Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32
1st Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
2nd Reading: Philippians 2:1-13
I enjoy watching the Louie CK show. He is a comedian for which no subject is off limits, so don’t take my taste as a recommendation. He is raising two young daughters, though, and his parenting can be so right on sometimes. We recently saw an episode in which Louie is preparing smoothies for his kids. He has an extra slice of mango left over and he offers it to his oldest daughter. The younger daughter is fit to be tied.
"She got a mango popsicle and I didn't," she whines.
"That's right," he says, and continues cooking. "Sometimes she gets things you don't and sometimes, it goes the other way. That's just how life works."
"But daddy," she pleads, "it's not fair!"
"Who said anything about fair?" he asks. "You were just fine without it until she got it. What's the problem?"
"It's just not fair," she insisted. "If she gets one, I should get one too."
"Look," he says, getting right down on her level, "the only time you need to worry about what's your neighbor's bowl is if you're checking to make sure they have enough." then he turns back to the stove and continues cooking. His younger daughter is pretty ticked and walks off in a huff.
I love this scene, because it is not only for kids but for all of us. We’ve all heard kids freak out about what is fair and what isn’t. We all have our own sense of justice about what is fair and what isn’t. But when we say, “It’s not fair!” it is never the case that we got something more than what our neighbor got, is it? It is only when they got what we don’t have that we complain about fairness, like Louie’s daughter.
It is easy to dismiss kids’ complaints and their lack of understanding, but what about our own sense of justice. Our sense of justice and fairness is challenged when someone goes free who committed a crime, when someone who has taken advantage of other people has great wealth, when people enjoy pleasures and luxury that we don’t have, and occasionally when good people experience many hardships in a row.
In the Old Testament reading today, the Israelites complain that it isn’t fair that people’s children don’t suffer for their parent’s mistakes. They don’t think it is fair that God should give people a second chance to turn and live, mend their lives, make a change. They don’t think it is fair that God should care for all the other people of the earth and all the creatures, as God does the Israelites, that their welfare is tied to each other. And they don’t think it is fair that they should have to suffer consequences for what they do—aren’t they supposed to be special?!
In the New Testament reading, we are reminded that if we lived in a fair world, Jesus would not have been treated the way he was and had to give his life so that everyone could have abundant life. Instead, he did what was entirely not fair, and emptied himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For him it wasn’t about what was fair, but it was about what was right and that was to get everyone into right relationship with God and to be an example of what it means to let go of what is fair to benefit one another and people who need it most.
I think emptiness is what we are most afraid of when we exclaim, “That’s not fair.” I remember being a little girl and comparing what my sister got with what I got. I wanted to make sure I had more ice cream, soda pop, candy than she did. It was a measure in my mind of what I meant to my parents, what I deserved, and how special I was. And I was afraid of what it would mean to take second or third position, to find myself empty of my privileges as the oldest daughter. Who would I be then, if I was first, if I didn’t get the most, if I wasn’t most important in my parents’ eyes? If I lost that status, I didn’t know who I would be. I would be empty, in my estimation.
My cousin was a year older than me and we visited them often. He didn’t treat me very nice for a few years. I got to feel what it was like to be my sister, the way I treated her. He emptied me of my privileged role and I learned to be more compassionate.
We’re all going to be empty of power at some point in our lives. We are going to experience powerlessness. Jesus tells us that isn’t the end of the world. When we are empty of power, we are available to be filled. God will give us a new direction, a new heart, new eyes, a new spirit and we will be better off than we were before.
Here are a few stories of emptiness, of loss of power. The first I’ve heard time and time again. A woman is in an unhappy marriage. She finds herself attracted women. She tries everything to build up her marriage, to no avail. Her church rejects her. She wonders where God is in all this. She’s afraid that if she comes out of the closet, she will lose her family and friends.
Here’s another story: A couple recognizes their health is declining. They can’t do all the things they used to—care for a house and a yard, drive everywhere they want to go, and so on. They move into Independent Living. They have left friends, neighborhood, yard, possessions, hobbies, and more. Who are they now? They are empty of all that, plus now their kids are making many decisions for them. They have given up power. They feel depressed and powerless.
And another: A child comes into this world, healthy and happy. Nevertheless, a trusted friend shakes the child and he suffers brain damage. His parents are lost. The life they pictured for their little baby and themselves is forever altered. They don’t know what to do or where to turn. They feel powerless, empty of power.
Where is God when we feel empty? God knows what it is like to feel empty and powerless, is with us when we are in a place of fear and depression, and God has promised to eventually fill us again.
The woman finds other people who have been through the same thing she is going through. She finds God’s acceptance and love. She begins to accept herself. An older couple is able to share their frustration and pain with others who have been through the same thing. They feel encouraged that they aren’t the only ones who have felt this way. They find new activities to fill their days and make new friends and soon they are settled in their new living situation. A parent connects with other parents who have children who have been shaken. She finds that she sees so much that her child is capable of, and sees him enjoying his life and accomplishing things that she might have taken for granted. She feels such love and sees him loving. And she uses her energies to raise awareness of Shaken Baby Syndrome so that others might not have to feel the powerlessness she went through.
Death and resurrection, emptying and being filled, powerlessness and the power of love, a need for fairness and a letting go of what’s fair to face what is. The chief priests and elders ask Jesus this morning about his authority. The word in the original language for authority is “That which arises out of your being.” It is about who you are at your core. When everything is stripped away, who are you? When we are empty, that’s when we really find out who we are and what is most important and we find not an absence, but God’s love filling us and giving us strength and resurrecting us to new life in which we look into our neighbor’s empty bowl and share of our abundance until all are full of God’s love and life.