What is Fair?

What is Fair?

Matthew 20:1-16
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2020

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

When I was growing up with three brothers, we had a lot of fights about what was fair. Who got the most food? Whose shoes cost more? Who got the biggest, the loudest, the fastest, the coolest, the most expensive gift? Everything was a challenge of fairness. We recognized it so much that we had systems to keep everything fair. For instance, whenever we rode in the car we would rotate seats so that everyone got a chance to sit in front. So much so that my little brother learned before he was even out of his car seat the honest phrase that “the back of the car shall sit in the front and the front of the car shall sit in the back.”

Jonah in our story today was sick and tired of the Ninevites always getting to sit in front. Jonah knew, like every good Israelite, that Nineveh was wicked. Jonah is angry that these wicked evil people were able to repent and receive God’s compassion. God asks, “is it right for you to be angry?” But the way Jonah sees it, he absolutely has a right to be angry. “God, they are the worst! Should your grace be given to killers!?” And interestingly, God does not scold Jonah for being angry but rather changes tactics. God wants Jonah to see Nineveh the way that God sees them. “Yes, Jonah they are violent and wicked and depraved but they are also more, so much more. They are a great city,” God says. “But they do not know their right hand from their left. They are lost and broken but they are still human beings made in my image.” God does not deal to Nineveh what they deserve but rather generously gives them what they need, compassion. (Debie Thomas https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay)

And then we come to our parable for the day. The parable of the compassionate landowner. A landowner goes out to hire workers several times throughout the day, finding people who have not received work that day and bringing them in. Then at the end of the day, the landowner pays everyone the exact same wage. The laborers who got there early are quite upset that they have been considered equal with those who didn’t work half as hard as them. The landowner challenges them, like how God challenged Jonah, saying, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 

Once again we are challenged with our notions of fairness. But something I noticed this week is that when I would fight for the front seat with my brothers, I was always fighting for me. I never reminded my brothers when they forgot it was their turn to sit in the front seat. I was very concerned with fairness if others had more but if I had more, I was less concerned. And when I read these two stories, I always assume that I am the person who worked harder, that I am the person more deserving, more worthy. I always assume that I should get more. But God is challenging more than our sense of fairness. God is challenging us to look through the lens of someone else, someone who might not have as much as I do. God is challenging us to see through God’s eyes.

Why were some workers left in the marketplace with no one asking them to work for them? Perhaps they are differently abled, or have a tough home life, or needed to get their children to school and ran late. Perhaps they do not speak the language or do not have transportation. Perhaps they were not hired first because they are gay or trans or Black or female.

Take a minute to consider how this parable would be read by those who have been at the back of the line. The workers who got paid more than we think “they deserve.” They must have been ecstatic. They can now go home and feed their families or pay their rent. They tried to get work all day but no one would hire them and then this generous landowner offered them a full day’s wage. 

Because at the end of the day Jonah still has all the privileges that his life had before. The workers who got to the field early still got everything they were promised. At the end of the day God is more concerned with compassion than our perceived fairness. God is more concerned that all these workers maintain their dignity with a job and the security of a living wage. 

I will be blunt. I do not often have the same vision that God has. My compassion has its limits. My fairness meter loves to make sure I am taken care of but is not as concerned about it being fair for others. But our God invites us into so much more than the individual. God invites us to open our eyes and ears and hearts to hear that not all of God’s children are safe. Who am I to be the gatekeeper to God’s love, to God’s compassion, to God’s generosity. Because I know that I have received more than my fair share. 

Are you like me today? Someone who has received a generous share in this world. I would challenge you to join me in listening to the voices most affected by climate change, poverty, and racism in our world. They are God’s children as much as we are. Let us be like our God and be radically generous with what we have been given.

But I also imagine that some of you are not like me. You have had the short end of the stick given to you your whole life. You do not know where the next paycheck will come from. You do not know if you can make it one more day with all that is stacked against you. I would invite you to hear this message from God this morning. Nothing, no nothing, will stop God from loving you. Because you are worthy of a full share of the pie, a chance at a thriving and abundant life. God offers you life and life abundant. 

Friends, our God is overflowing with radical generosity. There are times when we are at the front of the line and can share generously with others and times in our life when we are at the back of line and can rely on God’s abundance for us. Therefore let us go out and live lives filled with generosity. Amen.

A Community of Forgiveness

Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
September 13th, 2020
Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Theologian Debie Thomas put into words this week the discomfort I felt reading this text in a world where demands for the oppressed to forgive their oppressors are so often used to silence their cries for justice. 

“First, a confession:,” Thomas says. “I feel ambivalent about writing an essay on forgiveness. Not because I disdain forgiveness, or consider it anything less than essential to the Christian life. But because I’m hyper-aware of how forgiveness is sometimes deployed by Christians to fend off questions about power, justice, repentance, and lament. This is especially true right now in the United States, where the pressing call for racial equality and healing is too often met in the Church by premature demands for forgiveness. Often — and to our shame — we Christians turn the concept of forgiveness into a weapon,” Thomas writes, “and use it to silence people who cry out against injustice.” (Debie Thomas, JOURNEY WITH JESUSA WEEKLY WEBZINE FOR THE GLOBAL CHURCH, SINCE 2004, ttps://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?fbclid=IwAR3fq8Hrdgl5VVvRAGDGJtHQGyJshTpJlvGgfgHQs4tPzlG0HQ_xkO80bzk)

So I wondered: How can we speak about this passage in a way that holds with awe and gratitude stories of radical forgiveness between people while refusing to allow those stories to be co-opted and weaponized to demand that the Black community simply forgive white Americans for over 400 years of systematic oppression? And as I turned this over in my mind, I noticed something in this passage that hadn’t jumped off the page in my first reading. I have such an American, individualistic lens when I read the Bible, so it hadn’t occurred to me how significant it is that when the king in this parable forgives the debt of the enslaved man, he wasn’t just setting that one man free. Remember, the text says that the enslaved man was about to be sold to pay his debt along with his wife and children and all their possessions. So when the man had his slate wiped clean, this impacted his entire family, which I imagine impacted the rest of the community where they lived together, carrying the potential to echo through the coming generations of that family who would no longer need to live under the burden of an unjust financial weight. I wonder if it would have meant that his spouse wouldn’t be uprooted from her entire social network and the many who perhaps depended upon her for support in such a communal society. I wonder if it would have meant that the children in the family could continue to find connections in the friendships they had been developing as they grew up without being shipped off to some entirely new place where they had no network of support. As theologian Michael Joseph Brown puts it, “…forgiveness is an act that affects more than just two individuals… life should be understood as interconnected.” (Michael Joseph Brown, True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, Brian K. Blount, General Editor, Fortress Press: 2007, pg. 109.) We cannot think about biblical forgiveness without thinking of it’s impact on whole families and entire communities.

And this too made me wonder: What would happen if we laid down our white American lens of individualism for a moment and thought more about whole communities that practice forgiveness as a way of life that leads to the thriving of all people? As I mentioned in my sermon last week, our current “justice” system in America is rooted in anything but forgiveness. It is instead focused on punishing those who harm, not restoring them to communities for healing and wholeness. I recently learned more our cash bail system, for example, in which those who are arrested for a crime are only released prior to trial if they are rich enough to meet bail, with people who live in poverty and communities of color – who are already disproportionately targeted by police – sometimes remaining in jail with no charges brought against them simply because they cannot afford freedom. Or think about the prison industrial complex in America, which has grown exponentially in recent years not because of an increase in actual crime, but because of how many corporations and individuals are making a profit by having so many people incarcerated. And even upon release from prison, discriminatory employment practices and so many other forms of societal shaming surround those who are released, making it a herculean task to rebuild a life. In the words of civil rights leader Fania Davis, “Ours is a justice system that harms people who harm people to show that harming people is wrong.” (Fania Davis, “What Is Justice?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PE6B1N_-rC8&ab_channel=WorldTrustTV)

Part of Jesus’ response to Peter’s question about how much to forgive is a story. Theologian Eric Barreto points out that “Jesus’ parables are rarely simple allegories, wherein characters can be easily attached to God or us in the drama of salvation. Not all kings are stand-ins for God in the parables;” he says, “instead, we may find God in the interstices of these stories as much as in their explicit characters.” (Eric Barreto, Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35, September 14th, 2014, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2165) We might find God bursting through the cracks in the story to show us something new. So what if God is not the king in this story, but rather that moment when an enslaved man is released and his entire financial debt completely forgiven? What if God is in the freedom that could have then reverberated through this man’s entire family and likely their entire village? What if God is in the impulse to see the humanity in those who suffer under oppression and remove the barriers to their thriving? What if God can be found in this parable in the movement of radical release, the canceling of debts, the bursting in of freedom that can lead to communal thriving? 

If this is where we find God most clearly in the text, then to me, the real question is – what will we do as witnesses to this movement of release and freedom? We see what happens if we take the grace received and hoard it for ourselves. Like the enslaved man who hardens his heart and seizes the throat of the man who owes him, this hoarding of grace turns us into cogs in the machine of injustice, perpetuating systems like mass incarceration that criminalize financial need, clutching the oppressed by the throat until they cannot breathe, all while the rich get richer. It’s horrifying to hear of a king that tortures a man forever because he decided to hoard the grace he was given, but maybe that’s an accurate description of what happens when a demand for punishment is recycled over and over again. Maybe the torture in this parable is really just that system that “harms people who harm people to show that harming people is wrong.” 

But there is another path we can take if we choose. What would happen if we responded to the movement of the Spirit to release and cancel debts and bring freedom by letting that movement soak through every single thread of the fabric of our society? What if that Spirit of release moved through us in advocacy with our elected officials to pass laws and legislation that don’t expand prisons but instead seeks restorative justice, re-connecting folx to communities of support? What if that Spirit of release moved through us to demand that public funding not be invested in policing and criminalizing the oppressed but instead invested in the ingredients for life: housing, healthcare, grassroots organizations led by the people for the people? What if the Spirit of release moved through us to lay down a desire to punish and instead take up God’s heart to restore, to make whole, to heal, to support? Perhaps God breaking through in a moment of justice and release and freedom would not be just a moment but a movement. May it be so, and may it begin with us. Amen.

Transformed in the Tension

Matthew 18:15-20
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
September 6th, 2020

15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where
two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor who founded a radically inclusive worshipping community called House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, talks in one of her books about a quarterly welcome event held at her church in which they ask folx new to the community, “What drew you to HFASS?”(Pastrix : the cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner & saint , Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, New York : Jericho Books, 2013.) After plenty of sharing about how much folx love the singing, the
inclusive community, the freedom to be themselves, Pastor Nadia always speaks last at these events with the same message. “This community will disappoint them,” she says. “It’s a matter of when, not if… We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable
disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens… Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints,” she says again and again. “We will disappoint you.”

I think Jesus is doing something similar in our passage this morning. The Gospel writer is sharing these words of Jesus to a listening church community who has inevitably learned by now that being a part of the church, a community of humans, will mean that we will hurt each other sometimes. It’s a matter of when, not if. And so Jesus is concerned not so much with discussing whether or not hurt will happen, but rather how followers of Jesus are called to respond when that hurt occurs.

I’ve spent my life in various church communities, and in that time, I’ve seen many styles of conflict, with two particularly unhealthy styles that are on opposite ends of the spectrum – and I share these observations with you as a person who has participated myself in some unhealthy patterns of addressing conflict over the years. I also know that even talking about church conflicts brings up painful and tender memories and experiences of very real trauma for so many of us, and I would love to talk to you off-line if you want to process these experiences with a pastor. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me. On one end of the conflict style spectrum is the passive
aggressive, conflict-avoidant style, in which the truth about the injury never gets told to the person who offended, or it gets told to folx on the outside of the situation in the form of gossip, perhaps dressed up as a “prayer request” or simply “venting”. Instead of the injured person speaking directly to the one who injured them, the straight line becomes a triangle, and all kinds of dysfunctional dynamics ensue. Sometimes there are good reasons for the injured party not to go directly to the one who injured them, as in cases of abuse where the injured person would not be safe if they were to do so. And again, for so many of us, there have been very good, healthy reasons to leave a church community that has a pattern of abuse, and I would love to have a private follow-up conversation with any of you who are longing to process those experiences. Those patterns of abuse, however, are not what I’m talking about here in Jesus words to address a conflict directly. I’m talking about a pattern of conflict that creates needless triangles to avoid an uncomfortable confrontation or honest conversation.

On the other end of the conflict spectrum is a type of confrontation that is less concerned with repairing a relationship and more concerned with proving oneself to be right, lashing out from the pain of the injury to humiliate the person who offended sometimes publicly, to “cancel” them as we might say in today’s social media parlance. But what Jesus provides for us in this passage is not so much a “one size fits all” manual for resolving conflict. In fact, if used legalistically in that way, the framework he provides could be easily abused to create even more hurt. Instead, Jesus provides us with some principles that can guide us in addressing conflicts
within the body of Christ and beyond.

First, throughout this passage, we see that the end goal of addressing conflict in the body of Christ is to repair, to regain a sibling, to welcome the offender back home. We see this impulse to bring the one who injures back into the community not once, twice, or three times, but actually four. To begin, the one injured is invited to go directly to the one who injured them in private to express their hurt and invite healing. At this point, there’s no need for a public airing of the grievance, because again, the point is not to be right, but to repair and restore to the community. If the injurer still won’t listen, get a few more people involved to try again. If they still won’t listen, bring it to an even larger body to invite that person to turn around and come home. And though we may think at first that Jesus’ command to “let such a one be to
you as a Gentile and a tax-collector” means to exile that person from your community forever if the previous 3 attempts don’t work, consider how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax-collectors throughout the Gospels. He kept inviting them in whenever he had the opportunity, scandalously sharing tables with them for dinner, calling them from their running away back to relationship over and over again. We hear echoes in this consistent reaching out of the verses leading up to this passage, where God, the shepherd, leaves the 99 sheep, risking everything for the one who was led astray. I thought of this earlier in the week as I listened to a live-streamed conversation between two Black lawyers and organizers in Seattle about what it looks like to move from a punitive “justice” system to one that is actually restorative. (“Nightly Knowledge w/ Nikkita”, from @kaisafit ‘s Instagram account, https://www.instagram.com/p/CEk_pJCJmcp/) Organizer Nikkita Oliver pointed out that, in our current punitive system, we address wrongdoing by separating those convicted of a crime from their entire support system and putting them in prison, instead of finding ways to address the underlying needs that likely led to the crime in the first place (like hunger, a need for stable housing or a job, treatment of addiction, mental health issues, etc.) and restoring them to the very communities that are best equipped to walk alongside them to heal the hurt and find a healthy path forward. What would happen in our country if justice meant going after the one lost sheep and restoring that person to a community of support instead of separating them from that community for punishment?

The second principle just under the surface here is an unflinching commitment to truth-telling and truth-protecting, and without this principle, the movement to always repair relationship can easily be abused to cover up a multitude of sins. The injured party, Jesus says, is to go directly to the one who injured them in an attempt to repair the relationship, absolutely. But if the offender does not listen, there is no shrugging off of the harm, there is no telling the one who has been hurt “why don’t you just get over it?” Instead, the injured party brings in a few more people so that
“every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses,” an action rooted in valuing and preserving the truth of the harm that has taken place so that the one who was injured is protected and the one who offended is called to change their ways. And if that gathering doesn’t lead to the injurer’s repentance, it goes before the whole church, bringing more folx into the conversation so that communal discernment can guard the truth and make sure the injury is not simply swept under the rug to fester. And if that still does not break through the offender’s walls of hostility, you’ll notice that that person, while not being exiled as an enemy, is let go. There’s an open invitation to come back, as Jesus did with tax collectors and Gentiles throughout the Gospels, but there is also a protection of the one who has been injured, guarding the truth of what happened so that the one who did the injuring cannot simply move through other parts of the community to keep hurting people with no accountability. This is not a commitment to truth that is bent on punishing the one who did wrong. It has nothing to do with humiliation or dominating another with your own rightness. This commitment to truth instead understands that unless the broken bone is painfully set right again, it will never truly heal, even threatening to infect the rest of the body. Truth-telling is about re-setting that broken bone, looking the harm that has been done squarely in the face and calling the injuring party to turn around, to change direction, to make things right. It is this commitment to telling the truth that has been sorely missing in the white American church. So often, white Christians want to rush to reconciliation and friendship and connection with Black communities they have injured through our perpetuating of white supremacy in all its forms, from white churches participating in and defending slavery to protesting against the integration of schools to shouting “All Lives Matter” over the top of protesters proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter”. But the broken bone has never been re-set. Real, economic reparations have never been paid. There has never been a real attempt by the white church to face the Black lives and labor they have participated in murdering and stealing over the centuries. We hide in white fragility from truly and deeply hearing the truth of the harm we have done and we criticize the tones of Black organizers and protesters instead of lamenting our complicity and listening to the Spirit’s call to turn around with our investments of time, of money, of energy.

In this teaching of Jesus, the unwavering commitment to speaking and protecting the truth holds hands with the persistent love that always calls the lost home. These principles are in tension, but not in opposition. These words don’t let any of us off the hook, and they also hold us in a paradox that has the capacity to transform by the power of the Holy Spirit, if we will let Her have Her way in our hearts. This way of Jesus tells us the truth, a truth that can set us free to find healing in the community that is the body of Christ.

Wherever you find yourself on this spectrum of addressing conflict today, whether it is in your personal relationships or on the macro-level we see unfolding across our nation, consider how the Spirit is challenging you to engage. Because it is worth it, friends. As Pastor Nadia says about newcomers to their church, “If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.” (Pastrix : the cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner & saint , Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, New York : Jericho Books, 2013.) And remember the promise at the end of this passage, that in the midst of the messiness of truth-telling and welcoming home, where 2 or 3 are gathered to do that hard work, there is Christ in their midst, with us always, making us new and making us whole. Amen.