Sunday, October 12, 2014

First-World Problems: Twenty Eighth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Isaiah 6:5–10a; Ps. 23:1–6; Phil. 4"12–14, 19–20; Matt. 22:1–14

            How many of you have heard of the term "first-world problem?" It's the kind of problem that people in many other cultures couldn't even dream of having: like having more of your favorite TV shows running simultaneously than you can record on TIVO, or being bored because your smart phone has a lousy signal and you can't post a picture of your dinner on Instagram. These are problems that are not really problems. They're really signs of our own sense of privilege: we have to live pretty luxurious lives to encounter these minor irritants.
            My number one first-world problem is my yard. I detest yard work. I don't think I realized just how much I hated it until we bought our current house, and I had to rehabilitate a lot that had been neglected for some time. So now I dutifully put in time on it every week just to keep up with the weeds and to put it into some semblance of order. I rarely find any satisfaction in it.
            But I have to own a yard to have the burden of yard work. I have to own a house to have a yard. I have to be employed to pay the mortgage. I have to possess skills to be employed. I have to possess talents to become skilled. And somewhere along the line, I had to depend on someone else to make it possible for me to learn and grow in a secure environment. I didn't give any of that to myself. Sure, I played my part, but so much of it was just given to me because of the cultural context into which I was born.
            I don't always appreciate that privilege, and I must confess that it stems from a lack of gratitude and humility. That doesn't mean that I habitually turn up my nose at the great gifts I am given, or that I don't thank people when they do kind things for me. I try my best to recognize when people treat me with kindness, but I often forget the obvious—that everything I have is a gift.
            I think that's the message from today's readings: everything is a gift. This theme runs through all of our readings and the Psalm today. God provides us with everything we need. We often have a hard time recognizing this, but it's true practically, theologically, and spiritually.
            In the first reading, Isaiah foresees a time when the people of Israel will once again receive the favor of the Lord. Remember that the Israelites were constantly lapsing into indulgence once the pressure from the surrounding enemy nations was gone. The Lord blessed them with peace and abundance, but instead of recognizing these gifts, they took them for granted and eventually, abused the gifts—turned up their nose at them. Remember in the desert when the tribes of Israel turned up their noses at the manna from Heaven? You'd think they'd have learned after they finally entered the promised land, after God gave them a good king in David, or after Solomon built the temple. None of these good things happened because Israel deserved them. Nonetheless, God made it so. They later lost those gifts and were exiled to Babylon, but Isaiah promises in this passage that God will restore everything when they turn back to him.
            The gospel presents an allegory of Israel's unfaithfulness in the parable of the wedding feast. The king throws a feast for his son, and all whom he invites, just like the People of Israel, turn their backs on him and find excuses not to attend. Their gratitude to their king, their protector, doesn't extend far enough to attend a party with him. So he invites everyone else: that means, all those people you wouldn't expect to find at a fancy shindig—the outcasts, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the Samaritans, the Gentiles. No one deserves the king's invitation to the banquet, yet there it is. He invites everyone.
            But the message is twofold. God gives these gifts to us, but we can lose them. We can misuse and misappropriate them. We can abuse them until they are no longer of any worth. The people of Israel wanted to be like the pagan nations around them, so they turned their backs on God's gifts and adopted pagan ways. We sometimes act that way as well. We can show our ingratitude by acting without respect or reverence for everything God has done for us.
            At the wedding feast, one man attends without a wedding garment. Now how are we to understand this? Is the king truly so picky that he expects outcasts to show up in formal dinner wear? I don't think that's the point here. But there are expectations about how we should respond when we accept a gift or an honor. The man knew he was being invited to a wedding, and certainly he knew what would be expected at such an event. Yet he presented himself in an inappropriate manner. He took the invitation for granted.
            When we take our own gifts for granted, we forget their appropriate use. God has to remind us. Sometimes he does that by depriving us of those gifts or by allowing us to deprive ourselves of them. I remember back before I was ordained, and I had just completed my master's thesis and a graduate degree in theology. One of the first things I did was this: I went outside, and I cleared the weeds from the flower beds in front of our house. I actually had the time to spend on yard work without worrying about writing my thesis or taking a test. I detest yard work, but here I was joyfully weeding the yard. I was actually happy about it—excited even! I said to my wife, Gina, "I get to do yard work!"
            That time of intense focus and study had deprived me of the free time I needed to enjoy the gift of a home. In a way, I was able to see more clearly that this time-consuming chore was part of the gift to me. In the first reading, Isaiah says, "he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations." God will remove from us that which prevents us from seeing the abundance around us. St. Paul seemed to have grasped this as well, as he explains in Galatians, "In any circumstance and in all things, I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need."
            He recognized that both having and needing are gifts of a different fashion. Now how can hunger be a gift? Well, hunger in its own right or in isolation is no gift, but hunger that is met with the charity of others is a gift—both to the one who receives and the one who gives. Paul was content with deprivation, but he truly appreciated his dependence on God and on others. His dependence was a gift to the Galatians because they could then act with mercy. His own spiritual abundance was a gift that he could share with others. It's a gift to have what we need, but it's also a gift to be in need and feel the joy of receiving. God lifted the veil from Paul's eyes so that he could see God's hand in all of it. It's all a gift.
            We must not lose sight of this truth. Everything is a gift to us. What we have, we were given, even if we don't always see that reality. But everything we possess is given to us in stewardship—to manage, not just to horde. We have to put these gifts to their proper use. So what do we do with those gifts? Are we using these gifts as God intended or simply as we please?
            Do we use our gifts of skill to glorify God or to glorify ourselves?
            Do we use the gift of our possessions to satisfy only our needs and wants or to help others satisfy theirs?
            Our Church has a doctrine called the universal destination of material goods. What does this mean? Well, it means that God gave us everything, and any possessions we have are His first. So they are meant to satisfy not just our needs but also the needs of others. If I have what my family needs and more, and my neighbor is starving, those goods I have in abundance by right should be shared with a neighbor who does not have enough. This is a challenging teaching for many of us, but it's because we live with a veiled understanding of our own self sufficiency. None of us gets where we are on our own, and everything we have comes to us through God's generosity.

            It's all a gift, and so we need to remember Our Father, the giver of all good gifts, and respond accordingly.
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