Date: November 20, 2017
Title: “Liberating Systems”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
Well, it’s almost Thanksgiving Day. And I know that some of you may be worried about your turkey day festivities. You’re worried that the family and friends at your table will give into the temptation to talk politics. You’re thinking folks may stray away from talk of the weather into global warming, or from taxes to tax reform, which we all know is just a stone’s throw away from health care! But not to worry… I’m here to help! You could throw a Thanksgiving party just like Jesus. How? It’s simple really, if you follow these ten basic guidelines:
- Throw a party with a few friends. I mean, a party, no holds barred. Jesus is not a Puritanical Pilgrim, and he wants to party.
- Next, you’ll want to invite a few prostitutes, an IRS agent, and a religious fundamentalist who hates your guts.
- Then, you’ll want to make the seating arrangements awkward, forcing your guests into a moral or ethical quandary when choosing a seat. And, if you want to go the extra mile, you can point out the spiritual dilemma caused by the seating arrangements with a story about the religious priorities of our day.
- When you are eating the meal, be sure to tell politically divisive, religiously themed stories designed to make everyone at the table extremely uncomfortable.
- At the end of the meal, you can anoint everyone’s feet with the most expensive perfume you can find. Sure, this means people will have to take off their shoes, but you will want to take note of the ones who get angry about the perfume…you may not be able to trust them later.
- Be sure to have everyone sitting at the same table; in Jesus’ realm there is no separation, and the kids get to dine with the adults.
- Be careful what you do with the leftovers. Jesus won’t necessarily be pleased to see them in your refrigerator if somebody in your neighborhood is hungry.
- Make sure you pray together. The Lord’s prayer is always a good place to start.
- Now you’ll want to leave the dishes until next week – or at least until everybody has had a chance to listen to Jesus and learn from him.
- Don’t forget to have fun. You can’t go wrong!
Today we continue our sermon series we call “Liberating the End”. Today, what Jesus is liberating are the systems under which we live our lives, even the Thanksgiving dinner party – systems that are defined by human notions of fairness and justice.
A couple of years ago when I preached on this text from Matthew I told you a story about a day just like any other day. I had been busy with a lot of little errands, and ducked into the bank in the afternoon to make a quick deposit. It was a pleasant enough encounter – the teller was helpful, efficient and friendly, and I didn’t give it a second thought. Until later that night, when I was watching the local news, and I saw that helpful, efficient, friendly teller being carried out on a stretcher bound for the funeral home. You see, when we bid each other “good day”, neither of us knew about the would-be bank robber with the sawed-off shotgun. Neither of us guessed it would be her last day, nor realized in that moment the predictable unpredictability of life and the unfairness of death. And I wept that night, thinking of all the times in life when we get something we do not deserve – both bad and good.
It is against this harsh reality that the experience of faith struggles. It is within this unfair reality that we measure our understanding of God, and God’s presence, and our ability to trust God’s love. Sometimes it is all we can do to rage against God – “It’s not fair!” Sometimes all we can manage is to pout quietly or to question inwardly. So we scratch our heads and shake our fists and wonder if Jesus had an off day when he told us the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
This parable blows apart our mentality of “deserving”. The point of the story is the generosity of the vineyard owner, who pays all the laborers what they need to provide for their families, who liberates the system for the sake of love. Karoline Lewis suggests that the difficulty we have with this parable is in wanting to understand the generosity. She writes:
Our human nature is to anticipate a quid pro quo situation – to assume that we need to do something to deserve such generosity. We don’t know how to respond to true generosity, so we relegate it to equality, accountability, measurability. But generosity is not measurable, accountable, or calculable.
Perhaps it was not even the generosity or the extravagance of it that makes those early workers so angry. When the landowner deals so generously with that group of people no other manager in town considered worth the trouble of hiring, a clear statement is being made about their individual worth. This kindness strips away from the full-day laborers any notion they want to hang onto of their own privilege or superiority. No wonder they are so upset!
It seems this is a lesson we have to learn over and over again. God’s grace is not dispensed according to our expectations. God is not fair; God is overwhelmingly generous. And in God’s economy our systems are liberated as love outdoes justice every time. The vineyard owner doesn’t care about what we think we deserve, because for him, love is more important even than justice.
Think for a moment about your own life, and the questions we fear might plague our Thanksgiving tables, and then ask yourself: which do you prefer – justice, or love? Now it helps if you realize that love is not the opposite of justice, and that love does not encourage injustice. However, love is also not content to leave things there. Love pushes us to liberate systems beyond justice into relationships based on grace. As David Lose reminds us:
Where justice counts, love loses track. Where justice calculates, love lets go. Where justice holds all things in balance, love gives everything away and upsets the balances we have so carefully arranged.
Whomever we find standing in line today, waiting for work or for food, waiting for clothing or for shelter, waiting for purpose or for meaning, or just waiting for love…Jesus is calling us to pass beyond justice into love. Jesus is calling us to liberate the systems of work and privilege, the systems of economics and affluence, the systems of identity and worth, for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the world.
Yesterday many of us were in this very space together to celebrate the life of Maribeth Wilson Collins. An extraordinary woman, Maribeth never imagined she would be Chairman of the Board of a timber company practicing environmentally sustainable forestry, much less the President of a large charitable foundation. Maribeth wanted to be a poet, or maybe a painter. She expected to live a modest life of creativity and obscurity. But life surprised her with love and loss, with joy and grief, with responsibility and possibility. And Maribeth rose to the occasion. She met every one of life’s surprises head-on. And because she rose to the occasion, countless others rose as well, beyond justice, all the way to love.
One of Maribeth’s favorite poets, Mary Oliver, puts it this way:
You can have the other words – chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity.
I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it.
Grace is what finally liberates all our systems, and brings us beyond justice all the way to love. So you can have those other words. Me? I’ll take grace. What about you? Happy Thanksgiving! Amen.