20 September 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
The world continues to feel incredibly fragile. And sometimes our scripture (and the sermon) speak directly to the grief and fragility, and sometimes they don’t. At least not directly. Today’s parable certainly doesn’t. So if today, what you really need to hear is a sermon that provides some clear-eyed hope, or encourages you to wrap the fear you’re feeling up inside some divine peace, I’d encourage you to go back and relisten to the sermons I preached the last two weeks. And I encourage you to remember that Anoma, Tammy, and I are here if you need to talk to any of us. Be gentle with yourselves…and with others…because we’re all fragile. But today’s Gospel is a parable…and parables are meant to challenge us. They’re meant to upend our thinking and shake us out of our stuckness. They are often purposefully opaque. They don’t proclaim the Good News, but instead invite us to discover it on our own.
Billy Collins, the once poet laureate of the US describes teaching introductory poetry, which I always think is very similar to how people should and shouldn’t approach the parables.
He says: I ask them to take a poem (when he says “poem” think “parable”)
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
We do that with parables. We want to know what a parable means. The gospel writers sometimes do this with parables…giving us tidy but constricting explanations.
This one, tied to a chair, and tortured often ends up meaning: “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.” “Just be grateful for what you have, and be glad the God is generous.” Which is one message to take from it…but that’s a little like saying Hamlet is about how hard it is to avenge your father’s murder…it’s not wrong…it just misses an awful lot.
I want to drop a mouse into this parable…I want us to walk around inside of it for a bit looking for a light switch…and see what might be revealed. Ok?
“Jesus said: The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner.” Ok. Stop. What assumptions have you already made? Who is this landowner? What does he look like? What color is he? Is he a white guy? Is he Jewish? Is he…vaguely middle eastern? Is he a California Napa Valley vineyard owner? I don’t mean…what would he have looked like historically…don’t over-intellectualize this…just what is the first picture that popped into your mind. Why? Why have you pictured him the way you do? Why didn’t you picture him as something else? Why couldn’t he be black, a woman? or transgendered? We’ve heard no pronouns yet…We’re barely 10 words into this and already each of us has cast the landowner as someone…and that is going to color the whole parable.
Now the laborers…who are they? We’ve all seen day laborers. So that’s the image that immediately comes to my mind. So, if I’m honest, in my head I’ve got a white male landowner and some men of color (Latinx, because that’s my initial stereotype for day laborers…Although I also saw them in China so some of them might be Asian…it depends on the context, doesn’t it?)…And for you they might be someone else, but I’m betting that whoever they are for you they are not the same color as the landowner…even if they are the same race…they are probably darker, aren’t they?
Jesus gets vaguer and vaguer about the ones there at noon, and three o’clock, and five o’clock—-which allows us to be more and more imaginative with the casting…maybe they all sort of look alike…just extras…maybe not… Let’s put a mouse in here and watch it try to work it’s way out.
What about this…A white business owner (maybe it’s a tech company) goes out early in the morning and finds a bunch of his white male buddies and says…”have I got a deal for you…” and they all go to help him out. Then they find they need administrative and support staff, so he goes back out and finds a bunch of white women and says…”we need help.” And they say, “but we’ve got kids at home, that’s why we weren’t here earlier,” and he says, “don’t worry I’ll pay you ‘what’s right’.” So they go in. Then they discover they need manual workers and janitorial staff so he goes back out and finds some people of color, and says, I need you to do this menial work.” And they go in. And then it comes time to pay them. He gathers all of them together and starts paying the people of color first. And they get a full day’s pay. And then the white women, and they get a full day’s pay…and finally all the white men. And they say…what? “But you have made them equal to us!”
Now I know the parable doesn’t explicitly say that…but that is one of many readings that it invites us into…Remember, it’s a parable not a deposition…more like a poem than it is like history. Hold it up to the light and ask…Who is the landlord? Who are these characters for you? It’s the kingdom of heaven, so they are most definitely not all white. Or straight. Or cisgendered.
Hold it up to your ear and ask: why were some hired later in the day? Could it be because of the way they looked, or dressed? Did they just arrive from another country…maybe they don’t speak the language very well…maybe they were late because they were at home taking care of children…or were up all night taking care of a sick relative…maybe others were working a second job…or did you assume—as the landowner appear to—that they were all just idle—lazy?
In other words, if you tie the parable to a chair you can make it mean “stop complaining and be glad for what you have.” But you can also waterski across it…get inside of it…walk around in it…play out various scenarios and pay attention to the assumptions you make…get curious about them…and try to see beyond them…Let yourself feel what it’s like to be first hired…or last hired…maybe then that line “but you have made them equal to us!” will begin to work it’s way into our souls…and maybe that’s really the point.
Because we all say we believe…that all people are created equal…that we strive to respect the dignity of every human being…but we also know that we don’t actually live that way. We live in a world where some are almost always first, and others are almost always last. But Jesus reminds us that…God’s realm is different than that…in God’s realm everyone is fed, everyone receives enough for the day. In God’s realm equality doesn’t mean assimilation. Difference is beautiful. Difference is valuable. And grace is always unearned and undeserved and given to all, no matter what they look like, or when they show up.