Sorted Out: a sermon about bias in the marketplace

This sermon is based on the readings assigned for Proper 20 Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

 

I’m tempted… I’d like to say that this is a universal experience… but that might not be true. It may be that some of us here today don’t know what it’s like to be sorted, to be sifted, to be evaluated, and to be found wanting, to be sorted out.

I remember my first foray into official, organized sports. I was 11 years old in 1971, sitting on the concrete bleachers at the boys club overlooking the baseball field.   There must’ve been 200 boys sitting there on those steps and a dozen baseball coaches standing there looking up at us. This was our first gathering together and the day that we would be assigned to teams, and the schedule would be organized, and the season would begin. So those coaches standing up there looking at all of us started pointing at kids, one at a time, and calling them down out of the stands to stand behind them as part of their team. I think about three rounds into this sorting process one of the coaches smiled and asked us all to stand up, and then to turn, around and face them again. All the other coaches laughed. They said, “Aw, you’re cheating!”   But they didn’t ask us to sit back down. And so one by one these coaches repeated this ritual, and selected kids to come down and join their teams. I don’t know what they were looking for that day. They were looking I’m sure for the tallest, the largest, maybe people with a particular twinkle in their eyes… but I do know that I was one of the last to be chosen for a team. Now that turned out to be okay. We didn’t know it yet but I really needed glasses! And so standing there in the batter’s box as the pitcher hurled a ball at me that I couldn’t see was not an easy thing for me to do.   But I stung. That sorting process hurt and I carry that with me for that whole season. It is with that in mind that I enter into today’s gospel reading…

So let’s flesh today’s story out a little bit. A landowner goes into the marketplace to look for laborers to work in his vineyard. Now the marketplace would be the spot where people who needed to earn a day’s wages, day laborers, would come and hope to be selected by one of the many landowners who would come out in the morning gathering people to come and help work their crops. These are people who don’t always get to work, don’t always earn that day’s wages, don’t always get to feed their families at the end of the day. So there is some real anxiety here as the sorting, sifting, and the evaluation process begins. I’m sure that those landowners came in to the marketplace and they selected the people with whom they had a history, people whom they knew, people who had worked for them in the past. They would also make sure that they picked the largest, the strongest, the most agile, maybe people who have a certain air about them that they knew what they were doing. Whatever their criterion was by the time they finished they would take those workers off to their fields and others would be left behind; people who in that sifting and sorting and evaluation process had been sorted out.

It’s that group of people who are still standing there in the marketplace when the owner of our vineyard returns. He finds these people standing idle, there on the margins, sitting on the bench, and he invites more of them to come join him working in the vineyard. He comes back again at noon. He comes back again at three. And each time he comes back he gathers more of these people who had been sorted out and he takes them into the vineyard with him. Then at 5 o’clock so no more than an hour left in the working day, he comes back to the marketplace and he finds more people who have been sorted out. I think the exchange that happens between the landowner and these workers is key to our understanding of the story.

He says, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” Their response is, “Because no one has hired us.” Not because, “Well we got here late and we missed the first call.” Not, because “We just didn’t really feel like working today and so we didn’t put ourselves out there. We didn’t put ourselves forward.”   They are still standing there in the marketplace without the opportunity to earn what they need to feed their families for that day because no one has hired them.

The next scene in our Gospel story today is, I think, the place where we spend most of our time and most of our energy because it rubs us the wrong way. These people who have worked less than an hour get paid the same wages as those who started the day in the vineyard early in the morning.   But I have to ask this question… Do we really believe… because Jesus has said the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner goes through this process… do we really believe that God’s grace and love are doled out in different measures because of our merit or because of something that we’ve done. I don’t think that’s even on the table for us. I think we understand and know that God loves each and every one of us equally and that we are all beloved in God’s sight. So if you take a piece off the table then the real key to this story is God’s affection for the marginalized, those who have been sorted out, those who have been left on the margins, or on the bench. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who returns again and again and welcomes everyone into the vineyard!

On Facebook this week there’s this video that’s been making the rounds and in fact I posted it to the church is Facebook page this morning with a little teaser that I would be featuring it in the sermon this morning. I don’t know if any of you have seen this video yet. It’s a series of short vignettes and in the first one there’s a young man sitting on sort of the circular sofa. It looks like maybe he’s in an airport or shopping mall. He has several bags and it looks like he’s about to eat lunch. Another young man who looks very different from the first, clearly a different ethnicity, comes and sits on that same sofa. Suddenly beside the person who was there first is this sort of vaguely threatening, vaguely dangerous looking guy with long unkempt hair and haggard face and he whispers into the young man’s ears, “You’re not going to stay there are you?” and he gets up and leaves. The young man who was sitting on the sofa first moves a little further away from the man who has joined him. The man who arrived on the couch second looks up and notices, sort of raises his eyebrows for a moment, and then goes on with his business.

In the next vignette there is a person who is standing behind a cash register in a convenience store when someone walks in the door who looks very different from the proprietor.   As she’s walking to the coolers in the back of the convenience store suddenly this threatening, dangerous looking person is standing next to the proprietor and he says, “I wonder what she’s really up to.” The proprietor looks at her again and when she gets her milk out of the cooler and walks back she knows by the look on that man’s face that she has been sorted, sifted, and evaluated… and sorted out. You can see the pain on her face when she recognizes that’s what’s happened.

In the next vignette a professional woman, well-dressed, sitting in a very modern office with big windows behind her at a nice clean table, a sheet of paper in her hands, is talking to a person who is clearly a job applicant. The applicant looks very different from the interviewer. This time that strange, threatening, dangerous looking person pops up out of nowhere next to the interviewer and says, “Can you really depend on her?” The interviewer’s smile turns to a frown. She closes all the papers into a neat pile, places her hand on top of them, and the young woman who’s hoping to get that job knows without a doubt that she has been sorted out.

In the last vignette; a crowded bus, a young woman gets on, walking down the center aisle. A man of color is sitting far down the bus. He picks up his laptop case and puts it on his lap so that she will have a place to sit. The dangerous character shows up again and whispers in her ear, “Don’t make eye contact.” She stops, turns her back on him, and holds onto one of the rails.

I think that the key for us in today’s gospel passage is that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes into the vineyard and isn’t afraid to invite into that vineyard people who are different, people who might not normally get the first call. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who returns again and again and without bias or prejudice invites everyone to join him in that space. I think that this gospel passage today is calling us look deep within ourselves and recognize those places where we unconsciously flinch, turn away, refuse to make eye contact, slide a little further down the couch, and let the person in our presence know, sometimes in subtle and sometimes in not-so-subtle ways, that we have sorted them out.

The videotape that I’ve been watching on Facebook this week is sponsored by the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience, a group of folks who work with high school students and with college students giving them mentors of their own ethnicity, their own nationality, who can help them to overcome the impact of having been constantly and consistently sorted out. The last words in this video… A narrator’s voice comes over the screen and says, “Discrimination leads to depression and anxiety in indigenous Australians. No one should be made to feel like crap just for being who they are.” The three words appear: Stop, Think, Respect. If we want to help realize God’s vision and dream for creation, if we want the vineyard to be here and now, then we need to be like that land owner. We need to look deep within ourselves and find those places where we turn away, where we don’t make eye contact, where we slide down the couch, and we need to acknowledge them and learn to resist. We need to return again and again to the marketplace because the people whom we have sorted out and left on the sidelines, on the margins, are not able to earn the daily wages that they need to feed themselves and to feed their families and God’s children are going unfed. We need to be sure that everyone in the marketplace, everyone in the vineyard, is loved, respected, and upheld because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, children of the loving God who has created us in God’s image, Stop. Think. Respect.

Amen

The video referenced in this sermon can be found here

Learn more about the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience here

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Saving Our Lives by Losing Them: a Call for Restorative Justice

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is based on the readings for the Proper 17 in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

This text is a transcription of the recording made at the 9:30 Celebration of the Eucharist. I have made a few adjustments in the transcription, mostly where my proclivity for compound run on sentences began to border on the absurd.  There is a link at the end of the text to the article by Charles Hefling that is quoted in the sermon.

Here is the recorded version:

 

This is a big weekend here in Madison just like it is in college towns all over this country. Students are returning for their second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth year of school. First time students are arriving on campus, finding their roommate assignments, making their way through the dorms, learning the layout of campus and where the dining hall is. It’s a tremendously exciting and terrifying and important moment in the life of any young person. I think it’s a very similar; it doesn’t matter where you’re going to school; it doesn’t matter who you are; there’s a lot that’s shared in this moment. But I think there’s something very different about college today than there was when I started in 1978. That year at Juniata College, a small private liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania, room board intuition for a whole year cost a whopping sum of $4800. I don’t know that you could even get a meal plan for a year for that much money today! We had gone to great lengths to plan for a college education, to research, to find the right place to go, and then over the four years that I was there cost of that tuition tripled. It was almost $15,000 the year that I graduated. Sometime during my senior year I was home and we were having a conversation at the dinner table and someone said something that caught my ear and I asked for clarification and my father said “uh… no. I sold the sailboat.”   Really? So why did you do that? He looked very uncomfortable for second and then he said, “Well tuition has gone up quite a bit since you started school.” I felt all the breath rush out of me. I thought uh oh, now is to be mad at me. Now I’m going to find out what this really costs. I was stunned that he just went on… changed the subject. He almost looked embarrassed that it had come up at all. And I was flabbergasted by that. I really didn’t understand how that could have been; that this thing that was so precious to him was gone and he never even mentioned it; wouldn’t have mentioned it unless it had come up in this conversation.

I think I started to have some understanding of how all of that worked for him about 15 years later when our son Daniel was born. When we were expecting Daniel I went to church and I told all of these older men there at the parish that we were expecting a baby and there was almost a universal response from them. They would come up and put their arm around my shoulder and they’d go, “Oh man… Your life is about to change…” And I’d say “Yeah! I know! We’ve been trying for a long time to have a baby! We’ve planned for this and were prepared and I know what’s coming and I’m glad of it.” The Sunday after Daniel was born I went back to church and went back to the same guys and I said, “Oh man my life has changed! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Here I was with this defenseless infant who couldn’t feed himself, couldn’t clean himself, couldn’t clothe himself, or protect himself… I was responsible for him, and for all of the things that he needed.   And so suddenly things that I thought were mine, rightfully mine, had to get set aside. You know my sense that I deserved eight hours of sleep a night, the idea that I would get to choose when I slept, that I would get to choose when I ate… All sorts of things that I thought were under my control and mine to decide suddenly became his to decide. I had to give up things that I thought were important to me, that I thought made me who I was, in order to be a father to this child.

I think that my dad was doing much the same thing only on a different scale and at a different point in my life when he sold his boat. He was helping to launch me from college into the real world.

So Jesus in the gospel today tells us that if we want to save our lives we have to lose them. I think that as we consider the ways that we change, the ways that we give of ourselves for the people we love, we have some sense of what he’s talking about here. In order to be in relationship with those who are close to us we make concessions. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to change. We give up pieces of ourselves that we thought were crucial to our identity and who we are, and in doing so we find something much greater. We find a gift of life in the light that we couldn’t have expected or experienced until we were willing to make ourselves vulnerable and give up something in that way.

Now, I think that’s an easy thing to picture and this is a great metaphor to understand all this but it’s kind of limited because it’s easy to give of our life in this way for our children, our parents, our siblings, our family, our tribe, our community. It’s a little more difficult when it’s a stranger for whom we have to give. It’s a little more difficult when we are asked to change or to give up something for someone we’ve never met and may never meet again. We all know on some level how difficult this is and you see evidence of that in the way that we honor those stories and those moments. I can sit in the evening at 5:30 at night and watch 25 minutes of terrible horrible news from all over the world. But you get the last five minutes and the news anchor is going to show you something to lift your heart, and make you smile, and show you someone in the world who has reached out and done something spectacularly generous in giving for a stranger. Those moments we treasure and we value. They give us an insight into something that we claim and proclaim that is awfully difficult to do.

All right so take it another step and we see the limitations of this metaphor in describing what Jesus is talking about. It’s easy for your family its more difficult for a stranger. But what about for someone you don’t really like that much to begin with; someone who rubs you the wrong way; someone who you find to be challenging and difficult; or even someone who has hurt you; someone who you believe owes you the gift and not you them.   That’s where the story gets really difficult and that’s where we find ourselves finally able to circle back to the beginning of today’s gospel passage.

Jesus says if you want to save your life you must lose it but that’s buried pretty deep in today’s reading. The reading today starts out with Jesus telling his disciples that he must be crucified, die, and rise again. Jesus is talking about losing his own life and in the shock and dismay that the disciples express after that moment, after Peter likens himself to Satan and says “No Lord this can never happen to you!” Jesus tells us that we have to follow him and be willing to lose our life in order to find it. So I think at this moment we need to dig in just a little bit to see what it is that Jesus is losing.

Jesus dies on the cross at our hands. Now if someone were to harm us, to wrong us in some way, it would be normal, I’ll say natural for lack of a better word, expected for us to expect compensation.   Justice would say that we are owed retribution, compensation, even revenge.   And so punitive justice, retributive justice would say that we respond to that evil with evil because punishment is by its definition depriving someone of something they value: liberty, possessions, time, acquaintances, even their life.   Retributive justice, the justice that the world, in which the world deals, says that we repay evil with evil and we only repay good with good.

Jesus on the other hand places himself in our hands and allows us to nail him to a tree, to crucify him, to kill him. He experiences the very worst that we have to offer and instead of repaying that evil with evil he comes back and loves us anyway.

Now the Gospels tell us, Jesus has said himself, he could if he wanted summon 12 legions of angels who would fight for him and save him from this fate. He could have fled.   He fact in came over the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem to face this conflict, to find himself in this moment. He didn’t flee, he didn’t fight, he didn’t summon a legion of Angels to rescue him. He repaid the evil that was done to him with good and broke the cycle of violence; violence to repay violence, to repay violence, to repay violence by showing us something different.

I think that this is so difficult for us because we want to be compensated. We want to find recompense. When someone wrongs us of justice calls for us to be repaid and it’s very difficult to forgo that compensation or retribution in order to find something different.

I’ve quoted from this article before and I’ll post a link to it when I post the sermon this afternoon. Charles Hefling in the Christian Century, March 20 of last year, has an article called “Why the Cross?” and he says,

“punishment by definition takes away from an offender something valuable – liberty, property, physical well-being, companionship, possessions. Forgiveness would mean the remission or cancellation or cessation of deserved punishment. It comes down to taking away the taking away.”

He goes on to say that,

“If you choose to retaliate you perpetuate the evil by causing new injury” and he says “If instead you choose to hold a grudge, to brood on your injury and cultivate your dudgeon, you will still perpetuate the evil, internally, by diminishing yourself, souring your character and becoming your own victim as well as mine”

the decision to forgive to forgo the righteous revenge, resentment, self vindication, righteous indignation is to rise above that retributive justice that perpetuates the cycle of evil and to participate in the justice of God which is restorative. Hefling tells us,

“If you choose to forgive, you are choosing to absorb the infection, as it were; to contain its self-diffusion, to forgo the gratifications of revenge, resentment, self vindication, and righteous indignation.”

This is what Jesus did on our behalf in coming back and repaying evil with good, loving us anyway; breaking that cycle of violence and showing us a different way; something that will build community, break down barriers and walls, and draw us one to another in a community that realizes God’s vision and dream for all of us. But it is an incredibly difficult crucified place to stand.

Now I just have to offer one caveat in all of this because I know that this passage has been used to cause great harm and I hear people say, “it’s my cross to bear in life.” I don’t believe that God inflicts suffering on us and I don’t believe that God wants us to suffer. God is asking us to be willing to give our lives in order that community might grow, that light and love might grow, that people will all be restored to light and life. But God is not asking us to sacrifice ourselves in order that someone may continue their abusive behavior, or that someone might continue down a dark path that doesn’t lead to life but leads to death. Jesus didn’t allow the crowds to throw him off the cliff when he returned to Galilee, to Nazareth and began to preach to them that, in him, the kingdom of God was fulfilled. He chose his moment in a way that would restore light and life to the world. He did not cast his pearls before swine and allow himself to be trampled into the dust.

Jesus does not call us to be doormats. Jesus does not call us to remain in abusive and life demeaning situations. But he does call us to be prepared to give up our own agenda, to sacrifice our own sense that we are central to this universe and to the world in order that other people might find themselves uplifted, might have what they need, and that we might ourselves break the cycle of violence that drags us all into the depths.

I had a conversation with Ken Stancer (our Music Director) this week. This was the day after an in-service for all teachers in the Madison public school system and he was very excited to tell me about a new program that is designed around restorative behaviors in the classroom. I thought this was a stunning statistic that he told me, and I’ll get this number wrong because I didn’t write it down, but there were somewhere in the area of 4,470 days of suspensions and expulsions in the Madison school system K through 12 last year. He told me that the graph that they showed the teachers said that 68% percent of those days were served by African-American males and that the remaining 32% were divided up equally between all of the other ethnicities and genders present in the school system. The school system is working to balance the need to maintain order in the classroom with the need to restore people to community and to attack the roots of those problems.   So if you pull a child out of class, if you send them from the room, you have to balance that act of justice with another act of justice that is designed to restore them to the community and to resolve the issues that resulted in their being suspended or expelled.

I want to applaud the Madison school system for this effort I want to commend this kind of thinking to all of us. We are called save our lives by losing our lives, by being willing to give to and for one another, to change and be changed by our interactions with one another much the same that we are willing to be changed by our interactions with the people that we love who are closest to us. We are called to this behavior because it has the potential to break that cycle of violence, to become a lamp shining on the hill, and to help create and bring to fruition God’s vision and dream for all of us.

Jesus tells us that he must be crucified and die and rise from the dead, and he tells us that we must walk in his footsteps and be willing to lose our lives in order to find true life. Thanks be to God that we don’t have to hang on that same cross. But we need to be ready and willing to follow him, to recognize others’ needs and rightful demands, we need to be willing to take ourselves out of the center of our own spinning universe and to stand side-by-side with our brothers and sisters in this community and beyond, to call for an end to the violence, to pray for and demand peace, and to bring all of God’s creatures into the light where we ourselves long to stand.

Amen

 

This sermon is indebted to Charles Hefling and his article “Why the Cross” published March 20, 2013 in the Christian Century.  You can read his article here.

I also made extensive use of Hefling’s article in my sermon for Good Friday 2013.