Sunday, August 26, 2018

Sermon, "Racism and People of Faith: Crumbs," Matthew 15:21-28

Sermon 8/26/18
Matthew 15:21-28

Racism and People of Faith: Crumbs


Today we’re continuing the hard work of thinking and talking about racism and our life of faith. It isn’t easy, but you’re already doing something meaningful to address racism: you’re here today. I’m not kidding - unless you weren’t here last week, and didn’t know what we’d be talking about today, you’ve already made a choice that’s important: you’re here again, while we engage in this conversation about racism. Last week was hard! Talking about racism can be hard. But you came back! That has meaning, and I’m thankful that however you’re feeling, you were willing to come and be here again.
I had a clear sense of where I wanted to start last week. And I have some clear ideas about what I want to say next Sunday. But for this Sunday, I’ve been struggling. I imagined that I might share with you some statistics or comments about racism today. I was looking up facts to share with you - like how people of color are more likely to receive longer jail sentences than white people for the same crimes, or how people who have “black-sounding” names are less likely to get called for a job interview than applicants with “white-sounding” names, or how people of color regularly get charged higher interest rates on loans than white people of similar financial means. (See, I snuck some things in there anyway.) But, facts, as clear cut as they sometimes might seem, do not usually change hearts. Our experiences change hearts. Stories draw us in and change our hearts. And encounters with Jesus change hearts. As usual, if we stay with the scripture, we’ll find our place and our call to action and transformation.  
Our gospel lesson for today is a challenging one. We read that Jesus is traveling to Tyre and Sidon. We’re not given any reason for his journey, and it is out of the way from where he was - Gennesaret - and where he goes - back to the border of the Sea of Galilee. Tyre and Sidon were mostly populated by Gentiles - that is non-Jewish folks - and more specifically it was a region populated by people the Bible refers to as Canaanites. Back in Genesis, when God first tells Abraham that he will be a great nation, and that God has a new home for what will become the Israelite people, the land God is talking about is already full of people: people called the Canaanites. The meaning of the name Canaan is a little unclear, but some suggest “to be low, humble, or subjugated” as a possible meaning. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canaan) When the Israelites eventually occupy the Promised Land, the Canaanites, who had already been living there, are defeated by Joshua and his army, and pushed out. They are never wiped out entirely though, and by Jesus’ time, Canaanites are a large and diverse religious ethnic group that live in close proximity to the Jewish people. Today, descendants of the Canaanites make up a large part of the population of Lebanon, neighbor of Israel.  Race isn’t present in the Bible in the same way we would speak about it today. The categories of race that are common to us today are fairly recent ways of thinking about populations of people. But ethnic division was certainly present in the scriptures, along with hatred and animosity based on ethnic differences. Canaanites and Jews had different religions, different practices, different traditions.
So, Jesus travels to a predominantly Canaanite region, far outside of his usual path of travel, for some unknown reason. A Canaanite woman immediately approaches him, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” We don’t know how she knew to seek healing through Jesus - she must have heard something about him, his reputation. Jesus ignores her. Ouch. The text says, “He did not answer her at all.” But the disciples aren’t satisfied with that - they want Jesus to actively discourage her, sending her away, to stop her shouting. Now, at least, Jesus responds to her. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Has Jesus ever before turned anyone down for healing? Still, the woman persists. She kneels before Jesus and pleads, “Lord, help me.” Jesus answers her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Some biblical scholars try to soften the blow, pointing out that the word here for “dogs” is diminutive: “little dogs.” But insinuating that someone is a dog was as insulting then as it is now. Jesus says his work, his mission is for Israelites. And still, still, this Canaanite woman who needs healing for her daughter is not deterred. She doesn’t disagree with Jesus. She just stretches what he’s said, turning his words back. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus responds. And her daughter is healed immediately, and Jesus, apparently accomplishing what he intended in the region, heads back to the Sea of Galilee.
So what is this text all about? It’s hard to read about Jesus in this exchange. It doesn’t mesh well with our picture of his kindness and compassion, his love, his constant work to draw marginalized people to the center. There are two primary schools of thought about this passage. Some scholars think that we get to witness Jesus learning. We get to see his idea of his mission expanding. The Canaanite woman teaches Jesus about the broadness of God’s mission. I’ve sometimes been drawn to this interpretation, even though it is uncomfortable, because I’m hesitant when we try to explain away uncomfortable parts of the scripture, and I think that we have to be careful not to let our interpretation of the text be motivated by our desire to find a way to get Jesus off the hook for the way he interacts with this woman.  
But there’s too much “set up” for me to rest with that interpretation either. This passage takes place in Matthew’s gospel right after Jesus spends time talking about how it is what comes from inside of us that makes us clean or unclean, what comes from our hearts that defiles, and not what comes from the outside in, external things. It seems strange, then, that he immediately goes from that conversation to a Canaanite region to insist that the woman’s exterior wrappings make her ineligible for God’s healing. Also, in both Matthew and Mark, the other gospel where this story appears, Jesus has already healed people who are not Jewish by the time we get to this story. He doesn’t hesitate in those other accounts or talk about “the lost sheep of Israel.” And again, he goes way out of his way to get to Tyre and Sidon for no reason that we know of other than this very interaction. The whole thing reads like a lesson, a demonstration that is set up for our benefit. Jesus is letting us see the breadth of God’s mission in action. The text may never settle smoothly for me or for you, but hopefully, we can focus on what it is Jesus might want us to learn.
Here’s what I come away with: First, Jesus is intentional about crossing some boundaries, going out of his way to put himself in a place where he can build a connection with someone from a different culture than his own. He doesn’t say that he wants to be in relationship with all kinds of people, and then sit and wait for these relationships to fall into his lap. He is intentional, and enters into spaces and places where he will be the one who is the stranger, where he will be the one who doesn’t fit in, where he will have made the effort to break down barriers. Second, Jesus is open to what he hears from this woman, and changes his actions based on what she says. Jesus, or at least Matthew, apparently wants us to see this demonstration of Jesus having a change of heart, and being impacted by the witness of this Canaanite woman. And third, this brave, bold woman refuses to let go of her place at the table, even if there are only crumbs left to be offered to her. She insists there is room for her in God’s plan, and she’s right. I love the way that she advocates so fiercely on behalf of her family.
I think that we can take these lessons from this across-ethnic-lines conversation and draw on them in our ongoing quest to confront racism. If there was one “learning” action I could get you to take away from this sermon series, it would be to convincing you to read Anxious to Talk about It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism by Carolyn B. Helsel. I found this short book to be extremely helpful, and a great starting place particularly if you’ve found thinking about and talking about racism to be challenging. In her book, Helsel talks about being responsible vs. response-able for racism. She says, “Often, persons sharing their frustrations about racism need you to simply hear them, not to take personal responsibility. You can be response-able, having the ability to respond with compassion and care … Alternatively, responding by trying to explain, rationalize, defend, or otherwise dismiss their experience limits your response-ability, and you are less likely to build a meaningful relationship with them.” (25) She continues, “Building relationships with people of color involves being able to respond to anger without becoming overwhelmed or afraid or defensive … Building relationships with people who have been discriminated against means believing that their experiences of discrimination are real, and that their feelings are what we would feel if we were in the same situation on a daily basis. … We are called to respond by being witnesses, accompanying our brothers and sisters, [our siblings] and supporting them in whatever ways we can.” (28, emphasis mine.)
What do we do to bear witness to racism in the world? I think Helsel’s suggestions sound remarkably like what Jesus does in our gospel text. She says that the spiritual practice of bearing witness involves two key components. First, she says, to bear witness, you have to be aware of the experiences of others, and to be aware of the experience of others, you have to have close enough relationships to witness the things others experience. If you are white, you cannot bear witness to racism unless you have real relationships with people of color. We have to intentionally cultivate relationships with people who have different experiences than we do, something we see Jesus do in the gospels all the time, including today’s text. Second, she says, to bear witness, you have to “bear” something. You have to bear someone’s experiences alongside them. That doesn’t mean, she writes, that “you know exactly what they felt like when things happen, but it means in that moment you are recognizing the pain these experiences caused them, and you are not dismissing their experiences. To bear witness means to sincerely bear what they are telling you, not to suggest how their experiences could be reinterpreted … You are honoring their sharing of these experiences with you.” (114)
We must cross boundaries on purpose, with intention. We are called to listen to and believe the experiences of racism that people are vulnerable enough to share with us. And we must be willing to learn and change based on what we hear, bearing witness. I am thankful for the witness of people who, experiencing the harmful pain of racism, boldly speak up to claim a place at the table, when we’re tempted to insist there is no room. In response, I hope those of us who are white listen, connect, open our hearts to transformation, and get ready to offer more than crumbs. Our God of abundance always has more than crumbs for us. May we offer a feast of love to others in God’s name. Amen.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Review: God vs. Money: Winning Strategies in the Combat Zone by J. Clif Christopher

I recently received a copy of J. Clif Christopher's God vs. Money to review. 

Earlier this year I read another of Christopher's books, Not Your Parents' Offering Plate, because it was recommended in another book I was reading with my church's leadership team. I found myself furiously scribbling in the margins my disagreement with Christopher. Not in everything, of course - he has some practical ideas for stewardship and the ministry of finances in the life of a congregation. But as a whole, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. I worked in the alumni records office during my college years, and although I loved my supervisor and the staff there, I was off put by the way the school targeted potential givers, something with which I had no prior experience. I saw the file folders (everything was paper!) tracking the children of alums for years and years, so that the school was ready and waiting to target potential legacy students, and the corresponding potential for new donor money, for example. This is no unique practice to my alma mater. Things like this are standard for development work. I get that. I later worked in the development office of a theatre company, and things weren't much different. And I still believe in and support both my alma mater and the theatre at which I worked. They are good organizations. What I read in Offering Plate was a recommendation that churches operate in more or less the same way as a non-profit development office would. The nagging question that stayed with me is: should the church really be no different? He also declared about ten different things "clergy malpractice," which is certainly strong language, and everytime this phrase popped up, I cringed. I still had several of my parishioners read Offering Plate. They had generally the same mixed feelings I did. Anyway...

I admit, then, that I come into God vs. Money with some baggage. Some challenges: 

  • The entire book uses an extended war metaphor. Getting people to choose God over money is like a war that we must win, Christopher argues. In the Introduction, he notes that some might be uncomfortable with the imagery. "For those of you who get squeamish about war language, I can understand, but I do not apologize. I truly believe that we must take the attack upon our Christian values by a greedy, self-serving society very seriously .... We must treat it like a war." (xii) Personally, I am not just "squeamish" about war language. I find it extremely problematic. Certainly, the scriptures are laced with military conquests and violence. But is that the aim? Is war the fulfillment of God's vision for the world? I think Jesus witnesses to an alternate path, and I don't think the imagery Christopher uses was in anyway necessary to get his point across. Examples: "Attack! Attack! Attack! Preach it!" (36) "You cannot win if you bring a knife to a gunfight." (37) 
  • All the God-language is male.
  • I didn't find the content of this book to be significantly different than Offering Plate. I felt like it overlapped a lot, and so little content seemed "new." 
  • Like many books on stewardship, I found little that addresses poverty and how stewardship connects with folks experiencing poverty in a meaningful way. What does giving and generosity mean for people who live in poverty? 
Some positives: 
  • Christopher consistently talks about high-expectation discipleship, and acknowledges that this might result in a "smaller army." (41) Too often, I find books on church leadership imagine that high level discipleship somehow magically will also result in droves of people wanting to sign up for this deeper commitment. I think high-expectation discipleship is a good thing that we can help folks grow into, and I think we also must acknowledge it isn't an easy message to share. 
  • Christopher emphasizes the importance of personal testimony in the life of the church. Although his focus in on pre-offering placement to encourage meaningful giving, I think the benefits of such a practice are much broader. 
  • He stresses the importance of really knowing what we're about, what we would do with more financial resources, and being able to clearly articulate our vision for the church simply and compellingly. 
  • His chapter titled "A Battle Plan" has a lot of concrete suggestions, from an emphasis on personal thank yous to seasonal tithing challenges. 
Questions: 
  • Christopher says that "the vast majority of strong Protestant church in America do not have annual fund campaigns." (48) This surprised me. I don't see a reference supporting his statement, and I want to know more about it. 
  • Christopher emphasizes that clergy need to develop unique relationships with people of significant financial resources. He says that pastors develop unique relationships with all sorts of people, so we shouldn't be upset by this idea. And sure, that's true. But then shouldn't we also have unique relationships with people of middling or low financial resources? And if that's true, how is this different than simply saying clergy should have unique relationships with all their parishioners based on their gifts/personalities/needs? 

So - I didn't love this book. It might be just the right thing for some folks, but for me, there wasn't enough good material to outweigh some of the problematic parts. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sermon, "Racism and People of Faith: Clothed with Christ," Genesis 1:26-27, Colossians 3:9-17

Sermon 8/19/18
Colossians 3:9-17, Genesis 1:26-27

Racism and People of Faith: Clothed with Christ


I grew up, as many of you know, in Rome, NY. Rome, at the time, was home to Griffiss Air Force Base, and so the community as a whole was a little more racially and ethnically diverse than it might have been otherwise. But my own personal childhood experiences didn’t really reflect this. Though I went to Rome schools, I actually lived in Westernville, a tiny two-street town, surrounded by farms. Population about 500. Westernville was not a racially or ethnically diverse community. And Rome had lots of elementary schools - eleven at the time - and so the small group of us from Westernville were bused to Rome to a school that encompassed students from a small sliver of Rome that was home mostly to wealthy, white families. In my whole elementary school, I remember there being one African-American family - the family of the pastor of the Pentecostal church in Rome. But when I was in fifth grade, my school hired a new gym teacher: Coach Washington. Everyone loved Coach Washington. He was young and cool and funny. He was also black. I loved him, even if he did call me “Beth Swift” or “Beth Slow” depending on his mood and my performance in gym on a given day. But when I described him to my mom, this new teacher, I told her everything about him except that he was black, which, in my very white school, was certainly his most distinguishing physical feature. I’d learned though, not explicitly but in practice, that commenting on someone’s race, their skin color, was rude. I had a vague sense of what racism was, and I believed that it was wrong to treat people differently because of their skin color, and I didn’t want to do that, and so my best strategy was just to pretend that the difference didn’t exist. We might talk, affirmatively, about being “colorblind.” I didn’t see color, just people, I would like to think. But that wasn’t quite true. I saw the differences between me and Coach Washington just as easily as I could see the difference between me and people with blond hair. I just thought that mentioning our difference was bad. Unfortunately, the subtext of that impulse is the hidden belief that being different is bad. Often, when we don’t want to talk about things it is because we think of them as bad, shameful, or embarrassing. We don’t talk about things when they make us uncomfortable. We hide things that we don’t want to see the light of day. And in the shadows, then, the things that we hide away can become hurtful and destructive.
This summer, in Rome, fliers encouraging folks to join the KKK appeared around town. I am thankful that the pastor at my childhood church, Rev. Brian Lothridge, has been leading the congregation in a strong response against racism, encouraging the church and community to speak out boldly against racism - overt and covert racism, individual and systemic racism. It is not easy, if we’ve been used to avoiding conversations about race and racism, to confront hatred. But I believe it is necessary - as good neighbors, as followers of Jesus, as children of God.
Today we’re beginning a new sermon series called Racism and People of Faith. It was back during my annual worship planning retreat in January that I schedule this series for this summer, and lots of things happening in the world led me to feel we needed to be talking about race and racism, from the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville last summer, to reactions to NFL members kneeling during the National Anthem, to the Black Lives Matter movement responding to the shooting of unarmed black men. We have things we need to talk about. But in the way that God is often at work, the timing made even more sense than I realized. This year, our Annual Conference has begun to address racism in more specific and concrete ways through the Imagine No Racism initiative. The initiative is a response to action taken by our jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, the body that encompasses United Methodist Churches from Maine to West Virginia. At the quadrennial meeting in 2016, delegates adopted a statement that included this call to action:
“The people of faith called United Methodist have not mobilized nor been proactive enough [in responding to racism]. While there have been pronouncements, calls to prayer, moments of silence and candlelight vigils, we have not moved from rhetoric to action. Racism, white privilege and white supremacy which are inconsistent with the kingdom of God, are still the order of the day ... Therefore, in an effort to address, confront and otherwise demand systemic, fundamental and institutional change both within the church and the world we strongly encourage that … each annual conference do the following:
  1. … Confront y/our racism, and affirm that, while all lives matter in God's eyes, and the current cultural and social context of this country, Black lives and all lives of color really do matter.
  2. … Collectively and as individuals commit to lead the church in healing the wounds caused by unchecked racism, white privilege and internalized oppression...  
4. … Initiate ongoing internal and external conversations on white privilege, white supremacy, racism and oppression, including internalized oppression... [r]ealizing that viewing each other through the eyes of Christ and remaining at the table during the hard difficult discussion is the only way/path to new genuine relationships and partnerships.” (http://www.unyumc.org/images/uploads/NEJ_Call_to_Action_2016.pdf)

Our Annual Conference responded to this call with the Imagine No Racism initiative. All clergy and interested lay folks have begun meeting in small groups this summer, using a curriculum designed to help white people confront their own racism, and to help work toward reconciliation and change. I am proud to share that our own Cadie Hockenbary is our District Advocate, one of the folks responsible for coordinating groups around our region, offering support and guidance, and helping us stay on task. I can tell you already that the conversations we are having are not easy. I’ve told you before that I’m a conflict avoider at heart. I want everyone to get along, and I want everyone to like me. But one of my goals, my commitments to God and myself as we do this work is to not let my desire to avoid conflict result in being silent in the face of racism. My being uncomfortable is not a good excuse to let racism go unchecked. If you’re a conflict-avoider like me, maybe we can make the commitment to speaking up together. The Bishop has asked us all to sign a Covenant that reads, “Before God and with my family in Christ, I vow, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to oppose and work to eliminate the influence of racism from systems, institutions, relationships, and my own life.” At the end of this sermon series, I plan to offer you all an opportunity to sign this covenant as well, and I hope you will prayerfully and thoughtfully consider your response.
Our first scripture reading today from Genesis is a short excerpt from near the end of the hymn of creation in the very first chapter of the Bible. We read in verse 27, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” I think this is one of the most powerful, most important verses of scripture in the whole Bible. It tells us, right from the start, that we - human beings - we are created in God’s very image. We, God’s creation, are reflections of God’s very being. Not just some of us. But all of us. We bear God’s image in our identities. More than that: God’s image is reflected both in maleness and femaleness. Written in the context of a patriarchal culture, that’s a pretty bold and important statement. Both maleness and femaleness reflect God’s very image. A couple verses later, repeating the pattern of God’s reaction to creation, we read, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Femaleness and maleness reflect God’s image and it is indeed very good. I think, then, that we can extrapolate. The whole diversity of human creation - from red hair and brown hair, older people and younger people, taller and shorter people, people with white skin or beige skin or brown skin or black skin - we all reflect the image of God. God is so much, so big, so beyond our containing that no one gender or race or hair or eye color or size or shape can on its own reflect God’s image. So we all do. Every iteration of human creation is a part of the image of God. Every one of us.
Our second reading is from the letter to the Colossians. Colossae was a city in what is now the southwestern part of Turkey. Most Christians there in the early church were Gentiles, which means that they were not Jewish and did not convert to Judaism as part of their journey to become followers of Jesus. As our passage begins, the author uses language that might sound familiar to us - it is similar to what Paul says in both Corinthians and Galatians, and some biblical scholars think this language was part of the earliest baptismal liturgies in the church. We read, “You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” We’re called to clothe ourselves with compassion, humility, kindness, and love which binds everything together in perfect harmony. We’re reminded that we are called into one body. And we’re to do everything in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God. In Galatians, Paul speaks similarly about there being no male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free in Christ. Instead, we are clothed in Christ. We “put on” Jesus. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says that if anyone is in Christ, they are new creations, and the old has gone away.
I think we can read these words in Colossians or Galatians or 2 Corinthians and think that we’re meant, in Christ, to sort of cover up or erase the differences between us. No male or female, no slave or free, no circumcised or uncircumcised, no different nationalities or races. But I don’t think that’s what it means. After all, followers of Christ in the early church did not, in fact, live as if there were no differences between people. What changes, in Christ, is the status assigned to those differences. In society, women had an inferior status to men. Slaves had no power and their masters had all the control. Some Jewish Christians looked down on Gentile Christians. Some nations and races were hated and despised. But in Christ, we have true equal status, because Christ is all and in all. The differences between us are not erased, but we are brought side by side in Christ. Any power differences, and elevated status we give to one group over another is false and a failure to reflect God’s intention in the way we order our world. As Paul says in Corinthians, as we say in communion, as we sing in our hymns, “we, though many, are one.” We are not one because we are the same. We are one because we belong to Christ, made in God’s image. Beautifully diverse, and yet one in Christ, with equal standing before God.
In his last Sunday sermon before he was assassinated, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a message titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC on March 31st, 1968. In his message, King said,
No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.
“.... [Our] world is a neighborhood … We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured…
“[We] are challenged to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation. I must say this morning that racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame. It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism. Something positive must be done.” (https://stanford.io/1ABRiXS)

Friends, it is 50 years later, and this work is still urgent. The disease of racism has no place in the body of Christ. We cannot live into God’s vision for our world when we have not confronted and eliminated racism. We cannot truly embrace the reality of our mutual creation in the image of God, nor the hope of newness in Christ if we cannot affirm that indeed Christ is all and in all. Please, engage with me in the weeks ahead in this work. Search your hearts. And work with me to clothe ourselves with Christ, to clothe ourselves with love, which binds us together. Let the word of Christ dwell in us deeply, as we remember, again and again, that we are many, and yet all created in God’s image, and yet equal before God, and yet one in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Sermon, "Parables of Jesus: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard," Matthew 20:1-16

Sermon 8/5/18
Matthew 20:1-16


Parables of Jesus: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard


When I was little, I noticed that there were a lot of people who called my Grandpa Grandpa even though he wasn’t their grandpa. This included some of my second cousins, who were so close to us growing up that it was natural to call Grandma and Grandpa just that, and that was ok. But there were also some of my peers - other young girls at church - who called my Grandpa Grandpa. I have to admit, my heart was not very generous. He was my Grandpa. I understood why they wished he was theirs - my Grandpa was one of the best people I have ever known. But he wasn’t theirs. He was mine. I never said anything. My Grandpa certainly didn’t seem to mind. But I was resentful in my young heart that they thought they could lay claim to my Grandpa.
It was a lot later - I won’t say how much later, but I will admit that it was too much later - that I began to realize a few things. First, there were a lot of reasons why someone might want to call my Grandpa Grandpa. They might have lost their own grandpas already. Or sometimes others had grandpas who weren’t so kind and loving as mine. And sometimes people had never even known a grandpa in their life. And my Grandpa just exuded Grandpa-ness. Of course others would want to claim him as their own. The other thing that I learned, a little slowly, is that my Grandpa liking it when other people called him Grandpa didn’t lessen how much he loved me, or how special I was to him. He could love other people, other children, and think they were special, and it didn’t change how much he adored me one bit.
I’m glad I learned this lesson, because I find the same thing happening with my Mom. She’s pretty awesome, and there are a lot of people, beyond me and my siblings, who think of her as Mom. In fact, I tease her often that even complete strangers usually see her as Mom. It is not at all uncommon for people to randomly treat her like you might treat a beloved mother. The big burly cashier at the convenience store who looks really tough and intimidating will probably end up chatting with her about his life because he sees my mom and thinks, “Oh good, my Mom stopped in to see me at work!” It doesn’t bother me anymore. Instead, it inspires me. I hope to be the kind of person that she is - someone who so radiates love for others that they see her and immediately know that she is someone they can trust, they can open up to, they can share their hearts with.
I had my Mom and my Grandpa on my mind as I was studying our text for today. Our last parable in our series is from the gospel of Matthew. Before our passage begins, at the end of chapter 19, a rich young man had approached Jesus and asked about getting into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus told him to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor, and the man went away disappointed, because he had many possessions. Jesus then says to the disciples that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The disciples wonder, then, at who can be saved, if God’s standards are so hard. But, Jesus replies that with God, anything is possible. And then he tells this parable.
It is usually known as “The Parable of the Workers (or Laborers) in the Vineyard.” Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, whose insights we’re using to guide us as we read these texts, reminds us that the titles we give to parables shape the way we read them, and this common title, she says, suggests the emphasis is on the actions of the workers in the parable.* But Levine is much more interested in the landowner. She also suggests that putting “vineyard” in the title distances us, 21st century readers, from Jesus’ parables, since most of us have no experience with such a workplace. Rather, “The Conscientious Boss,” Levine suggests, or maybe “The Parable of the Surprising Salaries.” (214-215)
A landowner - literally a householder (221) - goes out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard, Jesus says. They agree for the usual daily wage, and then the workers head to work. A little later in the day, he heads back to the marketplace, and sees more workers there. Our NRSV bibles say that they were “standing idle,” which might lead us to read some kind of laziness into the text, but the phrase literally means simply “without work.” There are workers who can’t find work, standing in the marketplace. The householder hires them too, and promises to pay them what is right. And the word there means: just. He will pay them what is just. (225) And then the householder goes again, and again, until the last workers hired have only an hour left to work before the end of the day. “Why are you standing here unemployed?” he asks. “Go to the vineyard.” The story Jesus tells would have the attention of his audience. What kind of householder doesn’t know what size workforce he needs? Has he underestimated the size of his project? Were there not enough workers available at first? Or does he have some other agenda? Levine suggests that the latter is most likely, and so we listen in extra carefully to see where this story goes. (227)
Finally, at the end of the day, the householder has his manager call all the workers in and has them paid. Everyone receives the usual daily wage. No one receives less than they were promised. But those who worked part of a day and those who worked all day receive the same amount. Those who started working first, we read, assumed that they were going to get more than they had agreed on with the householder. And when they don’t get anything extra, they get angry with the householder. “You have made them equal to us,” they complain, when we had to work all day in the sun. The householder, though, won’t hear it. “I’m doing you no wrong. You agreed with me for the usual daily wage,” which the text already told us was a just amount. “Take what belongs to you and go,” he continues. “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Oof. I don’t know about you, but it is hard not to sympathize with the workers who worked all day long. It is so unfair, isn’t it? We’ve all heard that life isn’t fair, but we value fairness nonetheless, and this scripture - oof. It is just so not fair. And that’s exactly the point. The parable shows us how God acts, and how we are called to act - like God would act. The laborers, Levine writes, “are interested in receiving their own payment, not in whether the other workers have enough food.” But whenever we’re ignoring whether or not others have enough, we’re on the wrong track, out of step with God’s picture of justice. (229) “The first hired do not want to be treated equally to the last;” says Levine. “They want to be treated better.” (231) But, “What God wants is not necessarily what ‘we’ think is appropriate … The workers seek what they perceive to be ‘fair’; the householder teaches them a lesson by showing them what is ‘right,’” what is just. (230) And God is always more interested in justice than fairness. The workers all receive the usual daily wage - plenty to live on, enough to meet their needs. And so, despite their grumbling, “the only point that the workers could make about [the householder] was that he was generous to others. And in making that point, the workers [learn] their own economic lesson: the point is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough.’ One does the work - in the labor force, in the kingdom - not for more reward, but for the benefit of all.” (235-236)
We know that the greatest commandments are first to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and then, to love our neighbors. The householder shows that love by making sure that as far as he can, he has provided enough for all. He’s worked for the benefit of everyone in his employ. Are we interested in working for the benefit of all? Or are we more caught up in what is fair rather than just?
The householder’s questions to the disgruntled workers really tug at me. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” That second question literally reads, “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” (231) It’s kind of like our phrase “green with jealousy.” Our vision is distorted. We’re not seeing like God sees. Is our “eye evil” because God is good? Are we envious because God is generous? Yes and yes. We must confess, we are envious. We’re not seeing clearly. Somehow, we are like my little-girl-self who doesn’t like it when someone else is calling my Grandpa theirs. Over and over we get the message that we don’t have enough, that what we have is never enough, and that what we should seek is not what is enough, but what is more than what others have - whether it is more money, or more facebook friends, or more likes on our posts, or more square footage in our houses, or more vacation time, or more friends, or more of God’s love and affection. We’re not satisfied if everyone has enough. We want more. Need more. We’ve worked harder, after all. Worked longer. And we want our fair share, and maybe a little extra too.
My Grandpa being Grandpa for lots of other people too - eventually my vision cleared, and I looked on that fact with joy, because it was a sign of my Grandpa’s goodness. He was overflowing with love, and he always had enough for whoever needed some. My mom is that way too. I hope I am growing into someone who is that way too. Certainly, it is the nature of God. Remember, we talked about how parables are Jesus’s way of telling us what God’s reign among us, right here and right now, is like. It’s like this: God is a God of abundance. God has blessed us with abundance, both spiritual and literal. There is enough - more than enough for all of us - both spiritually and literally. More than enough food for all. More than enough resources. And more than enough, more than enough of God’s love and grace and affection. God’s goodness and grace means God is always seeking to make sure we all have more than enough of what we need to thrive. When we act to prevent God’s work of abundance, when we try to undo what God does because we don’t think it is fair? Well, God says to us, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” God will call us out on the jealousy and hard-heartedness. God will always choose what is right, what is just, which is not, as it turns out, always the same as what we think is fair. But what God chooses is always good, and always loving.
If we’re people who seek to follow Jesus, who want to nurture in ourselves a heart like God’s, then we need to seek out those who need a share of God’s abundance, who need a share of our food and shelter, who need a stand-in Grandpa or Mom, who need a measure of love that sustains and renews them. I promise, we’ll find that in God’s economy of plenty, there is more than enough for all of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.   


* All quotations/references in this sermon are from Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus.