Grace Remains

A link to the video of the serve (audio cuts out every now and then, but it’s fun to see it all): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQy_v0WoKcM.

Texts: Psalm 139; Matthew 20:1-16; 1 Peter 4:12-19

At YAV orientation, we sang a lot of music meant to carry with us during our year of service. The song I return to most often is a very simple arrangement of Psalm 139, one of my favorite psalms. As I began preparation for this service, it seemed fitting that the day’s psalm was Psalm 139. This psalm never ceases to remind me that I am fully known, as myself. A line of The Summons, our next hymn, asks “will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?,” and Psalm 139 is the reminder that hiding is pointless—we are known, and we are loved, as we are.

And with this deep comfort of being known comes the reminder that we are called. We weren’t created and then left to figure everything out on our own, despite what we, or at the very least I, sometimes convince ourselves of. We have been called to use the gifts that we were created with to do God’s sacred work. Those gifts, naturally, look different for every person. The children in Worship Play are reading a book called The Day The Crayons Quit, which tells the story of a box of crayons who go on strike. They’re tired of always being used in the same way, or in ways they don’t feel suit them, or of not being used at all. They all write letters to the little boy who uses them expressing their irritation, and Duncan meets the challenge of using his crayons differently so that they feel like their offerings are joyfully received.

And isn’t this what God does with us? We have been given these gifts to use in ways that we find life-giving. And so begins the journey of our lives. Where do we go for our gifts to make a difference? What do we do? Who do we talk to? How do we know if it’s the right thing? In YAV world, we consider these questions to be part of our “discernment conversations,” one of the pillars of the program, but they are questions that everyone asks, and I’ve started to believe that no one truly knows the “right” answer, or even that there isn’t one “right” answer.

Is the “right” thing to do to work in the Radcliffe Room every Sunday morning? Yes, for some people. Or is the “right” thing to do to be a tutor for Community Club? Yes, for some people. Or maybe the right thing to do is to take a year off from whatever “the plan” was and serve for a year as a Young Adult Volunteer. At least three people in DC thought that was the right choice. One of the gifts of this year has been to witness so many people serving God by serving the people of God in so many different ways. I have been around so many people doing God’s sacred work for God’s beloved people, in small, easily overlooked ways.

This year has not been what I expected it to be. I didn’t anticipate a Women’s March, or the opportunity to participate alongside so many of you in the huge variety of protests and marches that have become more and more common in the last six months. I didn’t imagine that my love of singing with others would return after so many years of singing in choirs once I was welcomed into the community that gathers around the piano to sing in the Radcliffe Room every Sunday morning. I didn’t expect the deep pain I would encounter as I listened to those who have made requests from our Benevolence Fund, or the ways that their stories would stay with me. I expected to work hard, but I am surprised time and time again by the ways that this work feels more and more sacred.

Growing up in Alabama, my peers were primarily Southern Baptist, not Presbyterian, and I was always a little impressed at their ability to quote scripture directly. Bible Drills were not an activity in my Sunday School classes, but there are certain verses of scripture that I have memorized during times in life that I needed words to return to. Verses 11 and 12 of Psalm 139 are two of those:

If I say, “surely the darkness shall cover me,”

and the light around me becomes night,”

Even the darkness is not dark to you;

The night is as bright as the day,

For darkness is as light to you.”

I often feel that we live in a world constantly threatening to be covered in darkness. And yet, even the darkness is not dark to God. The night is as bright as the day.

I thought of these verses as I read through the other scriptures for this day, as chosen by the lectionary designed for the Presbyterian church’s college ministry. In the Common English Bible, the 1 Peter passage reads like this: “Don’t be ashamed if you suffer as one who belongs to Christ. Rather, honor God as you bear Christ’s name… Those who suffer because they follow God’s will should commit their lives to a trustworthy creator by doing what is right.” I appreciate this translation for a lot of reasons, but particularly for its use of “Don’t be ashamed.” I am struck by how often our culture teaches us to feel shame for suffering. Surely we’ve all heard it: “If you had a more positive outlook, you wouldn’t feel this way. Just think good thoughts!” Or, “She has such a great life. I don’t understand why she can’t just be happy.”; “If you had just kept your body healthy, you wouldn’t need health insurance!”; “If you had just made better choices, you wouldn’t be homeless!”; “If that man would have just listened to that police officer, he wouldn’t have been shot!”

I don’t believe that God ever intends or wishes that we suffer. Suffering is simply a part of being human—we live in a broken world, and in brokenness there is suffering. But Peter’s words remind me that in our suffering, we still belong to God. And that belonging, belonging that is like no other, is worth honoring.

Lately it has felt easy to get trapped in the darkness of the world. Fear runs rampant, greed is everywhere, hearts are hurting, violence seems to be the go to answer for so many problems. The common goal is to improve our individual lives at the expense of others, to make things “fair” instead of just. I see this illustrated in the parable Jesus tells in the Matthew passage we read today. The landowner finds the number of people he needs for the day, and they agree on a wage. Four more times the he goes to the marketplace, and each time he sends more people seeking work into his vineyard. When it comes time for the day laborers to be paid, he pays those he hired at 5pm the same amount that he pays those he hired the first time he went to the marketplace. I love that the text says that those he hired earliest in the morning “grumbled against the landowner”—I can just imagine it, “Are you for real right now? This guy is not serious. We’ve been working all day. I mean, yeah we agreed on this amount, but we didn’t know the people who only worked for an hour would get the same amount!” And the landowner, rather than ignoring their grumbles, says to one of the laborers, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong…I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

Friend. Friend, he calls this day laborer whose very livelihood is in his hand, I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. I imagine, when hearing this story, not the frustration of the early hires, or even those hired at 9am or at noon. I imagine the anxiety of those who had been standing in the marketplace all day until the landowner hired them at 5pm. Waiting, hoping that someone would hire them. Perhaps these folks had families, had responsibilities that they had to take care. They were waiting and waiting, never giving in and going home even when it seemed as though no one would come. “Surely,” I imagine them thinking, “surely an hours’ worth of work is better than nothing. It won’t be much, but it’s better than nothing.”

I like to imagine their surprise when they are paid the same amount as those who had been working all day. Their gratitude that someone could recognize that they were struggling, that they needed the help of a day’s worth of wages, that they were people, people who needed other people in order to survive, just as we all do. Did they deserve the same amount of pay that the people who had been there since early early in the morning did? I don’t know. If we’re talking about what’s “fair,” then I guess they don’t. But do any of us ever get what we deserve? No, not really.

I feel like I’ve probably told most of you that one of the pieces that brought this year’s YAV community together is movies. Ben and Cody, the other YAVs, felt at the beginning of the year that I was uncultured when it came to movies, and insisted upon my watching such classics as The Sandlot, Air Bud, and all of the Star Wars films. They had great success converting me into a lover of random movies that I missed out on as a child, and it was a great community building activity for a house of mostly introverts. We’ve spent many hours watching movies together, and were excited to be given a movie theater gift card earlier in the spring. We decided to go see Wonder Woman, which I was sure I wouldn’t like, but was willing to try because it seemed like a fun time with the boys.

Imagine my surprise when I fell in love with a superhero movie. We sat in the third row of the theater, and I was completely engrossed in a film all about finding light in a world full of darkness, of recognizing the gifts of others, of living into the gifts that you have been given and have nourished throughout a life. Diana, princess of the Amazons, has never encountered the grey area between good and evil. She is determined to defeat the god of war so that humanity can return to the goodness it was intended to be, convinced that destroying one force could make that difference. As she prepares to leave the island where she grew up, her mother tells her that humanity does not deserve her. And still she goes.

Again and again in this movie, we see Diana offering grace upon grace to those she encounters. When one of the men in the group she’s traveling with suggests that he’s not an asset to the group because of his inability to take a shot in a battle the day before, Diana says gently, “But who will sing for us, Charlie?” Instead of finding his value in his skills in war, she recognizes the piece of him that shines light in the midst of darkness. Wonder Woman is about recognizing that every person is wrapped up in this world of darkness and light. And what we get is not about what we deserve, because it’s not about what we deserve, it’s about what we believe. She tells us, “I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”

Wonder Woman reminded me of the grace we are given over and over and over again. Grace given to us by a God who knows us completely, whose blessings overflow upon us even in this world of darkness. Grace given to us by a God who calls us to be of the light, shining into a world that can feel so very dark. And isn’t that a thing to celebrate? That even in the midst of the suffering that we all encounter, even in the midst of brokenness, even when we feel lost, like we’ll never be able to take a breath, even then… Grace still remains. We are called to be people of the light, living abundantly in gratitude of that grace. May it be so! Amen.

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