The Comparative Advantage of God


A sermon for the Easter Vigil, April 23, 2011. The lectionary readings are Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea] , Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones] , Psalm 114, Romans 6:3-11, and Matthew 28:1-10 .

As I was growing up, my father would often get my brother and me to help with projects around the house. We did things in the yard. We might re-shingle part of a roof. We would even take up old linoleum and put down new flooring. But then, there were some jobs that my father had the good sense to see, were simply beyond our ability. “You can’t beat somebody at their own trade,” he would say. And so a plumber would be called. Or a roofer. Or an arborist.

What Dad was talking about is basically what economists would call “comparative advantage.”

The Economist Paul Samuelson explains comparative advantage by giving the example of someone living in a small town. This woman is both the best lawyer and the best secretary in town. Though she might be tempted to try to do both, and indeed, would do a fine job—the notion of comparative advantage suggests that it would be to the common good, and to her advantage, to hire someone else to be the secretary. That way, she could put all of her resources into her legal practice. Turned the other way around, let’s imagine the person hired as secretary also had some skills in drafting simply briefs and legal documents. Even though the secretary could do some of the legal work, it would be to the comparative advantage of both for the secretary to be the best secretary possible and let the lawyer be the lawyer. This is the idea of comparative advantage. It’s an economic principle in trade, but it also has some practical implications in relationships of all kinds. It even has implications in the relationship we have with God.

The resurrection is about many things, but among them, I think it shows in no uncertain terms the comparative advantage of God.

It comes down to this: There are just some things God is better at than we are.
And yet, too often, we persist in trying to “play God.”

We keep calendars, and make plans, and arrange our lives (and the lives of other people) in such as way as to imagine that we are in control. Until something reminds us that we are not.

Our parish community has been reminded of just how out-of-control we are this week, with the death of our friend Jeff Workman, last weekend. As I’ve written elsewhere, I have little patience with easy explanations of death or overly-pious observations about death— though I know full well, these are things we tell ourselves in an effort to restore calm, to suggest that there is a pattern to life, to imagine not only that “life” in under control, but at some level, to imagine that we are still in control. But death reminds us that life is unpredictable, tomorrow is unknown. Jesus wept. And the tears of God are with us in our weeping, until that day when “God shall wipe away all tears.”

Remembering the comparative advantage of God is difficult for us, partly because God has blessed us, his children, with so many gifts and abilities. We can make things. We sometimes can get along with each other. We are capable of heroic rescue and the ability to show enormous compassion. But we are also capable of oil spills, and nuclear accidents, and environmental abuse, and murder, and bigotry, and all of the other things that sometimes cause people to lose a belief in anything beyond ourselves. And yet, the brokenness of humanity is not an argument against God. Rather, it’s a reminder of just how much we need God.

We can work at peace. We can work at medicine and even the extension of life. We can work at peace and justice and freedom for all people. But at some point in all of this, there is a place for us to be ourselves—broken, fallible, sinful, human– and to allow God to be God.

It is God who brought the people of Israel out of bondage and into freedom.
It is God who put bone to bone in the valley, and showed people just what he can do.
It is God who visited the Virgin Mary and commingled divinity with humanity.
It is God who raised Jesus from the dead.

And it is God who intervenes in our world, who intercedes in our lives, who interrupts our plans and makes for miracles—the miracle of life (a life fully lived here and now) and of life everlasting (the life to which we all are called to live in continual praise and love and laughter.)

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling Death by death
and to those in the grave
bestowing Life. (Paschal troparion)

When we live as ourselves and allow God to be God, the full power of God is freed to reform and renew and raise us up into the fullness of Easter faith.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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