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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.
The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus preached without a manuscript.
The Rt. Rev. Jonathan Clark’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
An Unknown God
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way” (Acts 17).
Let me quote from a child’s letter to God. “Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother but what I asked for was a puppy. I never asked you for anything before. You can look it up. [Signed] Jennifer.”
It’s hard for us to even remember what childhood is like. Once the world felt new to us, a day just happened and we accepted it the way that it was, fresh, strange, interesting and sometimes a bit frightening. But eventually adulthood fell across our faces like a veil, and the world and God seem more distant now.
As a child I lived near Estabrook Forest in Concord, Massachusetts and visited there often. In the twentieth century maple and oak trees had already taken over. Now nothing remains of the puritan farms that flourished there except a few empty cellar holes and low stone walls that seem to run at random through the woods.
One Thanksgiving during graduate school my parents visited my wife and me. We all went back to Estabrook on a cold day long after all the leaves had fallen from the trees. That afternoon we had the hearts of children. We threw rocks on the partially frozen pond and the sounds of the vibrating ice echoed off the hills.
I assumed that my parents were paying attention and they probably thought the same about me. We made our way back toward the car at sunset in the suddenly unfamiliar woods. In a ridiculously short time night had fallen and we were lost. You couldn’t see your own hand in front of your face. As we stumbled along in the darkness we kept incorrectly thinking that we could see lights in the distance. Hours later, feeling sheepish, we came out at Middlesex School and a teacher drove us, a long way back to our car.
Sometimes life feels like being lost in those dark woods. We wonder if we’re on the right path. We ask ourselves if we have made good decisions. We worry about where we’ll end up.
In the Wim Wender’s film Der Himmel über Berlin (released as Wings of Desire, 1987), invisible angels can hear the thoughts of the human beings they watch over. In one scene two angels walk through an outwardly silent library as we hear a cacophony of thoughts. I’ll never forget one person’s worry as he asks, “What will happen to me?”
I think that this feeling lies behind the Athenian’s altar to an unknown God. There is a legend that the Greeks built it during a time of unrelenting plague. They felt desperate and reached out to anything, to anyone that they hoped could help them. They slaughtered sheep on an altar to the unknown. They gave a life for the hope that they might live.
We too make sacrifices to our own unknown gods, sometimes we even sacrifice out children. We act as if money, intelligence, our career, good looks or popularity can protect us when we feel lost. We give up something of ourselves for these things. Because we feel afraid, we are not what we could be.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was one of the most notable figures of the seventeenth century. At the age of twelve he independently proved the equivalent of Euclid’s first 32 theorems of geometry. He invented a calculating machine at age 19. His discoveries in the natural sciences and especially in mathematics and probability theory have deeply influenced how we see the world.
Pascal’s religious thought was written partially in response to his older contemporary René Descartes (1596-1650). From this distant vantage point we have almost completely forgotten the devastation of The Thirty Years War. The German States lost a third of their population.
Descartes wanted to establish a basis for believing in God that didn’t appeal to the religious doctrines that first led to the wars between Protestants and Roman Catholics. He tried to prove that we can know about God through universal reason. Descartes began by trying to doubt everything and then famously said, “I think therefore I am.” For him, this very ability to think necessarily means that there is a God.
Pascal was a fervent Christian but he disagreed with this. He believed that, “It is the heart that perceive[s] God and not the reason.” Over history some great Christian thinkers believed that we experience God mainly through our intelligence. Others believe that we mostly meet God through our feelings.
To the crowds in Athens Paul says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hand,… he gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations, so that they would search for God and perhaps feel for him and find him – though he indeed is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17).
Paul describes my own experience. He says, “In [God] we live and move and have our being.” For me God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Communion and baptism are the signs that God is always with us. We cannot do anything for God or win his love as a reward for what we do. But through Jesus we can become adopted as his children.
The English novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) wrote that, “we breathe in with the air of our times,” “the conflict between an attraction to the Holy and the disbelief in it.” This is in part because our ordinary picture of the world has not caught up with what we are learning about it scientifically. We inhabit a surprising and mysterious universe at the levels of the microcosmos and the macrocosmos. Today we have more reasons to realize that our physiology, our finitude, mean that we cannot experience anything as it really is. We are in God’s hands
We have a personal experience of God through our prayer. During my ninth grade year our English class went up to Ashland Oregon for the Shakespeare Festival. That night we camped out by a lake. I don’t know why I did it, but alone in my tent that night I prayed. I cannot even remember what I asked for or how I thanked God, but the next morning I woke before sunrise to a transformed world.
As I walked along the shore of the lake, I felt an overwhelming peace in my heart. The shining water, songbirds, and new spring leaves all seemed to say one thing to me, “All of this is being created by God.” I knew a kind of certainty that I will probably never experience about anything else in my life.
I don’t always think to do it, but whenever I turn to God, something personal in the universe eventually answers my call. Almost every day I experience the way that prayer changes the world.
We experience evil, dishonesty, suffering and cruelty. But when my children wake up from a bad dream in the middle of the night, I can truthfully say to them, “everything will be alright.” I know that much as I love them, God loves them even more.
In conclusion, we can’t go back to the faith we see in a child’s immediate experience of the world, but neither do we have to accept the false consolations of an unknown god. God, the creator of worlds, libraries, maple trees and quarks is too big to be bullied. God is also too close to our hearts to avoid for long.
Even when we feel afraid and long for a kind of security that this life cannot give, Jesus promises that the spirit of God’s truth will always dwell in us. Even when we feel far from that truth, we are members of the holy church and this means we will never be lost from our true home.
 Email from Fritz Schneider on 4 May 2005.
 Like Rainer Maria Rilke “The Grown-up” in Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ed. & Tr. Stephen Mitchell (NY: Modern Library, 1995), 37.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées Number 424. However, for other people who did not experience God in their hearts he described what has become known as “Pascal’s Wager.” He asked his reader to imagine trying to decide on whether God exists or not and compares this to flipping a coin. If God does not exist and you believe he does there will not be much harm done. But if God does exist and you do not believe this would be a total disaster. In his words, “if you win, you win all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Bet therefore that God is without hesitating.”
 Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003), 155.
The Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.