The Unfair Truth and the Good News

Sunday, September 24, 2017 – Creation III

Genesis 25:19-34
Psalm 105:1-6
Genesis 28:10-19a
Matthew 20:1-16

The Unfair Truth and the Good News

As every parent with more than one child is aware, “It isn’t fair!” It isn’t fair, and sometimes it’s difficult to make it fair, even when you try. Because life isn’t fair. Not ever, not really. And that’s a problem for us because we want it to be fair. But the Gospel doesn’t promise us fair. Every child of God is blessed and beloved, but that’s not the same thing as a promise that life in this world will be fair. We are promised life, the opportunity to choose life abundant, to choose light over darkness, hope over despair… but not fair. The Beatitudes, also here in Matthew’s Gospel, are specifically about how God blesses those who don’t get a fair deal in this world: the meek, the persecuted, those who mourn, the poor. Jesus promises that they are blessed, but doesn’t say that it will suddenly be fair.

Because we don’t start out at the same place, or in the same situation, and God won’t be restricted to the confines of our systems, laws, rules, cultural constraints. As we saw in last week’s Gospel text and the parable teaching – we don’t want God to be. We don’t want fair – we want extravagant mercy; we want whatever it takes to save us; we want a great deal more than we deserve – trust me. We don’t want fair.

But we get so caught up in the economy of this world that we think we do, particularly when we are winning. When, in our earthly game of king of the mountain, we are the kid on the top of the pile. Then we think fair might just be the way to go. When we have a job, a home, and health insurance; when we are the ones with an education and security, and our kids don’t need to join the military to pay for college; when we have citizenship because our parents or grandparents came to this country when the borders were open. Then we get all wound up about fair, and we sound like those first workers in the vineyard, grumbling against the landowner, saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

Here’s the problem with fair – we are always comparing our lot to the person next to us, to see just how ‘fair’ the world is being… and it never quite seems fair enough. If we look at our life expecting things to be even, there will always be someone who has it better than we do, and that’s “not fair.” The workers in the vineyard who were there all day actually expect MORE than their promised share, when it comes down to it. They’re thinking, well, the landowner gave those “come -latelys” more than they deserved, so he will give us a lot more! He should – we did a lot of work. When they get exactly what he promised them, they are resentful and begrudging. Because now it feels “unfair.”

But, it’s never fair. Ask the sons and grandsons of Abraham. It wasn’t fair for Ishmael, and it isn’t fair this morning for Esau. By all the rules of this world they should be the chosen ones, they are first born sons in a society where that means everything… but they aren’t chosen, they aren’t given what’s due, what’s rightfully theirs. And the chosen one this morning, the one through whom the promises of God will be carried out, Jacob, well, he is a piece of work. A wheeler dealer, a schemer. So we know that God chooses and works with the less than perfect, the one who conspires to take advantage, the one who manipulates for his own advantage on occasion. And that it won’t always be fair. Thanks be to God! There’s hope for us after all.

Because face it, we aren’t always a shining example of righteousness, and even with all of our advantages, we aren’t always going to be the kid at the top of the pile. And that it was never a fair game to begin with.

Because “fair” starts with a presumption of an even playing field, and it never is, never was. At the core of many of the issues plaguing our culture and nation is our blindness to our privilege. We need to see our privilege for what it is, and to own how much of what we have is due to the advantages we have received.

We take most of the benefits of the white middle class for granted, as expected, as owed, as “only fair.” Consider how many of these advantages apply in general to our population here: relatively educated parents, at least one of whom was steadily employed, a stable household, economic security, physical safety, emotional safety, food security, solid prospects for the future. Children who grow up with: a safe neighborhood, good friends, good health, decent schools, a safety net when in trouble, good teachers and role models, and the benefit of the doubt.

So much of what we consider as only fair in this country, can only be assumed if you are white, honestly middle class white. And many on our list vary greatly depending on gender: access to economic security, education, physical safety, emotional safety, prospects for the future, benefit of the doubt. (Or, being taken seriously.)

If we don’t begin to recognize and admit to our privilege we can’t begin to address the playing field, or our role in all the advantages we so willingly take, and deny others. And how much of the identity of white America still hinges on the self-image of power over others.

In 1958, two years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott concluded, James Baldwin described the silent indignation he witnessed watching black bus riders sit where they pleased.

Baldwin wrote:
The whites, beneath their cold hostility, were mystified and deeply hurt. They had been betrayed by the Negroes, not merely because the Negroes had declined to remain in their ‘place,’ but because the Negroes had refused to be controlled by the town’s image of them. And, without this image, it seemed to me, the whites were abruptly and totally lost. The very foundations of their private and public worlds were being destroyed.1

Friends, I know this has been a hard morning, almost unfairly so. But there’s good news. This identity that James Baldwin is talking about, the identity based on belittling and dehumanizing another, that’s not who we are. We are not meant to be defined in these hurtful, power-over ways. We know that. We understand that loving our neighbor as ourselves means – leveling the field. Love “those people” as if they were of you and your people. Because they are of God and God’s people. And so are you. That’s the fair we’ve been looking for. That’s the only place where it’s truly ever fair, in the eyes and heart of God, where we are all beloved.

To level the field for others, we have to be willing to understand what they experience. A quick story: Last week at Southern Maine Community College, the faculty and staff participated in an exercise in equity and equality, called The Game of Life. People came into the exercise and picked up a name tag that determined who they were for all of the activity. How much money they had for school, whether they would have to get immunizations, how much that would cost, even how long they would have to wait for things, and how they were spoken to, or got classes they signed up for, whether they got into school at all. And through it all they could see that those around them were having different experiences, it wasn’t fair of course, it was like life. Ken’s name tag code gave him some money but not much, and everything cost him more than it should have, and he had to wait in lines. Everything was easier for the guy in front of him, and less expensive, and people were nice to him too, but not to Ken. They spoke to Ken like he wasn’t all that smart (like he should be happy to be there at all). After he didn’t get into school, Ken went and got in the employment line and got a job, but it wasn’t a great one and he didn’t get paid as much as others. At the end Ken found out that he was a minority female. No kidding. I thought he did pretty well, all things considered, minority female – it could have been a lot worse. It isn’t fair, not even close.

Ken came home with a certain amount of frustration and righteous indignation – because he’s a good guy and he gets it. And that’s where our indignation about how it should be fair is good news: when it gets to us on behalf of someone else. That’s the blessing of our innate sense of fairness – when it feeds our sense of justice. When we step out of our “it’s not fair to me” vineyard worker mode and think about how it should be just for someone else. Motivated by the injustice we see, the empathy we feel, when we realize just how un-level the field is and we do something about it, one person at a time, and righting one skewed system at a time, until we make it more level.

What if we changed the game? What if “king of the mountain” became “give everyone a hand to join me, and we’ll flatten it out a bit, so it’s a plateau, and we can all fit up here?”

It’d be a better vineyard. Or at least I think our vineyard owner would think so. And I know we would enjoy the fruits of our labor more, for we would be enjoying them together, in God’s kingdom, right here on earth. Amen.

1 James Baldwin; “The High Road to Destiny.” In Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Profile. Edited by C. Eric Lincoln. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970.