Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 28, 2018: RIC Sunday / 4th Sunday after Epiphany

The following sermon was preached at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity (ELCA) in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, IL on Sunday, January 28, 2018 for the annual observance of Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Sunday.

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Texts: Deut. 18:15-20  +  Ps. 111  +  1 Cor. 8:1-13  +  Mk. 1:21-28

Good morning, beloved people of God; and thank you, Pastor Tom, for inviting me to join you for worship on this Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Sunday. You are a congregation that enjoys a strong reputation in our synod for your commitment to issues of justice and your care for one another and your neighbors, so when I got the invitation to preach among you this morning I didn’t really take any time to consider the invitation at all. I just said yes.

I also said yes because, up until relatively recently, I was a parish pastor as well — serving a very small church up in Logan Square, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square, where I was preaching just about every Sunday (at least until we got an intern, which allowed me to sit with the congregation and be fed by someone else’s preaching from time to time). It’s so good to hear the gospel preached by a variety of voices, because we each bring a diversity of perspectives and unique histories to how we share the story of God’s total and unconditional love for each and every one of us. About six months ago, my call to St. Luke’s ended and I began a new call as Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), which means that I now get to hear a great deal of other people’s preaching … and that I do a good deal less preaching myself. That felt like a vacation for the first two or three months, then I started to itch for the opportunity to preach in the local parish again — because you, dear ones, are the church, you are precious in God’s sight and the world needs you, now as always, to bear the good news of the gospel in a land filled with ancient hatreds, emboldened prejudices, and rising violence.

So let me wrap up all these warming up words with one more thing: a thank you on behalf of the seminary. For many years you have served as a site for field education, welcoming 2nd year seminarians and interns into your community so that they can learn the arts and rhythms of ministry. I’ve known some of the students that have passed through this community and you should not be surprised to hear that they speak about you with so much love and pride when they share the story of First Lutheran Church of the Trinity. You’ve been good for them and, I think, they’ve been good for you. In this, we see once again a small reminder of the greater truth that we are all in this together, each working in the corner of the world where our histories and our relationships give us the power to speak and act with authority to heal the world and its peoples and to liberate one another from all the powers that bind us.

We don’t really know each other, so you might be wondering why Pastor Tom invited me to worship with you on this morning when throughout the Lutheran church many congregations are focusing on the experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and other sexual or gender minorities (which I will from now on refer to, rather clumsily and incompletely, as LGBTQ people and communities) and the church’s painful history and on-going need to be reconciled with the LGBTQ people in our parishes and out in the world who have, for most of history and in most places, heard nothing that sounds like good news from the church. The reason why Pastor Tom likely thought I’d be a good person to speak to this history is that I have been involved in the movement for the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life and ministry of the ELCA for many years.

Like many of you, I was raised in the church. In fact, my father worked for the church as a parish musician for forty years, and I grew up spending two to three nights a week at church for one reason or another. It was my second home and my extended family. So, when I told my dad at the age of 14 that I thought that maybe God was calling me to ministry, he said what I would hope we tell all our children. He said, “Yes, Erik. I know God is calling you to ministry, because God is calling us all to ministry. That’s what it means to be baptized.”

He was right, of course. This is what we Lutherans means when we speak of the “priesthood of all believers.” We mean that, in our baptism, each and every one of us has been called and commissioned to be part of God’s movement for healing, justice, love and liberation in the world. Every single one of us. At a time when the church was focused on concentrating power into the hands and voices of just a few, the clergy, Luther taught that clergy were no more and no less essential to God’s mission than anyone else. We are all called to ministry, each of our ministries being necessary and essential to the world. We are called to be parents and children, teachers and bakers, artists and builders, lovers and friends, because the world needs all of these things, and more. And some of us are called to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments; to proclaim the news of God’s reconciling love, to welcome people at the font and feed them at the table, as a sign that God calls all of us to be reconciled, to welcome one another into the circle of community, and to share all that we have so that all might have enough. It’s just one calling among many. And it was the one I sensed God calling me to.

But not too long after that conversation with my father, I began to sense something else. I began to sense that I wasn’t entirely like other boys my age, that I didn’t see what they saw when they looked at our female classmates. That I didn’t want what they wanted, not in the same way. But it was the 1980s, y’all. And I was in Iowa. So, about the only thing I was hearing about gay people was that they were all getting sick and dying. There were no gay teachers, or gay preachers, or gay politicians, or gay talk-show hosts — no one to show me a reflection of who I might be becoming. I had to figure that out for myself. I’ve sometimes said that it wasn’t so much that I was hiding my truth from the world in the closet, as much as the world was hiding my truth from me in the closet. I was looking for something I couldn’t quite even name, and all the adults who might have helped me out just watched as I stumbled through my childhood trying to name a thing no one wanted to talk about.

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Pastor Erik, far right (front), with classmates from Macalester College at the 1993 “March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Liberation” (lack of inclusion of trans people not my own).

It wasn’t until I got to college and met other young adults who were also LGBTQ that I began to realize that my experience wasn’t unique, that I belonged to a community that has been finding ways to flourish in the cracks between the spaces where other people live for centuries. We have been whispering our names, signaling to each other through our songs, sculpting our lives out of the scraps left behind when respectability leaves the table. It was exhilarating and it was terrifying, because it meant leaving so much behind — like my dream of being a pastor in the church. Because I quickly learned that God did not want me in the church. At least that’s what the church said.

But I knew differently, and this is purely a gift from God, that I have always known and never doubted that I belong to God, I was created by God, I am loved by God just as I am. It may the only thing I know for sure, but I know it and I always have. I knew it as a child and I’ve never forgotten it. The only thing time has done to this knowledge is to convince me that what is true for me is equally as true for every one and everything else in all of creation. So I know that you, each and every one of you, belong to God. You were created by God, and you are loved by God, just as you are. I know this for sure.

Meanwhile, I still needed a job, and I found a way to use the gifts God had given me in work that felt almost, but not quite, like what I’d imagined being a pastor might be like. I taught junior high for a year. I worked with homeless and street kids in Minneapolis. I was an advocate with children witnessing and experiencing violence in their homes and in their relationships. My kids were refugees from northern Africa, they were kids tossed out of their homes for being queer or trans, they were kids whose moms were staying in shelters, they were hustlers and they were awesome and I loved them. I loved my work and I loved the people I worked with. But I wasn’t happy, because I wasn’t doing the thing God had put in me to do.

So eventually, in 1999, ten years before the ELCA would change its policies and begin to make room for openly LGBTQ people to serve the church as pastors and deacons, I entered candidacy and went to seminary. My only rule with myself was “don’t lie and don’t hide.” I fully expected to get kicked out at some point, which I did, but I could no longer live with the pain and frustration of being the one to hold myself back from the life God wanted to live through me. If the church was going to reject me, so be it — but I was no longer going to do their dirty work for them by disqualifying myself before I’d even begun.

And this is where, finally, I come to the scriptures assigned for this day. Let’s go back to the Hebrew bible passage from the book of Deuteronomy. Here, Moses is giving the people of Israel instruction on how they will live together as a community in the promised land of freedom after he is gone. He tells them “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your people … into whose mouth I will put my words, and that person will tell (the people) all that I command. If any person will not listen to the words which my prophet speaks in my Name, I myself will call that person to answer for this. But if a prophet presumes to speak in my Name a message that I have not commanded to be spoken, or speaks in the name of other gods — that prophet will die.” (Deut. 18:15-20)

How does this passage relate to my story or to our lives? Who is the prophet sent by God following after Moses to share God’s Word with the people? To whom is this scripture referring? Is it Jesus? Or is it … me?

Whoa. I just went there. It’s such a ridiculous, audacious claim to make, but let’s just check it out for a minute. I’ll tell you why I’m led to wonder if I am a prophet sent by God: because people have straight up asked me. When I went through candidacy in the ELCA, a member of the committee said to me, “Surely you know this church’s policies, and yet here you are — clearly living your life in opposition to the teachings and the policies of this church. So, why would you think that the rules would change for you? What do you think you are? Some kind of prophet?”

You know, I’d never considered that question before. It had never even entered my mind to wonder what it meant that I could acknowledge the world as it is, and yet still imagine the world as it could be — even with so much scripture and tradition and policy and procedure standing in the way. I only knew the truth about me and about you, that we belong to God, that we were created by God, and that we are loved by God, just as we are. Those were the things that could not bend in me. Everything else seemed amendable.

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Pr. Erik at the 2005 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, inviting voting members to ask him about his story.

So I said to the person questioning me, “It’s not for me to say, whether I’m a prophet or not. Someday we’ll all be looking back, and if gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and queer people have found a new freedom and a new place in the church and in the world, then some people will say that this was a prophetic stand. And, if not, then I suppose I’ll be labelled a heretic, and I’ll be in good company. But only the future knows the difference between prophets and heretics.”

And, you know, I would tell you that I have no idea where those words came from, or the courage to say them in that moment, but that would be a lie. Because I knew, even as I was saying them, that those words were the Holy Spirit speaking in me. Because I was telling the truth about my life, not lying and not hiding. And that truth is what I think Jesus was referring to when he said to the people who followed him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32) Furthermore, I don’t think we’re supposed to run away from the word “prophet,” as if it were somehow thinking too highly of ourselves to imagine that each of us might have an important role to play in the revealing of God’s preferred future for this world, especially when the present is so painfully broken. After all, are we not Easter people? Do we not live our lives in light of the resurrection? Do we not remember Peter’s sermon that first Pentecost day, when he quoted the prophet Joel, saying,

“In those last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your [children] shall prophesy, your youth shall see visions, and your elders shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, people of all genders, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18)

So, who was God talking about when God said to Moses that God would lift up prophets like him to lead the people into the future? Am I wrong to say that it’s me? No! No more wrong than for me to say that it is you — which I will now say:

You are the prophets anointed by God to lead God’s people into the future! When did this anointing take place? In your baptism! Don’t you remember, “Child of God, you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit.” Those are the words the church spoke over you as you were washed with water and anointed with oil. Who are the people God has called you to lead? All people, all of us together. Everyone in, no one left out.

On this RIC Sunday, as I stand in your pulpit — a called and ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — speaking to you, a congregation with a story of your own to tell about how God brings new life to people and places left for dead, I don’t need to tell you why it’s important to welcome people of all sexual orientations and gender identities into the church. You’ve already done that, and frankly we were always here. What I came here today to remind you of is this:

You are God’s own beloved. You were made by God, and you are loved by God. Just as you are. As is everybody else. Everything else is amendable. So, when you look out at the world as it is, lying to us all about who we are and how deeply we belong to each other, what needs to change?

And who will be the one to say it?

Will it be you?

By what authority?

Who do you think you are?

A community full of prophets?

To me, the answer is a clear as the waters in which you were baptized.

Yes, you are.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 29, 2017: Reign of Christ (transferred)

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24  +  Psalm 95:1-7a  +  Ephesians 1:15-23  +  Matthew 25:31-46

“What I think, is that this is hell,” is what my sister told me.

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Me and Tara, ca. 1985. Arriving in the United States from Thailand.

By this point, I’d already gone to seminary. So it occurred to me, in the moment, that my sister was articulating a very present eschatology. By this point, she’d been living with a dual-diagnosis of persistent mental illness and mild developmental delay for a few years. She’d experienced the primal wound of being abandoned by her birth mother, raised in a foster home for the first six years of her life, and then torn from the land of her birth by loving, well-intentioned people who, nevertheless, did not look like her, or speak her language. By this point, my sister, Tara, who is Thai by birth and gifted with beautiful, lustrous brown skin, had experienced a childhood filled with racism both ignorantly casual and pointedly vicious. She had spent years running away from home, running toward danger. She’d been exposed to the violence that comes with life on the streets. She’d been beaten, she’d been exploited, and when she turned to the police in a life-or-death moment looking for help escaping the horrors of her immediate surroundings, they’d taken one look at her and saw only a disheveled, disorganized, dirty, brown-skinned girl with a funny way of talking and they told her to get lost, as if she wasn’t already.

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Tulips, breaking through topsoil.

So we were talking, she and I, about resurrection, and what hope we may have for the future, for a life better than the ones we’d known. I was talking to her about the miracle of tulips, which seem to die over and over, only to break free from the earth again and again to show their beauty in their frailty. And that’s when she told me, “what I think, is that this is hell.”

So, my reflection on this passage from Matthew has to start there, in hell, though the text itself does not use that word. This scene of final judgment, which is unique to Matthew’s gospel, is “the only scene with any details picturing the last judgment in the New Testament.”[1] Here we hear Jesus speaking in the voice of the ruler of heaven and earth seated on a cosmic throne before all the nations, rendering a judgment that addresses each person, each of us, on the basis of how we have responded to the human beings in our midst who are experiencing on a daily basis the depth of the hells this world has to offer: hunger, thirst, hostility to all that is strange or foreign or different, the bare naked exposure of poverty, the wretchedness of disease and illness, the graceless confines of our retributive justice and our merciless prison industrial complexes. In this scene of final judgement, the Lord of the universe says nothing about people’s personal sentiments, or public proclamations. The Lord gives no consideration to who you have claimed as your “personal Lord and savior.” The Lord of time focuses, like my sister, on the present and the fires to which we have consigned each other and asks what we have done for those whose daily reality is a burning hell.

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Illustration of St. Matthew the Evangelist from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Britain, 8th century.

I haven’t always known quite what to do with the festival of the Reign of Christ at the end of each liturgical year. Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate the opportunity it provides for us to consider the distinctive voice of the synoptic gospel assigned to the year now ending. For this last year, it has been the Gospel of Matthew. So we have been hearing the good news of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in a recognizably Matthean mode. Matthew’s theological world draws us into a recognition of the reign of God in clear opposition to the reign of Satan; it is the only gospel to speak explicitly of the “church” as a description for the community of believers, and so it invites us to give consideration to what we think the church is and who is part of it; it insists that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, not the abolishment of it, and in doing so it ties the ethical life of those who follow Jesus to the ethical demands of the prophets of Israel. Then there is the thorny matter of Matthew’s relationship to the rest of Judaism, as this gospel preserves the memory of a religious community divided within itself over the nature of the covenant, the revelation of the messiah, and the imperative of the present moment to acknowledge and respond to what God is doing now in human history.

These themes and tensions are always with us, and I was reminded of that fact as I read and re-read the Boston Declaration, a theological statement released last Monday at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature that publicly calls out American Evangelicalism for the ways that it has stoked the fires of a very real and present hell for millions of “the least of these” who suffer under the tyranny of intersecting ideologies of oppression that have interlaced racism, colonialism, and environmental degradation in ways that have created a living hell for the peoples of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the US territories; that have privileged and prioritized profits for gun manufacturers over the lives of human beings; that have supported the violent hetero-patriarchy evident in the daily revelations of rampant sexual misconduct and abuse by men against women and girls in workplaces and in homes; that has scapegoated Jewish people, Muslim people, Black and Brown people, and Queer people for the sins of White Christian Patriarchy; for elevating the economic appetites of nations by respecting national borders more than the lives of those who cross them as immigrants or refugees from the living hells created by those very same nations.

The stark and unapologetically divisive nature of the Boston Declaration very much reminds me of the stark and unapologetically divisive nature of this scene from Matthew of the final judgment in which all the nations are gathered before God and the people are surprised once more to hear that God takes sides. That our apathy and misconduct cannot be dismissed or justified by our claims to ethnic or national or religious exceptionalism.

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“The Last Judgment” by Fra Angelico, ca. 1395-1455

We all recoil from this scene, or should if we are in the least bit self-aware. The on-going presence of hunger and thirst, violence and poverty, malicious neglect of the ill and obscene incarceration of our neighbors who are, in fact, our siblings, indicts us all as complicit in the dominion of “the devil and his angels.” (Mt. 25:41) And it simply will not do to dismiss our discomfort with reminders of our Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith; to let ourselves off the hook with reminders of God’s unceasing mercy, because it is God who addresses us here. It is God who speaks these words of judgment.

So we are left to grapple with the purpose and function of this eschatological vision and the tensions it produces. It is a tension that brings me back to my sister’s own declaration: “What I think, is that this is hell.” A very present eschatology, not unlike, I think, Jesus’s own eschatology. After all, it is in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt. 4:17) This is Matthew’s Christology, that Jesus brings the reign of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises in the past, into the present moment with consequences for all of human life, for all of creation, here and now. Now is the moment of judgment. Now is the assurance that God does, in fact, take sides. Now is the promise that the hells in which we are burning cannot stand against the waters of the Christ into whom we are baptized. Now is the moment of our salvation. Now, not in the words we say or the identities we claim, but in the acts of lovingkindness we perform for one another, for the needless misery we relieve, for the welcome we offer, for the liberation we effect. Now. Now. Now.

Hell is not a threat of future punishment by our God. It is now. Or at least that’s what I heard when I listened to my sister, one of the least of these, and I believe her. What do you suppose might happen if you, if all of us, believed the voices of the women and girls, of the strangers and foreigners, of the masses that are incarcerated, of the legions of the sick and dying, of those who hunger and thirst?

A final word before I say goodbye to Matthew for a couple more years:

We struggle with the vitriol Matthew voices against those he calls “the Jews” because of the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, which the Boston Declaration rightly both laments and condemns. In its own context, however, what Matthew gives witness to is an intra-religious conflict among people who understood themselves as belonging to the same faith, yet who still drew very different conclusions about what God was doing in the present moment and what their faith required of them as a result. Here, again, the Boston Declaration provides a timely example. We might wonder what this present moment will look like two thousand years from now to those who have the advantage of that perspective, who will be able to look back and see what this one group called Mainline Protestants said about another group called American Evangelicals. We cannot know how these divides will deepen, or heal. Perhaps we will continue to drift away from one another to such an extent that we can no longer even recognize ourselves as belonging to the same religion.

Here Matthew shows us the righteousness of God, in that, no matter how much Matthew the evangelist might wish to claim superiority over the other sects of Judaism on the basis of his theological declarations, in the end God once again confounds our ideas of righteousness by disrupting the borders we draw around nations, tribes, religions, identities by lifting up those who do what is needed to meet the needs of the wounded neighbor, the suffering sibling.

We, too, should hear this word: that God cares less for our Boston Declarations than for our actual presence with those who suffer. God cares less about the accuracy of our theological ideas than the impact of our public witness. Just as fifty years of dialogue with the Roman Catholic church has led us to a new commitment to shared acts of proclamation and service, we might imagine and should already be looking for ways to heal the rifts that divide us from the very people we now condemn. For surely, in the moment of judgment that is always already happening, we will discover once again that we are all a part of the same family, that we all bear Christ to one another, that we are all standing before the throne of God, and that we are all in this together.

Amen.

[1] “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” by M. Eugene Boring in The New Interpreter’s Bible, v.8, p.455 (1995: Abingdon Press)

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Sermons

Sermon: Monday, September 25, 2017: Lectionary 25 / Proper 20

This sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) on Monday, September 25th.

Texts: Jonah 3:10 — 4:11  +  Psalm 145:1-8  +  Matthew 20:1-16

In my own personal history of interpretation, this parable of Jesus has gone through a series of evolutions — each one raising different questions, none fully exhausting the possibilities of the story, which I suspect is an intentional teaching strategy on Jesus’ part.

godly-consumer-art1As a confirmand, this story was presented to me as a parable of grace. The workers clearly perform different amounts of labor, yet are rewarded equally. I was nine years old when I got my first paper route to earn money toward the plane ticket that would take me to Thailand with my parents when we adopted my sister. As soon as I was legally able, at age fourteen, I got a part-time job at McDonald’s after school and on the weekends, so that I’d have some spending money to keep up with the consumer demands placed on young people who want to fit in with their peers. Early on, I’d accepted the social contract that my time was a commodity to be bought and sold on the labor market. As such, the wage slave in me knew that this story was, somehow, unfair. People who work more hours should get more pay.

But, I was taught, grace is not for sale and cannot be earned — and this is a story about grace. So the hard working student in me set his mind to mastering this bit of Lutheran dogma — there is nothing I can say or do to earn God’s grace, love, or forgiveness. God, like the owner of the vineyard, is free to do as God wishes. And what God wishes is for everyone to live upon the earth equally.

Later on, after college, I spent a year teaching junior high in the Boston Public School system. I learned a lot that year about the art of teaching, stuff I’d read in books about developmental psychology took on three dimensions in the young people with whom I spent my days. As I struggled to scale the undergraduate education of which I was so proud down to an age-appropriate takeaway for the twelve to fourteen year olds before me, I began to wonder what had been stripped out of my own Christian education and formation.

Like this parable. Was God really like the owner of the McDonald’s franchise down the street from my folks’ house in Des Moines? Was the only thing being critiqued in this story the sense of injustice felt by the workers when the value of their labor was set aside for some kind of non-negotiated guaranteed income? I’d had just enough exposure to both Marx and post-modernism in college to be suspicious of this (and every) text. I wanted better answers to my questions.

In seminary I learned to read scripture with an awareness of the history surrounding each text, to ask questions about how power and wealth operated in the lives of the people who would have heard these stories first so that I could make better guesses about what these stories might have sounded like to their ears. I began to learn how military occupation had transformed a subsistence economy into an export economy, how ancestral lands had been stolen by invading powers, how peoples who’d once worked the land or fished the sea to feed their families now worked the land and fished the sea to earn a wage off of which their families could barely survive. I wondered why Jesus would tell such people a story about a land owner who took away their last inalienable asset, their labor, and would identify God with such an actor. God as the conquering power, the robber baron, the proto-industrialist, the erratic capitalist. My childhood faith held firm, that God wishes for everyone to live upon the earth equally, but how this story conveyed that message was far less clear.

In 1989 Peggy McIntosh published the article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” giving fresh language and a new conceptual framework to an enduring problem. Twenty years later in 2009 she published a shorter, lesser known, article titled, White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place. In it, McIntosh asserts that white people “resist looking at racism because we fear damage to ourselves as ‘good people’ in the ‘greatest country’ in the world,” and asks the question, “how have whites kept such a strong sense of pride and deservedness?”

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The answer she proposes is that white people have been raised on five strong cultural myths: meritocracy, manifest destiny, white racelessness, monoculture, and white moral elevation. It is the first of these myths, the myth of meritocracy, that draws my attention as I think about this strange parable of Jesus and wonder what he was doing when he told it to these occupied people in first century Palestine.

In her essay, McIntosh defines meritocracy as

“The myth that the individual is the only unit of society, and that whatever a person ends up with must be what [they] individually wanted, worked for, earned and deserved. This myth rests on the assumption that what people experience; how they see, feel, think, and behave; and what they are capable of accomplishing are not influenced by any social system or circumstance. The myth of meritocracy acknowledges no systems of oppression or privilege that, for various people and in various situations, could make life arbitrarily more, or less, difficult.”

When I look back and try to remember what nine year old Erik thought, as he delivered the newspaper; or what fourteen year old Erik thought, as he passed milkshakes through the window at the drive through, it’s complicated. There was some resentment, in that I realized that not everyone seemed to need to work in the ways I did to have the things I wanted. And there was some pride in discovering that when I worked hard, I could affect my environment. As a young person, who often had very little control over my environment, this was an empowering discovery. But I suspect it also laid the groundwork for a false logic that the powers of racism and capitalism later exploited: the assumption that everyone could just do what I did and get what I’d gotten. The myth of meritocracy.

I wonder if Jesus told this parable to people whose ancient ways of being and belonging were being disrupted as a way of agitating them, intentionally provoking them, helping them to remember that they had once been more than wage slaves and that in God’s economy they’d never been slaves at all. Could it be that this story wasn’t comparing God to a wealthy landowner, but instead critiquing the ways that both oppressor and oppressed come to accept and internalize the myths that structure and support all the violence that follows from them?

The myth of meritocracy is just that, a myth. It’s simply impossible that any of us is self-made. We are all products of the complex web of relationships that connects us to one another. For this reason, it’s just as impossible to say that any of us are getting what we deserve in any individual sense. Individually we are all simultaneously paying it forward and cashing in on the labor of others. It is only collectively that we might be able to say that we are reaping what we have sown.

Therefore, because we have sown fear of our neighbors, we have reaped this new travel ban. Because we have sown colonialism we have reaped devastation in the form of hurricane damage in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean that could have been mitigated if the United States had invested in infrastructure and the economy long ago. Because we have sown white supremacy and enforced it with a militarized police force, we have reaped a national discourse in which taking a knee and proclaiming that Black Lives Matter is tantamount in the eyes of many to an act of treason. Here, the “we” I speak of stands in for all the various estate owners in my current understanding of this parable of Jesus; who are, most often, white people.

But our unpacking of this parable remains incomplete if we do not also ask ourselves how we have internalized the myth of meritocracy. How old were each of you when you learned the rules of this deadly game? When and how did you start playing by the rules? How has accepting the rules of this rigged game saved your life? How has it destroyed your relationships? What did you have to give up to get over?

I don’t think my confirmation teachers were lying to me when they bottom lined this parable as a story demonstrating that God’s love is free and cannot be earned. I just think they knew that we were only just beginning to understand the rules of the game, and that they themselves were caught up in the myth. I still believe, I know, that God wishes for everyone to live upon the earth equally. I also believe, I know, that Jesus will keep troubling my certainties and disrupting my attempts to accommodate myself to the lies this world tells, until we can all remember that we are all in this together.

Amen.

Hear this sermon preached aloud here.

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