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“So the last will be first and the first will be last” (Mt. 20).
Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a long line of people. Far ahead, out of sight on the other side of a hill lies the American dream. You seem pretty far back but it is scary how many people are behind you. Mostly they are people of color without college degrees.
In principle you wish them well, but you have waited a long time and worked many hours to get here. You don’t complain but you have been exposed to dangerous work conditions. Your body is worn out. Your pension was cut. There don’t seem to be any jobs these days and some of your friends have just given up trying.
Always on time, you don’t cut corners. You do your best. People like you made this country great. You faithfully followed the rules but you notice that up ahead others are cutting in line. Some made bad decisions before the 2008 financial crisis; others are immigrants and refugees. Through affirmative action programs the Federal Government is putting them ahead of you.
When the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild interviewed people in the Louisiana Tea Party she discovered that what united them was not so much a party platform or a set of policies but what she calls a deep story. A deep story helps to explain our feelings. In this case it is about honor, fear, shame, resentment and the relation between social groups. Her study subjects instantly recognized themselves in this story.
The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that, “human nature is… intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental,” that, “an obsession with righteousness (leading to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition… a feature of our evolutionary design.” He goes on to point out that we are not primarily rational creatures. Our moral intuitions come first. Then we make up a rational argument to justify these feelings.
You can test this yourself. Next time you read a newspaper or drive a car try noticing, “the little flashes of condemnation that flit through your consciousness.” We constantly, without effort, form moral judgments. At this preconscious level we make sense of the world and the meaning of our lives. Furthermore this basic non-rationality leads us to be even more resistant to change than we realize.
In the face of our human nature Jesus confronts us with his own deep story about the realm of God. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s words he challenges, “the sacred assumption by which most of us live our lives, that the front of the line is the place to be, that the way to win God’s attention is to be the best person, the hardest worker, the first one into the vineyard in the morning and the last one to leave at night.”
Jesus’ example could not be more familiar. Right now in Madera, Fulton, Turlock, Winters and thousands of towns across the West, Spanish-speaking day laborers stand around waiting to be hired. In this case the landowner, an oikodespote, literally a “house despot” hires workers at dawn agreeing to pay them one denarius.
He returns four times to hire more workers. At the end of the workday he lines them all up to be paid. The workers are astonished when the foreman starts with those who were hired last and then pays every one of the workers one denarius or a full day’s wage.
One of my favorite Geek words is gonguzo. It sounds like what it means, “to grumble.” Most of us feel sympathetic to their complaint. “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden (the weight) of the day and the scorching heat” (Mt. 20). Being paid last only adds insult to injury.
In what respect does Jesus mean that the kingdom of heaven is like this? It might help to look at the context in which he tells this parable. Immediately before this Jesus tells the disciples that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19). Peter responds to this, bragging that, “we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
Immediately after the vineyard parable the mother of James and John asks Jesus for a favor. She wants her sons to be honored with the best thrones in Jesus’ kingdom at his right and left hand. She has in mind satin pillows, gold armrests, engraved coats of arms when Jesus knows that he will come into glory on the hard wood of the cross with a sign that says “King of the Jews.” He answers, “You do not know what you are asking.” We understand the irony but perhaps not his lesson.
Between 1932 and 1967 the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) in thirteen volumes wrote more than 9,000 pages of his never-completed Church Dogmatics. He re-wrote the earliest sections trying to establish his theological method. Barth did not want to begin with a particular philosophical or scientific picture of what it means to be human. He was concerned both that these kinds of ideas are constantly changing and that these assumptions would bias our theological conclusions.
Instead he had this idea of beginning with the Word of God. Faith does not come from inductive or deductive reasoning. Through the Holy Spirit, scripture and preaching God gives us faith. Perhaps like our moral psychologists, Barth understands that we are not as rational as we like to think we are.
According to Barth scripture becomes a way of getting beyond our natural self-righteousness with its “little flashes of condemnation.” He writes, “As [one] knows God’s word… It becomes real… There takes place an understanding, a personal involvement, an acceptance, an assent, an approval, a making present of remote times, an obedience, a decision, a halting before the mystery, a stimulation by the inner life, a basing of man’s whole life on this mystery that is beyond himself.”
We need this help right now more than ever, as individuals and as a society. Our two greatest problems are the environment and an existential crisis about the meaning of work. Since the 1970’s when American jobs began moving offshore we have been experiencing the effects of globalization. Really this is a subset of vast and disruptive technological change that has only just begun. This will affect every sector of our society. We are not just talking about jobs in manufacturing, coal mining and steel. The Los Angeles Times newsroom has only a third of the people it did at the turn of the century.
If you spend a day in Mountain View California you may see as many as a dozen driverless cars. The next generation of these robots will soon replace the 3.5 million professional truck drivers (and many of the 5.2 million other people who work in this industry).
We have to face up to the reality that, whether you like it or not, today earning is becoming decoupled from wealth. Yes, in the future how hard you work will have even less to do with what you ultimately receive. Although this accelerating problem has been with us for a while, politicians have no idea what to do about it. The left has not taken the problem seriously enough. Right leaning politicians bent on shrinking the government and cutting taxes have only exacerbated massive inequality that threatens our democracy itself.
The problem is that work gives us meaning. Since 1999 death rates for middle-aged white people have increased dramatically. More and more people are dying of despair and hopelessness, from suicide and addiction. The poverty breaking families today, and the isolation of having no meaningful contribution to make, is creating an epidemic of loneliness.
In many respects it is strange that Jesus’ story about the day laborers troubles us at all. Imagine being there and the feeling of the last workers’ gratitude as they hear that they are being paid twelve times what they had earned. Nearly everyone in the story is better off than they expected and even the early morning workers received fair pay. And yet we feel dissatisfied.
What we think Jesus’ story means depends on what we believe we deserve. For whatever reason many of us tend to identify with the early morning workers. We grumble that the vineyard owner is not fair and that the Kingdom of Heaven might not be either. We do not understand it but the God of Jesus seems to love everyone without even thinking about who deserves it.
Really submitting to the authority of scripture even in difficult passages this Word transforms us so that we do not merely go through life reacting thoughtlessly to what upsets us. Barth writes, “The Christian is not a stone that is pushed or a ball that is made to roll. The Christian is the [one] who through the Word and the love of God has been made alive, the real [one], able to love God in return, standing erect just because he has been humbled, humbling himself because he has been raised up.”
Imagine that line of people again. Only this time rather than finding yourself in the thought experiment of a sociologist, picture yourself among the laborers waiting to be paid. Do you even know where you stand in this line? What do you think you deserve from God?
If you find the tumult of today’s politics unsettling, it may actually get worse. As technological change accelerates and upends all the social arrangements that comfort us, there does not seem to be much hope for you and me, for creatures who constantly and often harshly judge others without thinking.
And yet Jesus still invites us to be his people. Can we believe in Jesus enough to put him ahead of our self-righteousness? Can we put God in the place of our picture of fairness? What will it take for us to allow our hearts to believe that God loves everyone equally, for God’s deep story to become our own?
 Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (NY: The New Press, 2016), 135-151.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (NY: Pantheon Books, 2012) xiii.
 Ibid., 45.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Beginning at the End,” The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) 100.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1936) 219.
 James Warren, “Big Cuts Coming to L.A. Times, Likely Other Tribune Papers Amid Tumult,” Poynter 15 September 2015. https://www.poynter.org/2015/big-cuts-coming-to-l-a-times-likely-other-tribune-papers-amid-tumult/373014/
 Santens, Scott. “Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck.” Medium. 14 May 2015.https://medium.com/basic-income/self-driving-trucks-are-going-to-hit-us-like-a-human-driven-truck-b8507d9c5961(accessed July 12, 2017).
 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century tr. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
 Jessica Boddy, “The Forces Driving Middle-Aged White People’s ‘Deaths of Despair,” Shots: Health News from NPR 23 March 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/23/521083335/the-forces-driving-middle-aged-white-peoples-deaths-of-despair
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 662.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt. 4).
You are in grave danger. That’s what everybody has been saying. But what is the witness of Jesus?
Friday night at dusk I ran along the cliffs above the Golden Gate. Thirty mile per hour winds drove rain and sleet nearly diagonally against my back and whipped the ocean surface into foam. Forecasters predicted forty-four foot seas that night and already steep thick waves hemmed in the entrance to the Marin side of the channel.
You could practically taste the diesel smoke as a massive container ship limped in under the bridge. I don’t know anything about packing those ships but it seemed like it was missing about a dozen containers and was listing dangerously to its starboard side. I thanked God that those sailors would soon be safe in the Port of Oakland.
That massive, perilously balanced ship totally at the mercy of even more powerful forces is America. The riskiness of the situation seems to be all that we agree on this week. The only difference among us is whether you believe the ship is returning safely home or is just heading out into even greater danger.
The via media lies at the heart of our Episcopal tradition. It is the middle way – historically it meant we walked between Roman Catholic and Protestant extremes. Today we describe it as the place between reason and mystery, feeling and knowledge, the church and the world, ritual and words, service and beauty. You might call it the peace that passes all understanding or the place where we rest utterly dependent on God.
These days challenge people who feel at home in the middle way. But brothers and sisters, what a great time to follow Jesus! I will probably offend everyone here but let me tell you what concerned me about Friday’s inauguration speech and what I appreciated about it.
I have come to better respect the effectiveness of President Donald Trump as a communicator. In the inauguration address he was very clear. The slogans “Make America Great Again” and “America First” really are two ideas, two ways of telling the same story about reality.
They share a simple logic of fear and scarcity. They ignore complicated forces like technological change, globalization and environmental degradation. Instead they make everything personal. They divide the world into two groups. There are the politicians and the people, the foreigners and the Americans, the ignorers and the ignored, the victimizers and the victims.
In short President Trump asks us to see ourselves as victims and to enjoy that feeling of despising the other. In his address he invoked the name of God a few times. But this theology really has nothing to do with the Bible. It is a “me first” theology. A theology of fear, resentment and blame. It is thinly disguised selfishness combined with bitter scapegoating.
And yet even by pointing this out we run the terrible risk of making the same mistake. Is there a way for us to embrace the full humanity both of Donald Trump and his detractors? Is there another way to be human than to simply retreat back into our own distrustful tribe? How do we stop ourselves from becoming merely another version of what we hate?
This morning, in what seems to be divinely-inspired timing, we have the story of Jesus’ inauguration. After his baptism and temptation in the wilderness Jesus really is in grave danger. The authorities have arrested Jesus’ predecessor John the Baptizer (the Greek word paradidomi means to be delivered over and has terribly sinister connotations throughout Matthew’s Gospel).
In this setting of real danger and justified fear Jesus begins his public life with a speech. He says, “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near” (Mt. 4). Unfortunately we have worn out the meaning of the word “repent.” I’m afraid that for many people in our society it means – you need to believe what I do so that God will save you. But this is not it. The Greek word is metanoia. It means a transformation of your very soul.
Instead of focusing our thought and energy on how someone else is failing to live like a child of God, Jesus reminds us to take responsibility for how we distort or magnify the beautiful holiness so near at hand.
But there is more to this. The English translation drops out a word that seems important to me. Our version says only, “Jesus began to proclaim.” But the passage more literally reads that Jesus began, “to preach and to speak” (Mt. 4:17). The point I believe is that the preaching is not just the words.
The preaching is also what Jesus does. The preaching is an invitation to join him. The preaching is the way that his very presence brings light to people in darkness. The preaching shows God’s great love for the world and God’s stubborn determination not to leave us to our own devices. It is the act of healing.
I know you now. I have been watching since I first arrived. And I see that you too preach with your life, with your presence, with the face you show to the world, with the love that is in your heart.
This brings me to something that I appreciated in Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. He says simply, “we will be protected by God.” You may take this in another way, but I choose to receive this as a Donald Trump’s first gift to me as president. It is the challenge to enlarge our conception of the Divine.
Too often in churches like this we fall back on an impoverished picture of God. In 1953 the author J.B. Philips published a book called Your God Is Too Small. He makes the point that God is more than a judgmental old man, a CEO or a police officer. But I mean something different than this. Today we tend to think of the word God as if it is mostly an idea to inspire or comfort us. We talk about Jesus as if he died a long time ago and isn’t present here today. Somehow we have become embarrassed with the idea that God might actually do something.
But this is not the God we experience in the Bible or in our own lives. Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9). When people in darkness, people like you and me see Jesus – it changes everything. When Jesus says, “follow me” Peter and Andrew leave their boat and their nets. Imagine just walking away from your car on the side of highway 101. What we are talking about involves much more than just hearing a really great speech. It takes more than this for James and John to leave their father.
We do not have time for the details this morning but my own encounter with Jesus has changed absolutely every aspect of my life. It has been a total metanoia, a transformation that still continues to unfold every day. Like Peter and Andrew, James and John, when we meet Jesus at the deepest level of our being, we discover that we have the same power that he did. We too begin to bring light to the people in darkness. We too discover new reservoirs of energy and eloquence that flow from the most intimate connection to our mysterious creator. We too become free from the power of death.
Jesus called Martin Luther King, Jr. and gave him a new strength to turn the world on its head. Fifty-two years ago he preached from this pulpit to the largest crowd ever assembled here. It was the opposite of America First. He thanked us for marching with him in Selma. In contrast to a theology of selfishness he said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.. We are tied together in a single garment of destiny… so that I can’t be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be… This is the way God’s universe is made…”
Maybe these do not feel like dangerous times to you. Perhaps you think that the container ship is really on an even keel, or too large to be upset, or that we are safely headed toward port. But you do not have too look to far to find people who are hurting right now.
This week I lingered a little in the Cathedral. As a result I met people who are seeking peace in the midst of the storm. One young tech worker named Ben talked about how desperately he would like to find a way out of the cynicism and manipulation. He wants to move beyond hating the people we fear, or those who we believe hate us. He feels like he cannot trust the media, but he is not ready to give up seeking the truth.
Every day we are surrounded by people like Ben. We need to wake up, to repent and in the light of Christ recognize their hunger for meaning and love. This is our time. The gift of this moment is the chance to rediscover the power of our creator. Remember who you are. Preach with your whole life.
As people divide into their tribes and scapegoat the others, we have Jesus’ promise that we are all brothers and sisters who are loved by God. If policies change and endanger immigrants, dissenters, the poor, people of color, women, Muslims, prisoners and nature, this is the chance to bring your light into that darkness.
You do not have to be defined by hate or scarcity or blame. You can see good in every child of God because we believe in a God who is big enough for everyone. We believe in God’s Grace for all.
 Donald Trump, “Inauguration Speech,” 20 January 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/20/us/politics/donald-trump-inauguration-speech-transcript.html?_r=0
 According to the president, the politicians enrich themselves at the expense of the citizens, the educators “flush with cash” neglect their students, elites callously send jobs overseas that should go to American workers, immigrants violate the borders at the expense of deserving citizens. Washington seeks peace overseas instead of solving our problems here at home.
 He quoted the poet preacher John Donne who said the any man’s death diminishes everyone else. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Sermon at Grace Cathedral,” March 1965. For a similar presentation of these themes see one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last sermons “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 31 March 1968. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-10
 When we hear people talking out of their fear, we have the hope of the resurrection. When selfishness seems to undermine the very possibility for democracy, we have our citizenship in God’s kingdom of love. When we watch the news and wonder what to believe, we have the everlasting truth of our savior.