Monday, September 22, 2008

Sermon, September 21

I want to start by telling you about a conversation I overheard while waiting for my plane in the San Francisco airport.

I was sitting in the lounge, waiting for my flight and reading the paper when I started to hear snippets of the cell phone conversation of a woman sitting right behind me. Although she never, ever raised her voice, it was clear the conversation was going from bad to worse. The deity was apparently invoked by her interlocutor, because the next thing I heard was this woman saying, “Well, God spoke to me too, and God told me to tell you to stop being such a cheap son of a bitch.”

I’d really love to start by telling you that story. But I probably can’t because we’re in church.

God’s generosity is what comes shining through the readings today, both in the Old Testament and in the wonderful parable we just heard. And just to clear this out of the way, this generosity has little, or maybe even nothing to do with money.

It certainly has nothing to do with your money. I am not going to ask you to be generous with your pledge. One of the great things about being a guest preacher is I don’t have to preach what we euphemistically call a “stewardship sermon.” And I’m glad I don’t have to kick off a pledge drive after a week like we’ve had.

But I digress. The point is, today’s readings are about the concept of generosity, particularly God’s generosity, and not about material things. At least in my experience, generosity has nothing to do with the gift itself and everything to do with the relations between the giver and the receiver.

Have any of you received a large gift from someone that was given in such a way that receiving it was unpleasant? Maybe there were strings attached in terms of requirements, or maybe it was just that it was given so that you would feel bad for taking it. In whatever way or for whatever reason, it reduced you to accept it. The gift made you small while the giver gained power or status over you. That is not a generous gift.

In contrast, a generous gift may be quite small but even so, it is given in such a way to make you feel better about yourself, it gives you power and energy and an ability to go do things and help other people. That is a generous gift, and it has to do with the relationship between the giver and receiver, not with the gift itself. It is generous not only in what is given, but in how it is given.

What’s most interesting to me in the parable this morning is that the full-day laborers don’t want to see the landowner be generous. This, too, is not about the money. It’s what the money says to them about their worth and their value before the landowner. When they get the same pay, these workers say, “You have made them equal to us.” Not “You paid us an unfair amount for our labor,” but “You made us all equal.”

And I wonder how often we don’t want God to be generous. We want God to be generous to us, of course, but God doesn’t have to be nearly as generous to those other people.

I suspect many of us are secretly looking forward to the day of judgment. Not because we think we are so great—certainly not!--, but because we’re quite sure that God loves us and will be gracious to us and, more importantly, because we hope that God will at long last put those other folks straight. In this parable, Jesus tries to put us straight by pointing out to us that we are not God; that God is God; and that God is the one who is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him, not us.

When I have heard “the last will be first and the first will be last” before now, I’ve always assumed it meant an inverted hierarchy, the preferential option for the poor, to use a phrase from liberation theology. And I could perhaps wrap my brain around that. I could even wrap my brain around being brought somewhat lower, to a reasonable extent, as a market corrective for having been born white and wealthy. It seems fair enough to me.

But what’s on display here is not hierarchical. Well, it is, but it’s only on two levels: the landowner, and the workers. And the workers are all equal. I’m not as sure I can wrap my brain around that one. It’s funny. I can understand being brought lower to make up for my current socio-economic status. I can understand other people being brought lower just to make up for the fact that they’re jerks. I cannot understand all of us being treated the same.

I think the woman in the airport was right. I think she did hear God correctly, and that God’s message for whoever she was talking to was God’s message to us also. God wants us to stop being so cheap. Not in terms of money or time or all of those things that we so often give to one another-- or demand of one another. But we need to stop being so cheap in our relations with one another: holding onto grudges, thinking resentfully about how other people haven’t done enough, and clinging to the hope that they’ll get their comeuppance, God is going to get them one of these days.

Instead how can we approach one another more generously, realizing that we do not get to choose who God loves, and that God has made us equals of one another whether we deserve it or not.

May God grant us a generous spirit so that we may approach one another with the love God has for us. Amen.

1 comment:

qoe said...

I enjoy your exegetical exercise... All being equal implies no double standards. This is, of course, one of the most difficult texts to chew on...

For further head knocking on this, I recommend the extended discussion in "Parables as Subversive Speech" by William R. Herzog, II. He covers many different approaches to analysis of this and other parables, and there are several scholars who lean heavily in the liberation theology direction with their exegesis of this parable; it all seems to hinge on who you take the oikodespotes to be... and is "first/last... last/first" a spurious interpolation? If so, that obscures the original intent.

But, I still struggle with this one...