superhuman from a mere human.
And later, when I became a Christian, I did not want to love Jesus more than I loved Kevin; I didn't want to give my husband some sort of sloppy seconds, leftovers of love. And I wanted the bus stop billboard to be true. Because Jesus changed my life; I wanted Jesus to change my husband’s life in exactly the same way as it had mine, so that I wouldn’t have to forge a spiritual path of my own but could, instead, follow one forged by my spouse.
But the parent child relationship is a different matter. Who knows us longer or better or loves us more fully or fiercely than our parents? And who knows our children longer or better, or loves them more fully and fiercely than we, their parents? We see in our first reading this morning just how desperately a parent can love a child, and how that love can drive them to do things that harm others in the name of protecting their children. Why would I want Jesus to become a wedge in those primary relationships?
Families these days are torn apart by so much more, and less, than faith. They're torn apart by divorce, infidelity, imprisonment, financial catastrophe, sibling rivalry, mental illness, and addiction, just to name a few. And these days we can escape our fractured families in ways that our biblical counterparts could never have dreamed up. As children our parents’ divorce, and we move with the custodial parent to a new town or state. We finish high school and get our own apartment, or move in with friends, or go away to college, or join the military. We take jobs outside the family business—if our family has a business. We seek jobs in another state, or on another continent. We go where we will and gather as a family as little or as often as we choose, and we judge those who don't strike out on their own, those who stay and live with their parents beyond a reasonable number of years, as missing out on real life. We have myriad ways to escape the tension and distress of conflicting values.
In Jesus’ time family was community, and disunity could not be ignored for long. Imagine what it must be like to have the organizing principle of your life, which is your faith and belief in God, challenged by those you love and live under your roof. Change is threatening and not often invited, especially for those who are secure in their status and their role in the community and family. How do we react when we’re under threat? Our reptile brain gives us three automatic reactions: we fight, flee, or freeze, which translates into anger, defensiveness, and fear. As long as we cling to status, position, privilege, and power, Jesus’ message is a sword.
I’m not sure how the families in Jesus’ time worked through the conflict that following stirred up – or if they resolved the tension at all. As for me, my journal was filled with prayers asking my loved ones to change, to see and do things my way, which of course, was the right way. It took me decades as a Christian to stop running and hiding from the sword that Jesus’ was waiting to wield in my life. And I only allowed that blade to strike when I was overwhelmed with all the demands and responsibilities that I had created for myself and for those I loved—demands and responsibilities that none of us could always live up to, demands and responsibilities that led to resentment. I had tried everything I could to control the world for myself and the people I cared about, no doubt in part to make up for my own childhood chaos. But my husband’s money and my worry and our problem-solving skills and our devotion to helping were not enough to make everyone inside our family circle happy, we could not keep our loved ones from pain and loss and hardship. It’s not that I thought I was as powerful as God. I thought I was being called to act on God’s behalf. Until I didn’t. Until I finally understood that I couldn’t rescue anyone from their choices, not even myself, not even with God’s help.
So, after trying to do everything, what could I lose from trying nothing, from surrendering my help or my interference, and truly trusting God with the well-being of my loved ones? It turns out that being severed from all the certainties and responsibilities that defined my identity, and all the expectations and requirements I put on those I loved to support me in my chosen identity, and to live the lives I wanted for them, was not the wounding I had feared, but a healing—for me and for those I loved. Allowing Christ to cleave me from my pattern of rescuing in my family set my loved ones free from my meddling, and allowed them to find, or not, their own faith.
Letting go hasn’t been easy, and earthly life is and was full of tragedy for my dearest beloved. And I often still reach out my grubby hands, trying to take on burdens that aren’t mine as I wrestle with the distinction between caring and enabling. But then I remember that I can’t insist on outcomes, and I put my hands back in my own pockets. In letting go, and loving and trusting God more, my love for my family has increased––not diminished as I once feared.
Twelve years ago, at the height of the Great Recession my husband and I made the decision to accept a severance package from his employer, to sell our home, to leave our nearby family, and our children in college, and to relocate to Washington where we knew no one and had no work. And in that severing from all the earthly measures that defined us, in giving up my life as I knew it, and in no longer running from change and the unknown, I found what I had so desperately been seeking for myself and those I love: the boundless love of a God who is present in all circumstances, who knows me so intimately that all the shedding hairs on my head are accounted for, a God who fills the world with beauty beyond measure, a God whose eye is on the sparrow: the house sparrow, the song sparrow, the rock sparrow, the yellow-throated sparrow, and you and me with our own trembling songs.
My life doesn’t look like the bus stop billboard. My faith and my prayer, and my family relationships are messier and more complicated than that tidy domestic scene. And yet we are held together in real and deep ways that I may never fully understand. And it seems to me now that trying to love Christ more than we love our spouses, siblings, children, and parents, doesn’t mean that we love our family less, as I once feared. It means that we love them more. The more love we have for Christ, the more love we have for others. Love begets love.
Jesus’ sword isn’t meant to destroy us. It is meant to cleave us from the things we cling to that keep our lives small and fearful. He wields the sword so that we might know the promise of abundant life and the truth he came to deliver deep in our bones: We belong to God, and we are beloved not because of anything we might do to earn that love. We are beloved simply because we are.
How do you say goodbye to those you love? How do you leave them empowered to carry on without you? How do you explain a future that has not yet happened? How do you share a vision you see so clearly with those who cannot fully grasp it?
These are the questions that run through my mind when I think about this scene in John's gospel. It's a continuation of Jesus speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper. These words come after Judas has fled the room. John 14 is the beginning of four chapters known as the farewell discourse. The discourse is the words that Jesus offers to comfort and reassure and prepare those he loves to continue this journey that they have been on together.
A Message for the congregation of St. David of Wales, April 23, 2023
What do you think of when you hear the word Emmaus? I have to say that the first I ever heard of it was from a friend of mine went to a weekend long retreat for women called a Walk to an Emmaus. The way she described it was a time away from her work and family where every need of hers was met. In particular, she told me she hadn't brought any ChapStick and the moment she mentioned her need, a new tube of ChapStick awaited her. So, I've associated Emmaus with a magical appearing. And that's partly true.
Along the road to Emmaus in Luke's gospel this morning Jesus does magically appear. And I confess, that's all I really knew about this passage before preparing for today's message. I hadn’t remembered any detail except the fact that this is one of the resurrections appearances of Jesus. And I cannot recall a single sermon I've heard about this passage. That doesn't mean I've never heard one, just that I don't remember it. Perhaps it is due to lack of repetition. The four gospels often have similar stories from Jesus’ life, but the resurrection experiences are each unique, so they haven’t become as familiar.
It doesn't matter so much why I’m uninformed about this scripture. What matters in my life and in the life of those who follow Jesus, is how encountering the risen Christ in this passage changes those in the scripture and those who read the scripture.
A reflection on John 11:1-45 for St. David of Wales Episcopal Church, March 26, 2023
I have a clergy friend, Chris Hoke, whom I met in grad school when we were both earning our MFAs in Creative Writing. Chris is a pastor to gang members and his ministry began by corresponding with and visiting incarcerated gang members in Skagit County where he lives. As a result of the relationships he formed, he saw profound transformation when the men left jail and were given the opportunity to learn job skills at ministry supported Underground Coffee and leave behind gang life with continued relational support.
His non-profit, Underground Ministries, has grown in the past decade and now is focused on growing the One Parish One Prisoner program, centered around the story of Lazarus as a metaphor for our prison system that entombs by incarceration. A system that often imprisons without trial, that sees people as disposable, and sentences them to live in cages nearly as lifeless as a tomb. Mass incarceration impacts our entire society, especially those whose loved ones are locked up, who grieve and mourn physical absence and the difficulty of maintaining relationships in such circumstances.
When I moved to the Puget Sound region a decade ago, I had only seen the Aurora Borealis in photos, and considered it one of those once-in-a-lifetime awe-inspiring encounters that I would only experience vicariously. But, amazingly enough, the Northern Lights can be seen in Western Washington when certain conditions are met. When visible to the naked eye, they usually look like clouds at the horizon, most often white, but brighter than usual. Using long exposure on a camera with a tripod, photographers can capture the color of this magnetic disturbance in the atmosphere that our eyes can’t. And I've now "seen the light(s)"!
A meditation on Luke 24:36-44, for the St. David of Wales community; First Sunday of Advent.
“But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not have let his house be broken into.” ––Matthew 24:43
One night when I was seven, I woke up in my bunk bed to hear a burglar in my house. My father worked late shifts patrolling the streets of Los Angeles as a deputy sheriff, and my mother usually stayed up very late to wait for him. But that night when I woke up, all the lights were off and I knew my mom was asleep and I knew my dad wasn't home, and I knew we were in the realm of the witching hour––that time between midnight and dawn when bad things happened that I had been warned about. I laid in bed frozen, heart pounding wildly, afraid to make a sound as I heard the burglar open the refrigerator. The burglar was stealing our food! Then I heard rattling in the kitchen cabinets. The burglar was stealing our dishes! Later I heard a sink run and a toilet flush. The burglar was in our bathroom, just down the hall from our bedrooms! My eyes were firmly shut so that the burglar would think I was asleep when he came into my room to steal my books and toys. I strained to hear more noises, but none came, and eventually sleep overcame my vigil.
A meditation on Luke 18:1-8 for the community at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church, Shelton
What does it mean for us to pray like the widow? Because Jesus doesn't give any specific details in his parable, we're free to imagine whatever sort of widow we want. We can imagine, like one commentary I read, a weak little old lady leaning on her cane. A soft-spoken succinct woman who shows up every day with her plea down to one simple and sentence “I want my property restored to me,” and receives what she wants because of her faithfulness. In that scenario, we prayer is orderly, dignified, and quiet.
However, in the dozens of commentaries I read, a different view of the widow prevailed. Writing in his book The Cultural World of Jesus, biblical scholar John J Pilch helps set the context for this parable by saying that the word widow in Greek meant one who has no voice. A widow would usually have a male relative speak on her behalf because she had no rights for property or inheritance.
But this widow doesn't have a male figure to advocate on her behalf. She is speaking on her own behalf, demanding justice. Pilch notes that she was not speaking in private at judge’s chambers as we might imagine today. She was confronting the judge in a very public forum in front of other people, and that the judge’s failure to act would bring shame upon him.
A reflection on Luke 10 for St. David of Wales, July 3, 2022
Three years ago, I had the opportunity to preach on this gospel passage. It was my fourth message for St. David’s, and I must admit, reading back on what I shared with you then as I tried to imagine myself in the shoes of the 70 sent out by Jesus, I was a little obsessed with not being able to take my giant purse and all its creature comforts, as well as how I was going to eat when people were going to try to poison me with gluten.
Three years later, believe it or not, this is my 34th message at St. David’s. In those three years I’ve come to know this faith community better; I’ve come to know our wider community better; and my faith has continued to grow as I deepen my relationship to the Episcopal faith and to this beloved community.
When I preached on this originally, I approached it from the context of a modern-day believer reading literally, trying to figure out what all these instructions meant for me in the 21st century. I don't know if I failed to consult a commentary or any other resources to get some biblical background information or if I just followed my mind down a rabbit hole.
A message for the community of St. David of Wales, June 2022.
I used to love Pentecost and the images of fire, the tongues of flame hovering over the disciples’ heads. I wrote poetry about the hot breath of God on our faces, the spirit scorching our hair and singeing off our eyebrows and throwing us into the street chased by tongues of flame.
Back then, I was a stay-at-home mom, a classroom volunteer, a Sunday school teacher with a tiny life and small circle of influence, who had just felt a call from God to write as a form of ministry. I found myself on fire for God in ways that burned up all my earlier doubts and fears about being the right kind of believer. And the idea of Pentecost coming to set us on fire, to clean us to bone and sinew, felt absolutely right as I opened myself up to new bold ways of being in the world.
That was more than twenty years ago, when the worst thing I could imagine happening to my children in their classrooms was contracting head lice, not being fired upon. That was decades before COVID trapped us all in our own houses for months, long before I understood systemic racism and my privilege as a white woman.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.