Archive for equity

Practicing the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 20:1-16

1.

The Acts of the Apostles relates that members of the newly formed Christian church shared all things in common:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

Similarly, other groups in and around early Christian Palestine—and the Jewish sect known today as the Qumran Community—attempted to live a communal life together.

People in these communities worked. At the end of the day they’d return and the community’s resources were pooled. Regardless of how much or how little each individual member of the community brought in, from this pool the community members were able to live lives of relative equality. Each member drew from the pool as he or she needed.

Discussing these communities one day in seminary, and referring to today’s Gospel, my church history professor posited this question:

“Was Jesus’ vision for his new realm one of communism? That’s what this sounds like to me—or something very much like it. Of course, we’ve seen that communism as a political ideal has failed. But the world’s twentieth-century experiments in communism were atheistic, largely devoid of God. What if God were central? Could a kind of Christian communism work?”

I shot my hand up in the air, along with several other classmates. After a few had shared their affirming thoughts—a few younger, idealistic classmates—it was my turn.

“Try raising five kids,” I said, “and you’ll see right away that communism doesn’t work.”

I was thinking of dishes, for example. Nobody in my family wants to do the dishes; everyone sees them as a chore. When it’s their turn, the family members with a lazier disposition (not to mention any names) don’t do a good job, or don’t do them at all, leaving the more industrious family members to clean up after them. Sharing the chore is supposed to be for the common good; and yet the result is guilt, frustration, and resentment. Christian communism is a nice ideal; but the reality just doesn’t work.

Later that week, at a community picnic, my young professor, whose wife was expecting their first child, pulled me aside and said, “You know, Tim, that was a really profound statement: ‘Try raising five kids; communism can’t work.’”

And I said thank you and smiled politely; and silently wished him good luck.

2.

Now, we can bag on communism all we want; for we live in a culture that values free speech and other liberties that are self-evident. But, at the same time, I’m pretty sure Jesus’ vision wasn’t western capitalism either.

Just look at the parable:

First, early in the day, a wealthy land owner hires some workers. The mutual monetary agreement between them is a denarius, a day’s wage for a laborer. It’s not much; but it is enough for daily bread.

Next, three times more, every few hours, the land owner hires another batch of laborers. Each time a wage is not specifically stated; but it will be a just wage, the land owner assures.

Finally, at the eleventh hour, an hour before the sun sets, the land owner hires additional laborers one last time. This time there is no mention at all of a wage.

So, when the workday is done, the land owner has the laborers line up, the last to be hired at the front of the line. When he pays them each a denarius—same as the agreed wage for those hired early in the day—naturally, some expectations in the back of the line surface: the laborers hired last worked only one hour; it seems only fair then that we who worked the entire day should be compensated more for our troubles.

But when those hired in the middle of the day come forward and are given a denarius and no more, these expectations turn to feelings of entitlement: we who were hired early on did so much more for the land owner; don’t we deserve more compensation?

At last, when those hired first are paid a denarius just like everyone else, there is frustration and resentment. They grumble against the land owner. They feel themselves superior. They voice their complaints. “You have made them equal to us,” they say (v. 12)—as if equality is a negative value.

The land owner wonders out loud if these first hirees might be envious at his generosity.

Envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Now, the point of this parable is God’s generosity. God treats all people equally, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or whatever other category we want to place people in. God is generous, benevolent, and good.

Nevertheless, for many of us this parable is unsettling. Dissolved boundary lines aside, it feels unfair; maybe even unjust—like when I end up doing someone else’s dishes.

But I wonder how much of this unsettling feeling has to do with the ideal of western capitalism.

Capitalism teaches us from birth to compete against others, excel, and distinguish ourselves. If we go to the right college, earn the right degree, and work for the right company, why, aren’t we then entitled to receive a higher income than the person who didn’t? And when someone seems better off with fewer credentials, aren’t we prone toward frustration and resentment? Even envy?

And envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

3.

But there’s another option that stands between the human ideals of communism and capitalism: the Christian practice of the common good.

This phrase, the common good, shows up in many places in our Book of Common Prayer. A few examples:

  • In the Good Friday Liturgy, we pray for those who serve the common good, including the President of our country, Congress, and members and representatives of the United Nations.
  • In the Collect for Vocation in Daily Work, we pray, “Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good.”
  • In the Prayers of the People, Form IV, we pray, “Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good.”
  • And in the Great Litany, we pray, “That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good.”

I’ve said it before: our calling in Christ is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus. Christ’s mission and ministry are for the common good; or, in other words, the best quality of life we can experience together, as a community.

And while our community starts with you and me as individuals, it flows outward, like circles after dropping a rock into the still waters of a pond, to our church, city, state, nation, and the world; from Jerusalem to Judea and all Samaria, even to the ends of the earth.

That’s the idea of the common good. Which is a big part of our calling as followers of Christ.

But, of course, our reality is modern-day America, a highly individualized culture. Ideas about the common good are seemingly lost in a vast sea of individualism.

So then, how do we practice the common good in our cultural context?

4.

Well, I’m glad you asked. Our annual Pledge Drive affords us a wonderful, tangible example.

We will be launching our Pledge Drive soon.

All too often, financial stewardship is addressed from a very individual perspective. We’re asked to be introspective, to look at our personal budgets, to pray individual prayers about what we can reasonably afford to give to God, and figure out a way to give from what is rightfully yours.

But in our financial stewardship, God doesn’t call us just to be individuals, as if stewardship is merely a personal exercise just between me and Jesus.

Yes, personal introspection is a very real part of faithful stewardship; but it is not the complete picture. God also calls us to consider the common good.

Thus, when we pledge, in addition to our introspective, personal considerations, we also need to consider the bigger picture of this church body, its unique and particular makeup; its unique and particular needs.

And we need to consider the biggest picture of all: God is generous, benevolent, and good.

In pledging to the common good, then, we are merely managing what is already God’s: our pledges are acts of love to the Lord our God; and to our neighbor.

And what happens when we pool our resources together for the glory of God? We enable ourselves to live into our common life: we enable ourselves to work together as equals—no competition, no distinctions, no status; no frustration, no resentment, no envy—in order to accomplish Christ’s ministry and mission in Temecula and the world.

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That’s NOT not Fair!

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2014 by timtrue

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

Chris McDonough, the chair of the classics department at the University of the South, addressed last year’s graduating seniors with these words:[i]

“[T]here was a time in our country, once, when our schools had programs of free and reduced meals that were predicated on the idea of hunger. Children couldn’t get enough to eat. In the past few years, that program has had to be re-structured to account for a different sort of problem. It is not that children cannot get enough food to eat, but rather that they cannot get enough nutritious food to eat.

“We are no longer dealing with want, in other words, but with obesity. And in a similar fashion, those of us in education are learning likewise to provide an education that does not presuppose a lack of access to information but rather too much. We are needing to think about an education, in other words, that confronts mental obesity. All of which is to say that you who are about to graduate have grown up amidst tremendous technological sophistication, yet what has ultimately been rendered is a universe of information absurdly arranged, a sumptuous banquet of mentally empty carbohydrates.”

McDonough’s right.  We know abundance.  And we feel as if we’ve earned it.  But we are glutting ourselves on it.

It’s not a question anymore of whether we can give hungry children food, but whether we are willing to give them healthy food.  It’s not a question anymore of whether or not we can afford a TV, but whether we ought to limit somehow the thousands of channels available at the push of some buttons.  It’s not a question anymore of whether today’s generation is receiving an education—indeed, there is more information readily available at our fingertips than ever before in the world’s history!—; but how to focus all this information into some cohesive structure.

In our food, in our entertainment, in our education we have become unhealthy, even obese.  We are not viewing our manna, our day’s wages, our daily bread as sufficient.  We want more.  We hoard.  And we think it’s unfair when someone less talented or less driven has more or seemingly better stuff than we have.

Over in Exodus today we hear the story of manna from heaven. God has raised up a new leader, Moses, for a new day in Israel’s history.  Through Moses, God has freed Israel from the oppressive hand of Egypt, dramatically, with the parting of the Red Sea.  Now the chosen people are out in the wilderness—and what are they doing?—complaining!

Complaining?  Didn’t God just deliver them from the hand of slavery?  Didn’t God just answer their collective prayers in undeniable ways?  Didn’t God just promise to lead them into a land flowing with milk and honey?  And they’re complaining?  Already?

Well, um, yes, they are, already, complaining.  “We don’t have enough to eat out here,” they say; “but back in Egypt we had plenty of meat and bread.  We’re hungry!”  The whole congregation, in fact!  Despite God’s demonstrated generosity!  And despite God’s promise to continue in this generosity!

So what does God do?  Does God say: “Fine!  Forget it!  I’m walking away.  I’ll just go find some other people to make promises to.  I’ll just go find some other people who appreciate me, who won’t complain”?

No, that’s not what God does at all.  Instead, God provides them with manna, bread from heaven.

But there’s a catch.  The people of Israel are to collect just enough for the day—and no more.  Sure, the healthy persons can collect more than they need for themselves, in order to share with those too young or too weak to collect manna; and everyone can collect two days’ worth on Friday.  But the point here is that God wants them to trust him for their daily bread.  They are not to hoard.

Even so, a few pages later we read about some people who hoard anyway.  They go out in the morning to collect their manna for the day, just like everyone else; but they don’t stop with their one day’s ration.  Instead, they collect two days’, three days’, maybe even a week’s worth of the stuff.

What’s going on here?

These hoarders are not trusting God; they’re not wanting to follow the new rules of the new nation.  Instead, they’re operating by the old rules of Egypt.

But what happens?

When they wake up the next morning and walk on over to their storage containers, the ones with the extra manna in it, it’s full of worms; it’s mealy; it’s, as we say, not suitable for human consumption.

And instead of seeing God’s generosity in their daily bread falling from heaven, they complain once more.  “What?” they say; “that’s not fair!”

In today’s parable, over in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s really the same thing.

Some workers are hired by a landowner at the beginning of the work day.  And they’re hired at an agreed upon pay rate: a denarius; a day’s wage, enough to buy one’s daily bread.

Later, at the third hour of the day, the landowner returns to the market and hires other workers, telling them, “I will pay you whatever is right.”

Later still, both at the sixth and ninth hours of the day, the landowner does it again.

And once more, even at the eleventh hour, he hires yet more workers.

Finally the twelfth hour comes and it’s payday.  But the landowner pays everyone the same thing, starting with those who were hired last and working his way down to the first.

Then we hear that those who were first hired, the all-day workers, grumble.  “Hey,” they say, “these last ones hired didn’t have to stand in the scorching heat.  They didn’t have to bear the burden of the entire day.  Yet you paid them the same as us.  What is this?  That’s not fair!”

And we relate to these all-day workers, don’t we?  “Yeah,” we say.  “You know, those grumblers have a point.  That isn’t fair, really, when you think about it.  What’s Jesus playing at?”

But, remember, we live in America.  We have an abundance of food, an abundance of entertainment, an abundance of information.  We hoard unhealthily, even to the point of obesity.  This is not a judgment; it’s a statement about the way things are, a statement about our collective lifestyle.

But, remember too, we are citizens of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, with new rules and new ways of seeing and doing things.

Should abundance, then, be the lens through which we interpret today’s parable?  Should hoarding be the lens through which we understand fairness, justice, and equity?

I have my daily bread. That is what God gives me.  And with this I ought to be content; I should trust in God’s demonstrated generosity towards me—whether or not my neighbor has fifty times more.

But I see my neighbor and find myself wanting so desperately what he has.  And I shout out to God, “That’s not fair!”  I want that sumptuous feast, even if it’s only empty carbohydrates.

Or I’m like the workers in the parable.  “Why should my neighbor have as much as I have?” I ask.  “That’s not fair!  I work so much harder than she does!”  I don’t want to share God’s generosity with her.

But either way: when it gets to this point—when we think it’s unfair that someone else has it easier, or more than we do—it’s no longer a matter of fairness, justice, or equity.  We say, “That’s not fair!  That’s not fair!” feeling that we deserve more than the next person.  But the instant we point a finger at someone else and claim our just desserts, we cross a boundary: from the land of fairness, justice, and equity into the land of envy.

Today’s parable ends with the landowner asking those all-day workers a telling question: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

This question is what Jesus is playing at.

These all-day workers grumble against the landowner, accusing him that he’s being unfair.  After reminding them that he is in fact doing nothing unfair, that he is in fact paying them what they agreed upon beforehand, the landowner rightly turns the tables and asks the all-day workers to search their own consciences.  “Are you envious because I am generous?”

God is asking us the same.  We see our world through the eyes of our times.  Despite our Christian identity, it’s only natural that our views of fairness are going to align with our culture.  And God has been generous to our culture.  But when does our desire for fairness become envy?

We are citizens of a new kingdom.  It’s time to search our consciences.  Consider whether we need to reorder our views of fairness, justice, and equity to align with the view of the kingdom of heaven; to align with Jesus Christ’s views.  And it’s time to ask ourselves: is what we see as fair and just actually masking our own envy?

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[i]               Actually, Chris McDonough intended to address the graduating seniors; but a tornado warning interfered with his plans and the address never took place.  Cf. http://uncomelyandbroken.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/in-the-form-of-a-question/