Some of the most insightful and helpful words I ever heard spoken about God in a church were pronounced from this very pulpit years ago by a monk visiting from the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield in Britain[I]. Only some of the words were his. The opening words of his sermon had been borrowed, in turn, from Mae West, who also used them as the title for her autobiography. They come from a scene in the 1932 film, Night After Night[ii]. In the scene, Mae West has just made an entrance into a swanky club, wrapped in a white coat with an extravagant white fur collar. She approaches the coat-check girl, removes the coat, and hands it to the girl. Underneath, she’s dressed in a sparkly, white, sleeveless dress with a V-neckline, and as she hands the coat to the girl at the counter, her wrists glisten with diamond bracelets. The coat-check girl can’t help but notice the bracelets, and comments, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” To which Mae West responds, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”
The burden of the sermon that day was to make a theological virtue of Mae West’s quip, and it’s an enterprise that is worth taking up again and again. I trust I shall repeat some version of this sermon over and over more than a few times in the course of my ministry.
So often we convince ourselves, or perhaps others convince us, that if we can be good enough, God will love us. We often consider this the most fundamental religious equation: that the Good will be rewarded by God and the Bad will suffer eternal torment. And it’s true that there is a sufficient body of scriptural material with which to spin this particular theological yarn. And sometimes Jesus himself seems to be spinning it. But not too much. And if threads of it run through the New Testament, the fabric of which they’re a part is a more complex and nuanced weave.
Take the parable we heard today about the laborers in the vineyard. Some laborers were there all day, but others were there for only part of the day. When the time came to be paid, and those who worked a shorter day got a full day’s pay, the laborers who’d worked a full day were irked that their pay was exactly the same as the others, who’d worked so much less. They were annoyed because, in the terms of the story, they were the good ones who’d worked all day. Whatever merits the other laborers might have had, they had not worked as long, hadn’t sweated as much, weren’t quite as good. How could they possibly be paid as much? Why weren’t all the laborers rewarded in kind – the Good with greater blessings, and the Less Good with a lesser bounty?
The landowner asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?” To which the obvious but unspoken reply is, “Yes! Of course!”
But those good laborers had not figured out that the parable was not about them. In fact the parable was not about the other laborers either, who had worked only part of the day. It is not a parable about work ethics, labor relations, or fair-pay practices.
The parable is a parable about God, and it is meant, I think, to address the issue of how good God thinks we need to be in order to love us.
Like the good laborers, we generally suspect that the better you are, the more God loves you. The implication is that there is a sliding scale of God’s love, and that you can improve your position on the scale with your diligence, your hard work, your attentiveness to some law, your adherence to some orthodoxy, or the sheer number of hours you clock in church. If only you can be good enough, you can be assured that God loves you and that you will be taken care of come pay time, rewarded richly at the end of the day.
More to the point, the laborers who were late to work share this same suspicion, and like them, we also expect that they will very likely receive a lesser blessing because of their late arrival. And this outlook would be a very sensible way of seeing things if God loved us because we are good. But Jesus seems to be telling us that goodness has nothing to do with it.
And here’s where the words of wisdom from that monastic preacher in this pulpit come in. It wasn’t just that he could quote Mae West effectively from the pulpit – an admittedly impressive feat for a British monk – it was also that he knew what to say next. And what he said next were words that I find myself returning to over and over again as the years go by.
No, God does not love us because we are good. Goodness has nothing to do with it. God loves us because we are weak and stupid.
God loves us because we are weak and stupid.
True though it is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, there is more still to be said about us. Correct though the Psalmist was when he sang that we are marvelously made, he was not singing the whole truth.
And sometimes it has to be said about us that we are weak and stupid. God knows it could be said about me on any given day of the week. Maybe you know this about yourself as well.
The problem with the idea that God will only love us if we are good enough, is that it will never sound like good news to those of us who know our own weakness and stupidity. And, sinners that we are, it will never sound like good news to those who are honest with themselves.
If God loves those who get there first, then what need have the rest of us for God?
If God’s generosity is reserved for the finest and the best, then what will be left for the broken and the lost?
But the kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells us, is not like that. Maybe the kingdom of heaven is more like this:
Years ago, the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver opened up a restaurant in London that provides training for working-aged kids with troubled backgrounds. He intended it to be a place where disadvantaged young people could come to get experience and support as they try to put their lives together and make it in the world.
The early days of the project were filmed and made into a TV series[iii]. And one poignant episode featured a girl – maybe 18 years old – who kept missing work, kept showing up late, kept doing everything worng. She may have had a child to care for already, I can’t remember. Her life was a mess, that’s for sure. And in this one episode, when she shows up to work late again, for the umpteenth time, we find her crumpled up in tears, her head sunk into her folded arms, at the bottom of the stairs at the back of the kitchen.
Jamie Oliver arrives on the scene and crouches beside her. Maybe his arm is around her, I can’t remember. But I remember the substance of the short discussion that followed because it is such a succinct version of today’s parable. It went something like this:
- Why are you crying, he asks. What’s the matter?
- Because I’m late again, and I keep doing things wrong, and I know I’m going to get fired, she says through her sobs.
- Oh no, Jamie assures her. Don’t you realize that anyplace else you’d have been fired long ago, you’d never have made it this far. But it’s not like that here. It’s not like that here.
What a remarkable and unexpected thing for an employer to say: Anyplace else you’d have been fired long ago, you’d never have made it this far, they’d have given up on you ages ago. You’d have been the last and the least, and your life would take shape accordingly. But it’s not like that here.
If a celebrity chef can show such graceful compassion, how much more will God show compassion in the kingdom of heaven?
How easy it is to believe that God will only love us if we are good enough.
In this church we admit every day that we are not worthy to come under God’s roof, but we know that at his word our souls will be healed. Can we also then admit that God loves us because we are weak and stupid, albeit marvelously made?
We can and we should try to be good, for somewhere along the way it will matter, no doubt, that we have chosen to be good, tried to be good, and sometimes even succeeded at being good. And I am sure that Jesus wants us to be as good as we can be. It’s good to be good.
But Jesus’ salvation is not founded on your goodness or mine. When he teaches us what God’s love is like – the love that ushers in his kingdom – he does not tell us about our selves, or how good we have to be, for the kingdom of heaven is not measured in our goodness.
The kingdom of heaven is measured in the boundlessness of God’s merciful loving kindness. Which is immense good news to those of us who know ourselves to be weak and stupid.
Christ died once, and for all. He shed his blood to open the gates of the kingdom for all. His love knows no bounds. And for us, goodness has nothing to do with it.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
24 September 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
[i] The monk in question was Br. Nicolas Stebbing, CR
[ii] Paramount Pictures, directed by Archie Mayo
[iii] Jamie’s Kitchen, 2002, produced by Peter Moore for Talkback Productions