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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.
Sermon from Sunday’s 6pm Eucharist.
The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…” (Lk. 3).
After college I worked in Santa Monica at the GTE Building right where Wilshire Boulevard meets the vast Pacific Ocean. I will never forget winter sunsets from that corner conference room, the dark looming mountains in the north and the brilliant reds and oranges of the sky reflected in the smooth bay waters.
Renee Labran, our managing director insisted that whether we were leaving for a month long assignment in London or just overnight, our desks should be neatly ordered. Although clients only rarely visited, she wanted us to be prepared for anyone who might arrive. It is still my habit here at Grace Cathedral. I try to leave everything so that if someone were to need a space to work, there would be plenty of room for them at my desk or table.
This week a few staff members and I visited the corporate offices of Airbnb. The motto for those who work there and for the people who rent out their homes is simple: “be a host.” You could see this culture everywhere. People practically tripped over themselves to hold doors open for us (to remain cheery when we were blocking the halls or spilling our tea). Most employees there have no regular workspace and so they constantly meet new colleagues when they sit down in different places with their laptop computers.
Conference rooms look like kitchens, basements, living rooms, libraries, and playgrounds. You can have a meeting in a little airstream trailer, a kind of yurt, an alpine ski cabin, a camping tent, a ball pit, or my favorite, an exact replica of the founders’ apartment where the company began. Meeting spaces are named after the most beautiful and distinctive places in the world: Paris, Barcelona, Bali, Reykjavik and Berlin.
The way a place looks matters to what happens there. And it takes time to prepare. I think of this when I make the bed, do the dishes, put away books or generally clean up. You have heard me say that our reasoning, logical mind is only a tiny part of who we are. What a place looks and feels like speaks to a deep part within us. A place can give rise to thoughts, dreams and experiences that would otherwise be impossible. It can make it possible to welcome someone (either a relative from out of town or a new friend) and to form the kind of connection that is one of the greatest joys of this life.
As crowds come out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness he says the same thing. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Lk. 3:1-6). We pay special attention to this work during the church season of Advent. In John’s case the places we are to prepare include our selves. You might think of it as spring cleaning for your soul. During Advent we varnish the floors of our heart, dust the shelves of our memories and clean the windows through which we see God and each other. We make ready that house which we are always building, that is, our life.
Brothers and sisters we have been through so much this week. As often seems to be the case I feel stunned by the way scripture seems to speak to our very situation. On Wednesday Syed Rizwan Farook (28) and Tashfeen Malik (29) killed fourteen and injured twenty-one people at the San Bernadino Health Department where Farook was employed.
Two elements in particular stood out. First, for a couple of days the public hovered in an odd state of limbo. No one knew quite what to think about these events. Was this the case of a disgruntled employee? Were these “anti-government activists?” What did this case share in common with the boys who had been bullied at Columbine or the racist who killed the African American Christians who were praying with him in Charlotte? Were the shooters simply insane or was this planned from abroad like 9/11? What exactly is a terrorist anyway – aren’t all shooters terrorists? Does it matter whether someone is a domestic or foreign terrorist when you are dead?
The New York Times pointed out that if you define a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are killed or injured, then in the last 336 days we have had 209 mass shootings in this country.It took no time for the gun control and immigration debates to ramp into high gear. It makes me wonder if there is some other way to talk about this beyond the language of fear, anger and blame.
The second thing that seemed particularly strange was that after the FBI investigation landlord Doyle Miller allowed journalists to poke through the couple’s home. Because the way a place looks matters to what happens there we were fascinated to look over their shoulders. News articles mentioned social security cards out in plain sight, dishes piled in the sink as if someone would soon be home to clean up. We saw their family photos, images of the infant’s crib. The wall calendar had nothing special written on it for the day of the tragedy. We debated about whether reporters had violated the family’s privacy.
Perhaps we were shocked by the juxtaposition between how ordinary their life seemed and the terrible preparation involved in building bombs and amassing weapons and ammunition to kill people who have nothing to do with their cause. Honestly this tragic act of murdering colleagues and neighbors is a message that I do not understand. I wish that they had left behind a statement beyond the vague reference to a Facebook message supporting ISIS.
My hunch is that their reasons would be deeply connected to our gospel this morning. Luke tells us exactly when John the Baptist began his ministry. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius” (Lk. 3). He then lists the kings: Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanius, in the order of the size of their various jurisdictions. In English we use different translations for one repeated Greek word, “hegemonias.” It means ruler or to rule. It is also the origin of our English word “hegemony.” The dictionary defines hegemony as dominance especially by one country or social group over others over others.
In the twenty first century the rule of the emperor or making paths straight for the coming king may sound quaint to us. The metaphor no longer has the power that it once did. In Roman times this was serious business. During the Jewish-Roman Wars (66-77 CE) roads and ramparts were built for 60,000 invading Roman troops. They massacred whole populations.
The Books of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are about a simple contrast between two different sons of God. The “Son of God” was another name for Julius Caesar and all the Roman Emperors who followed him. Luke asserts that the real Son of God is Mary’s son, Jesus of Nazareth. We all face this stark choice between hegemony and love, between the emperor’s kind of power to compel through force and Jesus’ power to inspire through empathy and compassion. We can fight power with more power or we can look for other solutions that begin by seeing with the eyes of love. In San Bernadino we saw a couple who chose the way of the Roman Empire.
Because we spend so much time living in the world of the Empire’s values, we ourselves constantly fall back on this way of thinking. That is why John the Baptist proclaims the baptism of repentance. For many Christians the word repentance feels worn out. We mistakenly regard repentance as the process of listing the things we did wrong and then feeling sorry about them. Repentance too often becomes self-flagellation, a mere intellectual exercise or a vague plan to become nicer or more spiritual.
The Greek word for repentance means something altogether different than this. It is metanoia Meta is change, nous is soul and it means to change your soul in the sort of way that everything around you becomes transformed. You see the same things but in a totally different light. Often it feels more like something that happens to you than something you completely chose for yourself.
You might be like my friend, Nick who came back from serving with the Peace Corps in Kenya and found himself paralyzed by all the choices in his local supermarket. As a result of this metanoia Nick spent the next twenty years living and working in Africa. You might be like my neighbor Sally whose life as a lawyer dissolved when she began caring for her elderly mother, or my friend Lena who gave up a very real chance to be a Silicon Valley CEO in order to raise her children. Maybe also like them you might discover a whole new intimacy relationships that at first seem like burdens. You might even find that in some sense or other you were born to do this.
We live so deeply immersed in media that we almost need to be reminded that reality isn’t terrorism or the triumph of empire. Reality is what happens in ordinary moments and ordinary places when the spirit invites us into the profound mystery at the heart of our existence.
In these words I have brought you to lovely places, sinister places and wacky places. Let me tell you about one more. Yesterday at Fort Mason our family experienced Janet Cardiff’s art installation “The Forty Part Motet.” In a large oval she arranged forty sound speakers (five groups of eight) at ear height. Each speaker plays a single voice from the men and boy’s choir at Salisbury Cathedral as they sing Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium nunquam habui (I have never put my hope in any other).
After watching the sun set and the lights come out on the Golden Gate bridge I shut my eyes. It felt like I stood at the very threshold of heaven, as if God were the only other presence in this world. In that moment I experienced such deep gratitude for our own Cathedral choirs. They prepare every week for us. They make great sacrifices to bring beauty alive so that we will be prepared to receive God.
In this Advent season I pray for a revolutionary change that leads us not to dwell on the past but to live in the gift of this moment. I ask that we will have the wisdom to think and engage with what is good and not with what destroys. I pray we receive God and transmit holiness through our life, that over and over we choose to be a host rather than a conqueror.
 The New York Times also claimed that while Islamic Jihadists have killed 45 people in America since September 12, 2001, during the same period “Anti-government, racist and non-jihadist extremists have killed 48.
 The next few paragraphs are inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “Living Between Steps.” https://www.goodpreacher.com/backissuesread.php?file=4283
Sermon from The Ordination of Deacons and Priests.
Saturday December 5th.
When we allow ourselves to experience life as being brand new or in its final stage, we uncover the glorious mystery of how much we matter in God’s economy.
Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist.