In the latest edition of the New Direction newsletter, Pathway, I referred to Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard. Some of you may remember this story from Matthew 20 where Jesus describes a group of temp workers hired to work in the vineyard. The eager beavers get hired first thing in the morning for an agreed upon daily wage. The landowner returns to the market place at approximately three hour intervals to hire more workers for a total of five times. By the fifth time, it is late in the day and those hired are the slackers – the least desirable workers. They only have to work an hour or so… something hopefully manageable in their fairly likely hung-over or inebriated state. At the end of the day, Jesus says that the landowner gets ready to pay the workers and calls up those last hired first and gives them the equivalent of a full day’s wage. Each group successively comes up and get the same, full day’s wage. The ones who were hired first, as they watched the payments, began to anticipate a bonus for their efforts. After all, they were the responsible ones – early to the market place to get hired. They were the ones who’d produced the most. They had suffered the most – bearing the heat of the day. But when they finally get to the end of the line, the landowner hands them the same day’s wage as all the other workers before them. The responsible, sacrificing, suffering through the heat, workers are pissed. Despite having agreed to work for that wage, they feel the burn of resentment and entitlement. They grumble ….. and the landowner chides them reminding them of their agreement and suggesting that they ought not feel entitled to begrudge him the freedom of applying his generosity as he chooses. He doesn’t say a thing about the lifestyle of the late workers. He simply seems to relish in surprising them with an unexpected and lavish extension of grace.
It reminds me of another parable Jesus told where the younger son – who went away to spend his inheritance on frivolous living – comes home with his tail between his legs. He’s blown it – and he knows it. But …. he’s starving and miserable and figures that even being a servant in his father’s house will ensure better treatment and a better existence than his squandering has earned him. He goes home and the father is thrilled and immediately orders a huge celebration to be prepared. At the celebration, however, the older brother …. the responsible one, the one who’d sacrificed fun and frivolity to care for the father’s estate, the one who’d suffered long hours in the fields is pissed. He feels the burn of resentment and entitlement. He begrudges the generosity of the father to this slacker, good-for-nothing so-called son. The father doesn’t say a thing about the lifestyle of the younger son. He simply seems to relish in surprising him with an unexpected and lavish extension of grace.
In citing these parables, some might assume I am making a parallel between “good” Christians (and perhaps especially the good Christian same-sex attracted persons who don’t identify as gay and don’t pursue love and intimacy in same-sex relationships) and the early workers and older brother – and gay Christians (especially those who do pursue love and intimacy in same-sex relationships) with the late workers and younger son. Such an assumption, while perhaps understandable, would be inaccurate. Making such a parallel would simply perpetuate the same old polarity and “us vs. them” caricatures that I am committed to try to dismantle.
No I cite the parables because of the themes it draws out …. themes that I believe impact any who seek to follow Jesus and embrace their own and others’ humanity. I think these themes are love, sacrifice & suffering, and the reality of adversity. Rather than categorizing people into boxes of assumption, it is perhaps more helpful to consider the ways these themes work themselves out in our lives. I think every follower of Christ needs to grapple with how love, sacrifice and suffering will play a role in their lives. I think every Christian is called to a deep understanding of sacrifice as they walk in the way of Christ. I also think that suffering is the crucible through which many Christians grow the most. These can have healthy and vital places in the Christian journey. I have also seen, however, when paradigms of sacrifice or suffering become dominant the mutation they can cause in the simple, child-like journey of faith we are called to – that I would suggest is to be essentially and predominantly built on the foundation of love. Such mutation morphs into striving, shame and a dehumanizing of the self that is inconsistent with God's intentions and grievous to him.
As I was pondering, I began to retell the story of the three little pigs in my head. I know kinda crazy. Maybe I was sleep-deprived or having some regression into childhood deficits ….. anyway …. bear with me. I trust you all remember the original story of the three little pigs who all build different houses, one of straw and one of wood and one of brick. The pigs then get assaulted by the big bad wolf who huffs and puffs and tries to blow down their houses.
Well in my reimagining of the story, I saw the three little Christians who were trying to build their own houses. One built his house out of sacrifice. It was strong and impenetrable. This little Christian took great care in building their house – making everything by hand, working hard to be able to purchase the strongest raw materials. In no time at all, the house had its basic structure and form completed. Work continued, however, as reinforcements and extra safety features were always being added. This little Christian worked very hard, long days except for the Sabbath when he intentionally laid down his tools and rested.
The second little Christian built her house out of suffering. She used found objects to build her house since she deemed herself unworthy of buying new materials. After dumpster diving, she would painstakingly haul the materials back to the building site. She worked hard on her house when she was able, but often went through deep periods of feeling overwhelmed and immobilized. The house had walls and a roof but there were lots of gaps which needed to be bolstered with stronger materials. This little Christian was consistently committed to having a safe and viable house where people could visit and be a witness to the choices she was making.
The third little Christian was a curious sort. Their house didn’t really look like a house at all. This little Christian claimed to be building a house out of love – but all you could see was a slab foundation. Some thought this little Christian was lazy – because they didn’t seem to be working very hard on their house. What some people didn’t notice, however, was that the foundation of this house had not only been built with great care, but the little Christian also carefully maintained and enhanced it regularly. What was much more obvious was that this little Christian constantly had people over at his foundation. They ate good food, grown in the gardens around the foundation. They engaged in engrossing conversation. They slept there if they needed to. They swapped stuff based on current need. And they made art: music, poetry, paintings, dances, plays, sculpture, knitting and sewing, baking and telling stories. Those who saw these activities chided them for not working harder on the house – warning of impending disaster should the big bad enemy come around. The little Christian who’d started the foundation always answered with calm, confidence that all would be well … much to the frustration of the other little Christians.
Indeed, one day the big bad enemy did come. He threatened and he accused, he played unfair hurling lies at the little Christians. He huffed and he puffed and he tried to blow their houses down. When he came to the house built on sacrifice, he stood outside and yelled and shouted that the little Christian had been selfish and lazy and recounted every moment that the little Christian had faltered in his commitment to laying down his very life for the cause of Christ. “And you call yourself a Christian….” sneered the big bad enemy. All his yelling did not knock down the house built on sacrifice – for it had been fortified thoroughly. But inside the house, the little Christian cowered. He was isolated and alone within the fortress he’d built – and no one was there to comfort, encourage or remind him that nothing the big bad enemy was hurling at him was true. He knew some other little Christians in other towns who’d built houses on sacrifice too – so he text messaged them to inquire what he should do. After all, he could find some truth in what the big bad enemy said. The reply text messages came back and they all said the same thing, “Go to the foot of the cross, lay down everything and every part of yourself that you can think of. Stay there until you have nothing left – and then pray that God will give you a good night’s sleep. In the morning, start insulating your house so that if the big bad enemy comes back, his voice will be more muffled and you won’t be as shaken by the things he shouts.” And so the little Christian fell on his austere floor, prostrate in prayer, begging God to strip him of every longing and desire that stood in the way of fully crucifying himself. He shivered in the cold as he wept, feeling like a failure, not sure what else he could do prove to God that he was committed to walk in his ways. The big bad enemy peeked through the window at the shivering, prostrate, weeping little Christian and grinned knowing his work there was done.
On he went to the next little Christian’s house. This was the house built on suffering made from the odds and ends the little Christian could find. He surveyed the place and chose his tactic. “You,” he snarled, “who do you think you are to build an entire house just for yourself. And what a shoddy job you’ve done ….. clearly if you’d really applied yourself the house would be in better shape. You don’t deserve a good home. And because you’ve clearly not worked hard enough, I’m going to teach you a lesson. I’m going to huff and puff and blow more holes in this house than you can count – and you better fix them and fix them fast and well or I’ll come back and blow this entire shack of an excuse for a house to the ground.” The little Christian dropped to her knees, head bowed and hands folded in supplication, and begged the big, bad enemy for mercy. She tried to explain the hardships that interrupted the work on her house, but the big bad enemy just shouted in her face, “Excuses, excuses …. shame on you for trying to cover up your laziness with excuses.” In a tearful whisper, the little Christian acquiesced saying, “You’re right of course, I don’t deserve a good home.” The depth of resignation convinced the big bad enemy that his work here too was finished.
Finally, the big bad enemy came upon the third little Christian. This was the one who’d built only a foundation and called it the house of love. As the big bad enemy approached a party was going on. The little Christian was celebrating the arrival of a new visitor with his other guests. The new arrival was from another town where she had lived in a house built of fear. She had been there a long time, and still looked rather gaunt and pale. But after having heard of a house where people cared for one another, created with one another, and conversed of life’s deepest mysteries and questions with curiosity and conviction, she wondered if this might be a place where she could become well. She’d been planning the trip a long time, and had had several unsuccessful attempts – but had finally made it.
When the big bad enemy approached the new arrival visibly flinched. But the little Christian who had built this foundation of love, boldly stepped forward. He flipped the secret switch and up popped a series of footholds. “Tuck your toes into the footholds!” he invited his guests. “There is a set for each of you – because you all belong here.” The big bad enemy looked around and scoffed. “You have no roof. You have no walls. How do you think you can protect yourself?” The little Christian replied, “We are rooted on this foundation of love. We are a welcome place for all who seek a place to belong. We know who we are. We know we are loved. We are free to love each other. Nothing you can throw at us can take that away from us.”
The big bad enemy thought for a moment and then began his tirade, “You are selfish (then he looked at all the people the little Christian had been hosting and realized he needed to change his tactic). You are lazy (then he looked at the well-tended garden and firmly built foundation and realized that wasn’t the best route to go either). You ignore the Bible and only focus on the parts you like ( he saw the little Christian and his guests sway back and forth from the force of his huffing and puffing – looking a bit like wind-surfers with their feet still firmly planted – and so he continued). You only focus on the attribute of love in God’s character and ignore his holiness and justice (the swaying continued – but their feet hadn’t moved one inch off that foundation of love). You twist the Bible to make it say what you want it to say – you treat God like some cosmic Santa Clause and Jesus like your best buddy (he could hear the little Christian calling to his friends, “Bend your knees, tuck in your abs and butt, breathe deeply and remember that you are loved …. Nothing can separate you from the love of God for you in Christ Jesus” ). Your relationships are a mockery of God’s holiness – always celebrating and having fun – you haven’t given up anything for Christ – you revel in sin – you flaunt disregard for God’s Word (the enemy’s voice was getting shriller and louder but as he looked at the faces of the little Christian and his guests, he saw a steely eyed tenacity staring back at him and the little Christian, with an unexpected degree of authority in his quiet voice said, “If God is for us, who can be against us? If God gave his own Son, Christ Jesus to save us, who can shame and depose us? If God builds the foundation, who can overcome it? I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine! I am a child of God, deeply loved and cherished beyond all measure. You cannot throw anything at us that our God will not enable us to stand up against it!”).
And as the little Christian spoke it was like a beam of light piercing the darkness. The little Christian and his guests squared their shoulders, muscles taunt, standing firm. The big bad enemy knew that their strength would only rise as they waited on the Lord and decided to go huff and puff in a more vulnerable place. The little Christian and his friends took their feet out of their footholds, the switch was pressed and they disappeared back into the floor. Dancing resumed on that foundation of love, where no walls kept people out or kept people in. People brought the new arrival a glass of cold water and asked how she was. Visibly shaken, she said, “I can’t believe I just survived that. I can’t believe I’m still here and I’m ok. I can’t believe that my toes are tapping and that I think I actually might get up and do some dancing. Wait till I text message my friends in my old town – they won’t believe it!”
The big bad enemy circled back to the house built on suffering. The little Christian inside was scurrying around trying to patch this gap and that. She was muttering, “I’ll work harder than ever, I won’t be like those crazy dancing people who have no house, I’ll be happy and content with this house made of trash – and no one will be able to accuse me again.” And the enemy slithered away knowing that he’d done a thorough job.
Then he swung by the house built on sacrifice. He saw the little Christian inside his strong house. He was wandering around with a bit of a blank look on his face. He had no desire to go outside, even though the sun had begun to shine. He had no desire to invite his family over for a visit. He heard the singing and dancing from the foundation of love – but no longer had any desire to do any of it. He tidied up, he mindlessly worked on the insulation, and he spent his Sabbath going to church, reading the Bible and sleeping, but the light behind his eyes had grown dim, and the enemy knew his job was done.