Monday, September 29, 2014

Working the the Fields

Well, lets get the morning off to a good start with a couple of jokes about brothers.  Did you hear the one about the teacher who asked a student what his father does for a living?  The boy answered, “He is a magician.”  The teacher, intrigued, asked what was his most daring trick.  “Well,” said the boy, “it has to be when he cuts people in two.”  “Is he good at it,” the teacher inquired?  “Not really,” came the answer.  “And do you have any siblings,” the teacher asked?  “Yes,” said the boy, “I have two half brothers.” 

Then there was the mother who for breakfast made pancakes for her two young sons.  The boys, both hungry, began to argue over who would get the first batch.  Well, the mom, being a good Christian woman, seized the opportunity to instill a moral lesson.  “If Jesus was sitting here,” she said, “He would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.’” The older brother then turned to the younger and announced, “Today, you get to be Jesus!”

Finally, an infant boy was baptized at a beautiful service.  Everything went fine until his four-year-old brother began to cry inconsolably as the rite was ending.  In front of the entire congregation the kindly priest said, “Johnny, what’s the matter?”  The little boy looked at the priest and replied, “You said that my baby brother should be raised in a good Christian home.”  “That’s right,” said the priest, “So why are you are so upset?”  “I don’t want my little brother to be taken away,” little Johnny sobbed.  “I want him to be raised my family!”

Today we hear Jesus’ parable about a father who had two sons.  He asks both to work in the family vineyard.  One refused, at first, but later went and did what had been asked of him.  The other agreed to work, but never followed through.  At the time of its telling, the story highlighted how some self-righteous religious leaders had failed to live up to their promises to God, while various sinners, in coming to Jesus, had done what they at first (through their actions) had denied.

In our day and time, the parable points toward moral dilemmas that we all face.  There are, of course, moments when we simply do not know the right thing to do.  These are times we possess little more than poor choices, none of which leads to an adequate response.  Other dilemmas occur when we are faced with confusing or conflicting options and cannot see the way.  This parable is not about these kinds of challenges.  It is about the times we know what to do (or what not to do), yet lack the conviction and determination to follow through.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines integrity as “soundness of moral principle, the character of uncorrupted virtue, esp. in relation to truth and fair dealing; uprightness, honesty, sincerity.”  If you think back to high school math, you may recall that an integer is a whole number, one that cannot be divided.  A person with integrity, therefore, must be an indivisible person; the kind of person whose life is guided by one magnificent obsession: to be the kind of person God calls each one of us to be.  Still, integrity involves more than just having the right set of values.  It includes having the strength and will to live out those values.

Every freshmen who takes a class in psychology learns of the classic study where four people are placed in a room and given a simple task.  They are to look at a couple of lines on a chalkboard and tell the examiner which one is the longest.  One line is clearly longer than the others, so the task would appear to be straight-forward.  The real test, however, is that three of the people are “in” on the experiment.  They point to a shorter line in order to gage whether the fourth person will hold his or her ground or cave in to peer pressure.  An overwhelming number go with what the other three say, even if they believe differently.  The study demonstrates the degree to which people will conform in order to be accepted.

How different that response is from the convictions of the Old Testament figure Job.  When his so-called friends bring unrelenting pressure on him to say things that are not true, Job’s respond is this:

“As long as I have life within me, the breath of God in my nostrils, my lips will never speak wickedness, and my tongue utter no deceit.  Till I die, I will not deny my integrity.  I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it; my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live.” - Job 27:3-6

Years ago, I was facing a rather difficult decision.  I had accepted a job offer to be an Assistant to the Rector of a particular church and he had announced the hiring to the parish.  Then I received a second offer that had some distinct advantages over the first.  The circumstances had changed to a degree that I no longer wanted to fulfill my initial promise.  I was not sure what to do so I asked some people for advice.  I spoke with one of the bishop’s assistants and explained the situation.  What he said to me, in effect, was this: “If you take the second offer I will make sure your decision will follow you for the rest of your career.”  I left his office feeling threatened, but with no more clarity than when I had entered. 

Then I went to the priest who welcomed me into the Episcopal Church and encouraged me to go to seminary.  His counsel was different.  He talked to me about integrity and character.  Who did I want to be in life?  What did I want my word to be worth?  Who did God want me to be?  As a result of that conversation, there was no question in my mind what I needed to do.  I turned down the second offer and fulfilled my commitment to the first.

A few days later the priest I had talked with wrote me a letter.  To this day it remains the single most powerful and formative correspondence I have ever received:

My dear Keith,

There are moments when the tattered ends come together.  Some say these are “inspirations” that give life depth and range.  Sometimes we pray for years to have them, but they cannot be forced.  I remember such a moment thirty-five years ago in my life.  I had gone to visit a friend.  At some point he was called away and I found myself inspecting his collection of long-playing records.  Among them I found one which featured some Trappists monks.  I cannot explain why, but I was moved to put that recording on the turntable and for the next half hour I listened to the chanting of ancient psalms and hymns.  I recall as if it happened yesterday how the music moved me, almost to tears.  The simplicity and purity of the plainsong tones seemed to clear a space in my soul.  I remember that one of the psalms especially moved me, the 15th.

“Lord, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle, or who shall rest on Thy holy hill?  Even he that leadeth an uncorrupt life, and doeth the thing that is right and speaketh the truth from his heart… he that sweareth unto his neighbor and disappointeth him not, though it were to his own hinderance…”

I confess that I was more moved by the mystical than the moral aspect of the music, but as the years have past, the integration of the beauty and the duty have happened in my life now and then.  I blush to think how seldom, but I rejoice that it has happened at all.

Your decision the other day will bring you peace, more in the years to come than in the coming weeks… You will be grateful that you disappointed not your brother to whom you had given your word.  On such decisions character is built, without which nothing good and true can come.

Did you know that the English word for character comes from a Greek word meaning “an engraving tool and the mark it makes”?  Our character is the mark we make with our lives.  But more than that, our character is a byproduct of our walk with God.  Our lives become a reflection of the noble qualities of godliness that comes from walking daily with the Lord and acting upon that relationship.

Today we are called to examine our lives, to search our hearts, to confess our sins (those that are small as well as those that are large, those that are titillating as well as those that are petty, those which society abhors as well as those which society has come to embrace), to seek forgiveness, to amend our lives, to delight in God’s will, and to walk in God’s way.  Today we are called to be persons of integrity.

We fall short.  I fall short.  And yet the goal remains the same.  The good news is that the parable’s father, like our heavenly Father, loves both of his sons.  His lips are always quick to say, when appropriate, “Well done, my good and faithful son (or daughter).”  His ever-loving embrace is always ready to wrap around our remorseful souls. 

In many ways, I have built my life on that experience of so long ago and the way that priest interpreted for me.  I have not been perfect.  I have disappointed my brother, my sister, and my neighbor more times than I can bear to recount.  But the bar and the measure of integrity that was lifted up for me remains my goal.  It remains the object of my devotion to God.  I give thanks for every time and to every person I have been able to embody what I hope to be.  I give all thanks to God for those moments and rest in his mercy for those times when I have fallen short.

A father asked his two sons to go and work in the field.