Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Sermon for the Ordination of Jenn Gingras

Patrons, Peasants and Pastors
For the Ordination of Jennifer Gingras
March 24, 2007
Matthew 20:1-16

Let’s begin with a quiz. Are you ready? We’ll begin with a practice question:
Q. How many animals of each type did Moses take on the ark?
A. Zero. Moses didn’t have a boat, Noah did!

OK, how did you do? Are you ready for the real test?
Q. Is there a Fourth of July in England?
A. Yes, it comes after the third of July!
Q. Some months have 31 days; how many have 28?
A. 12, all of them!
Q. Is it legal for a man in California to marry his widow’s sister?
A. No - because he is dead!

Are you ready for the math portion?
Q. Divide 30 by 1/2 and add 10. What is the answer?
A. 70, (30 divided by 1/2 equals 60! Takes some thinking . . .)
Q. If there are 3 apples and you take away 2, how many do you have?
A. 2. You took them, remember?
Q. How many two-cent stamps are there in a dozen?
A. Twelve, there are 12 two cent stamps in a dozen!
Q. A rooster sits on the VERY TOP of a barn roof. If he lays an egg, which side will it roll off?
A. Roosters don't lay eggs.
Q. You have a match and you go into a house and there is an oil lamp, a stove, and a fireplace all ready to be started. What do you light first?
A. The Match!

Did anyone get a perfect score? Sometimes we assume we know the right answers to questions. But our assumptions can betray us. This was just a practice exercise to get us ready to hear a parable. Not a Jesus parable. We’ll get to him in a second. Listen to this modern parable. The Kingdom of God is like a courtroom in a small town. The town attorney called his first witness to the stand. She seemed like a sweet, elderly woman. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?”

She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a young boy. You’ve become a huge disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a hotshot lawyer, when you haven’t the brains to realize you never will amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.”

The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?”

She replied, “Why, of course I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. I used to baby-sit him for his parents. And he’s also a real disappointment. He’s lazy, bigoted, never has a nice word to say about anybody, and he drinks like a fish. He’s been divorced five times, and everybody knows that his law practice is one of the shoddiest in the entire state. Yes, I know him.”

The judge rapped his gavel, to quiet the tittering among the spectators in the courtroom. Once the room was silent, he called both attorneys to his bench. In a quiet, menacing voice, he warned, “If either of you asks her if she knows me, you’ll be jailed for contempt!”

How would you interpret this parable? Who does the prosecuting lawyer represent? How about the judge? How about the elderly woman? Does one of those characters represent God? Do you relate to one more than another? To interpret the parable, you need to reference your assumptions—what you know about the character of God and the nature of humanity. Given time, I bet you all could come up with a great interpretation of the story that compares it to our modern lives.

When we read the parables of Jesus we also need to be in touch with our assumptions. The lesson from Matthew 20 is a case in point. We meet a vineyard owner, and some day laborers who get the same exact wages for varying amounts of work. Centuries of commentary tell us that the moral of the story is about the grace of God. The vineyard owner seeks to include everyone by freely giving equal wages to all the workers so that they have what they need. In the same way, God gives equal access to the Kingdom to all humanity. This makes sense. It sounds nice, mostly because it fits our freethinking assumptions about justice and equality and solidarity.

But, what if our assumptions are wrong. What do we know about peasants, really? Most of us have everything we need and want. What do most of us know about the lives of migrant workers and day laborers? What if I were to change the context on you and ask you to listen with new ears? As I retell the story, I invite us to take everything we know about the parable and turn it on its head. Maybe we can hear a fresh word from God’s Spirit.

God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. The vineyard owner had great wealth. When he first invested in his vineyard, he pumped money into the operation for years. It took five years of outlay for the vineyard to bear fruit good enough to make wine. He had plenty money to pay mangers and servants and to hire day laborers to work in his fields. He was a good man. He saw himself as a fair man -- even a moral person. So when it came time to hire workers, he paid them a denarius -- a dollar a day. It was not generous. It wasn’t stingy, either.

Some workers took the job in the vineyard. What else could they do? They needed the money and unemployment was high. Day laborers were vulnerable people. Their survival was a bitter struggle. During planting and harvesting seasons, the work was plentiful. But in the off-season they faced malnutrition, starvation, and disease. As peasant clients, they depended on the patronage of the landowner to survive. The laborers gladly took the work and began harvesting the vineyard first thing in the morning. A buck a day was the most they could expect with the oversupply of workers.

At about 9:00 AM, a manager saw some more unemployed men hanging around the town square. He told them to go to work in the vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. The manager did this every three hours. Right before sundown, the vineyard owner went to the marketplace to find even more workers. At 5:00, he saw some unemployed men who were older or infirm – less capable of manual labor. He asked them, “Why have you been standing idle here the whole day?” The laborers replied, “No one has hired us” They had no safety net. As outsiders in the patronage system, there was no protection for these vulnerable members of society. So, the landowner hired them and promised a fare wage.

When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his supervisor, “Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.” The landowner was, after all, a law-abiding citizen. He followed the expectation that workers were to be paid in the evening after they worked. Those hired at 5:00 came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw how much the old guys were paid, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same paycheck – one dollar apiece.

Remember, the landowner saw himself as a law-abiding, compassionate, and charitable man who hired the unhireable. Not to brag or anything, but he prided himself on being a just and righteous person. The problem is something unfair just happened. The wages were not equally distributed. The workers became irritable. One group of workers began to resent the others. Some of the laborers muttered against landowner. In equalizing the payment, the landowner devalued the work of those who labored longer and under conditions that were more difficult. True equality and right relationship had not been achieved. The landowner kept his great wealth, and even benefited from the work of the peasants as he paid them with a subsistence-level wage.

Taking their dollar, the workers complained angrily to the manager. “These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.” The owner of the vineyard replied to representative of the workers saying, “Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” And so, many of the first ending up last, and the last first.

So, let’s question our theological assumptions. All theology serves someone. The question is whom does it serve? Who benefits and at whose expense? When we are finished cooking up our interpretations of the text, who reigns and who suffers? In this case, the landowner retains his wealth, the peasant workers are destabilized, and biblical justice is not achieved. Does this landowner really sound like the God we know through Jesus Christ? Not to me. The Jesus I know told us to love God with all our heart and strength and to love your neighbors as ourselves. The Jesus I know reminded us that the neighbor was not always who we would like her to be. He taught that the one non-negotiable thing was forgiveness. He taught that tolerance of enemies was not sufficient: they must be loved. He taught about money more than anything else, about the fair and just redistribution of wealth. The Jesus I know touched the untouchables. The Jesus I know ate with the sinners. The Jesus I know argued with the religious leaders when they put principles before people. He welcomed strangers, valued the lower classes, and made ordinary moments holy. The Jesus I know trusted God’s promises, even when all he could experience, as he was being tortured as a traitor, was God's silence in the face of great injustice.

If we question our assumptions, then the parable of the vineyard owner challenges us to identify with the wealthy landowner -- to realize our own blindness, our own participation in the injustices of our day, our own self-deceptions that tell us that we are good, just, and righteous before God. This is a reading for those in positions of power. This is a reading for those of us in first world countries who think they get to call all the shots. Any interpretation that suggests God receives some and rejects others does not reflect the ministry of Jesus Christ. Our message is not that God brings instability and chaos, pitting people against each other by withholding blessing. This is something people do, but not God. No, our message declares that freedom in Christ is freedom in life – all are welcome at the table.

To all of us gathered here today, this is my charge: Always question the assumptions. At one time in my life, I thought I had Jesus all figured out. I knew who God loved and who God rejected. My system went something like this. Jesus loves straight people who go to church; and people who don’t lie, steal, or cuss, or do drugs. Jesus loves people who pray and suffer silently. Jesus tolerates gays who don’t ask and don’t tell, Baptists, Methodists, and some Pentecostals, and people who don’t come to church because they have to work on Sunday. Jesus also tolerates pastors who cuss occasionally and congregants who don’t join the 21-day Lenten fast because of health reasons. Jesus detests openly gay people, Muslims, Catholics, and people who don’t go to church, addicts, nonconformists, and everyone who is different than the rest of us. And telemarketers.

The question is, what part was Jesus, and what part was me using my assumptions from my culture and tradition to validate my beliefs? I once believed that God receives some and rejects others. But let’s question the assumptions. Somewhere in the midst of all this junk is the real Jesus, and I suspect we are most likely to meet him where we least expect him.

Jenn, as you enter into ordained ministry as a pastor and teacher in the United Church of Christ, this is my charge to you. Always question the assumptions. Sometimes you will feel like you did some good, that your counsel was helpful, and that you life is a good example to those around you. You will look for God’s presence in the people you see everyday. And I’m sure you will see God in those people. We need you to live a parabolic life. Parables challenge the status quo. They startle us wit the truth and sometimes make us uncomfortable. We need you to remind us that sometimes we look for God in all the wrong places. God also dwells with the invisible people on the margins of life. God is the beggar, the nuisance, the exile and the refugee. As you enter ministry, remind us to question our assumptions so that we can read life around us with new eyes, flee from self-deception, and join all of our brothers and sisters around God’s table.

Murray Bodo, The Way of St. Francis: The Challenge of Franciscan Spirituality for Everyone (Cincinnati OH, St. Andrews Press, 1995).

Mary Kay Dobrovolny, “Who Controls the Resources? Economics and Justice in Matt 20:1-15” presented to the Society of Biblical Literature, San Antonio, Texas, November 20 – 23, 2004.

Yvette Flunder, Where The Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion (Cleveland OH: Pilgrim Press, 2005).

Bruce Malina, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis MN: Fortress, 2003).

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