A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
about the Parable of the Landowner
preached on September 24, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons (especially with Yumi Wada solos) are better heard.
There is an episode of the Simpsons in which Homer goes to anger management because he’s a Rage-o-holic. “I’m Homer Simpson, he says. And I’m addicted to Rage-a-hol.”
We are a culture addicted to outrage-a-hol. Moral outrage has become our modus operandi.
It is costing us our heart.
Despite what you may believe, liberals and conservatives: outrage addiction doesn’t know a political party, an ideology, or a religion. It is equal opportunity. For every liberal snowflake member of the PC police, I can show you a person who is outraged about the generic holiday greeting they received at Walmart.
News media outlets capitalize on it by using click bait catered to our particular tribal instincts and triggers.
They do this to titillate us into buying what they are selling, and we fall for it, every time.
Slate.com says that “following the news is a bit like flying a kite in flat country during tornado season. Every so often, a whirlwind of outrage touches down, sowing destruction and chaos before disappearing into the sky.”
There are infinite reasons to be outraged at any given time in this broken world we live in, don’t get me wrong. And good people must stand for justice.
But our way of fighting for it is to pick the current issue du jour from our couches, opine on the topic with the appropriate amount of rage and virtue-signaling on Facebook, get a bunch of likes from all the friends who agree with us, get in a few ad hominem arguments with the friends who disagree with us, until the issue itself disappears into the sky 24 hours later. Then the cycle starts again.
Political or moral outrage effects our brains like a drug. We can’t get enough of it. The perpetuation and spread of outrage has overridden things like fact-checking, debate, humor and reasonable conversation with people who disagree with us.
While it is absolutely true that good folks must stand against evil, our addiction to outrage has a numbing effect. It is ironically leading to a kind of moral fatigue, cynicism and apathy. Virtue signaling has started to stand in for true virtue. Our addiction to angry moral righteousness has also exacerbated our ideological differences with one another such that we no longer just disagree with the other “side,” we believe one another to be evil.
Our outrage-a-holism is destroying our relationships with each other, and with the living God.
God is a God of justice, yes. But Jesus tries to teach us a better way to fight against injustice: with revolutionary Love. And God’s justice does not always look like yours’ and mine.
This is why I love the parable of the landowner. It makes almost everyone mad, from liberals to conservatives, from young children to hard-working adults, from organists, to ministers…which means it’s probably a good parable to pay extra special attention to.
Jesus always tries to tell us what earth as it is in heaven might look like, feel like, sound like, BE like-- by telling us stories called parables. In the parable we heard this morning, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner.
And he tells this story:
At sun up, a landowner employs a bunch of workers to work his fields. They agree to the amount they are going to be paid at the beginning of the day, and they get to work. The workers work from sun up to sun down doing manual labor, sowing seeds, picking crops, sweating in the hot desert sun.
Meanwhile, the landowner keeps going back to the marketplace to find more workers. Some he finds at 9:00 am, some at noon, and yet some more at 3:00 pm. When he finds them, he just keeps sending them all into his field to work.
Then the landowner goes to the market place at 5:00 pm, and finds a bunch of people just hanging out, playing video games on their iPhones, wearing pajama pants in public, and shooting the breeze.
“Why aren’t you working?” He asks them.
“No one hired us,” they said.
“Well, go and work in my vineyard then,” the landowner says.
“Great,” they say, and they start their work for the day at 5:00 pm.
An hour later, all of the workers finish the day’s work. The landowner starts with the workers who just began working, and pays them. Right on down the line, from the last to the first, he pays everyone the exact same amount of money.
The workers that worked all day long did far more work, for far longer, and in much harder conditions, sweating in the noonday sun.
They are MORALLY OUTRAGED!
The scripture says they “grumbled” against the landowner, which is a Bible word for creating a shareable social media meme I saw recently that says: “stupid me! So that’s why I work so many hours so you can collect welfare, wear pajamas in public and have an iPhone!”
They grumble to the landowner: “This is outrageous,” they say. “These guys only worked for an hour! And we worked all day long in the scorching heat. You are giving them the same amount of money?!”
The landowner says this: ‘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.”
Jesus is delivering the sting of the Gospel: God’s love is just like that. God’s love is generous without merit. It is showered on the least, the last, the lost, the tax collector and religious hypocrite; the sinner and the saint; the just and unjust; the lazy and the hard working. It is given to the last first.
That second to last line kills me. “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Dear God, if I answer honestly: most days, the answer is yes. When I look around at what other people have and compare it to what I have, the answer is yes, Jesus, I am envious. I work hard, and I am in debt up to my eyeballs. I don’t want to just “take what belongs to me and go,” because it’s not fair. I am stacking up what I have next to what other people have. And I’m wishing I was richer and thinner and younger and a better preschool parent who picks her kid up on time instead of a half an hour late even though I work in the same building as the preschool. I’m wishing I was someone who makes the perfect pasta salad to bring to the potluck instead of just a bag of chips that I purchased at Appletown market. Don’t I deserve this, God? I’ve been toiling in your vineyard for YEARS.
The problem with us is that we have the tendency to believe we deserve what we have.
Glennon Doyle says this” Some people understand the “kingdom of God” as a place for “believers” and “the kingdom of hell” as a place for “non-believers.” Maybe. But I also think that those boundaries can’t be hard and fast. Because I believe till the cows come home. But I still find myself, quite often actually, feeling jealous and afraid and suspicious and isolated and angry and hopeless. Which feels a little hellish. And other times I feel loving and fearless and hopeful and connected and generous, which feels quite heavenly. So it seems to me that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of hell might also be places I shift between throughout my day, depending upon my attitude, where my heart is, how I’m looking at the world and at other people. And which kingdom I’m currently in depends on whether I’ve got my Jesus glasses on or not.
When I’m wearing my Jesus glasses, I see other people how Jesus sees them. Through my Jesus glasses, it becomes crystal clear that every person is my equal, and so confidence and humility come easy. Through my Jesus glasses, I see, laid out in front of me, ridiculous abundance. Through my Jesus glasses, I see that there is enough, that I am enough, and so is everyone else.”
An episode of one of my favorite television shows, Louie, features Louis CK talking to his 5 year old daughter. When her older sister gets a cookie she wants:
Why does she get one and not me? It’s not fair.
And Louie says: You’re never gonna get the same things as other people. It’s never gonna be equal. It’s never gonna happen ever in your life, so you need to learn that now, OK? And then he says:
The only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to make sure you have as much as them.”
The problem with us is that we tend to believe we deserve what we have.
But just the fact that we are here on this planet is a result of grace far beyond our knowing. We have received grace upon grace after that if we have a roof over our head, food in our bellies, a family to love, meaningful work, a community like this one.
And so Jesus reminds us it is far above our pay grade to judge who is deserving of God’s grace and who isn’t. Our job description is simply this: be grateful for what we have, see one another through Jesus glasses, and treat one another accordingly.
If we are going to cooperate with God’s grace, we are going to need to subvert our moral outrage, and get back in touch with each other’s humanity. We need to find the people you and I believe should be taken care of last, and put them first.
You know I love these stories about crossing tribal boundaries with Love, so I hope you don’t mind I keep bringing you new ones. But I was listening to an interview with Al Letson on NPR, a liberal black journalist, about why he stepped in to protect a right wing protestor at a rally in Berkeley as he was being beaten by enraged anarchist leftists.
“What came to me was that he was a human being, and I didn't want to see anybody die. And, you know, I've been thinking a lot about the events in Charlottesville, and I remember seeing the pictures of a young (black) man being brutally beaten by these guys with poles, and when I saw that I thought, "why didn't anybody step in?" And you know, in retrospect, it doesn't matter if he doesn't see my humanity, what matters to me is that I see his.……
……I mean this sounds really high-minded and maybe a little nutty, but I am a huge NPR nerd, and many years ago I was listening to Terry Gross and Father Greg Boyle was on there, and he gave this quote that has just stuck with me ever since. He said, "I want to live like the truth is true, and go where love has not been found." And it's how I want to govern myself in the world.”
We talk a lot in this church about what it means to create the kingdom of heaven on earth. Well, heaven is just like that. Heaven is just a new pair of glasses. Heaven is seeing the humanity in others, even if they don’t see yours’. Heaven is looking around and seeing not scarcity, but abundance. Heaven is looking in our neighbor’s bowl only to make sure they have enough, and fighting like hell for them if they don’t. Heaven is stepping in. Heaven is crossing boundaries. Heaven is seeing even the people we feel are the least deserving as beloved by God. Heaven replaces our addiction to outrage with an insatiable desire to love wastefully and extravagantly, the way God loves us.
Beloved, live like the truth is true, and go where love has not been found. The kingdom of heaven is governing ourselves in the world that way.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.