Sermon: Not Fair

Honu in the water

September 20, 2020
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Matthew 20:1-16

by Eric Anderson

Year after year, they returned, the honu did. Year after year, they returned to the same beach, or at least the females did. They returned to haul themselves up around the rocks, to dig in the sand with their flippers, to lay their eggs, to cover them over, and to return to the sea.

Year after year they returned. It was a good beach. It was rocky in places, but what beach isn’t? There were barriers on the mauka side that discouraged creatures that like to eat honu eggs. Best of all, a big pier of rock extended out into the sea. It gentled the waves along the beach itself and kept the biggest storms from scraping away the sand.

In that cove protected by the enduring rock, the honu eggs could rest in safety until it was time for the hatchlings to make their way to the sea.

Until.

It was the seabirds that informed the honu mothers to be of the event. There had been an earthquake along the shore. The pier of rock was cracked. The honu turned their heads toward the beach, but as they went, they were aware of rising winds and tossing waves. Before they could arrive, the storm had come and gone. They stared, shocked, at the damage.

Some stones remained, raising their caps above the ocean, but the pier of rock had been fractured by the earthquake then battered down by the waves. Some of its stone littered the beach itself. More had simply vanished. As they watched, white breakers crashed upon the beach and, withdrawing, took each time a bite of sand. One or two of the honu mothers sobbed as they saw the sand draining away from their eggs.

One honu said nothing at all. As shocked and horrified as any, she dashed for the shore. Waves rolled over her shell as she hauled herself up the beach. She made straight for the place her eggs had been buried, a spot that now had just a thin layer of sand to shelter them. With her flippers she dug, not at the eggs but to one side. She dug, and placed the sand she dug atop her clutch.

“What are you doing?” asked another honu.

“What I can,” she said.

“The rock is gone. It won’t protect our eggs here any more.”

“I know. The rock can’t protect my eggs. They need to be protected. As long as I can protect them, I will.”

One by one the other honu hauled themselves up the shrinking beach to cover or re-cover their eggs as well. There were enough of them that they could guard the eggs for one or two at a time to get food from the sea and come back. Throughout the next three weeks they stayed and shoveled sand until the hatchlings emerged and made their way to the sea.

In time they would have to find another beach and another rock, but for this time, they did what they could. They endured.

We have lost a rock with the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday. As a member of the court, her decisions and her dissents won her the description “notorious.” Her ability to endure repeated serious physical illness inspired amazement. Her commitment to expansive justice in America meant that the powerless knew they had an ally on the highest court in the land. In 2013 she objected when the Court struck down key sections of the Voting Rights Act with these brilliantly vivid words, as quoted by NPR’s Nina Totenberg in her obituary: “She said that throwing out the provision ‘when it has worked and is continuing to work … is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.’”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed America, as Totenberg reminds us: “She changed the way the world is for American women. For more than a decade, until her first judicial appointment in 1980, she led the fight in the courts for gender equality. When she began her legal crusade, women were treated, by law, differently from men. Hundreds of state and federal laws restricted what women could do, barring them from jobs, rights and even from jury service. By the time she donned judicial robes, however, Ginsburg had worked a revolution.”

She was a rock, and the waves have been climbing the beach to carry away our treasures.

We must now be the rock.

It’s not fair. But we must be the rock.

Jesus spoke about unfairness. He told a story about a landowner and people who needed work. Or rather, he told a story about a landowner who had what he needed to survive, even thrive, and other people who didn’t have a reliable income to meet their own needs. Jesus told a story about how some of those needy people met the man with resources early in the morning, so they could receive a full day’s wage. Others didn’t meet the landowner until later in the day, so they would not receive a full day’s wage, or so everyone thought. Jesus didn’t mention – his hearers would have known – that that meant hardship and hunger for those laborers and their families when the day ended. It wasn’t fair to them and their families that they hadn’t encountered the landowner earlier in the day. You could call it bad luck or even bad judgement that they were in the wrong section of the marketplace each time. Willingness to work, as we know, has never been a guarantee of employment. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, was an academic star at Harvard and Columbia law schools, but after graduation at the top of her class in 1959, struggled to find a job in the New York legal community. She was recommended for a Supreme Court clerkship but received no interview. One of her Harvard professors, Gerald Gunther, threatened federal Judge Edward Palmieri that if he didn’t hire her as a clerk, he would never recommend anyone to him again.

The funny thing about those landless men looking for employment in the marketplace is that they shouldn’t have been there. The ancient law of Israel had a mechanism to prevent that. We usually translate it as the Jubilee year, the effect of which was to return land that had been transferred between families over the last fifty years to their original owner, or rather to their heirs. Every two generations, families got an economic restart. The financial and agricultural sins of the parents would pass to the children, but not to the grandchildren. They’d get to begin again.

By the time of Jesus this system had long since broken down, certainly under the Greeks and Romans but most likely long before. Frankly, it was probably not enforced by the ancient kings of Israel and Judah, who would have wanted to keep the land they’d acquired when Jubilee years came around. As D. Mark Davis observes at his blog “Left Behind and Loving It,” “The mere presence of a place where the landless gather in search of day labor is itself a testimony that the imperial economic structure is contrary to the Sabbath Economics of the OT. So, one question facing the interpreter of this text from the get-go is, ‘How are we to encounter a parable that is built on a structurally unjust scenario?’”

Not fair.

If we identify with the workers hired early in the day, this parable bugs us because it’s not fair. But what if we’re the latecomers? What if we’re the ones who’ve searched for a living wage all the day and found nothing? What then?

Not fair starts to look a lot better.

The phrase the landowner questions the early workers with, translated “Are you envious because I am generous?” reads more directly in Greek with this evocative imagery: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” If I can turn to poetry for a moment, this is an excerpt from “I Got a… Denarius”.

Darkness came too soon to make much impact
on the emptiness of my larder.
Darkness came too soon for work to be
rewarded with enough to keep our lives.

But look: there in my hand. The owner
of the vineyard has presented me
with a denarius, a coin whose worth
will keep us fed today, perhaps tomorrow.

I run back to the marketplace
for oil and flour, beans and dates.
My family will not believe
the owner’s generosity – I hardly do!

Behind me I hear quarrelling.
I pay no mind if others’ eyes are evil.
My family will eat tonight
because someone was good.

I Got a… Denarius by Eric Anderson

Karoline Lewis writes at Working Preacher, “This parable is a reminder of the absolute gift of generosity that does not demand response, that does not account for reciprocity, that does not calculate metrical measures. Because then generosity is not generous. By definition, generosity is not measurable, accountable, or calculable.

“Therein lies the point of the parable.

“That God is about unreckonable grace. Grace, by definition, cannot be computable. God’s generosity is exemplified in this parable but also extends beyond it.”

Jesus opened the parable with the words, “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” What is the reign of God like? It is not fair. It is greater than fair. It is generous. It seeks and finds. It supplies needs based not on reward for effort or gender or good fortune or who was first in line but fulfills needs based on the compassion of God.

The compassion of God. It’s not fair. The compassion of God is far greater than fairness.

Not fair. Thanks be to God for that.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video includes the entire worship service of September 20, 2020. Clicking the “Play” button will start the video at the beginning of the sermon.

Pastor Eric really does believe that when he changes things from the text, he’s improving the sermon. Most of the time.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on September 20, 2020

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