Sunday, September 28, 2014

Promises, Promises


Here's today's homily.  The readings are
Exodus 17:1-7  and Matthew 21:23-32.

*

Many of you know that my husband and I have three cats. Every morning when I wake up, they’re waiting outside our bedroom door, and when I come out, they begin wailing piteously. I can just imagine what they’re saying. “Where were you all night? Why did you go away? We’re starving! You’ve never fed us!  No one has ever fed us!”

I go downstairs, cats underfoot, and give them a can of wet catfood. They’ve had dry food to eat all night. I give them fresh water. When my husband wakes up, he attends to their litter boxes, one of which is in the giant enclosed catio he’s built for them on our deck, so they can safely go outside.   Over the course of the day, we feed them again, let them lick our own plates, give them various treats, play with them -- they have an entire drawer of balls and catnip mice, and that’s not even counting the laser pointer -- and lavish them with affection.

Then we go to bed. We don’t let them sleep with us, because it wouldn’t be very restful. The next morning, there they are again, outside the bedroom door. “Where were you?  You never feed us!  No one has ever fed us, or played with us, or given us treats!”

Do my cats remind you of anyone?

Just last week, we heard the Israelites lamenting that they’re starving, that no one feeds them, that they’re going to die in the wilderness of hunger. We watched God, in response, shower them with quail and manna, a feast in the desert. And now here we are, a week later, and they’re complaining again. “There’s no water. We’re thirsty. We’re going to die out here, Moses! Why did you bring us here to die?” We hear them complaining, and we watch God give them water. How long do you think it will take for them to start complaining again?

Granted, the Isrealites have it much worse than my cats do. But I still find it helpful to compare the two situations. I wonder if the Israelites believe that they have to complain to get what they need, that if they don’t, God won’t pay any attention to them at all. I wonder if Moses, who’s clearly fed up with them, is worried about whether God will get fed up with them too. I wonder if anyone in the crowd is thinking, “If we want to keep getting food and water, we’d better stop complaining and say thank you really nicely.  We’d better watch our manners.”

I suspect that the answer to all of these questions is no.

My husband and I take care of our cats not because they have good manners -- they don’t -- and not because they routinely complain about our terrible treatment of them, but because we love them. We chose them. When we adopted them from the Humane Society, we promised them that they would be our cats, and that we would be their people. And that’s a promise we intend to keep, no matter how they behave.

My husband and I, heaven knows, are not God. But I suspect that the divine covenant with humanity is a little like this too. God has told us that he will be our God and we will be his people.  No matter how badly we behave, he’ll still love us. Didn’t he send Jesus to feed us, to heal us, and to clean up our messes? God is faithful even when we aren’t. That’s a promise we can count on, even when it seems like God’s shut the bedroom door and will never come out, even when we’re hungry and thirsty and feel like no one has ever loved us.

Of course, we trust this promise because we have been fed and loved. We’ve seen the promise made good.  We can’t blame people desperate for sustenance, for meaning and belonging, not to believe it, not unless we -- as God’s hands and heart in the world -- help show them that it’s true.  It's our job to offer food, and water, and love.  To too many people, the promises of the Gospel seem as empty as the glib assurances of the landowner’s second son, who says, “I go, sir,” but then doesn’t. Who among us hasn’t felt the sting of a broken promise, the betrayal of people who’ve made glib assurances of help or friendship, only to fail us when we needed them?

It’s easy to list those examples. It’s a little more difficult to think of people who say, “No, I won’t help you,” but then do. It took me hours to come up with an example, but before I tell you that story, I want to talk about Jesus in the temple.

The priests and elders are trying to trick him, and he knows it. If he says that the baptism of John came from heaven, he’ll be defying their authority. If he says it was of human origin, they’ll claim that their own religious authority bears more weight. So Jesus neatly turns the tables, throwing their own question back at them, catching them in the same net. If they admit that John came from heaven, they’re granting Jesus the authority they want to deny; if they say that it’s merely human, they fear the reaction of the crowd.  So they refuse to answer one way or the other, and Jesus does the same. Checkmate.

This legal maneuvering reveals the nature of Jesus’ dilemma, the bind that ultimately leads to the cross. He is subject to two authorities: to God, and to the human leaders of his place and time. Both are valid. To keep serving the first authority, Jesus needs to avoid overtly defying the second. It was Jesus, after all, who said “Render under Ceasar what is Ceasar’s.” He can’t pull rank – at least, not until he’s trapped the priests and elders again, until they’ve offered the correct answer to his question about the landowner’s two sons.

And that brings me to my story. When I was in high school, I had a math teacher named Mr. McCarthy. I was scared of math and I was scared of him, although probably no one else could have dragged me kicking and screaming to a passing grade in calculus. Mr. McCarthy smelled like coffee and cigarettes.  He wore tweed jackets stiffened with chalk dust, and passed back exams and homework from the highest grade to the lowest, which made waiting to get your paper back an exercise in sheer agony. You’d watch him return work to other students, and when someone let out a moan you’d know that was it:  the first failing grade. If you hadn’t yet gotten your own paper back, you were doomed.

Mr. McCarthy yelled at students, and he wasn’t above throwing erasers at people. Every day when I got to school, I saw him standing in the hallway. Every day, I said, “Good morning, Mr. McCarthy.” Every day, scowling at me with nicotine-and-caffeine yellowed teeth, glowering through his thick glasses, he snarled, “What’s good about it?”

Mr. McCarthy was a staunch member of the teacher’s union. My junior year, right before most of my class was scheduled to take the SATs, the union announced a job action. Teachers would hold their regular classes from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. , but they refused to help students after school, meet with clubs, or help with extracurricular activities.

I no longer remember the specific contract problems that led to this impasse, but I remember that those of us prepping for the SAT were terrified. For all his surliness, Mr. McCarthy was a good teacher. We’d asked him to give us extra SAT prep after school. He’d said he would. We knew that now he wouldn’t. Someone made the mistake of asking him during class. He curled his lip. “No. Don’t you know what’s going on?”

But then he passed back a set of papers, and those of us taking the SAT found that he’d written on the last page:  “Be here at 7 a.m. tomorrow.”

We dutifully showed up. Mr. McCarthy glared at us and growled, “Don’t you dare tell anyone about this.” And then he gave us an SAT prep class. He’d found a a way to follow two sets of rules:  those of the union to which he was devoted, and those of his calling, his passion to see us do well in math, even if he’d never dream of wishing us good morning.

Mr. McCarthy kept his promise, even though we were afraid of him and even though we frequently grumbled against him. I suspect he’d planned his subterfuge all along, but if he’d changed his mind, like the first son in the parable, his actions would have been no less honorable. I don’t think he liked most of us, but we were his, just as my cats are mine and my husband’s, just as all of us are God’s. I wasn’t yet a churchgoer in high school, but if I had been, I would have said after that SAT prep class, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Amen.

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