God’s Justice and Our Belonging
September 20, 2020. Pastor Meagan’s sermon today is on the story of the laborers in the vineyard. As we learn from our readings, God’s concept of justice doesn’t look like ours.
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Once there was a woman who owned a small company that makes clothes. Business was steady and things were going well, and then the pandemic hit. She and her leadership team watched in shock, with the rest of the country, as sales plummeted. One of the team suggested that they make masks, and quickly they saw that had been a really wise decision. They had managed to keep most of their staff on with the help of a PPP loan, but soon they needed to hire more people to handle the extra workload.
First, they hired a tech specialist to manage their online orders. The next week they brought on two people to help make the masks, and work on new designs for special fits and needs. Two weeks later they hired another person to deliver masks locally to larger clients like senior residences, care centers, and schools.
The time came when all of the new staff were receiving their first paychecks, and although of course their hourly pay was supposed to be confidential, the delivery person exclaimed in surprise when they saw their check, and one of the long-time staff couldn’t help but overhear. They were frustrated because it didn’t seem right that someone who was so new to the staff, and only a driver after all, was getting paid so well. They went to the owner of the shop and complained. The shop owner replied, “Friend, I haven’t hurt you; we agreed on your salary, and you have been paid. Spend it as you wish with gratitude. I choose to pay our new staff a just wage also. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Sound at all familiar? Comparison, fairness, justice, and deserving are so much a part of our culture, and when someone gets something we don’t think they deserve — or when we don’t get something we think we do deserve — we are annoyed. It raises all kinds of questions of value, and belonging, and we’re tempted to judge who is deserving. We’re all at least somewhat invested in the idea of fairness and justice. The thing is, as we learn from this parable, and from the story of the manna in the desert, God’s concept of justice doesn’t look like ours.
So, what do we learn of God’s justice, from our readings today? It’s easiest, perhaps, to look at where the justice of God and our concept of justice conflict.
Our sense of justice says, “There is no free lunch. We get only what we earn.” Has anyone heard that? Anyone maybe said that? I certainly have that message in me that says I need to earn my place, earn love, earn approval, and at times it’s even felt like I needed to earn the very air that I breathe. And I suspect I’m not alone in that.
God’s sense of justice says look, every evening there’s meat to eat. Every morning there’s bread. No need to store anything away, no need to earn it, no pay being docked if you don’t make your quota or have to stay home with your sick child. Every evening and every morning, God provides what we need for the day.
And Luther, in the Small Catechism, reminds us that this isn’t just about food and drink, but about trusting that everything we need — clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like — is provided for us, and for all people, by God. It may not look as we expected. Did you notice, the Israelites saw the manna and at first they were like, “What is that?” But unexpected as it may be, God provides enough for everyone. God’s sense of justice is that all people have what they need, for the day.
Our sense of justice says, we have a right to judge whether something is just or not — that justice is based on values of fairness and equality, objective values that we can measure. Think of Jonah, and how upset he was at seeing God’s mercy for the Ninevites. Or the older son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, angry because his father showed compassion and abundance toward his younger sibling, who had abandoned the family and spent his inheritance. I remember vividly how frustrated I was when a classmate received a higher award than I did at our science fair, when I had helped her at the very last minute to put her project together — and I had spent weeks working on mine!
And God’s response, as today when the workers who came in first were jealous of those who came in last and still received what they needed, is that it’s not up to us. God’s sense of justice says that we’re called simply to ensure that God’s abundance is available to all without judgement, and whether something is fair or equal is up to God, and not us.
Our sense of justice is grounded in what seems right for us. Like the long-time worker in the clothing shop, we can often slip into wanting to be sure we are getting what we deserve. We can, out of fear perhaps, be afraid of not having enough, and feel like the only way we can be sure is to prevent others — people who are not us — from having more than we do. As hard as I have tried to divest myself from companies that I know don’t treat their employees fairly, I admit that I’m still guilty at times of making the choice for convenience rather than justice.
God’s justice is grounded in relationship. Belonging. The Israelites are in it together, all getting what they need to continue their common journey. And the workers are all paid, so they can all have food and shelter and safety, so that they can continue their common work. And here’s the thing — in the end, as God sees it, everyone belongs. As Jesse was saying, we are all interconnected and dependent on one another. God’s sense of justice is about relationship and belonging.
And this brings us back to the first thing about justice. We can trust that God’s plan is to provide all people with what they need, for the day. And when we have that trust, we can let go more easily of what is fair or equal, and see more clearly the deep belonging that we share with all of God’s people, and all of creation. And if we discern with God’s sense of justice, we will see the damage that racism, anti-LGBTQIA action, ableism, economic oppression, and sexism, have done to us. We will know deeply the brokenness of a community that does not allow all people access to the bounty that God has provided, the woundedness that comes from denying people what they need to survive.
Today, I am thinking so much about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, one of many who, like the shop owner in our story, imagined and worked for a sense of justice quite different from what is often lived out in this world. The notorious RBG claimed that laws that separated people on the basis of gender, preventing women from accessing education, employment, financial resources, and so much more, were not just, in spite of the fact that so many in power were convinced otherwise. And she continued to work for justice for all marginalized people right up until her death two days ago, at the age of 87. Like our shop owner, RBG can inspire and empower us as people of faith to live out a new vision of justice that is truly about trusting in God’s abundance, ensuring that it is available to all of creation, and it is based in a belief that all people belong, in our communities and in our world.
When we celebrate communion, we are celebrating the intimate presence of God in our midst, and we’re experiencing in a bodily way the abundance of God, in the smallest things, like bread and wine. Just like the Israelites did. We can see how God is providing for us, and for all people, each day. We can more easily see what we do have, and know that it is enough. And we’re sent out share the good news in that awareness — there is enough for all, and God means for all of God’s children to have what they need, for this day. I invite you to take a step back today, and notice. Where is God providing for you today? Like Jesse said, who are the people that are participating in sharing in that abundance? And how can you ensure that God’s abundance is available for all people, as God intended?
Thanks be to God.
*** Keywords ***
2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, YouTube, video, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16, coronavirus, COVID-19, Paycheck Protection Program, Jesse Helton, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, queer, questioning