Sunday, September 21, 2014

Positively Unfair

Matthew 20:1-16

How many of you had to learn the hard way that life just isn’t fair?
(If there’s an easy way, I haven’t heard of it.)

After you learned that, did you hold out hope that at least God is fair, and heaven should be? 
Then how do you feel about the story Jesus told today?
The kingdom of heaven is like a businessman who hires day laborers – some first thing in the morning, at an agreed-upon basic wage, and others throughout the day with a verbal promise to pay “whatever’s right.”  He hires the last of them a bare hour before the workday ends. Then he pays them off – latecomers first – at the full day’s wage.  No bonus or acknowledgement for the early birds or hardest workers, which – not surprisingly – leads to complaint and protest.
Show of hands:  fair?  not fair?

If this story doesn’t make you cranky, confused, or just uncomfortable in some way, then you’re probably not listening seriously.
It certainly made us uncomfortable when we read this story in our Vestry bible study on Tuesday, but it got noticeably easier when we began to speculate that this is Jesus’ assurance that God won’t treat the deathbed conversions and late bloomers in Christianity any differently than those who’ve been dedicated followers of Christ all their lives. 

“It’s a good thing it’s about salvation and not money,” said Ken Pardue, “because if it’s about money it’s not fair.”
He’s right.
Except, of course, that it actually is about money. And it’s not meant to be fair.

Jesus talks about money all the time.  More than he talks about morals, divorce, worship practices, or even sheep. And the money is never just a metaphor.  And it’s almost never fair.

If this parable made you uncomfortable, then your gut reaction is absolutely right:
God is not fair.
And expecting God to be “fair” just sets us up for disappointment. The kingdom of God won’t be fair, either. So Jesus may be trying to upset us enough to shift our assumptions.

Listen to it again:
A businessman (you know, stereotypically level-headed, focused on the bottom line) goes out to hire day laborers. He makes a sensible contract with some and puts them to work.
Then all day long, he goes back out looking for people who haven’t found work. Whatever time he finds them – morning, midday, last minute – he promises to pay them something appropriate, and sets them to work. Then he publicly demonstrates that he’s paying the last-minuters a full day’s wage, the same as his contract with the early birds.
He has to know he’s going to annoy the first workers. 
He has to know he’s going to shock everyone and that word is going to get around.

He’s not being fair, and he’s not simply being generous.
He’s being provocatively, aggressively, generous.

And that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like: In-your-face generosity to those who definitely don’t earn it. 

That’s definitely what God is like.  Our scripture is filled with human wrestling with God’s benefits to the unworthy. And righteous complaint about good things happening to “bad people” is as familiar to you and me today as it would be to Jesus first disciples in Jerusalem under Roman occupation.

Ken Pardue and the Vestry were right about something that matters in this story – it tells us something about salvation that we can be glad about.  It’s well worth remembering that God is proactively generous to those of us who don’t earn our own salvation (Me, for example.  Maybe you?)
But it will also be worth remembering that God doesn’t hesitate to demonstrate that generosity when it’s unfair to us, too.

It’s not fair that my adorable foster nephew and niece become such a holy, joyful, life-giving part of our family – and then get abruptly pulled away to live with biological parents after their foster family has spent love, sweat, tears and years on them.
Giving loving, healthy, grace-filled children to their biological parents who come late to nurturing is wonderfully, aggressively, generous on God’s part, and God doesn’t hide that provocation from the all-day laborers like my sister-in-law, when the parting breaks her heart.

God is like that. Heaven is like that.  
Illogical, sometimes heart-wrenching, generous acts of God that just aren’t fair.
And God is inviting us to find a way to love it, because the reign of God on earth is going to be full of it.
In fact, I think that provocative generosity might even be our job – yours and mine – in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.

Think about it.
What would it be like to give out second chances to people who didn’t earn them?
To give from your treasure – time, labor, love, money and hard-won skill – to people who don’t especially deserve it?
And to do it as visibly as you can. (Yep, that’s the part that makes me most nervous.  It might upset those people who’ve earned or waited for or expected my attention and skill, and that’s never fun.)

Most of us gathered here aren’t small business owners with the opportunity to overpay our employees on a regular basis.

But you can over-tip a restaurant server who’s clearly having a rough day and didn’t give you their best.

You can give time and heart, by going over to the PADS parking lot or the library on a Tuesday or Wednesday and listening – really listening, nothing else – to the story and life of someone who is probably buried under all the negative assumptions made about the homeless.

You might defend some generally disrespected group that’s done nothing for you – used-car salesmen, prostitutes, Congress – in a conversation, and plant a more forgiving and understanding spirit among your friends or family.

You can find other ways to be irrationally generous.  The opportunities abound – our world is full of people who don’t seem to have earned love or grace or daily bread.
So try it, at least once. Really try it, take the risk of provocative generosity, and see what it’s like to live, for a moment at least, in the kingdom of God on earth.

It will never be fair.
But we’ll never earn it, either.
So irrational, aggressive generosity may just be the best way to go.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


Matthew 18:15-20

Anyone here have a brother or a sister? Or maybe cousins; other family members your age who you spent time with growing up?
Did your brother or sister or cousin or whoever ever, say, knock over your sand castle? Steal your toy? Hit you, destroy a valued possession, call you names or anything else like that?
What did you do?
yell for mom / get back at them / ignore etc…

Now let’s fast forward a bit. Have you been hurt by anyone in the more recent past?
Been let down by someone you counted on? betrayed? physically hurt? undermined at work or in family relationships? Lost a valued possession or relationship to someone else’s carelessness or destructiveness?
What did you do then?
talk it out/ complain to someone else/ let it go?

Did you ever bury the hurt, smooth it over?
Did that make it go away?

There are a lot of reasons I give myself when I bury or ignore a loss or hurt: I’d just get hurt worse, it would upset the people around me, my feelings don’t matter as much as getting along….
So I let it go.
I leave it alone.
Maybe I forget. Or maybe I don’t.  
But even if I forget the incident, I’m a little less welcoming, generous, happy, or open around the people who hurt me, or in the place I got hurt. Sometimes – believe it or not – those people and places are the church.

That ever happen to you? in the church or anywhere else?
Did you happen to hear what Jesus said about that, today?

“When a sister or brother sins against you,” he says, “you have to do something about it.”
First, you take that person aside, privately, and you explain what went wrong.
“What you said really hurt me.”
“When you didn’t show up, it undermined something I’d been working on for months.”
“The way you’re using the classroom/car/coffeepot is destroying it for others.”

Doesn’t work?
It might not, Jesus knows.
So you stop worrying about privacy, and you get some witnesses. Not to condemn the wrongdoer or defend you, but so that your community knows you had this conversation, that you opened the door for reconciliation with honesty and hope.

Doesn’t work?  You’re still not done.
You bring it to the whole community.  And if that doesn’t work, the community is obliged to cast the wrongdoer out. “Let them be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.”
(But you remember how Jesus treats outcasts and tax collectors, right?)

Jesus talks about bringing the sin to “the church” – to the tightly-bound community of belief in Jesus after his death and resurrection; the community that represents Christ in the world when Jesus himself is not here.
That’s why he tells us that if you ignore the sin, try to be nice, and forget, and not rock the boat, that’s like sending the offender down the beach to kick down everyone’s sand castles, whether they’re part of the family, or not.  In fact, it’s like kicking down a few defenseless and unrelated sand castles yourself.

If the church doesn’t confront hurt, work intentionally and proactively for reconciliation, then just by inaction, we feed the hurt and the destruction that can damage the world around us and handicap our relationships with one another.

It’s disturbingly easy to point to a generation’s worth of betrayal, hurt, and cover up in the church. There’s a lot of news coverage of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, but no one’s innocent. We’ve had abuse and cover up in the Episcopal Church, too – and in most religious organizations. 

That matters because abuse of trust, cover up, and denial within the church not only send out offenders who can get away with it again, but also victims who hurt other communities because they are too burnt and betrayed to trust again, and brothers and sisters who spread anger and rejection, whether they mean to or not.

The same pattern happens in the neighborhood, nation and world, when we deny or cover up hurts from institutional protection of racism, greedy business practices, or to maintain the “niceness” of our community or church.  “Business as usual” and smoothing things over have left you and me uncomfortable in conversations about race, wary about your mortgage, watching for air or water or food quality alerts, uncomfortable sharing your faith, or unwilling to trust leaders we’ve elected and appointed.  All sorts of little ways we close ourselves off or are afraid. So distrust, fear, silence, or simple exhaustion spread from you and me.
When you think about that, it’s a little scary how much Jesus empowers us. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,” he says, “and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Anyone else’s shoulders sagging under all this responsibility right now?
Take a deep breath and remember that Jesus isn’t expecting us to fix this all at once. Instead, he’s reminding us that we have to work on it all the time.

It starts with – and continues, every day, with – confronting the ways you get hurt by the people and the communities that matter to you.
Not the person on the street who you’ll never meet again. You don’t have to ritually confront and forgive the person who cut you off in traffic.
But your brothers and sisters: your co-workers, your in-laws, your dear friends, your Calvary community, the village of Lombard, and your literal siblings – the people who will still be around tomorrow, like them or not.

Hold yourself and each other accountable for what hurts.
Solve it privately if you can.
Get witnesses if you need to – others who will see that you’re working toward resolution.
And don’t drop it even if it means going public.

Because you can’t have reconciliation without engagement.
You can’t get to healing by forgetting.
And God knows the world needs healing and forgiveness, beginning with you and me.

So what can you do this week?
What hurt or sin or pain have you ignored, that you need to speak out about? What chance for reconciliation have you brushed off?
There’s an opportunity in your life and in mine to practice reconciliation right now.
Put it on your calendar. Seriously.
Because you’re not doing it just for yourself.  You’re doing it for God.

Trust, generosity, welcome, and hope in the church and the world really do depend on you and on me. On you and me seeking reconciliation one hurt at a time, and on wholeheartedly responding when someone seeks reconciliation with us.

We have to do it, so it might help to remember Jesus’ promise today “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
In every hurt we try to heal, Jesus is there.
We’re doing this for the world, yes, but you never have to do it alone.
Are you ready? 

Sunday, August 17, 2014


Matthew 15:21-28

How many of you would help a stranger on the street?

How about someone who came to the door of your home?  Someone who asked not just for some change or directions, but for a serious favor – a home-cooked meal in your kitchen, driving them into the city to visit a hospitalized relative? giving them something important that belongs to your own child?
Raise your hand if the decision gets more complicated here.

Then one more factor: what if the person asking for your help felt really strange, or a little dangerous?
A tall, heavy black man at twilight?
A stranger with a turban and an accent in the airport?
Someone with a robe and pointy white hood?

Do you drop everything to help this person? Or do you hesitate, think about why it’s not your responsibility, or try to quietly slip away?
Regardless of what you’d do, what do you think Jesus would do? 

Maybe we find out what Jesus would do in this situation in the gospel story we heard today:
Jesus is in Gentile territory, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he meets a Gentile woman.  A Caananite woman – member of a race that have been enemies of Israel deep into history – shows up asking – no, actually, demanding – his help to save her daughter. 

And Jesus ignores her.
Ignores her until his disciples have had it, and complain that she’s driving them crazy with her protests and demands.   Then he tells them he’s not responsible for her.  She’s an outsider, not entitled to the help that belongs to the sheep of Israel.
But she bursts through the defenses, kneels at his feet, proclaims his power, and begs for his help.
And Jesus insults her. 
He calls her a dog, and denies her access to his abundance.

How are you feeling about Jesus, now?
Honestly, this story makes me squirm. This isn’t what Jesus is supposed to do!!  Isn’t he the one who keeps pointing out that we’re supposed to care for the needy, the sick, the stranger….?  Isn’t Jesus supposed to help the people we can’t help?
But here’s this gospel story, where it’s perfectly clear that Jesus isn’t nice.
In fact, in this story, Jesus is racist.

It’s blunt and obvious when Jesus calls the Caananite mother a “dog.”  Many of us would object immediately if we heard a white person say that to a black or Hispanic woman; we recognize that as racist and rude.
But in that exaggerated form, Jesus is just expressing the common, subconscious expectations of his people of Israel – that Caananites want what belongs to us, and shouldn’t have it.  They’re dangerous to our well-being – definitely, somehow….

It’s a little bit like the way our US community has been trained to think of militant Islamic groups, or “illegal immigrants.”  We may have personal sympathy for individuals, or want to be non-judgmental and open, but our dominant culture creates a general expectation that there’s something vaguely threatening there.
It’s racist.
Perfectly normal, and still racist.

That word is a deeply uncomfortable one.  Few of us are eager to think of ourselves as racist, and the word seems to have a slippery, ambiguous definition, depending where it’s used.  But “racism” – or the euphemisms we use to get around the uncomfortable word – is getting a lot of play this week with the newscoverage of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the waves of protest and response that have followed.

A black teenager is shot by a police officer.  That happens.  One study suggests that a police officer, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante shoots a black man every 28 hours in the United States.
In some of those cases, the community protests.  Sometimes neighbors stand on street corners with signs, and start to make noise on the internet and the evening news, calling for peace, justice, freedom and fairness.
Occasionally, it becomes national news, and the racism flag gets raised.

The problem with that flag, of course, is that the way racism mainly affects us isn’t really the way it’s portrayed in the news: stark black and white, protests and incidents of violence.
It’s another side of racism that mostly gets us. The not-so-obvious root of the incidents is the cultural expectations that convince us that we have something to lose when people who aren’t quite like us have something to gain. 

That’s the form of racism that affects most of us. It’s not the only thing at play in Ferguson or in the gospel, but that’s the racism that’s at play between Jesus and the Caananite woman.

He tells her that the children of Israel will lose if he gives divine healing to her daughter.
And she tells him he’s wrong.
“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
She tells him there’s enough to spare. That your children don’t lose because mine gain a little.  She doesn’t bother with the insult, with the overtly racist remark. She cuts to the heart of the quiet, vague racism that afflicts us all, the kind that binds the people who don’t want to be racist. 
There’s enough, she says. You don’t lose because I gain.

We don’t lose because Mexican and Central American people cross the US border looking for a safer life with more economic opportunity.  People who believe in the dream and are driven to succeed make this country better for all of us.

We don’t lose because some black teens like rap music and some black mothers need help from the government and the community to be secure enough to raise healthy, happy, hopeful children. We don’t lose when white or multicolored, multi-lingual teens and mothers do the same.  We win when all our kids are safe, and strong and can express their creativity and power.

That’s what the Caananite mother told Jesus.
And she’s right.
So right that Jesus proclaims her faith and pours out healing, transformed by what he hears.

It’s a hard story to read, this story where Jesus is mean, even racist.
But we read it because of the Caananite mother’s persistence.
She isn’t shut down by being ignored, shoved aside, or insulted.
She keeps praying, and she’s not afraid to argue with God, to make the case for abundance and grace, when even God seems to forget about that.
And we read it because God listens to her, and in that listening the subtle, uncomfortable racism loses its power. It cannot stand against her persistence and God’s true listening, and the barriers break in favor of healing and grace.

This uncomfortable story is incredibly timely. So I’m going to ask you to pray this week with the strong, dogged persistence of the Caananite mother.
Pray for the people of Ferguson, Missouri.  Pray for protesters and police.  Pray for people whose neighborhood and homes have become a public battleground and a media circus.
Pray for them when the news media leaves, and the streets go back to a normal that leaves black teens scared of the cops who are supposed to protect them, and white neighbors scared of the black teens, just because.

Pray for the places all over our country and the people close to home who are affected by that unconscious, vague fear and discomfort about people-not-like-us that makes racism work – and makes racism so hard to fight.

But most of all, pray to be transformed.
Pray for me, pray for you, that we can listen like Jesus; listen and truly hear the experience and the wisdom of those not like us. Pray that that listening challenges us and changes our cultural comfort with division, moves us immediate action, to healing, to grace.
Pray to remember that God listens to all God’s people. Pray for abundance and grace and the end of that subtle, vague fear that divides and binds us.

Pray all that, and listen long and deep, and we’ll be living the gospel.

The gospel which is bitter sometimes, but powerful beyond measure, and healing with a grace that breaks every barrier down.