Sermon preached by the Reverend Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 18, 2011
When I was in seminary, life wasn’t easy. In addition to being a full time student and serving as a parish intern, I held down one and sometimes two jobs. My typical daily schedule sounded something like this: school, work and/or internship, and then home to do reading and writing until I was too exhausted to continue and would go to bed. And for that, I was earning somewhere between $600-700 a month. Between $350 and $400 of that went straight to rent, the rest had to cover utilities, food, transportation, books, and the occasional article of clothing. I remember walking the mile stretch to classes on a cold winter morning and feeling a knot form in my stomach as I alternatively thought about my coursework that was quickly piling up and how I was going to make the balance in my checking account stretch until my next payday. If I remember correctly, it involved a lot of rice and beans that week.
I remember feeling frustrated because I felt like I was pursuing a Godly path and struggling to make ends meet. It didn’t help that my seminary was located right next to the University of Chicago’s School of Business, which hired private vehicles to drive its students to and from classes so that they wouldn’t have to ride on public transportation with people like me and had a cafeteria priced to keep others out.
I understand where the early workers in today’s Gospel are coming from. We understood our own efforts, toil, and labor and knew what we deserved for it! Can you imagine the indignation when we were treated the same as those who had only to toil and labor a little bit? Did our effort mean nothing? If God is going to send rain on the fields of the good and the wicked alike, why do we even bother?
Now, I don’t want to make it sound like I was an angry and bitter seminarian, because I wasn’t. However, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have a little seedling of resentment within me at times. That is, until one day I realized that I wasn’t earning enough to make ends meet. Now you might ask why I hadn’t already realized this, but I was a seminarian after all, not a business student. I realized that I shouldn’t have been able to make ends meet, yet ends were being met nonetheless. I recognized for the first time the grace that was flowing through my life. Sometimes that grace came through help from my family, sometimes it came through the church, and other times, it remains a mystery to this day.
I do know that I was able to recognize the grace in my life from that point forward. It wasn’t that I began receiving grace that day, but that I had been blind to the grace I was already receiving by a sense of deserving, a sense of entitlement. While at one level today’s gospel is about God’s unusual and world-inverting economics, at another level it is a warning to us about how a feeling of entitlement blinds us to the grace we are already receiving, blinds us to how God is at work right underneath our noses.
We live in a society that loves dearly its myth of the self-made individual, the story of the person who rises from rags to riches, against all odds, with nothing but determination, a drive towards greatness, and good old American grit. We tell it to ourselves every time we enter a new election cycle and we celebrate as a society the rare individual who seems to actually pull it off. But it is a myth, a myth that makes us believe that we have earned, that we deserve, that we are entitled to the successes and wealth—be it material, social, or spiritual—that we enjoy. The reality is that everything we have, everything we are, every breath that we take, is borne by the grace of God.
When I finally recognized the grace that sustained my life, I remember feeling an immense relief. I felt the knot in my stomach release. I felt a great joy and gratitude. And for the first time I made a pledge to my church and began tithing. That was hard, I remember staring at my pledge card as I filled it out and thinking, “Sweet baby Jesus, that is almost two months rent.” A part of me rebelled at the thought of giving away that much when I already didn’t know how I was making ends meet. However, what won out was the part of me that knew that I was receiving an extravagant abundance and that the only thing I could do was give out of that same extravagant abundance.
Ultimately, I think that this is why the entitlement that blinds us to the grace we are already receiving is problematic. It is not that God needs us to give thanks or praise for the grace that we have received, because God doesn’t need that—God pours out grace out of an overflowing abundance of love, not out of a desire for appreciation. No, it is because our sense of deserving and entitlement blinds us to the grace we are already receiving and therefore precludes us from participating in that same grace, participating out of that same extravagant abundance from which we first received.
This is the good news, my sisters and my brothers! God pours out grace so abundantly on each of us, that even as we pour it out for others, its level is not depleted in the least, but only grows. And the more we participate, the more we become co-conspirators in God’s absurd abundance, and the more we recognize God’s grace flowing through our lives.