The Reward

The Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Ark.
September 25, 2011
15 Pentecost
Proper 21, Year A, Track 1

(Matthew 21:23-32) – When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, `From heaven,’ he will say to us, `Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, `Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, `Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, `I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, `I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

***

How do we know what is from God—what originates in divine energy—and what is from us, coming out of our energy and our too-self-centered human motivation? I would like to live a less self-absorbed life, and therefore a less anxious life? I would like to be more transparent to the energy that comes from God, instead of my own limited reserves.

We’ve got this Gospel story of the two sons. Maybe we’re like each of them from time to time. I know I say I want to follow Christ with all my heart and soul and strength. But I don’t. And sometimes when I say “no”—I go ahead and do what I need to do.

Robert J. Wicks says, “If we were honest with ourselves about our relationship with God, I think we could all write a book entitled, ‘God Is Solidly Number TWO in My Life!’ We frequently put so many things and people (especially ourselves) in front of God.” But our hearts are restless, and life is short. I think we all do want to give ourselves to something more, something greater. Robert Wicks puts it this way: “In a world so filled with greed, anxiety, pressures, money-problems, confusion, and conflict, we do very much want the solace and challenge of the truth. We do want to gamble with our lives, for the ultimate relationship. …We do want our dull subtly idolatrous world made new.”

***

I like Robert Wicks’ writing. He tells a story of a man who was driving in a rural area on the way to an important business meeting. The businessman liked to drive pretty fast on the long, mostly deserted highways, engaging his cruise control and looking out across the countryside.

At some point he noticed a splotch of color off in the distance to his right. The light was amazingly brilliant, and as he drove along he hoped his route would pass close enough for him to see what it was.

A few miles later he could tell that the color was coming from a building of some sort. As he got closer, he thought it looked like a church. But it was the middle of the day, and it seemed impossible that a window could be so brilliantly lighted from the inside of a church. It seemed to him as if it must be among the most brilliant stained glass windows in the world, out here in the middle of nowhere. He was perplexed and awed.

His car came to a fork in the road. His destination would take him away from the distant window. In an impulsive moment, he decided to take the road that appeared to lead closer to the mysterious light. His anticipation rose and some excitement began to grow as he drove closer. He could see that it was a church, up on a rise in the land. As he drove around toward the front, he lost sight of it around a bend in the road as a drifting cloud moved over the sun.

When he finally drove in front of the church he saw, it really wasn’t a church after all. It was only the shell of an old church building. Three walls stood, no roof, no doors, and most of the windows were broken. He walked around to the side of the church where he had seen the brilliant light, and he looked up at the window he had admired from such a distance. His spirits sank. He was looking at a quite ordinary old window—not the window from his imagination and memory. The panes were dusty; the frames chipped. In a while, he could tell, this glass would be blown out like the other windows.

He felt a bit foolish. He shrugged and gently scolded himself for being so naïve. But then as he turned to leave, the cloud moved, and the sun shown brilliantly through the window, almost blinding him with its color. “All of his skepticism left him; all of his disappointment was bathed clean with the warm colors he could feel covering him.” Below his thoughts, even below his feelings, he sensed he was in the presence of God.

***

Here’s what I want you to do with that story. Think of yourself as that old church ruin, that stained glass window. Ordinary. Dusty. Incomplete. Maybe even a bit broken. But when you are open to the divine light shining through you [and one of the things we call that light is the “Son”]—you can relax, and simply be, just as you are—and God’s brilliance will shine through you in a wonderfully ordinary way. Actually, we don’t have to do anything special. God has made us as we are. We need only be “open to the wonder and awe that surrounds us and is in us.”

***

Robert Wicks, who I’ve been quoting, is a clinical psychologist and a professor. See if what he says connects with you as it connects with me:

‘For years I would read the Scriptures and quietly pray that I could be more obedient to God, more single-hearted. For years I would pray that I could be enthusiastic, rather than exhibitionistic, achievement-oriented rather than competitive. For years, being an impetuous person, I would pray that I would not be swayed by people’s reactions—positive or negative—or be a victim of my insecurities and needs to be liked, but only be concerned with doing God’s will. And for years the sense I received in prayer was simply: “Just do my will; it is enough.” And to this I would always reply in a very down-to-earth way: “It’s easy for you to say! I just can’t do it. It’s not enough for me. I need a reward. If it’s not people’s good thoughts, if it’s not the applause, if it’s not my image, then I must have something.

‘Then one day, when I was praying for something else, I sensed a response not only to this request, but also finally to my original one as well. The impression I had was this: “You have asked that you not be concerned with your image or success but only with my will; your prayer will be answered now.” To this I became anxious and was even sorry I had prayed for help at all. I was concerned that with the gift more would be asked of me. (My lack of faith and sinfulness continues to astound and almost overwhelm me.) Yet, this insecurity did not dispel the sense I had of God’s presence. And the impression I had of the Lord’s response continued clearly in the following manner: “If you seek to do my will and focus only on it and not your success or the way people respond, you will find you won’t have to worry about whether or not you are accepted and loved by others. You shall have another reward that will make you secure—in every lecture, in every therapy hour, in every encounter on the street, when you only concern yourself with doing my will and forget about the reactions or results, you will be in the Presence of the Spirit. … Is that enough?”

***

How do we know what is from God and what is from human origin? When we seek to do God’s will and focus only on that, and not whether we succeed or how others might respond, we will find we don’t have to worry whether or not we are accepted and loved by others. We will have another reward that will make us secure. In every action, in every moment, in every encounter, when we only concern ourselves with doing God’s will, and forget about the reactions or results, we are in the Presence of the Spirit. We, in our ordinariness, will shine like sunlight through stained glass. … Is that enough for you?