Tuesday, September 26, 2017
This sermon is for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, which we have transferred from September 29 to today. To read the lessons for this feast, click here.
If Jesus is the way back to heaven, how are you going to get there?
When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I played the role of Jacob in a community theater production of the play Jacob's Ladder. As far as I remember, it had nothing to do with the Old Testament lesson appointed for today. Instead, the ladder upon which my character found himself represented the divide between my father and my mother, who were going through a divorce. I don't really remember a lot about the play, but I do remember one scene in which the script called for my father to carry me up a short ladder into the loft where I slept. I had fallen asleep on the couch while my parents were arguing, and, as things began to get heated, I was to be carried off stage into my bed.
Unfortunately, I have always been a big kid, and, by that, I don't mean childish. I mean husky. (Is there any more demeaning word for a kid than "husky?") The people who built our set placed the loft at the top of an eight-foot wooden ladder, and, during rehearsals, the man who played my father took one look at me and one look at the ladder and said to the director, "He's going to have to climb up there himself." I did, of course, pretending to be halfway asleep. He carried me to the ladder, pointed me up to bed, and I climbed up there by myself.
When it comes to getting to heaven, we know that Jesus is the link between us and the Father. We know that Jesus is the path, the way, the ladder that connects us back to the place where we need to go. He comes and bridges the divide between our fallen human nature and the divine nature that has the power to restore us to our unfallen state. But how do we get there? How do we make it from here to where we are supposed to be? Jesus is the way, but what carries us across the divide?
Angels. I don't give a lot of thought to angels. They make for good stories, like the one we read in Revelation today. I've heard a few people tell me of moments when angels intervened in their lives, and I do not doubt them. I do believe that there are moments when angels show up and help God's people in dramatic, even life-saving ways. But I have never had a moment like that. Unless you've seen one, angels seem pretty hard to get one's mind around. What are they, really? They aren't human beings, but they aren't God either. Their name "angel" literally means "messenger," but their place in our piety seems more substantial than that. People put statues of them throughout their houses. Sewanee people like to pretend that they have a special guardian angel who follows them around except when they are back at Sewanee, when their angel can take a break. It's stories like that that make me want to turn the page on angels altogether. But I wonder whether I am dismissing too quickly something that I cannot see and do not understand.
Jesus sees Nathaniel coming toward him and remarks, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathaniel is surprised at how this stranger can judge him simply by seeing him, so he asks Jesus how he managed to gain this insight into his character. Jesus remarks that he saw Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree even before his friend Philip called him. If that snap judgment was amazing, even more so is Nathaniel's immediate identification of Jesus as "the Son of God...the King of Israel." Now, both are seeing things that ordinary human beings couldn't see. And, to cap it all off, Jesus invites Nathaniel to remain with him long enough to see "heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." In other words, if Nathaniel will pursue a life spent following Jesus, he will discover within him the link--the path--between heaven and earth and will, like Jacob, see the angels ascending and descending along that spiritual superhighway.
Although I think we overstate the cuteness and availability of angels, I think we underestimate their importance in getting us back to God. In a conversation I had with Warren Swenson, our seminarian from Sewanee, we discussed the role of angels in our faith. He's also preaching on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels and, like me, wanted to make a case for the importance of angels without falling victim to the overly sentimental way in which they are portrayed in our pseudo-Christian culture. In that conversation, I mused that Jesus shows us that the way back to the Father is through himself, but perhaps we've become so accustomed to our own ability to get where we need to go that we've forgotten what it means to depend on God's help to finish the journey. In other words, we've become overly dependent on our own ability to transport ourselves from here to there that, once we've discovered that Jesus is the way back to the Father, we've forgotten that we always need God's help to get there.
Angels show up in ways we can perceive only when we need them most--those critical moments of need in our lives--but, in fact, maybe we should imagine they are with us all the time, escorting us further and further up the ladder that leads back to God. Faith is the means by which we commit ourselves to the path of restoration that is Jesus. We are saved by grace through faith. Faith in Jesus as the one who brings us to the Father is our part in the equation of salvation, but grace is God's part. Jesus is the way. Faith is our recognition of the way--our plugging the destination into a GPS of sorts. But grace is the means by which we get there--a means that isn't up to us but is up to God.
Might that way be angels? Maybe. Maybe not. The Bible doesn't describe the journey to heaven quite like that. But the Bible does make it clear that we can't get to heaven on our own--that we can't choose our way back to God and then get there without God's constant intervention. Early theologians like Origen and Evagrius described angels as the not-so-fallen creatures who intervene on our behalf, pulling us upward in ways that help us overcome the downward pull of demons. I don't know if I believe that. But I do believe that I cannot get to heaven on my own--even if I want to, even if I choose it, even if I believe it. Perhaps angels are a beautiful way of saying that we need God's help in ways we cannot even perceive. Maybe angels are important because they remind us that, even if we know and believe that Jesus is the way to the Father, we need God's help getting there. Those of us who follow Jesus long enough will see that he is the ladder that stretches from earth to heaven, and, if we look with the eyes of faith and not pride, we will see that there are angels carrying us along the way.
Monday, September 25, 2017
One might be tempted to use the Epistle lesson appointed for this Sunday (Philippians 2:1-13) to comment on the recent controversy over the decision of several professional athletes not to stand during the national anthem. After all, the text tells us that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth." There are many football players who are taking a knee in protest, but I think the better passage from which to base a comment is this Sunday's gospel lesson and the parable of the two son in Matthew 21:23-32. Both are asked by their father to go to the vineyard and work. One refuses but later changes his mind and goes. The other agrees but never bothers with it. Which one did the work of his father? Even those who question Jesus' authority know the answer: the first. In today's circumstance, however the answer isn't so clear. Which group does the will of the Founding Fathers? Which group represents the real patriots?
First, let me describe what sort of flag-etiquette-observant American I am. I like to display the American flag at our house, but I don't do so on days when I won't be home before the sun sets because I don't have appropriate lighting and want to be sure that the flag is taken in before it gets dark. If I drive by a business and see that their flags are improperly displayed, I will pull over and walk in just to let them know that, unless the center flag pole is noticeably higher than the others, the country's flag should go on the left as you observe them so that the flag of the United States can fly in the position of prominence (on the flag's own right). If the television is tuned to a sporting event and the national anthem is played, I stop what I am doing and stand up and sing right along with the television as if I were there in person. Those are some of the ways I like to show my love for my country. I have never served in the military, and I never made it past Bear Scout, but I take my flag and the anthem that celebrates it pretty seriously.
I write all of that so you will know that I am deeply committed to honoring our country and its flag before I tell you that I do not have a problem with professional athletes who decide to kneel, sit, raise a clenched fist, or otherwise protest during the singing of the national anthem. Why? Because I choose to think that the same love of country and the flag that represents it is motivating the actions of those who protest and the actions of those who stand, remove their hats, place their hands over their hearts, and sing boisterously while tears forms in their eyes.
Those who signed the Declaration of Independence may not have understood what equality really means, but they believed in the kind of freedom from tyranny that those who are protesting the treatment of black Americans yearn to see. Those who ratified the First Amendment may not have ever imagined a day when burning the American flag would be a symbol of freedom, but the freedom that they enshrined in that text, which cannot be taken away by the state or its representatives, means that those who lead an unpopular demonstration are guaranteed that right. If the NFL or team owners want to force players to stand during the anthem, they can take that up in their next round of collective bargaining. When an individual works for a company, she or he gives up the right to free speech. I'm not a huge professional football fan, but I don't want to see amateur-level competition on Sunday afternoons, and the decision of team owners and coaches to join with players in their demonstrations in response to President Trump's recent comments about the protest suggests that they don't want that either.
One group says that they love their country and refuses to stand for the national anthem. One group says that they love their country and proudly stands for the national anthem. Which one is right? Which one loves their country more? It's complicated. Are those who exercise their right not to stand more committed to freedom than those who refuse to accept their protest? What about people who are critical of people who think that everyone should stand for the anthem? That's a Constitutionally protected right, too. Are those who label the anti-protesters as anti-American actually missing the point more profoundly than those who are critical of the protest itself? What would Jesus say?
There are two sons. One agrees to go and help his father but never gets around to it. The other refuses but ends up going to help out. The former sounds dutiful but fails to follow through. The latter appears faithless but proves himself in his actions. Who is who in this situation? In case you've forgotten--and at this point that's understandable--this protest started because a few high-profile athletes were distraught that unarmed black men were being shot by police. In the Land of the Free, black people are not treated the same as white people. As the months went by and Colin Kaepernick remained unsigned by any NFL, it became clear that this protest and the reaction to it has its roots in a deeper racial divide. When the President of the United States decided to express his opinion that protesting athletes should be fired and claimed that this wasn't about race, he further proved that that's exactly what this is about.
If the proof of the pudding is in the eating (and not in the looking), we need more than a show of patriotism. We need people who are willing to take risks for the sake of those whose freedoms are not guaranteed. Men and women risked their lives to fight for freedom from the British crown. Men and women risked their lives to fight for a unified country that would be free of slavery. Men and women risked their lives to demonstrate and fight against segregation and legalized oppression. Men and women risked their lives to fight for freedom and human decency in places near and far away. Now, it's time for men and women to take risks in order to be sure that all men and women and children are given the freedoms that patriots have died to protect. You can't do that if you're standing for the national anthem and turning a blind eye to the way black people are treated in this country. You can't do that if you're kneeling in protest and look at everyone who stands and judge them as someone who is opposed to real freedom. It's risky to talk with people of a different race and background about what it means to be an American, but, until we take that risk, we're all just pretending. It doesn't matter how faithful, open-minded, and patriotic we tell people we are. What matters is what we're willing to do about it.
Sunday, September 24, 2017
September 24, 2017 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I want to warn you that, if you are a Republican, you probably won’t like this sermon. And, if you’re a Democrat, you probably won’t like it either. In fact, if you’re an American or, for that matter, a human being of any nationality or political affiliation, you probably won’t like what I have to say. That’s because the story that Jesus tells us this morning is infuriating, and it isn’t the preacher’s job to soften the blow. If my words don’t challenge you at least as much as Jesus’ do, then I am not being faithful to the gospel.
Let’s be clear from the start: Jesus was trying to ruffle some feathers. You don’t tell a parable about some laborers working all day in the scorching heat who get paid the same amount as those who only worked an hour and not make people mad. The truth is that grace and unconditional love are maddening. Sure, they’re fine and dandy as long as you’re the one who only worked an hour, but, when you’ve given your whole life to being faithful and have always tried to be a good person and some Johnny-come-lately who always thought of himself and who never once did what God wanted him to do shows up at the last minute and gets the exact same heavenly reward that you do, it’s enough to drive you crazy. And Jesus told this parable to make sure that all of us are perfectly clear that that’s precisely how grace works.
There’s no better way to make us understand the totality of the gospel than to hit us where it counts—in our wallets. There’s something about using a parable that quantifies our labor and our reward in terms of hours worked and dollars paid that makes it clear just how enraging the gospel really is. Human instinct produces no stronger reaction than the one that arises when a person gets shortchanged. When we don’t get credit for our work, when we don’t receive proper recognition, when we don’t get paid what we think we deserve, and when someone else gets what should belong to us, it fills us with the kind of self-righteous indignation that leads to mob violence. As the grumbling laborers in the parable declared, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” You have made them equal to us. Equal, indeed.
Equality is a lovely thing as long as it doesn’t cost me anything, but, in the kingdoms of this world, it always does. Universal access to health care means higher premiums or higher taxes for those who are healthy and wealthy. A living wage means higher prices and lower incomes for the rest of us. Freedom for everyone means sacrifice for the few who protect it on our behalf. As long as we approach the kingdom of heaven in the same way that we approach the politics of this life, Jesus’ call for equality and the grace that it represents will always make us angry. If Jesus’ parable is supposed to be an image of how the world should be, then it is going to cost us something.
But this parable isn’t about the kingdoms of the world. “Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” This is a picture of what heaven is like. This is what it looks like in God’s kingdom. In the kingdoms of this world, a person’s value may be expressed in how hard or long that person works, in how good that person is, or in how much that person is paid, but in the kingdom of heaven an individual’s value is not based on a limited resource like hours or effort or dollars. The economics of God’s kingdom are built upon the principle that all value comes from the love of God and that God’s love has no limit.
In Jesus’ parable, every laborer, from the last to the first, was paid the same amount—a denarius. But how much was a denarius worth? Preachers like me love to take that biblical measurement and convert it into present-day currency and tell congregations that a denarius is about $100. If you hired a laborer to work around your house and paid him around $10 an hour, after a full day’s work, you’d owe him about $100. That’s a day’s wage. That’s what a denarius is worth. But that’s not really what a denarius is. A denarius was a coin—a single, silver coin. When you worked for a day, you were given that coin in exchange for your labor, and that coin was enough to feed your family and pay your bills and keep you going long enough for you to wake up and do it all over again the next day. A denarius, therefore, was enough.
There’s a similar concept in today’s Old Testament lesson, which I took the liberty of lengthening by three verses. Did you hear in those verses what Moses commanded the people of Israel when they went out to pick up the manna that God had sent them? “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” And all of Israel did so. Some gathered more, and some gathered less, but, as long as they measured what they gathered by an omer, “those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” There was exactly the right amount. I don’t know how much an omer is, but I do know that it is enough. And that’s how God’s kingdom works.
What happens when God gives everyone enough? What happens when the measure of a person’s worth is based not on something that might run out but on something that can never be exhausted? Imagine for a minute that God’s kingdom is like a never-ending all-you-can-eat buffet. Does it matter if the person next to you has more chicken wings or crab legs on his plate than you do? Or maybe the kingdom of heaven is like chili dogs. I don’t know about you, but I’m of the opinion that two chili dogs is enough for any human being. Should I be upset if I go to a fancy dinner party and my host gives me two chili dogs and you four? I might feel slighted, but that’s only true until I finish that second chili dog and realize that I’ve already had enough. God help me if I ask for another one.
God’s love is endless. God’s love has no limits. God’s love and the blessings it bestows can never run out. And in God’s kingdom everyone always gets enough. Not just the good people. Not just the faithful people. Not just the hard-working people. Everyone. No matter how much you think you deserve it, no matter how much you think someone else doesn’t, God gives everyone enough, and there is always enough to go around. If we approach God’s kingdom the same way that we approach the kingdoms of this world and assume that the measure of our value is based on a limited resource, we cannot help but reject the principle of equality. If there was only so much of God’s love to go around, of course I would resent it if you took some of the love that was supposed to go to me. No one can afford being left out of God’s kingdom. But how silly is it for us to compete for God’s love? There is always enough of God’s love to go around. But, if God’s love is truly limitless, then those of us live in that love are not only given the freedom of knowing that everyone has enough but also the freedom to make God’s economy a reality on earth just as it is in heaven.
This might be a parable about heaven, but it has profound earthly implications, too. If your true value comes not from the life you live but from God’s gracious gift, then you are free to leave behind an economy of competition and accept that it doesn’t matter how much or little you or anyone else has because, when it comes to the only thing that matters—God’s love—everyone always has enough. Once we believe that, it becomes possible for us to give up the wealth and status and privilege that we possess in order that the kingdoms of this world might be transformed into mirrors of God’s kingdom, so that all the laborers in the vineyard really do get paid the same amount—enough.
Yes, equality in this life is costly. Yes, equal pay and equal access mean that most of the people who call this congregation home have to give something up. But what do we believe? Is our life measured by the abundance of our possessions or by the magnitude of God’s love for us? And, if we believe that our true value comes from God’s limitless and indiscriminate love, we must ask ourselves whether that truth is reflected in our lives or whether we are propping up a kingdom that rejects it.
No one said that grace would be easy. In fact, Jesus let us know right from the start that it’s going to be really hard. But the transformation that God’s grace promises—in our lives and in the world—is worth more than we can possibly imagine.
Thursday, September 21, 2017
Preachers like me are thankful that the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) only comes up once every three years in the lectionary. Otherwise we might be forced to acknowledge that, despite working for Jesus, our system for compensation and retirement not only fails to reflect Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God but actually stands in opposition to it.
I'm not talking about all preachers. There are plenty of clergy who struggle to make ends meet. A recent survey of clergy spouses suggests that over two-thirds of clergy families worry about having enough money for retirement. But that's not me. I did not answer a call to ordained ministry because I thought it would pay well. In fact, compared with my peers, I expected to be relatively poor, but things have turned out much better than I anticipated. How did that work out? Well, as an Episcopal priest, I participate in a system that pays men better than women, that rewards clergy for serving in wealthy congregations while punishing those who serve in poor communities, and that enshrines the economic disparities on display during active ministry in a pension system that focuses primarily on income replacement. In other words, once we retire, the clergy who were rich stay rich, while the clergy who were poor stay poor.
Because I am male, because I am white, because I am straight and married and have children, because I was sent to seminary from a congregation that could afford to supplement my educational costs at an elite institution, because I was raised in a family that had financial and social access to opportunities that made me attractive during the college admissions process, because I was hired by a wealthy church and am thus attractive to other wealthy churches, I am on a career path that rewards me richly. Yes, I have worked hard. Yes, I have gifts and talents for parish ministry. Yes, I take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Yes, I am good at what I do. But I am also the product of great privilege, and, as a follower of Jesus, it is up to me to figure out how to use that privilege for the sake of God's kingdom.
Since we don't have to preach on this text very often, we may get away with telling our congregations that Jesus' parable isn't really about earthly economics but only uses the image of money to convey a deeper spiritual truth--that those who come to faith late in life are given just as much of a heavenly reward as those who have been faithful since they were born. I agree with that. We may also use this parable to remind our congregations that, in God's kingdom, people are not rewarded for their efforts but are the beneficiaries of grace no matter how hard (or not) they worked. Again, I agree with that. But, even if this parable isn't a mandate for socialism, don't we expect the spiritual principles it espouses to be manifest in the mechanics of the church? Or do we believe that grace and universal access and unequivocal reward have nothing to do with this life and the money we use to live it?
I serve on the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, and one area we have been asked to explore is the extent to which the Church Pension Fund is meeting the needs of the current church. In case you don't know, we have an exceptional pension fund. It is well managed. It is responsive to the needs of clergy and clergy families. It uses its resources to support them in many ways beyond retirement. No one argues that the returns achieved by the fund are anything less than stellar, and no one thinks they are failing in their fiduciary responsibilities. But the Church Pension Fund operates under the same principle that governs most pension plans--income replacement. In economic terms, that makes sense. People who get paid more during their ministry will need/want more in retirement. If you are ordained late in life and only work five or six years before retirement, you wouldn't expect to get the same monthly benefit that someone who has worked forty years in ordained ministry. That person who only worked a handful of years probably has retirement benefits from a previous occupation. It would be irresponsible to take money away from those who have worked their whole careers for the church and give it to those who left a lucrative career as a lawyer in order to answer a call to full-time ministry. But isn't that what Jesus portrays in this parable?
Sure, the laborers in the parable who have been idle all day aren't leaving their first job to come and work in the garden. But the end result is that everyone has enough. Is that true of our pension fund? Is that true of our clergy compensation? There are clergy in my diocese who struggle to pay their bills. There are clergy who will work their entire careers for the church and never receive the same level of pension benefit that I will receive because they didn't come from a wealthy church, because they had to step away from full-time ministry to raise their children, because they didn't get past the phone interview because the search committee at the elite church didn't think they would "fit in" culturally with the congregation. Shouldn't our pension system reflect the kingdom of God more fully?
Yes, it's true that the pension calculation isn't purely based on income. In the formula, there's a base amount, and, for the purposes of calculating the benefits, there is a minimum compensation for all clergy who work more than a certain number of hours no matter how much they actually get paid. The Church Pension Fund has recently changed the way the highest average compensation is calculated, freeing up the consecutive years requirement, which may help those who worked in a highly compensated position for a few years here or there during a career. These are all good things, but they are not enough.
What about lay employees? The canons mandate that lay employees who work more than 1000 hours a year be given a 5% base contribution plus matching contributions of up to another 4% into a 403(b). Relative to other businesses, that's a great benefit. But the clergy pension plan is a mandated defined benefit plan that costs parishes 18% of clergy compensation. Almost all lay employees participate in a defined contribution plan, and, by the time of retirement, the disparity is enormous. Plus, how many parishes can afford 18% on top of clergy compensation? I don't have data to show it, but I suspect that parishes without full-time clergy presence often get stuck in a cycle of struggling finances. It would cost a tremendous amount to level the playing field and provide equal pension benefits for lay and ordained people, but isn't that level playing field what the kingdom of God looks like?
This summer, I had a casual conversation with some clergy friends about possible changes to the way pensions are calculated. I asked about lowering the income multiplier and raising the base amount or putting a cap on highly compensated clergy, and the response was ferocious. "That's my pension! I worked hard for it!" one colleague replied. He's right, of course. And so were the laborers who worked all day. They worked in the scorching heat, and the owner of the vineyard made them equal to those who only worked one hour. This kingdom of God thing? It isn't going to be easy.
In a very unofficial, not-connected-with-the-Committee-on-the-State-of-the-Church way, I propose that we change the way pensions are calculated. I suggest that the General Convention pass a resolution that instructs the Church Pension Fund to change the way it thinks about pensions from an income-replacement model to a model that more closely resembles the parable of the laborers in the vineyard and, thus, the kingdom of God. I believe that the Pension Fund, with oversight from the presiding officers, can work out the details, but I think lay and clergy benefits should be the same and that there should be a hard cap on pension benefits and that the income multiplier should be reduced considerably. This would result in higher pensions for lay employees and for lower-compensated clergy, and the money for it would come not from increased parish contributions but from the pensions of those clergy who are highly compensated, trusting that higher-compensated clergy can use that higher compensation to save for their own retirement in a 403(b). If a defined benefit plan is maintained (and that's a big "if"), I think the mandated contribution for parishes should be significantly reduced from 18% and that parishes who want to make up for it by continuing to over compensate higher-compensated clergy can shift those funds into employer-contributions to a 403(b). I suspect this will need to happen gradually, but I don't think we should "grandfather" in everyone who is already ordained and working for the church. There will have to be stair-stepped reductions and increases, but to suggest that only future laborers in the vineyard will come under this new scheme is disingenuous.
Want to see the most unpopular person at General Convention? He'll be the guy who proposes this. I cannot imagine that such a change would ever pass. Remember that half of the deputies and all of the bishops at General Convention are usually the ones who have worked in the church for a long while, who get paid more than the average clergyperson, and who have a lot at stake. But in Jesus' parable, the laborers didn't get a vote. I suppose it could be worse. We could be debating universal compensation like they have in the Church of England. Maybe then we'd really look like the kingdom of God.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Tonight is the eve of the feast of St. Matthew, the apostle and evangelist who composed the gospel account that bears his name. We are also in the middle of lectionary Year A, which, for the most part, follows Matthew. That means that we've spent the last nine months hearing him tell the good news of Jesus with a perspective that reflects both his own experience and that of the Christian community of which he was a part. And, if we've been listening carefully, we've noticed that Matthew's version repeatedly conveys a tension between who is in and who is out that pervades the whole account.
Matthew is the only one who tells us the story of the Gentile wise men from the east who saw the infant king's star and followed it to Bethlehem. Matthew is the only one who describes the kingdom of heaven as a field sown with good seed and later by an enemy with weeds and who tells us that both must grow up together until the day of judgment, when the weeds will be separated out and thrown into the fire. Matthew's Jesus is the only one who tells the parable of the net with all kinds of fish--some clean and some unclean--that have to be separated before they can be eaten. Matthew is the only one who shares the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, this Sunday's gospel lesson, in which even those who came at the last hour get paid as much as those who worked all day. Matthew is the one who, when he recalls the story of the Gentile woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter, described her as a "dog" without using the semi-affectionate diminutive form of the word, a softer sounding "puppy," which the other accounts use. Matthew's account is the only one in which Jesus orders his disciples to go nowhere among the Gentiles or Samaritans but only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. In other words, in ways that aren't so clear in the other gospel accounts, Matthew shows his reader that there's always an underlying question about what sort of person gets salvation and what sort of person gets left out.
I wonder whether his own calling in Matthew 9 has something to do with that. "As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him." As a tax collector, Matthew was working for the enemy of God. He was responsible for getting money from his fellow Jews and giving it to the Roman Empire, and his own salary came from commission, which means he was motivated to squeeze every penny from them. It's not an accident that in the gospel accounts the label "tax collector" is associated with "sinner" as if they were interchangeable. That's the life Matthew lived--rejected by his people, rejected by his faith, rejected by his God. And then Jesus comes along and says, "Hey, tax collector! Follow me!"
We see in the verses that follow that Jesus was keeping company with other tax collectors and sinners and that this choice got under the skin of the religious elites. "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" they asked his disciples. Jesus replied directly to them, saying, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." That's the teaching that the Pharisees need to hear. They need to learn what it means for God, who desires mercy not sacrifice, to draw sinners not righteous people into him. But how does the truth of God's choice of sinners like Matthew the tax collector shape him and those like him? We see explicitly what that choice does to the religious insiders. But what does it do to those who are called?
I wonder which was harder to believe: that Jesus would eat with sinners like that or that Jesus would eat with sinners like me or you or anyone else whom Jesus calls. Who had the harder time grasping the reality of that call: the Pharisees or Matthew? Which is easer: to mock Jesus for hanging out with sinners or to get up when he calls and trust that even you have a place at the table? The gospel accounts spend a lot of time describing the elites' reaction to Jesus' company, but we never get the first-hand account of what it felt like to be called from a place of sin and rejection into a place of forgiveness and reconciliation...unless we count Matthew.
There is a tension in our lives between who is in and who is out. We feel it. Even those of us who have lived so-called "good" lives, who go to church, who pay our taxes, who kiss our mothers, and who say our prayers, even we wonder whether Jesus could really be calling us. "Who me?" we ask, when he points his finger at us. "Me? Why me?" we ask. Over and over, Matthew brings us to that tension. Who belongs--the dog who eats the scraps that fall from the master's table? What fish get thrown away? What weeds get gathered and burned? What Gentile star-gazers, who know less about Israel's God than they know about Pisces and Leo, are invited to see the king? Today, we celebrate not only Matthew, the tax collector who was invited to join Jesus and who became an evangelist, but also the tension that comes from wondering whether we, too, might belong to God. Throughout his account, Matthew invites us to ask those sorts of questions--who belongs? do I belong?--because he felt that tension himself. He discovered what it means for a sinner to be welcome at God's table, and he invites us to do the same.
It is hard to read the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) without having our sense of fairness challenged. It is not fair that some only worked one hour and got the same wage as those who worked all day long. This week, it seems that the preacher's question is to ask what this unfairness and our reaction to it tell us about the kingdom of God and our participation in it. The parable is crafted to evoke an indignant response within us. How is Jesus using that anger at a perceived injustice to teach us about the way God works in our lives and in the world?
Forgive the brief review, but, during the season after Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary offers two different "tracks" for the Old Testament reading. Historically, Track 2 is more familiar to us. It is the one that pairs a thematically relevant first reading with whatever the Gospel lesson is. This week, the Track 2 OT lesson is Jonah 3:10-4:11, which touches on Jonah's indignant response to God's forgiveness of the people of Nineveh. These were wicked, ungodly enemies of Israel who repented at the last minute and were spared from God's wrath. Understandably, that made Jonah, the Israelite prophet, angry. In the RCL, the Track 1 reading is the newer option, which, in an effort to avoid supersessionist (i.e. the New Testament fulfills and thus replaces the Old Testament) implications, makes its way through large works of the Old Testament (e.g. Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and Ezekiel) with no regard for the Gospel lesson. Sometimes, like this week, however, there's a connection between the Track 1 OT lesson and the Gospel that is too good to pass up.
In Exodus 16:2-15, the people of Israel begin to complain against the Lord and Moses for leading them away from Egypt, where they "ate [their] fill of bread," into the wilderness "to kill this whole assembly with hunger." Throughout the passage, as the NRSV gives it to us, the people complain and complain and complain. They complain against Moses and Aaron. Moses tells them that God has heard their complaining. He tells them to stop complaining at him and Aaron and acknowledge that they are really complaining against the Lord. This theme repeats itself throughout the reading. But there's a problem with a translation that uses the word "complain" to describe what the people did in the wilderness but uses the word "grumble" to describe what the laborers in the vineyard did in Jesus' parable. Other translations, like the ESV and NIV use grumble to describe the Israelites' dissatisfaction, while some like the CEV use complain to describe both the Israelites' and laborers' frustration. The point is that the congregation needs to hear the connection between the faithless grumbling of the wish-we-were-back-in-Egypt Israelites and the faithless grumbling of the I-want-what-he-got laborers in the vineyard.
Both stories are about faith, economics, and God's provision, and I'll suggest that the link becomes even clearer if we extend the OT lesson by three verses:
Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: 'Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.'" The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. (Exodus 16:15b-18)Although the lectionary-appointed lesson includes the reference to God testing the Israelites to see if they will listen and only gather up as much as they need, the reading stops short of showing us what that means. You could extend the reading even further and include the worms that crawl in whatever amount was left over, but I think these three verses are enough to get the point across. Some gathered more. Some gathered less. But as long as they measured it with an omer--a day's measurement--everyone had just enough. Not too much. Not too little. Just enough. Isn't that the message of God's provision?
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard awakens in us a sense of unfairness because we believe that those who work more should get more. In an economy of limited resources, that is true. When we base the allocation of goods on a system of scarcity, people expect to get a wage in proportion to their efforts. But that's not how the divine economy works. There is no scarcity in God's kingdom. That's true of love and forgiveness, but it's also true of food and money and healthcare. In God's kingdom, everyone has enough. Each laborer received a day's wage, a denarius. That was enough to feed a family, pay the bills, and, thus, live an abundant life. In the parable, just like in the wilderness story, everyone gets enough. The point of both stories is that, when God reigns, everyone gets enough. That works because it is based not on an economy or theology of scarcity but one of abundance. There's always enough to go around.
Are we living in a world that mirrors God's kingdom? Certainly not. Could we? If so, we must start by believing that there is enough for everyone, that the richness of one's life does not depend on the amount of one's possessions. (Sound familiar?) Once we understand that enough is enough--that true freedom and wealth and abundance means that there is enough for everyone--only then can we begin to receive our denarius or our omer of manna without grumbling. When everyone has enough, it doesn't matter whether you have more than I do. But until we all understand what enough is, we'll never see it.
Monday, September 18, 2017
When I read the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Matthew 20:1-16), I felt both the excitement of having a rich parable to unpack and the terror of having a rich parable to unpack. Jesus' glimpses of the kingdom are rarely things that make churchgoers like me and our congregation feel better about ourselves and our relationship with God. Instead, they are usually messages of welcome and inclusion for the kind of people who aren't in church, which means that those of us who think we have a reserved place may need to step out of the way. Sunday's parable is no exception.
To a white, middle-class American, I don't think there are any more threatening words than "you have made them equal to us." This is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The owner hires different laborers at 6am, 9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm. When it is time to pay them, he starts with those who only worked an hour and paid them a full day's wage. Expecting to receive more, the ones who worked all day were angry to discover that they, too, only received a full day's wage. They grumble to their master, saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat." Our work is unequal. Our effort is unequal. Our deservedness is unequal Yet the pay, the compensation, the reward is equal. That's not good enough, the laborers think.
Jesus tells this parable to illustrate an important concept in the Gospel: "The last will be first, and the first will be last." That's Jesus' way of saying that in God's kingdom, when the reign of God is fully established, when the ways of God become a reality on earth, those who are at the end of the earthly receiving line will find themselves at the head of God's receiving line. Like it or not, that's how it is in God's kingdom. When God is in charge, those who have nothing are those who receive, and those who have are those who get nothing. When God is in control, people are not rewarded in proportion to their effort. When describing the reign of God, preachers like me use phrases like "the poor shall become rich" and "the weak shall become strong," but saying those words doesn't really show what the kingdom will look and feel like. Nothing gets that across as completely as this parable. Nothing helps God's people see what the reversal of God's kingdom means like lining them up and paying them all the same amount no matter how long they worked.
At the end of Matthew 19, Jesus says to the rich young man that he must give up all of his possessions in order to receive eternal life. The man walks away grieving "for he had great possessions." When the disciples ask about this, Jesus tells them that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom. Confused, the disciples asked whether it was possible for anyone to enter the kingdom, and Jesus replied, "With God all things are possible." Peter, perhaps in an attempt of self-justification, asks whether the disciples, who have left everything to follow Jesus, will receive a reward in heaven. Jesus confirms this by introducing this important kingdom concept: "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my sake will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first,"
This concept of first becoming last and last becoming first is not just a catch-phrase for Jesus' ministry. These were real concepts in his day. People understood what it meant to be among the first or among the last. In today's financial terms, we might use labels like "the one percent" or "welfare recipients." In today's cultural terms, we might use labels like "society's leaders" and "society's dregs." In other words, this reversal of first and last is not merely about letting others go ahead of us. It's about status and access and privilege and resources. If you want to get into the kingdom, you need to do more than let other people go in front of you. You have to yield everything that comes with being at or near the front of the earthly line. Sunday's parable, therefore, is a reality check. If your concept of yielding looks more like a check in the offering plate or a self-righteous prayer for the needy than it does a socialist system of universal wages, you may still be riding on the camel that's trying to fit through the needle's eye. The kingdom of God is good news for the poor and difficult news for the rich. It stings. It hurts. It takes away that which is precious to us: our deserts. Actually, that's good news for all of us, but most of us have to become poor to see it.