My mother taught her children not to whine. And as a rule I have abided by her expectations. Self-pity is an unappealing emotion, especially when you start chattering about your woes to your friends. So forgive me for a moment while I say, that as gracious as this worship space is, and as welcoming as Washington Hebrew Congregation has been to us, I miss being in the Cathedral and it makes me sad that we aren’t. There, I said it. I’ve got it off my chest.
This is week four, after all. Our fourth time to be out of one of the most beautiful places of worship in the world. Our fourth time of the vergers lugging vestments and vessels over, our fourth time of being unable to welcome the hundreds of visitors who would be at the Cathedral on a morning like this, our fourth time of not being able simply to be at home.
And while I’m on a roll…. Did that crane really need to fall two days before we were putting on a weekend of events that had been in the planning for months? Was it somehow our destiny to plan to host those events, including welcoming the president, in a concert hall, when the whole vision was to be in the nation’s sacred space? We’re a hard-working bunch around the Cathedral. We devoted ourselves to making that weekend extraordinary. We worked night and day for everything to be perfect. Then this!
Okay. I really will stop now. But there’s something satisfying about grumbling and protesting the unfairness of things. When we don’t like how life is going we can always look around at others who seem to be doing fine. Why are we getting the tough times? Unfair! Of course the griping hasn’t stopped in our country about much bigger things than getting back into the Cathedral. Americans believe they have played by the rules, worked hard, saved money, stretched themselves to buy homes, done everything right they could. But for years now they have seen much of what they worked for unravel, and things aren’t getting better.
People are in despair at the dysfunction in the Congress. They are mad as hornets at the president, the banks, the Wall Street executives, and anyone else they can pin blame on. This isn’t the way life is supposed to work. Life is supposed to be fair. The economy and Congress are supposed to function. Why are we the ones to go through the worst economy in 8o years? It’s all unfair.
If we’re going to talk about unfairness, it’s hard to beat the lesson we heard today. Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who goes out at dawn to hire workers for his vineyard, but then has to keep going back to the marketplace to get more. And so he keeps hiring helpers—at 9 o’clock, 12, 3, and as late as 5 o’clock. Those day laborers, the equivalent of migrant workers today, depended for even their day’s food on getting work, so it was a big event to them just to be given a chance to go to the fields.
Then at the end of the day things take a strange turn when the owner pays all of them exactly the same wage, those who had worked through the heat of the day and those who just turned up near the end. And of course the workers who put in the most time start grumbling at the unfairness of it all.
What kind of boss is this who doesn’t seem to respect how much more labor those morning workers put in? How can he be so unfair? We know the way the world is supposed to operate: Work hard for fair pay. What’s fair about this?
Some years ago the journalist Studs Terkel said that the typical American attitude has been, “I’ve got it made because I deserve it. And if you don’t have it made, you don’t deserve it.” Then he went on to say, “When things don’t work that way, as has been the case for lots of Americans these days, a kind of meanness sets in.”
There is a point in today’s story, though, when everyone is happy—when the last workers are hired at 5 o’clock. That generous owner has given each of the laborers a chance to make their way through another day. Things only go sour when all the laborers from the last to the first are paid identically. Then the grumbling begins.
But let’s be clear. No one has been paid less than a fair wage. The sense of unfairness comes when the comparison and envy begins. One worker protests the raw deal the workers who started early are getting, and the owner replies, “Friend, am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Of course our lives often feel unfair. Some people’s seem to go very well, but many do not. And the natural response to this unevenness for us human beings is envy, keeping track with what the ancients call “the evil eye” of comparison with those more fortunate than themselves. There are two recipes for interpreting the particulars of our lives—our finances, our jobs, our bodies, our families. If you want to be miserable you can use the first: you can compare what you have to others, and when you do you will always find many who seem better off than you.
There is a story of a woman asking her business associate, “How is your husband?” And the woman was taken aback when her friend responded, “Compared to what?” Of course, that’s the real question. Compared, say, to Robert Redford or George Clooney the woman might have answered one way. Compared to Bill Gates or the Dalai Lama the answer would have been very different. Any interpretation hinges on the criterion we choose, and that’s really the point Jesus was making. At one point those workers were all grateful for their work that day. The problem came when they looked sideways.
But there’s another recipe for interpreting the particulars of our lives—by comparing the quality of your life not to others, but to how things were the day before you were born. If you do that, it’s hard to stop being grateful for just about everything. As preacher John Claypool puts it, If you look at your life that way, then everything is windfall—our bodies, our minds, our families. But if I, say, start comparing my body to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and my wealth to Bill Gates, and my spiritual life to Desmond Tutu, then what I have begins to look very different. “A fail-safe recipe for joy,” John Claypool says, “is regarding your life as gift. A fail-safe recipe for misery is comparing your lot to someone else’s and forgetting what grace life really is.”
John Claypool tells of a family with four children who all waited with delight for the fifth to arrive, and with everyone gathered at the hospital they learned that the little child was perfect in every way, except that she had no arms and legs. This was an unusual family, and instead of spending their energy in endless grief they decided to devote themselves to giving this little girl every possibility to grow. She lived to be 21 and had developed a wonderful mind and sense of humor and a tremendous capacity for friendship.
One day on a visit home, her older brother brought along home his college roommate, a philosophy major, and a sophomore to boot, brimming with confidence and short on tact. After being with this family for several days and observing the girl’s life he blurted out to her one day, “What keeps you from blowing up in anger at whatever kind of god would have let you be born into this world in this condition? How do you keep from being a volcano of resentment?”
And the young woman looked him in the eyes and said, “I realize that compared to what most people have, what I have does not seem like much. But I have been able to see and hear, to smell and taste and feel. I have been exposed to wonderful books and music. I have had amazing friends. I know what I have doesn’t seem like much, but compared to never getting to be at all, I would not have missed being born for anything.” [Thanks to John Claypool, Stories Jesus Still Tells, pp. 33-35]
In a fine new book on the spiritual life called Falling Upward Catholic teacher Richard Rohr describes how we human beings face at least two major tasks. The first is to build a strong “container” for our lives, to construct an identity. And so the focus is on hard work, achievements, seeking success, and finding security and love.
But the second half of life focuses on asking who we are meant to be. We become aware that life is more complex and paradoxical, that things don’t turn out the way we anticipate, and happiness and satisfaction aren’t where we thought we would find them. We ask questions about where our life is going and what we are doing with this one wild gift of being alive. And, he says, these two phases aren’t simply chronological. Younger adults find themselves asking second half of life questions too.
Then he makes his challenging assertion. In order to go deeper in the second half of life, our own Christian spiritual tradition declares that we actually need to have some things go wrong for us. We experience unfairness; we make mistakes; we go through suffering; we make bad choices; we endure divorce, or job loss, or the death of loved ones. And then we begin to realize that we not only can’t pull off some perfect version of our lives, but that that wouldn’t satisfy us if we did.
Our lives and our world are far more mysterious than we imagine. God of immeasurable love, we discover, is holding everything, but as long as we’re working so hard to manage everything ourselves, to achieve the success and security we crave, there’s a good chance we won’t really see and know either God or our true selves. And so he says, “We have to fall through our lives, into our real lives.”
When our measure is fairness, when all we think about is who is getting their just desserts, we lose touch with the grace that is everywhere. We forget about the people who love us more than we deserve and the God who pours forgiveness and generosity on us. In fact it seems that when life is reduced to “you get what you deserve,” hearts contract and compassion and kindness dry up. Knowing that we are receivers of mercy and goodness beyond measure is what opens our hearts and hands to each other.
Today Jesus is not giving us a lesson in fair labor practices, or trying to teach us how to behave. He is saying that at the bottom of everything is a boundless generosity. At the end of the day, no matter what we face, every one of us here has hit the lottery jackpot as receivers of astonishing grace and mercy.
We fall through our lives into our lives. That’s been happening here at the Cathedral these past hard post-earthquake weeks. All the things that have gone “wrong” at the Cathedral lately have also given us glimpses of a deeper way. We in that big holy house on the hill have been receiving gifts of help and love from more people than we can begin to name. We who seem so big and proud have been humble recipients of countless acts of grace. The emails of encouragement and support have continued to flow in, our friends have continued reaching out to us, and our staff has shown a devotion and grace under pressure that have been miraculous.
And something remarkable has happened. Together we have seen that however much we revere our great building, the Cathedral is more than beautiful stones. There is a Cathedral mission of bringing people together that is bigger even than the building itself. And there is a Cathedral congregation and hundreds of volunteers who are bearers of this vision. If you had blinked your eyes at the joy-filled, spirit-filled congregation Eucharist last Thursday evening in St. Albans Parish, you could have sworn that you had stumbled into a great feast going on in the Kingdom of God.
Even in these hard times, the gratitude should never end. Grace is everywhere, and even when there are cracks in the buttresses, and finials are sitting cock-eyed in the tower, and when we face quakes and cranes and tepid hurricanes and a bad economy, a strange light shines through.
Let me leave you with some words from a song by Leonard Cohen that seem to me right for pilgrims in hard times:
Ring the bell that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Those are words to carry with us in these hard times. So listen one more time.
Ring the bell that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.