Fair’s Fair, Right?

This sermon was prepared for the United Theological College’s weekly chapel service. Year A, Proper 20.

Have you ever felt like you were being treated unfairly? That everyone else got more time, more stuff, or didn’t have to work quite as hard?

Growing up in a family of three, having everything be “fair” was a really big deal—partially because my parents stressed equality, but also because it’s tricky dividing things into thirds.

It was always five slices of pizza if the adults got some, and chocolate bars divided into three’s for the kids. Funny how so few packages of candy in threes—it’s always two or four—which almost always meant a struggle at our house.

It was very important for things to be fair.

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Reading of Matthew 20:1-16

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I interpret this passage, in light of the rest of the Book of Matthew, to represent God’s plan to include Gentiles in Jesus’ message of hope—extending it beyond Judaism to include others who didn’t get “in on the ground floor”, a topic we all know there some tension around in the early Jesus movement.

But, what does it mean for you and me?

This is a story about God’s justice—a confusing, infuriating justice that isn’t fair. God’s grace isn’t proportional to our faith, our prayer life, or our martyr-complex, even if we sometimes act like it is. God’s grace is abundant and available to everyone—equally.

And yet, sometimes we want to limit or contain it when it comes to what others receive.

Sometimes we want to say that God’s grace is only for people who’ve read the right theologians, who subscribe to the same kind of biblical criticism as we like, who have an inclusive theology, who think kids should be welcome in our church services… Sometimes we think God’s grace is only for the impoverished or the marginalized.

God may have a preferential option for the poor, but his grace is abundant and available to everyone, equally. With the caveat that we’re willing to accept it.

God also lacks the corruption of a human employer, who might not “play fair” to manipulate or punish. Instead, God invites all people into the fields and all workers to the bounty. He seeks out those who have been left behind and invites them to join in.

And, he challenges us, who’ve been at it a while longer, who feel like we’ve been working harder, to put aside our human concept of what’s “fair”. There is no “fair” in the Kingdom of God. Instead, those who would normally have less receive an abundance, and those who expected more get just the same.

There’s a popularized saying making the rounds right now: when you’ve experienced privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Just like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, just like Peter being chastised to continue to forgive others, sometimes God needs to knock us down a peg—to remind us that God’s kingdom plays by a different set of rules.

And, thank God, they’re not our rules, which so often are manifestations of our self-centeredness and bitterness. Instead, we’re invited into a kinship where there is work and bounty for all, which is better than fair.

Amen.

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Love, an attitude of justice – A Reflection on Luke 13:31-35

This article first appeared Feb. 18th, 2016 on the KAIROS Canada Blog as part of a Lenten series. All verses quoted in the New Revised Standard Version.

Reflecting on this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke 13:31-35, I was struck by the image of the pilgrimaging Christ standing on the road towards Jerusalem. In this chapter of Luke, we meet Jesus in the midst of his travels, begun in Luke 9, as he is warned by a group of Pharisees about the danger he is moving towards. The Roman sponsored King, Herod, was issuing threats against Jesus, threats which most would take seriously considering his recent beheading of Jesus’ friend and colleague John the Baptist (Luke 9:7-9). Yet, this gruff roaming rabbi greets the threat of violence with this response: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” (v. 32)

This statement tells us Jesus has no intention of halting his travels because of a threat by the governing powers, a threat of violence, a threat that has been channeled into action in the past. He emphasizes his words by assuring his listeners the work he is doing will be done today, and then the next, and the day after that—alluding, in our minds, to his greatest work demonstrating redemption in his crucifixion and resurrection. He then repeats himself, “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” (v. 33)

He goes on to say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (v. 34) This story of Christ, journeying forward despite the great danger he is walking towards is always juxtaposed, in my mind, by the story of the Prophet Jonah. Jonah who did not want to go, who had no love for the people he was sent to, who spoke God’s words of grace but received the Ninevites’ repentance with indifference. Jonah who wanted wrath, and violence; Jonah who was controlled by fear (fleeing his mission) and inclusivity (his rejection of God’s call to extend grace to the Ninevites).

As justice seekers, in our contemporary context, I often wonder whom we are most like. Are we the angry Prophet who heads towards danger controlled by fear and seeking vengeance? Or, are we like Christ, spurred by love, which fuels courage in the face of fear; a love that renders violence powerless, and refuses to heed the threats of the “powerful”.

My constant hope, and prayer, is that I am journeying towards Jerusalem, a heart full of compassion that will not waver in the midst of violence and injustice. And yet, pilgrimaging is hard, and our small acts of justice will not always bear the fruit we want to see. Jesus’ ministry and death did not immediately change the political and social systems he was fighting against. He tells Jerusalem in Luke 13:35: “See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Christ knew that hearts and minds, and destructive systems are not changed overnight. Although, I like to believe he understood the righteous impatience many of us feel—bred from a sacred desire for the world to be righted.

In this Lenten season we journey as a faith community along that road to Jerusalem, walking beside Christ, reflecting on his actions. We have seen him rebuke evil in the desert already, and now we see him walking towards forces of violence and oppression in the city. As we journey with him, taking time to examine our own hearts, I would ask you to reflect on the attitude you are seeking justice with.

May love inspire in you courage to overcome fear, to seek justice from a wellspring of compassion. Amen.

 

Where we are standing // In the breach

There is an iconic image being shared on the web today, one that evokes a number of powerful statements about the place of faith in our global world. 

Orthodox priests standing between pro-European Union activists and riot police, Central Kiev, Ukraine - Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Orthodox priests standing between pro-European Union activists and riot police, Central Kiev, Ukraine – Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

This post is not a reflection on the political situation in the Ukraine, which has massively escalated recently with Russia’s movements. Instead, it is a look at a series of evocative images depicting the integral role faith has when it comes to justice.

The image above depicts a small collection of clergy who stand between the gap of protesters and riot police.  What is the role of faith leaders to act as both a barrier between the oppressed and their oppression, and to speak with authority on matters of justice? Why has this image seen such a heavy response, in relation to the hundreds of other images being shared during this troubling time? What in this image brings out a response in us?

I believe this image, and many more like it, depict an intense sense of vulnerability and, paradoxically, strength. The priests, standing without any protection, depicted against a backdrop of faceless riot police allows us to feel the fear of the pro-EU protesters  as they face the great barricade of bodies and shields. We are only humans, fragile and individual, with lives that can be swept away in a surge of violence. Yet, here are men, human just like you or I, standing in the breach.

They offer up a sense of protection in their presence; calling both sides not to forget there are things greater than ourselves, that actions have consequences and there are certain acts that cannot be undone. There is a peacefulness, like a dam keeping back a strong force.

Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5, The Voice)

There are many kinds of peacemakers in our world, from those who protest on the street for a peaceful resolution, to those who lobby in halls of power and authority on their behalf, to those who condemn acts of injustice. It is harder to see and understand those kinds of peacemakers, as messages become confused and sides are taken.

It is much easier to understand a person standing in the breach, keeping both sides of violence at bay.

The Washington Post has a great article/gallery series showing  Orthodox priests ministering to protestors, to the wounded, walking the apocalyptic-like streets of Kiev, and protesting with crowds outside the EU’s headquarters in brussels. Each photo depicts a man wearing his dark robes and ornate stole, with a face that carries a sober countenance. Yet, there is a diversity in this pictures, as priests are seen caring for all people–those who are mourning, those who are protesting, those who are standing guard, and those who are wounded.

The above photo is powerful because it does not depict a side that is being taken, it displays a refusal to allow either side to cross the breach. It shows men of authority (as any leader is) choosing to put themselves between, not above. This, I believe, is the role of faith in times of uncertainty and violence. Wether it is to shield others using your authority, your presence, or your body, people of faith are called to stand in the breach, yelling like the prophets for justice–calling God’s people, all people–to reconciliation and peace.