We Labor Together

Fairness in the Kingdom is not about your wealth, but our health

a Homily for Proper 20 A  |  Text: Matthew 20:1-16

workers walking

Photo Credit: NJ.. via Compfight cc

GOD’s way doesn’t seem fair

It seems fitting that we would spend my last few weeks here dealing with what holy community looks like to Jesus. It is almost as if He’s trying to tell us something. I think He is.

We heard from Jesus about confronting sin and granting forgiveness. We heard about not being stumbling blocks to GOD’s “little ones.” It is fitting, too, that we would get the parable of the fair landowner and the confused laborers as a send off. We all know that this story doesn’t truly make sense to us. As it is and where we come from, it doesn’t seem fair.

The landowner, from where we’re sitting, is not being fair. We all know that more work equals more money. That’s our equation. Work hours times wage equals compensation (H x W = C).

Perhaps more ingrained in us is the idea that we compensate by effort and circumstance. We want to pay more for harder work. So when we hear this story with all of these varieties of late-comers, we instantly think this thought:

If they really wanted the work, they would have gone out and beat the streets early.

This is how we determine fairness in our culture: our intention and effort. If you work hard, you make more money. I’ve often said that we live by the popular maxim backwards. We believe that our neighbors ought to work harder, not smarter.

We get confused, then, when the landowner keeps hiring people in this parable. He hires everybody he finds in the early morning, then everybody at 9:00, at noon, at 3:00, and at 5:00. He goes looking and he keeps finding more people. And he hires them. And pays them for a full-day’s work.

The text doesn’t say the landowner hires some of the laborers he finds. He doesn’t screen them or run a background check. He doesn’t check their papers. He hires the laborers that are there.

Our sense of fairness is based in sin

We look at the parable through the lens of scarcity, not from Jesus’s lens of abundance. Our sense of fairness is limited because we think everything runs out–because good things end–so we reject GOD’s fairness the way the first laborers do the landowner’s. They are saying we want more than was promised us because we did more than they did.

Notice that their sense of what is fair is based, not on the actual work they did, but the comparative work of the others. In essence, they say to the landowner

We don’t care how generous you want to be to them, we deserve more than they receive.

This is like the sinfulness Jesus spoke to in chapter 18. I don’t care about them and their relationship with you: I demand a better one! This is their argument. Like the second son in the Prodigal Sons story who demands a better relationship with his father than his sinful brother has. It is about relationship with the Father and we believe, we demand, that ours be better.

We confuse a story about the Kingdom of GOD, with its true fairness, generosity, and abundance, for the world we know: a place ruled by injustice, selfishness, and scarcity.

What Jesus says about the world just doesn’t sound right to us and part of that is because we don’t want it to be right. We want it to be good for us. We want it tailored to our needs.

Fair isn’t about mine, but ours

In the lectionary, we jumped from chapter 18 from last week to 20 this week. From talk about how to keep a faithful community to this strange parable. What’s missing, what we skipped over is Jesus’s teaching on divorce and the story of the pious young man. What Jesus is doing here is expanding on how to be community and what the Kingdom of GOD is like.

Remember the pious young man comes to Jesus looking for what he needs to do to have a really good life: what more he has to do. And the punchline of the story, of course, is

‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’

The young man doesn’t like that answer any more than we do.

As Jesus is approaching the outskirts of Jerusalem, facing His own death, he preaches of the danger of wealth–how it distracts and prevents us from actually following Jesus, for we cannot serve both GOD and Mammon (wealth).

Stanley Hauerwas writes

Jesus’s reply challenges not only our wealth, but our very conception of salvation. To be saved, to be made a member of the church through baptism, means that our lives are no longer our own. We are made vulnerable to one another in a manner such that what is ours can no longer be free of the claims of others. As hard as it may be to believe, Jesus makes clear that salvation entails our being made vulnerable through the loss of our possessions.

This is where this parable of the landowner begins: so that it will overturn our sense of fairness.  This one particular way we understand fairness allows us to maintain control and diminish our relationships with others.

Jesus offers this beautiful alternative world: the Kingdom of GOD. Here, we aren’t in a rat race to have it better than our neighbors in a land of scarcity, but to find meaningful work in a place of abundance. We can all serve GOD, no matter when we arrived or what our skills might be. We all get a chance.

Our vision for the future

This portrait of the Kingdom of GOD is fitting for us and where GOD is calling St. Paul’s. One of our struggles has been with teamwork: not only in the doing of things together, but actually operating as a team rather than a collection of individuals. This is more than just the difference between those who are part of the 8:00 service and the 10:00. It is our ministries and our work. We often go it alone and compare ourselves to our neighbors.

The vision Jesus presents is vastly different. For one, it isn’t competitive. None of us wins when some of us lose.

For another, we aren’t supposed to be greedy. When we watch the movie, Wall Street, we aren’t supposed to see Gordon (“greed is good”) Gekko as a hero.

For a third, the abundance of the Kingdom means that every day, all of us has opportunity. Our daily wage, our daily bread isn’t earned, it’s given. It isn’t based on the volume of work, but that today is a new day and each of us needs to live.

The Kingdom is built together.
St. Paul’s has the supplies.
St. Paul’s has the laborers.
St. Paul’s has the vision.
All provided by GOD abundantly and generously.

Listen to Jesus who told Peter and the disciples to “take up your cross and follow me.” Who said to the pious young man, “sell your possessions…then come, follow me.” Follow Jesus together. As apostles, as laborers, as prodigals.

For the landowner will meet you when you go out to find the work. The father will run out to meet you when you finally come home. GOD will find you when you are ready.

GOD offers us something much better than fairness and pride. GOD offers love and patience and hope with such abundance. Not for our gain. Not for St. Paul’s. For the kingdom.

Make the Kingdom together. Work together. Share together. And love one another together.

Our Fast

Our Fast pic

It is fitting that Congress set All Saints’ Day as the day to cut SNAP (the program formerly known as Food Stamps).

The day we celebrate all of the saints that came before, all the saints in our midst, and all of the saints to come, All Saints’ Day is one of the church’s principle feasts. It is one of the four preferred holy days for baptism. It is one of the most important days of the year for Christians because, unlike the other feasts of the church, this one focuses less on GOD and more on GOD’s mission for humanity, as seen by the people, real people, which includes us.

This is the day we made it harder for many of our neighbors to eat.

And every time I hear someone quote Ben Franklin as if he wrote the gospels, I want to remind them of that important conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 21:1-19:

Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him and each time Peter’s response is of course I do! And each time Jesus tells Peter to feed Jesus’s sheep.

This is a deep story, which I preached this spring, but there is an important element that must be held here: Jesus connects love of Jesus with feeding people. With caring for others. This is consistent with the Great Commandment to love GOD and neighbor. But this is also so specific. It does not say this:

Jesus: Simon Peter, do you love me?
Peter: Of course I do!
Jesus: Then teach my sheep how to fend for themselves.

A Fast from Excess

Our Bishop challenged the diocese to take on the personal challenge of living for a week on the amount given to SNAP recipients. There has been a great deal of conversation generated on the Facebook event. More importantly, there has been a lot of reflection about habits and feelings. The participants in Eastern Michigan have taken seriously the nature of a fast—that it is a time of heightened awareness and discernment.

English: Logo of the .

English: Logo of the . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For our part, there has been heightened awareness of the strata of excess and the challenge to our sense of priorities—not from a place of excess, but from the place of choosing between health and hunger.

The public debate about health and hunger is almost always had on the part of our need to refrain from eating junk food—that national obesity is about a lack of will power or poor decision making. Rarely do we acknowledge as I did some time ago that crappy food is much cheaper. Or that obesity may not be a sign of our excess, but of our poverty. That I could eat 6 or 7 McDoubles for less than the price of a decent steak (and I’m not even talking good steak) is less a sign of excess and more a sign of our true collective poverty.

There is also a poverty of safety. As my true partner writes this week in telling our story of fasting:

A barrier we came across is that many generic brands either do not label for cross-contamination/facility sharing or they label that their products are made on the same equipment as other products with peanuts. As a mom that has had to watch my daughter go through an anaphylactic reaction, I will not take any chances on my daughters safety.

Labeling isn’t enough when a family is trying to put safe food on the table, they are forced to buy cheap food, and the cheap food can kill them.

Feed My Sheep

There are so many ways I have been mindful of food justice throughout the week, much of it coming through reflection at the relativity of poverty. That we tended to shop at or near the SNAP level already. That the question isn’t the amount of excess we live with, but our insulation from what always comes with living at the level of need. The insecurity. The constant vigilance at where every penny is spent. The hard decisions to make about what foods can be served multiple times and for snacks. How to pack lunches when prepackaged foods are so much more expensive.

And none of this deals with the looks and snide comments people make about our decisions. As a friend pointed out, she didn’t get a funny look when her $30 grocery bill included two indulgences: potato chips and a 2-liter of Coke. Unlike so many around us, she didn’t bear a Scarlet P on her chest.

Jesus exposes the greatest crime found in society—whether it be led by the Pharisees or the Romans, or today’s American versions—is that we allow our neighbors to be hungry. Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him—intimately, if he knows Him completely—and Peter responds by saying yes, I have affection for you.

Feed my sheep.

As I wrote this week, in response to All Saints’ Day and the Fast:

Jesus is challenging us to see where all of GOD’s people are. People that are in pain and suffering. Not so that we can rush in and rescue them, but that we can find them and be with them.

And today, I add this to it:

“…but that we can find them and be with them and feed them.”

We don’t fast to play at being poor. We don’t fast simply to confirm our thoughts. We fast to feel and when we feel, we are compelled to act. To specifically act on behalf of the Kingdom of GOD—to change things. To not be consumers but to be feeders.


Question: How will you be more feeder than consumer?

How might you move from worrying about being fed and toward worrying about how you might feed?

Sweating It Out: celebrating the Eucharist in a hoodie

I had trouble sleeping Saturday night. I was angry. Angry that George Zimmerman wouldn’t be punished, for the fear that has beset the African American community, for all the bullshit post-racism talk of my white neighbors. Mostly, I was angry that I was feeling powerless as a church leader to express myself.

It frightened me to think that the denunciation of a minor’s death would be seen as “too political” for Sunday worship. That the desire to find some culpability in the law for creating an altercation with a boy and then killing him may be too controversial or too improper. That people might get angry, not at the injustice, but at me for naming it injustice.

How far we stray from the gospel. A gospel that convicts us for our complicity. A gospel that challenges us to quit ignoring the invisible because they our powerless and demand that those around us not only see them, but raise them up, recognize their humanity, and still radical in this era, to consider them equals.

So I woke up Sunday, went in and tinkered with my homily. How appropriate that a real-life example of hating and fearing one’s neighbor would pair with an invocation to love them. I was already mining that same territory, as I planned to preach that we must put faces and names to our hatred, so that we can see our prejudice and repent. So I named our neighbor Trayvon Martin. Perhaps knowing in the back of my mind that George Zimmerman is also my neighbor, but he isn’t half dead by the side of the road, or full dead and buried.

I also realized that, as we gather for our prayer concerns, I wanted to not only acknowledge the tragedy, but the silence I felt compelled to keep. That, in Christian community, the denunciation of a killing should never be too controversial. That no way of the world should overpower the way of the Kingdom.

As much as I felt empowered by these decisions, there was something missing. It needed a visual. I saw that the Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones processed in a hoodie last year. He’s a good Episcopalian. I was certain I wouldn’t be the only one. So I took the hoodie I keep on the back of my office door, robed up, and prepared for worship.

I began to sweat immediately. An undershirt, a clergy shirt, a hoodie, an alb, a chasuble, and a stole and no air conditioning. I processed with the hood up and removed it at the opening acclamation, feeling this sense of a great reveal.

Sitting for the lessons, the sweat swelled along my hairline and my glasses began to slip from my ears. When I processed the gospel book to the middle of the congregation, my whole head was damp with beads of water rolling down my cheeks. And as I read the scholar/lawyer’s response to Jesus:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

a bright spot appeared in my vision. The first sign of a migraine. Some day I’ll write about this, but for now, I stilled myself, finished the gospel and preached one of the most impassioned homilies I’ve written. The tears I shed in rehearsal stayed home, the only wetness on my cheeks from the exhausted sweat glands.

I almost lost it at the end: a parting prayer for mercy, for allowing our hearts to be broken, to be far from safety, to be where Jesus is.

The migraine never arrived. Nor comments. We went to work preparing for our annual Brass on the Grass concert on the front lawn. Things going back to normal. But I hold out hope that my prayer was heard and that today, many of us woke up in the gutter with our hearts broken. For that’s where Jesus sleeps.

Becoming One

a Sermon for Lent 2C
Text: Luke 13:31-35

Western Wall adjusted

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

A friend asked my Dad for a recommendation years ago. He was hoping to go to Jerusalem with a school exchange program. My Mom, in learning of this plan, wondered aloud “Why?” It sounded pretty awesome to me, so I couldn’t understand what her problem with it was. I asked her to explain.

“It is so dangerous there,” she said.

We had learned a little bit about Israel and its relationship with the Palestinians in school. I was aware that there was occasional violence, not unlike the violence in Ireland at the time. Yet, I really had no idea why she was so worried.

Of course, it makes a certain sense now. The perpetual presence of automatic weapons, the erratic and spontaneous expressions of conflict. The fence.

There in the center, is Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” A city of comfort and tragedy. A city of constant disappointment. A city stained with the blood of innocents for countless generations. The city of David, the Temple, and the crucifixion.

When Jesus bemoans the holy city, He does so knowing it doesn’t have to be this way. People don’t have to be this way.

Becoming Jerusalem

We remember that there was no Temple before Solomon and no Jerusalem before David. In David, Jerusalem was the new capital of a newly united kingdom and would serve as a great symbol of unity. A unity that would disappear with his son’s death. A unity that would never be reestablished.

The division would be great. Generation after generation obsessed with power and politics, condemned to separate lives.

As a character in the story, Jerusalem speaks to that eternal image of the unity that GOD wants and the division we perpetuate.

A division made plain by Jesus’s walk to Jerusalem, the victory of the earthly powers in killing Him, and in the surprising reversal in which Jesus proves this way of violence of victimizing is the way of ignorance. In trying to protect their faith, the Temple authorities continue the condemnation of Jerusalem.

A lesson we haven’t learned. A lesson about protecting our faith, responding out of fear, resorting to earthly violence, becoming Jerusalem.

Two Identities

Jerusalem need not be that city. And perhaps Jesus need not have died there. But it is that dual identity that helps lead us to GOD’s interest: a city of unity and division. A city that has at its core the power to unite and divided embedded. The power to turn us all to witness the Kingdom as one or keep the Kingdom far from us in our separate camps.

A power that is still there.

A different friend visited Jerusalem a few years ago. He was surprised, not by the division, but in the striking different lives lived on opposite sides of the fence. And it was the complete opposite of his expectations. How the Israeli territory was driven by fear, control, and occupation, treating all of its citizens and guests with suspicion. How the perpetual reminders of authority and violence oppressed the character of its people. However, when he crossed into Palestine, the people, living in greater poverty and subject to the sudden seizure of their property, were kind, generous, and happy. For all their reason to fear for survival, the Palestinians seem to live with more joy than their Israeli counterparts. In the same city. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills.”

And Jesus names a new way—the old way—being gathered together as a mother’s children.

Becoming one.

Empire is Not Inevitable

Our country’s original motto, before we changed it during the Red Scare, e pluribus unum, means “out of many, one.” And like Jerusalem, our DNA is infused with the power of unity and division.

Just as Jesus’s death warrant was written when he spoke against Rome and the Temple authorities, our many martyrs would be killed for the powerful. From King to Romero, speaking out on behalf of the weak against the powerful gets people killed by the powerful. Yet, these deaths need not be inevitable. The fingerprints of empire coat our lives with division and discord. And yet the fingerprints of GOD enliven us with love and unity.

Unity is just as inevitable. It is the way of Jesus and the Kingdom. It is the way of righteousness and hope. It is part of our nature and our identity.

In this season of Lent, marked by a call to embrace the Kingdom, reconcile the divided, and show mercy, may we reject the way of division—the way of the Jerusalem that is condemned to kill its prophets and GOD’s immigrants. And may we embrace the way of unity—the Kingdom way of generosity and Sabbath journey. May we become one.

The Love Apocalypse (Eating Scripture)

Eating Mark 13:1-8

This week, we tackle a gospel we don’t know what to make of, a type of literature we don’t understand, and a meaning for 21st Century American Christians that is consistent with Jesus’s teaching in under 4 minutes. What a workout!

This means there isn’t as much time to deal with what this story is not. There is a strand through Christian history that has wanted to see the time before Jesus as the “Old Covenant” and that Jesus brings a “New Covenant”. This language is very familiar to us. But where we get into trouble is by extrapolating from this thinking that Jesus (and more specifically, Christianity as known over the last thousand years or so) replaces Judaism. This is not consistent with Jesus’s teaching. This is most prevalent in conservative evangelical Protestants who take Jesus’s talk of the Temple’s destruction as evidence of their specific religious identity superseding others. This seems far away from what Jesus is teaching, and constructed without regard to the very things Jesus was teaching in the Temple and to whom he was teaching.

Today, we focus on the context. Specifically: what Jesus teaches and where. Because it reveals what is always a part of the apocalyptic despite its challenging appearance: truth about the present world and a promise of a more just tomorrow.

Eating Scripture is a short video series in which we explore the juicy and the crunchy in this week’s gospel in four minutes or fewer.