September 21, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Matthew 20:1-16

More than Fairness, More than Justice…

On the television show, The People’s Court[1], Judge Marilyn Milian presides over small claims disputes. Quite often, she explains to the litigants, Court is not meant to give someone a bonanza. The purpose of court is to make you whole.

So you have a plaintiff whose jeans were ruined when a dryer overheated at the laundromat. She sues the owner of the laundromat for the cost of new jeans, because now she has to go buy new jeans. Her problem is the jeans that got scorched weren’t brand new, their value depreciated. The judge awards her some money, then explains that making the laundromat owner buy her brand new jeans would put her in a better position than when the damage occurred. Court isn’t designed to make you better off; the purpose of court is to make you whole. So says the judge. If only our wholeness could be purchased for fifty dollars…a

Now you could convince me that this court provides a valuable service to our citizenry. You could definitely convince me that this court makes for entertaining television. But The People’s Court seems awfully limited in its ability to solve people’s actual problems. On its best days, this kind of small claims court examines a situation that is unfair, then awards a dollar amount to correct the unfairness. Maybe that’s not bad, but maybe it’s not enough.

When we see something that is unfair, what if we widen our perspective? We might see this act of unfairness is actually part of a whole system that is unjust. If we widen our perspective, we might see a possibility for grace so far beyond what we thought we wanted in the first place. There is more to it. Always more to it.

Today we continue our fall sermon series called, Jesus Said What? and again this week, we have a parable, perplexing and distressing. The good news about parables is it is not our job to make them make sense, to land on a note of resolution where they all live happily ever after. Instead, parables throw us into the place where we can see, there is more to it.

For the kingdom of heaven is like this. A landowner goes out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He offers to pay them the usual daily wage, a denarius. The Bible scholars explain this was actually a subsistence wage, but at six in the morning, the workers agree to his terms. And so it begins.

All through the day, the workers work in the hot sun, and the landowner keeps going back to the place where they gather. Again and again, all through the day, the landowner sees workers waiting to get hired. Again and again, he hires them.

Now the main event of our story happens when the workers get paid. For one thing, the landowners pays the last first, so he makes everybody watch. This is no discreet act of charity. One by one, every worker goes home with the same pay, a single denarius, barely enough for today.

When the six o’clock workers see what is happening, they grumble to each other and protest the landowner. This is not fair! You know when something is not fair the same way you know whether you’re in pain. It’s a visceral kind of knowledge, we don’t have to think about for a long time. We human people know in the pit of our stomach when something is not fair, and we care deeply.

Back in 2010 when I worked as a youth pastor, we spent a year preparing for our high school summer mission trip to Costa Rica. The rule was, in order to go on the trip in July, you had to be actively involved in youth group all through the year. I think I even kept a spreadsheet recording the attendance of each teenager. One girl who worked at a fast food restaurant had to go make a case to her boss to switch her work schedule so she would have her Sunday evenings available for youth group.

Part way through the year, another girl approached me and mentioned that she had two friends, two guys in her class, who were interested in going to Costa Rica with the group. I was very clear. They would be welcome to participate in our youth group meetings and activities, but they couldn’t join the group now just to go on the trip. Of course if it turns out they like youth group, they are welcome to go on the trip next year. Well, this position was not well received. The other adult leaders were in favor of letting these two go on the trip. And we argued! And they won. It was not fair.

I’m pretty sure, we all know this feeling that goes, It’s not fair. It hits the pit of your stomach… But then what? Well, what if this moment could become a turning point, the signal that triggers our empathy and impels us to widen our gaze. See what is unfair, then look beyond that to see the bigger picture. Because if something happens that is not fair for me, what about the people who are even more vulnerable? If it’s not fair for one person, well what about everybody? There’s more to it. Always more to it.

In the parable we hear today,  the landowner keeps going back to the marketplace all through the day. Every time, he finds more workers and hires them. You’ve gotta wonder why. Did he just underestimate in the morning and under hire? Or do you think he was surprised to keep seeing the people in need of work? We don’t know. I wonder whether his perspective was changing through the day, if his heart was starting to open just a little bit.

His action at the end of the story is a problem. Sure he’s being fair to the six o’clock workers, in the sense of People’s Court fair. He fulfills the contract he made with them. But it doesn’t feel fair. It certainly is not generous. And while he may have helped these people for a day, he did not fundamentally change the system of economic oppression.  This parable leaves me asking, what happens tomorrow? Does the landowner go back to the marketplace the next day and keep hiring workers all day? See a moment of fairness turns into an issue of justice, and where do we go from here…

Speaking of justice, it is not uncommon for people to come into the church and ask for money. Usually, they are in a situation that is not fair, and when you step back, you see the signs of systemic injustice, how the infrastructure of our society penalizes people for being poor.

Now for good reasons, it is the practice of our church to not give cash. This means we can talk with a person and pray with them. Kevin created an excellent brochure listing community resources. We invite them to come to the food pantry on Saturday morning. Sometimes these efforts help, and sometimes they don’t. Who wants a brochure, when you really need quarters to get your kids’ clothes washed at the laundromat. In these encounters, we know the moment that goes, “Our help doesn’t go far enough. And it’s not fair.” Widen your gaze and see the whole situation. Soon “It’s not fair” turns into “This isn’t right.” There’s more to it. Always more to it.

As the church, it is our call to keep seeing the More. Even when this seeing takes more imagining than identifying.

Consider what happened a few weeks ago in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown, a black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.[2] For Michael Brown’s family, the question of Darren Wilson’s sentence is a matter of fairness. Of course, no sentence can really help. It can’t go far enough. When your son gets killed, no kind of court can make you whole.

Now on another level, this killing provoked a larger movement calling for justice. There are new initiatives to equip police officers with body cameras and efforts to address longstanding mistrust and violence between police departments and African American neighborhoods.[3] Of course, body cameras and new regulations do not end racism. These efforts may be needed, but they don’t go far enough. Racism will be overcome when we correct unfairness then do more, when we restore justice then do more, when we create communities built on compassion, healing and respect.

More than fairness is justice, more than justice is a vision of God’s mercy and compassion where workers are paid fairly and generously, and no one is oppressed; where white folks are not afraid and black teenagers are respected; where we sit down together and see old fear turn into trust. I know this kind of seeing might take creative envisioning, but we have to see this. And we can.

Part way through our time in Costa Rica, one of the adult leaders commented on how glad he was that these two guys had come on the trip. I reminded him that it was not fair that they were allowed to come. I had an attendance spreadsheet to prove it. He asked me, “So do you wish they hadn’t come?” Well no, of course not.

His question stayed with me for the rest of the week. I saw one of these young men become good friends with a little boy who lived in the shantytown. One of them knew Spanish and most of the rest of us did not. On the last day, I was asked to offer a prayer, and this teenager stepped up to translate it. I saw that none of the youth were resentful that these two came, even the girl who had her work schedule changed. Quite the opposite. We needed them in our group.

Two summers later, I helped coordinate the Baccalaureate service for the community, and wouldn’t you know, these two young men volunteered to speak. They stood up and told the town how this trip to Costa Rica opened their minds and changed their lives. I know the feeling. Thank God I lost that argument! When I have the chance to look at a spreadsheet or look at people, I pray that I always see the people.

Friends, the church is not The People’s Court. More than fairness is justice, and we are called to work for justice. More than justice is a possibility for unending compassion and liberating love. It is our call to see this promise break forth, to keep seeing there is more to it. Always more to it. Thank God. Amen.




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