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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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 12, 2014: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9  +  Psalm 23  +  Philippians 4:1-9  +  Matthew 22:1-14

Will and Erin InviteI don’t know if it’s been like this for those of you who’ve already been married, but as someone who’s engaged and making preparations for a wedding I’m struck by how, all of a sudden, the world seems full of weddings. In real life, sure, but on television, in movies, in the parks, standing on the steps of the Field Museum, taking photos in front of the Bean. Once you’re looking for them, weddings and wedding parties are everywhere!

It’s been an autumn full of weddings within the St. Luke’s community as well. In September I presided at the wedding of our friends Sara Spoonheim and Yali Amit, whom many of you have met as they live in the neighborhood and often worship here at St. Luke’s. The following week I presided at the wedding of our friends John Carlisle and Mary Gewargis, now a Carlisle as well, at the top of the John Hancock Center. And just yesterday I was down in St. Louis, presiding at the wedding of our former student Will Storm and his lovely wife Erin. It has been a season of weddings and wedding banquets.

In this digital age, invitations to weddings come in a variety of ways. In the last few months Kerry and I have received invitations to save-the-date on hand-crafted postcards; we’ve received formal invitations with envelopes inside of envelopes inside of envelopes like Russian nesting dolls; and we’ve gotten entirely digital invites, with animated envelopes leading to online photo albums and RSVP lists. In the face of so much variety, one thing remains the same: a reply is expected.

Again, I understand this with a new appreciation, as Kerry and I try to put together the jigsaw puzzle of guest lists and caterers and venues. Wedding banquets may be happening all the time, but the one you plan yourself is a once-in-a-lifetime affair, or so you hope. You need to know who’s coming so that you can be a prepared host.

Despite all that has changed in the customs and practices surrounding marriage, not least of which is the ever-expanding freedom to marry which we are witnessing once again this past week, some things remain constant — like the joy of the one hosting the banquet, the honor of being invited, and the expectation that such an invitation will be answered. This morning’s familiar parable from the gospel of Matthew plays on those expectations as Jesus tells the tale of a wedding banquet gone horribly wrong.

At first things seem quite normal: the king announces a wedding banquet in honor of his son’s marriage and sends messengers to deliver the invitations. It would be a great honor to be invited to such a banquet, a royal banquet. The kinds of folks Jesus was talking to weren’t on these kinds of guest lists, so their imaginations would’ve had to fill in the details — the food, the wine, the music, the dancing, the entertainment, the access to people with wealth and power.

Then the parable makes its dramatic turn and everything we would expect to follow gets completely derailed. Those who have been invited to the wedding banquet treat the invitation as inconsequential. They continue on with their lives as if the invitation had never been received. Some even go so far as to kill the king’s messengers. An occasion for joy has become a provocation to violence.

Because his audience was made up of Israelites steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, which are filled with stories like the ones Jesus told, they knew they were listening to an allegory, a fiction crafted to help us see something about ourselves we might prefer to avoid knowing, like when the prophet Nathan told King David the story of the rich man who stole the poor man’s lamb to serve at his feast and ended the story saying, “you are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:1-15) At this point in the telling of this parable, Jesus’ audience must ask itself, who are these people who would treat an invitation from the king so lightly, would ignore an invitation to a royal banquet, would even attack those who bore the invitation to them?

This is another one of those moments where I’m tempted to ask you to turn to your neighbor and discuss where you see this story playing out in the world around us — where you see people and communities being invited to share in the joy of rich abundance, but who respond with apathy or even hostility — but I won’t, not yet, because the parable isn’t done, and it only gets weirder from here.

When the king learns that his messengers have been killed he’s understandably enraged, but his response seems disproportionate to the offense. He not only sends troops to destroy those who murdered his people, but he burns the city — presumably his own city — to the ground.

At this point in the story we need to know not only what Jesus’ audience knew, the stories from Hebrew scripture and such, but also what the gospel writer Matthew’s audience knew.  A common assumption is that Matthew’s gospel was written fifty to sixty years after Jesus’ ministry, and ten or more years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. That event, the destruction of the Temple, was cataclysmic for Jewish people, forever reshaping how Jewish identity was maintained and passed on. Stories like this one seem to be, at least on one level, an attempt to grapple with how and why God would allow such violence to occur. How do we reconcile our assumptions of an all-powerful, in-control God with the destruction of the culture and institutions we have associated with the worship of God for generations.

Again, I wonder where you hear yourself, where you hear us, in this story. Can you empathize with Matthew’s audience — people living during a generation in which the culture they’d taken for granted; the political accommodations between church and state; even the building, the sanctuary, to which they’d brought their offerings for generations was all disappearing before their very eyes? Here I don’t need to ask you to turn to your neighbor, because you have been turning to your neighbor for weeks now, meeting in small groups here at the church or in one another’s homes, to talk about St. Luke’s and our future together. To consider possibilities that were once unspeakable, that we might have to find new ways of being church together without this sanctuary, this temple, where we have gathered for over a century with the generations that came before us.

Then the parable takes yet another unexpected turn. Having razed the city to the ground, the king once again sends messengers out into the streets and instructs them to bring anyone they can find, “both good and bad.” This is an odd king, who takes greater offense at apathy than evil. This king seems to care less whether you are good or bad, than whether you acknowledge the invitation you receive and respond accordingly. To make this point even clearer, the story continues. One of the guests who finally does arrive, we have no idea if he is “good” or “bad,” is found without a robe, the appropriate attire for the event. When called to account for his lapse in etiquette, the man is speechless, so he is expelled from the banquet into the darkness.

What a story to be telling one another on a morning when we welcome children and their families to come to the communion rail and share in the Lord’s Supper, the feast of victory for our God, the meal we share with all God’s saints of every time and every place. As they have prepared for this day they’ve been taught that this food and this drink is a celebration of how God loves us, how God feeds us, how God cares for us, how God shares with us. We have taught them in the simplest terms what we will continue to teach one another throughout our lives of discipleship, that in this place all are welcome and there is always enough to go around.  Jesus’ parable, refracted through the lens of Matthew’s own experience, confirms that central message of open doors and abundant tables, even as it asks us to examine our own actions. As we gather in this place, do we gather like those who know they’ve been invited to share in God’s good economy? Do we look and sound like those who, following Paul’s advice to the church in Philippi “rejoice in the Lord always?” Are we wearing our wedding robes?

God’s invitations are all around us. They sit in our inbox, our mailbox, at our door. They point to a reality that is waiting, available for us to join, here and now. You were not invited because you are good. You have not been excluded, no matter how bad you think you may be. The doors are open to anyone and everyone. The feast is taking place — here, now, today and every day, with children and elders, with those who have died and those still yet to come, with the homeless and the homeowner, with the rich and the poor, with the rulers and the ruled, with the hungry and the well-fed, with the whole world. The banquet table has been set, and you have been invited. Put on your robe and come to the party.

Amen.

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