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Parables of Hunger: The Landowner

July 30, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, July 30, 2017

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

This is our third and final week looking at the Parables of Hunger, a designation I have made up to bring together several parables about food and eating. Most of the people Jesus told his parables to were literally hungry, so it is significant that the parables point not only to getting or receiving the food we need to survive today, but also for tomorrow. Further we noted that when Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven can be compared to: a merchant, a woman, a rich man or a servant; to leaven, treasure, a business ledger of farmworker wages” it’s not clear whether the comparison is intended to show similarity or difference. It is good for us to remember that the word parable literally means “things thrown together.”

And Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” Jesus’ parables are always complex stories that first tickled and then engaged the crowd’s questions, doubts, and hopes. We need only look at one character in the story to see how complex these characters and their actions really are; the landowner.

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Image: Tomatoes being harvested in Mexico in 2016. Workers may once
have owned these very field before NAFTA. Some companies, like Wendy’s,
have moved their tomato production to Mexico rather than work to ensure
wages, protections, and a slavery-free supply chain. See ciw-online.org

Is the landowner really that good? In Jesus day, the Roman Imperial system impoverished local farmers who were often forced to sell their land to pay their debts. The landowner in our parable would have been part of the (new) rich elite among the overwhelmingly poor. In the hands of these new landowners, fields of grain that had formerly fed the people were often converted into vineyards for the production of wine, a luxury selling for top dollar and often exported. Like my friend’s father who was forced to sell his family farm in Mexico a few years after the passage of NAFTA, many of the day laborers in this parable would have found themselves hired to work land they once owned themselves.

Is the landowner really generous? By paying everyone equally, he has certainly assured that each person seeking work would be able to eat that day. But “the usual daily wage” was by no means generous – it was a subsistence payment. And since employment depended on laborers gathering in marketplace before sunrise each day in hopes of being chosen for work, there is no assurance that they will eat tomorrow.

Further, as Alyce McKenzie points out, the vineyard owner believes that he is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him.

This reflects the Roman’s idea of private ownership, contradicting the Torah’s insistence that God is the owner of the land. The Torah’s vision was that one’s blessings were given to one to share with the dispossessed in the community, not as a platform to exploit them.[1]

In fact, the landowners very act of generosity seem calculated to provoke the grumbling of those hired early in the morning against the latecomers, a classic tactic of pitting workers against one another in the age-old practice of divide and conquer.

Is this how God acts toward God’s people? Is this how God provides for us? Is the landowner really the image for God in this parable? If so, to Jesus’ hearers who understood how real landowners operated, that would have been quite a claim.

Now we often use models from human relationships to think about God. The Psalter tells us “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13), and God in Isaiah says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). Yet in this parable we are teased into working out just how God’s justice, generosity and grace are UNLIKE human models we know. “God is nothing like an arbitrary landlord who pays meager wages, participates in keeping the poor divided and disadvantaged, and who distributes grace in ways to provoke resentment.”[2]

But clearly, Matthew intends us to see the landowner in a favorable light. So, let’s try to read the parable with him. God has work for everyone to do, and those of us who have worked faithfully for a long time should not resent the latecomers. Jesus’ parable had a word of challenge and a word of comfort; challenge for those who have been laboring long and hard, assurance and welcome for those newly arrived.

It was probably quite hard for his audience, mostly poor, to imagine a generous landowner. Jesus obviously understood this, too, as a poor man himself. In the previous chapter he had just told them that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Even this generous landowner, so long as he holds the assumptions of private property with which he may do as he pleases, the sufficiency of a day’s wage to meet the needs of hungry people, and an understanding of how his actions can pit the poor against one another in a downward spiral, even this well-intentioned, generous landowner is still far from the kingdom of heaven. In fact, Jesus tells this parable to a crowd of peasants after a rich young man, who Jesus says “is not far from the kingdom,” goes away sad because he cannot give up his possessions and the assumptions that go with them.

So we see that the landowner is both like and unlike God in the parable. And so we might also ask, where else is God in that parable? After all, God need not be contained within one character alone! That’s what makes parables fun, puzzling, and provocative. Parables also invite us to see look for God working in our own world in unexpected ways. Several years ago, I shared a 20th century parable about workers in the vineyard. Some of you may remember it; for others, it will be new. But either way, listen for God’s word to you.

Back in the late 1990s WINK News in southwest Florida decided to do an undercover investigative report on the conditions under which farmworkers then labored, the sub-poverty wages they receive and the workers’ struggle to dialogue with their employers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers was not yet an internationally recognized powerhouse that had legally binding agreements with 14 corporations and a Presidential medal winning Fair Food Program establishing and protecting tens of thousands of farmworkers rights in seven states that is now being exported to transform conditions at the base of supply chains in other industries around the world!

No. At that time, it was a community-based worker’s group, which most people had not heard of. But this group of farmworkers who had organized themselves had publicly called for talks between growers and workers to address abuses in the fields and sub poverty wages. The Coalition knew that the farmworkers were earning well below minimum wage–annually somewhere around $7,500. But growers claimed the workers earned $16,000. Enter WINK News. The TV reporters’ plan was to go into the fields, pick tomatoes, look at what average workers harvested and report on their earnings while taping the experience.

So a TV reporter and a producer disguised themselves as workers and joined the crowd of farmworkers waiting to negotiate a day’s labor and be taken in buses to the fields just before dawn. They did just that and their broadcast vindicated the farmworkers’ claims, underscoring the need for growers to negotiate with workers. At the close of the broadcast, the reporters explained there was one more story to tell. As they waited for the buses that morning, two farmworkers approached them. One man quietly asked, “Do you have any money?” Fearing they were panhandling, the newscasters said, “No.” At which point the worker pulled out his wallet that contained only three dollars. “Here,” he said with a brief nod, and handed all three dollars to the newscasters. Then he walked away.

Generosity awakens us to our common humanity in one another. Perhaps this was the point of Jesus parable, to open our eyes to justice and generosity whenever and wherever it occurs – in landowners, in farmworkers. At its base, we are reminded in giving and receiving that all of us are part of God’s family, that all of us our valuable, that we need each other to survive; that God created us for each other. And so, we hear Matthew’s message again: we all have work to do. Thanks be to God. 

Hymn: Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples

 

[1] Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today. WJK Press, 2007. p. 76.

[2] David Mosser. The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching. WJK Press, 2007.

Sabbath Day: A Call for Help

July 28, 2017

Sabbath Day: My Weekly Reflection on What Really Matters

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This is a call for help.

I’m calling on earth defenders, scientists, preachers, teachers, theologians and friends.

In September, I will observe my fourth Season of Creation with the congregation I serve. This new liturgical season grounds our congregational sense of who we are, where we live, and how to live faithfully.

Before then I will spend a couple of weeks in Guatemala and Costa Rica with indigenous communities resisting extractive industries (in the form of deforestation, agribusiness, the mining of minerals and fossil fuels, and the damming of watersheds).

When I come home, I plan to preach a four-week sermon series on extractive industry and Christian discipleship. I am looking for biblical/theological reflections on the following topics:

  • Forest Sunday: Deforestation is our ecological original sin. Our scripture readings will focus on the great primeval forest in Genesis 2 and the passages that reflect on the loss of the great cedar forests of Lebanon.
  • Land Sunday: The Agricultural Revolution, or the origins of agriculture, are remembered in the Genesis stories of Cain and Abel, as well as the story of Naboth’s Vineyard, in which land is consolidated by elite’s for export.
  • Wilderness Sunday: On this Sunday I may speak about carbon addiction in the form of coal, oil, and gas, or I may focus on the mining of mineral wealth – as in King Solomon’s fabled mines.
  • River Sunday: In a final sermon I hope to explore the history of water exploitation and the violation of watersheds in Ancient Israel and today.

A recent study reports that in 2016 environmentalists and earth-defenders were murdered at a rate never seen before. “More murders in more countries,” is says, “with a growing climate of impunity.” At the root center of this phenomenon are these four industries and their investors.

  • Deforestation
  • Agribusiness
  • Mining; and
  • Damming of Rivers

Please send me suggestions for scripture, commentary, books and articles, stories, etc. I have a number of ideas, but please assume I know nothing. I have a few weeks of vacation and plan a lot of beach reading.

 

PC(USA): Divest from Fossil Fuels

July 26, 2017

On Tuesday, July 25, the Hudson River Presbytery voted unanimously and with our ‘outdoor voices’ to overture the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy. Here is what I said before we took the vote.

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At 7:00 this morning I was at my church when a large crane arrived, its long arm able to reach the top of our education building. Up and down it went, moving heavy pallets from a truck. I spent the rest of the morning on the roof of my church with the team that is installing solar panels, unloading the racks, the ballast and the panels. By next month we will no longer be purchasing electricity, but generating our own. There is an impressive transition taking place right now toward renewable energy sources, a change taking place despite the United States withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. The waiting list for the new low-cost Tesla electric car outstripped all expectations.  And the PC(USA) has set up a fund that is fossil-fuel free to which churches can move their investments.

But this transition by congregations and individuals is not, and will not be fast enough, alone, to stop climate catastrophe.

The companies and countries that make up the fossil fuel industry hold assets ‘in the ground’.  Eighty percent of these known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground if we are to have any chance whatsoever of keeping our atmosphere from warming more than two degrees. And two degrees is all it takes to push us into planet-wide climate catastrophe.  But the problem is that eighty percent in the ground is not an asset that the fossil fuel industry is prepared to leave untouched.  There’s simply too much profit to be made.  

So instead, the industry denies the science and is searching out ever new forms of fuel to exploit, dirtier fuels like the Athabasca Tar Sands in Canada (XL Pipeline), new fields exposed by the thawing tundra, and fracked gas from the Bakken Shale which is being transported by the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux.  

While there are uncertainties in climate science, they pertain to questions like when will we reach the point of no-return on melting ice, acidifying oceans, and spreading deserts? Not whether these things will happen. And current corporate action is accelerating this catastrophe at an alarming rate.

How do we change it?  How do we stop those companies from doing what they’ve always done?  And how do we stop our government and those of other countries from allowing these corporations to do harm to our planet and its people today and tomorrow?

I will be frank.  Divestment alone will not be enough.  But it is a crucial tool within a larger global effort to push both corporations and governments to respond to their people’s cries for change.

Divesting from fossil fuels does three principal things. 

  • First, it strips legitimacy from an industry whose business plan means suicide for the planet. 
  • Second, it frees up funds for investing in other forms of energy. 
  • Third, it builds momentum for other actions including pressure on governments to do what only governments can do – like enforcing international accords on Climate Change or raising emissions standards or protecting preserves and other natural resources from exploitation.

The last, crucial thing that divestment does, is require our own denomination, the PC(USA) to use its voice and power seriously in this global effort.  At the last two General Assemblies, Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) has blocked the PC(USA) divestment effort which, at the last assembly, was supported by more than 30 presbyteries, saying that they prefer to talk with corporations and that they want to honor people whose livelihood depends on this industry.  But in doing so, they have privileged certain people over others – they have privileged the well-being of corporations, the well-being of executives, and the well-being of well-paid individuals who work for the fossil fuel industry OVER the lives and livelihoods of the poorest people on our planet who are losing their lands, who are losing their lives to the encroaching disaster.  Some of these people are our churches own mission partners – like in Peru and Madagascar.[i]  

Meanwhile, the world is not waiting for the PC(USA) to lead the charge. By the end of 2016 a total of 688 institutions and more than 58,000 individuals have withdrawn investment from coal, oil, and gas companies in order to tackle the extractive industries that are killing our planet. These include governments, cities, pension funds, philanthropies, universities, as well as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the United Church of Christ. We’re late. To date these withdrawn funds amount to over 5.5 trillion dollars, making those same funds available instead for much needed investment in clean energy and renewable resources.

Universities, NGOs, pension funds and banks – including Amalgamated Bank, the first US bank to divest from fossil fuels – explain their reasons for divesting saying,

  1. First, the moral argument for divestment compels us to recognize that it’s wrong to profit from companies destroying the planet. By moving their money, people and institutions help revoke fossil fuel companies’ social license to operate, shining a light on their unsustainable business models.
  2. Second, the financial argument for divestment demonstrates that fossil fuel-free portfolios are regularly matching or outperforming standard benchmarks. People and institutions grounded in market data and trends are getting out of fossil fuels before the carbon bubble bursts and assets are stranded.
  3. Third, by calling for both divest and invest, institutional and individual investors shift capital flows away from problem industries and accelerate the transition to a global economy fueled by sun, wind and water. The Divest Invest movement brings individuals, family offices, and institutions from across civil society to send a clear and compelling mandate to governments, financial professionals and other businesses to shift the power away from fossil fuel companies and make the changes we need for a low carbon future.[ii]

The White Plains Presbyterian Church voted two years ago to divest ourselves of stock in fossil fuel companies, and to reinvest that same money in renewable energy. We did it understanding ourselves to be stewards of God’s creation.  We did it to send an unmistakable message to our mission partners in Peru and Madagascar and around the world:  we will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you. We did it for our children and their children’s children who will reap what we sow now.

Therefore, with urgency and hope I stand before you this afternoon, representing the Council of my congregation, to advocate the presbytery’s support for this overture for the PC(USA) to divest itself from fossil fuels – now.  

 

 

[i] Three members of the congregation I serve visited Peru three years ago as part of delegation from Hudson River Presbytery. There they witnessed first-hand the effects of climate change on lives and on the land.

[ii] From the website of Divest-Invest.org.

 

Parables of Hunger: The Dinner Guests

July 23, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on July 23, 2017. This is the second of three sermon of the Parables of Hunger

Psalm 63: 1-9         Luke 14: 15-24

Last week we began talking about the Parables of Hunger, a designation I have made up to bring together several parables about food and eating and who Jesus ate with, and with whom we are encouraged to eat. It’s important to realize that most of the people Jesus told his parables to were hungry. They experienced hunger as a fact of life and struggled with it daily. We read together the Parable of Leaven and talked about daily bread. Daily bread – the bread Jesus bids us to pray for – is that which assures us that we have not only eaten today but will eat again tomorrow. The Parable of the Leaven, in which the Kingdom of God is compared to leaven that leavens enough dough to feed a village, much like the actual miracle of loaves and fishes on a Palestinian hillside, was given to hungry people. And they ate it up.

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Comparing God’s messianic reign or realm to a banquet is commonplace in Hebrew scripture. Psalm 107 speaks of the redeemed being gathered in from all the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, for “God satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry God fills with good things.” The prophet Isaiah said that “On God’s holy mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isa 26: 5-8). The great feast is not only an image of God’s justice, peace and abundance achieved and celebrated but of God’s justice, peace and abundance as, itself, a celebration! Jesus used this image of a rich banquet, or a wedding feast, or inclusive party in several of his parables. These parables invites us to wonder: In what way is God’s realm like party?

The context for our passage today is that Jesus has accepted an invitation to share the Sabbath meal at the home of a leading Pharisee. Once in the home he observes the guests jockeying for position near the host, and Jesus tries to introduce a little humility where humility seems to be lacking. And then he tells this parable. He says the kingdom of heaven is like a party where “the expected guests are absent, and the most unlikely ones are present.” His point, on this occasion, seems simple: God desires all people to sit together in the kingdom of God, to enjoy fellowship with one another and with God, and the invitation is open. But we may be surprised who shows up, and who doesn’t. Who runs away or is sent away. And why.

Now, parables are many things, but one thing they are not is simple. They are not short stories with a moral point. If they were, we wouldn’t have to wrestle with them as we do. Parables defy easy categorization or summary, which is why some of them rank both among our favorite and least favorite passages of scripture. Understanding parables is not a straightforward business where this person represents this, and that action represents something else. Parables are puzzles that defy solution; they tickle our intellect, our heart, and our emotions into listening harder. And so we listen to them until we know them so well that they can begin to speak to us. We listen to them until we know them so well we can recognize them when they come to life before our eyes. We listen to them until we can hear the many answers they offer and, importantly, the many questions as well.

Let me illustrate what I mean. This is a story shared by a college student with her classmates with whom she was studying scripture a couple of years ago. This student explained,

Yesterday my roommates and I made a feast for dinner. We’d invited nearly a dozen friends, and so we spent all day shopping and cooking from scratch: two big pots of soup, two loaves of homemade bread, a giant salad full of vegetables, and two pecan pies for dessert. But then, at about three o’clock, just as we were putting the pies into the oven, the phone calls started coming in.

One by one, our friends called to cancel: one couple had car trouble, another was sick, another was overwhelmed with work. It was uncanny. By five-o-clock, all but one person had backed out – and then the phone rang one more time. And so there we were, three people surrounded by enough food for fifteen.

And then it hit me, probably because of the reading we’ve been doing in this class. I remembered the parable Jesus tells about the great banquet and how when the invited guests refuse to come, the hosts go out into the street and invite the poor and the blind and the lame. And I thought: this is our chance to enact the parable. This is what we are supposed to do with all this food we’ve made.

But I didn’t say anything. And so we ended up doing just exactly what you’d expect us to do: we called around to a couple of other friends, had a smaller dinner party and put the leftovers in the freezer for later. And now today, I’m wondering what happened, why I didn’t speak up, why we let that opportunity slip by.[1]

This student already realizes something about scripture that it takes many of us a long time to get: namely that scripture is not something simply to be read and understood, whether in a classroom or a congregation, but it is something that we live, that can come to life in our lives when we think about what ultimately matters. And when she found herself in the midst of biblical story, it spoke to her personally. “I’m wondering what happened, why I didn’t speak up, why we let that opportunity slip by.” These are, of course, important questions. Why do we let opportunities pass us by? Why do we hold back from what we know is right? It’s not wrong, nor is it unfaithful to the scripture or unhelpful to our lives to ask these questions. But hearing scripture as an address to each of us individually falls short of what Jesus is really up to in his parables.

One of the other students in the bible study commented, “Well, I don’t know why she didn’t speak up, but I know why I wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t know whom to invite. I don’t know anyone personally who was hungry last night or who’s particularly poor, for that matter. And even if I do have some acquaintances who might be, it would feel strange and hollow to invite them over to dinner suddenly, like extras in my little morality play.” Now she understands that the parable addresses not only our inhibitions and desires, but our social location. It questions who we know, and who we don’t, and the nature of our relationships. And this is how parables work. They reveal our commitments and the brokenness of our communities. They function as what one commentator calls ‘a revealing challenge’ precisely when we cannot easily or gracefully enact them. This parable clearly reveals that charity and pity toward others are no substitute for dignity and equality with others. In God’s realm, the poor are not the second string guests, invited to save face and honor for a snubbed host. Jesus says the poor are blessed and inherit the earth, and that those who are hungry will be satisfied.

Jesus used this parable to poke at the pretentions of a relatively privileged group. Remember that Jesus told this story about a wealthy man’s table while he was enjoying a real meal at a real table with the Pharisees. On his way to the meal Jesus met a man who was sick and healed him. He’s presumably still sitting outside throughout the meal.

So imagine, imagine what it would be like to hear this parable of the dinner guests as a person whose “whole circle of friends is privileged, able bodied, and comfortable.” How can they take part in the gospel drama? How can they share in the good news Jesus announces to the poor and hungry and the captive if they have no genuine, relationships with people who are poor, hungry, or captive?

One of the things that I love about our congregation is not only that it is in the city, but that we have faith in the city. By this I mean we build relationships not only with other organizations or participate in activities, but that we welcome people as individuals no matter where they are on life’s journey. Each week there are individuals who come seeking help – sometimes they’re hungry, sometimes they’re confused, sometimes they’re in need of health care, sometimes they’re looking for housing, or parking or clothing or a nursery school that will provide a scholarship so their child can have an even start with other children in kindergarten. All of us have needs – all of us. Every one of us here has needs. And many of us here know just what it’s like to not have enough money for food, or to come up short on the rent, or to have a health care crisis because we cannot afford the treatment we need. Others of us are just skating by and we try not to think about it too much; one crisis away from the whole house of cards collapsing. I say this because when one of our human rights isn’t met – say the right to health care – the rest are endangered. I say this because when we are living precariously – skating by, hoping by luck we’ll avert a crisis, the stress increases on every front. We often don’t want to think about it too much because it’s counterproductive. We muscle through, hoping.

So many people came to Jesus who were physically hungry, physically hurting and unsure where to turn for help or relief. And that’s true of so many people who come to our doorstep all week. But what I think is incredibly good news, is that they turn to the church. Somewhere they learned that the church is supposed to help. The church—both its individual members and as a congregation – loves its neighbor as itself, meaning it sees its own well-being entwined with that of others and risks itself to ensure we all have what we need to survive.

Jesus’ parable is not only about what we do as individuals. It is. It is certainly that. It is a challenge to us, like it was to those college students. But it’s also more than that. Jesus wasn’t addressing the Pharisees individually, but collectively. And whenever we come across religious leaders in the gospel – whether they be Pharisees or Sadducees — we should just read “church” because that’s today’s analogy. They’re the “religious establishment.” And so this parable is not just about the important decisions each of us as individuals make each day, it’s about the values we live out as a congregation. It invites us to wonder, how are we showing the love that Jesus would have us show to one another when we stumble on life’s way. Because, you know and I know, it’s a stony road we trod.

So I want to share a few examples – just from this past week – of how our church endeavored to live out the call of this parable.

  • Many of you know that Church Street has been closed for a couple of days because they are shooting a major motion picture. Because this also closed off access to Grace Episcopal Church, the soup kitchen needed a temporary home. So our church became that home this week. And we welcomed more than 100 guests to eat and be renewed. More than that, Olga went down to the kitchen and was greeted with hugs and kisses because everybody knows Olga – because she, like others in this congregation, has volunteered at the soup kitchen.
  • I had several conversations with a woman who has now been released from prison and is facing a dire health care crisis. She and I met a few years ago when she was going into prison. In fact, August wrote to her and we sent books. Now she’s out. But you know and I know – because we’ve been studying the prison system and re-entry issues – how hard it is, even in the best circumstances, to land on one’s feet. What I could do was be a sounding board for her decision-making and to promise to walk with her as she discerned her next steps.

Jesus is serious about the table of God’s kingdom being a table around which all are gathered simply because God has invited them. It is the reason a table, a large table, is the central symbol in our worship space. The communion table is a table open to all. Those who have been baptized recognize this table as the place where status accorded by the world to some because of power and wealth or denied by the world because of poverty, ethnicity, physical ability is laid aside for a different kind of status – our status as children of God, equals in God’s sight. And through our baptism we affirm that every person is a child of God, created in God’s image, invested with dignity and worth.

  • This week, I had a really special meal with a man named E—– at NY Presbyterian Hospital. E—– has a variety of challenges and had gone in to get his medications adjusted. Over the years he’s had jobs and lost jobs, been homeless and found an apartment, and over the years he’s needed meals – real meals – to help him survive. I’ve brought him dozens of meals and bags of food over the years. But this week, E—– was hosting ME for dinner at NY Presbyterian Hospital. This was his treat for me. I was his guest. What a beautiful meal it was. Two men, sharing food, sharing our lives, giving thanks.

At this table, a table set by God, the equality proclaimed and realized at this table brings joy, brings hope, and satisfies.

Sermon Hymn: Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table

 

 

 

[1] Dorothy Bass and Susan Briehl, eds., On the Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life. (Upper Room, 2010).

Sabbath Day – Stewards of the Uninhabitable?

July 21, 2017

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“The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”

Gandalf, in The Return of the King

I have been a poor Sabbath keeper this year, and a worse blogger (the two are very much related). I’ve yet to take a serious long hike in the wild this season, or to spend even a night in my tent. I have spent too many Sabbath days in my office. I have more often than not been immersed on my Sabbath days, when I get them, in reading: lots of theology, ecology, local community and church history. My reading lists and interests are growing with every page I read. Often my mind is so full at the end of a Sabbath day that I want to keep thinking rather than write, because I am not ready, yet, to share all that is going on inside me. Present political and ecological realities have me pondering, like Gandalf, the destruction of much or all I care about – and in my darkest reflections on an uninhabitable earth by the end of the century, the passing even of all “that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again.” It’s a real possibility that neither Tolkien nor Gandalf considered.

A week ago David Wallace-Wells published “The Uninhabitable Earth” which became almost immediately the most-read article in New York Magazine‘s history, outlining how “parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.” He has since had to justify his alarmism, which is more than justified. “I don’t even understand what “too scared” would mean. The science says climate change threatens nearly every aspect of human life on this planet, and that inaction will hasten the problems. In that context, I don’t think it’s a slur to call an article, or its writer, alarmist. I’ll accept that characterization. We should be alarmed.” A few weeks ago we learned that aircraft can’t fly when temperatures exceed 118 degrees (it’s simple physics). We learned this because Arizona hit 119 and all planes were grounded. About the same time Iraq City hit 129 degrees (real feel 140). I can’t even imagine – I’m listless in the mid-90s.

In a report that had more to do with politics as usual than climate reality, though the two are now always related, the United Nations predicted that Gaza will be unlivable by 2020 – but just look at it now. Can you imagine living there now? And both of my U.S. Senators from the State of New York have signed on to a bill that would criminalize the BDS movement, a non-violent protest against Israel’s ongoing occupation. I am a New Yorker, and Democrat Co-Sponsors Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are my responsibility. Free Speech is a Constitutional Right, except, apparently, when it comes to Palestine and Palestinian Solidarity. My own denomination, the PC(USA), is currently studying whether Boycott, Divestment and/or Sanctions (BDS) is a faithful way to pursue human rights in the absence of a just peace in Israel-Palestine. We already endorse boycotts of products made in the illegal settlements. Are we felons? Will we be? Westchester County has already passed an anti-BDS ‘resolution.’ Agree or disagree with BDS, this strategy of criminalization is unconsionable and sure to backfire. But at what cost?

In two weeks I will be in Guatemala, and then Costa Rica, as part of a Presbyterian Peacemaking and Environmental Ministries Travel Study Seminar. Preparing for this trip has re-immersed me in language, theology, economic history, and human rights struggles that were at the forefront of my theological formation in seminary. Twenty-five years on they are unsettling me again with a passion and anger that were academic the first time around. That’s not really fair … there was passion and anger back then, but, to quote Bob Dylan, “I’m younger than that now.” I revel in complexity – I’m a historian, after all. But commitment, solidarity, resistance, resilience: these are becoming simple, obvious, and the only measures of faithfulness. They send me back to scriptures that first formed me and have never let me go, though I have not reveled recently in their simplicity. I have been told before – by my professors in seminary (Mark Lewis Taylor), my favorite journalists (Naomi Klein) and most recently through my own experience (with Standing Rock) – but in ways I am only beginning to understand, indigenous peoples will chart our future or we will not have one. I am keenly anticipating my time in Latin America.

Tolkien has also been a major reading interest this year, not least because of his imaginative critique of resource-extractive economies. My son and I are working our way together, and aloud, through The Lord of the Rings. He’s read the whole before, and experienced the movies, but this is our first ‘read aloud’ together. Tolkien makes one comfortable with struggles that last for, and find meaning, over centuries and millennium. If only I believed we had that much time…

“For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”

 

 

 

Parables of Hunger: The Parable of Leaven

July 16, 2017

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, July 16, 2017. This is the first of three sermon of the Parables of Hunger

 Matthew 13:1-2; 33-35

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such a great crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables… He told them: “the kingdom of God is to be compared to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till all the flour was leavened.” Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; and without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken to the prophet: I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.

One of the most distinctive things about the way Jesus spoke with people was his use of parables. The word parable literally means “things thrown together.” And Jesus could throw the oddest things together. He would often begin by saying something like “the kingdom of heaven is like…” or “the kingdom of heaven can be compared to…” and then speak about buried treasure, a beautiful fish, and a precious pearl, or he would weave stories around the character of unjust judges, murderous party hosts, or day laborers working in a field. Often when Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven could be compared to something” it’s not clear whether the comparison is intended to show similarity or difference. For example is the kingdom of heaven like a king who refuses to forgive an unmerciful servant? Or is the kingdom of heaven to be contrasted with that unmerciful king, a person who is all-too-familiar in the ancient world and our own?

Additionally, it is not necessarily the case that the most powerful character in a parable should be compared to God. That would often make God unjust, quick to anger, and murderous in response to the wickedness, dishonesty, or even simple cautiousness of ‘his’ servants. It is already too easy for too many people to think about God that way. More often, Jesus’ parables of kings and emperors and wealthy landowners are mockeries of the way powerful people act in the world; in Jesus world and our own. The parables prod us to imagine what our world would be like if power were arranged differently. Can we imagine a world without empires, plantations, and wealthy elite rule?[i]

For when we get past the surface meaning of a parable, we are usually left with more questions and an invitation to imagine. What does it mean when Jesus says that a pearl merchant discovers a pearl of great price and so sells all the rest of his merchandise in order to acquire the pearl? He finds something precious, yes, but he is also now out of business! And he is obviously not intending to sell the pearl of great price. After all, he could’ve taken the profit from selling everything he had if profit was what he was after. Yet, if he is after possession, rather than profit, I wonder, ‘how will he eat?’

You see, if the point of the parable is that we should forsake all else to acquire that which is truly valuable, then Jesus could have just said that. And he would certainly not have told a story that raises more questions about the reason and intentions of the merchant. I ask again, ‘how will he eat?’

And this is not an idle question, because most of the people Jesus was speaking to when he told these parables were hungry. Biblical scholar Louise Schottroff says this is the world described in Matthew’s gospel:

Jesus’ parable of the leaven, in a single sentence, describes life in the first century. A woman is preparing bread dough. Bread is, and was, the basic stuff of life. The word bread could represent all the food on the table or all the nourishment people need, as when Jesus and his disciples pray “give us this day our daily bread.” When the Creator, who has given bread, is blessed at the eating of bread, human life is experienced as part of creation. The miracle of human life and its dependence on creation is brought to awareness. The sounds of kneading dough have deeper meaning than other sounds; they assure those listening that life will go on – even and especially in situations in which life is endangered.[ii]

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Bread assures us that life will go on, even and especially in situations in which life is endangered. This brings to mind a story I learned years ago. During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”[iii]

We might think today of refugees from Syria, or internally displaced indigenous communities in Columbia, or closer to home, those who have recently been released from county jail but with nowhere to live and no job to provide income.

To cite biblical scholar Louise Shottroff again, this is how the Gospel of Matthew describes the people to whom Jesus is speaking.

They are so impoverished that their relationship to God is breaking (Matt 5:3) and hunger is suppressing the Sabbath (Matt. 12). The illnesses spoken of in the Gospel of Matthew are connected to the state of hunger.

To these starving people Jesus, in Matthew 13, speaks four parables about the fruit of the earth, two about grain and one about mustard, then, at the end, the parable about leaven. The first two parables report the failure and success of farm work. The two at the end speak only of success, the miracle of the earth and its products. People, both men and women, must work for their food. They have to sow; they have to knead bread.

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The parable of the leaven focuses on the work of the woman baking bread. She “takes” leaven and “hides” it [or conceals it] in a large quantity of flour. She’s preparing the dough for many people, bread for several families. The parable draws our attention to a particular moment in the preparation of the dough: the mixture of leaven, flour, and water must stand in a warm place, covered, while it rises, “until the whole of the flour is leavened.” Then the dough will be kneaded again and shaped into bread. It is not only the work of the woman baking bread, it is also the miracle of creation that the dough is leavened and rises. The woman lets her hands fall and waits.[iv]

[Long Pause] Only to lift them again in prayer:

Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
sovereign of the universe,
who brings forth bread from the earth.

With this ancient prayer, spoken very Friday evening on the Jewish Sabbath, we are reminded that it is a gift from God when people hold steaming bread in their hands. The solemn breaking and sharing of bread at the beginning of the meal continually gives ritual expression to it. For people who struggle to get enough food to survive this gift is not a matter of course. It is a matter of life and death. In fact, when Jesus teaches us in our tradition to pray for daily bread the word he uses, epiousion has the connotation of ‘for tomorrow’. In other words, not only bread for today but for tomorrow as well. Remember the children ‘sleeping with bread?’[v]

But there are lots of questions about this parable that invite our imagination. Why does Jesus say the woman “hides” the leaven rather than mixes it or kneads it into the flour? How are we to understand the three measures of flour? Three measures is about fifty pounds of flour – or ten five pound bags – to be precise. One scholar has said that when you add the water and leaven you have nearly 100 pounds of dough, or as another scholar puts it, sixty dozen cakes. And while this certainly conveys a sense of abundance, it suggests less the image of a kitchen and more that of a bakery.[vi]

Or does it? Three measures of flour is an unmistakable reference to Genesis 18. You remember the story, of course. Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent beneath the Oaks of Mamre when three visitors arrive who will announce that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, will give birth to their first-born son Isaac. Abraham asks Sarah to go “make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Is our parable of leaven a celebration of good news or of new birth? Is the woman playing host to God or angels or unexpected guests? Is there difference?

Speaking of difference, the Gospel of Thomas (one of the gospels that wasn’t put into the bible as we have it today but was written and circulated at the same time as the other gospels) – contains all of the parables that appear in the synoptic gospels plus a few that were left out. In the Gospel of Thomas the parable of the leaven appears, but with this difference. Whereas in Matthew Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to the leaven that a woman ‘hid’ in three measures of flour, in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a woman who ‘hid’ leaven in three measures of flour.” Do you hear the difference? In Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is compared to leaven. In Thomas, the kingdom is compared to this woman. Assuming that Jesus did not speak his parables only once, or always in the same way, what would change in the parable if God’s realm were like this woman? Imagine if we had handed down to us the version in which Jesus compared the kingdom to a woman.

The word parable literally means “things thrown together.” The interpretation of parables is always and ever unfinished business with many loose ends, and often more questions than answers. Like poetry, parables invite us to make meaning by not nailing it down too precisely, but by following the emotional contours, exploring unexpected details, and imagining “what if?” They help us re-imagine our world. In parables, as in so much of faith, we discover God nestles within the questions that burn within us, luring us to pursue them today and tomorrow and tomorrow. Amen.[vii]


[i] See, for example, the treatment of Jesus’ parables by William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

[ii] This paragraph is lightly adapted from Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. (Fortress Press, 2006). I’ve removed her scripture references and shortened some sentences.

[iii] Dennis Linn, et. al. Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995.

[iv] Adapted and somewhat shortened from Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus.

[v] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. (HarperOne, 2014). If you’re looking for a single book to read on the parables, this is the one I would recommend.

[vi] The reference to 100 pounds of from Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. (Eerdmans, 2002). The reference to sixty dozen cakes is AJ Levine, cited above.

[vii] Bernard Brandon Scott, Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. (Polebridge, 2001).

God is Good; All the Time

July 12, 2017
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A brief sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on July 9, 2017

 Psalm 145:8-14

“God is good.
All the time.
And all the time.
God is good.”

This simple call-and-response confession of faith is suitable at all times. I have used it as a call to worship, as a blessing before a meal, as an expression of gratitude. Most recently I heard it spoken in thanksgiving in a hospital room after a doctor delivered good news. God IS good.

But this confession does much more than acknowledge that God is or has been good ‘to us;’ that good things have ‘happened.’ And it is certainly NOT that an all-powerful God has the power and inclination to intervene on our behalf in order to make things work out to our advantage. That’s magic. To say that God is good is, rather, a confession that what is good about God is quite simply God’s goodness.

The wonder of Psalm 145 as a whole is that it not only sings of the power of God, but it carefully defines God’s power. We are accustomed to images of God that use metaphors such as king, warrior, and rock, or that equate God’s power with the uncontrollable strength of natural storms. This psalm draws us away from such images, redefining power so that it undercuts – perhaps even destroys, these images. After beginning the song with expressions of praise at the unsearchable greatness of God and the power of God’s awesome acts, the Psalmist says just what this greatness and these awesome acts are. They are grace, mercy, loving kindness, and goodness to all. The glory of God is the goodness of God, and the majesty of God is the mercy of God. The final definition of divine power is this: God sustains all who fall, raises up all who are bowed down, and nourishes us all.

Over against such a definition of divine power, some might cry out that far too often, those who fall are crushed, those who are bowed down are utterly destroyed, and the nourishment promised is but dust in the mouth of those suffering in famines caused by drought or war. Where is the truth of God’s power over against such evils?

Perhaps the best way for us to deal with this question is to ask ourselves which of the two sets of power images best fits the understanding of God that we see in Jesus Christ? Which definition of power draws the best model to look like? If it is the model of goodness and mercy, then we will seek to live by such a model. By definition, this means that we will be drawn to address the problems of the fallen, the bowed down, the hungry, and all that these images represent. We will seek to enact a world were goodness and mercy trump the forces of destruction. As we do, will it not be the power of God that drives and calls us to such actions? Is God not working through us? Therefore: “My mouth will speak the praise of God, and all flesh will bless God’s holy name forever and ever” (v. 21.)[i]

God’s work IS in our hands; God drives and calls us to express goodness and mercy in all aspects of our lives. So I’d like you to pause and think for a few moments about when you have seen someone show goodness or mercy recently. And then find another person near you in the congregation and share these stories with one another. We’ll sing a verse of Let All Things Now Living (Hymn 37) to call us back together.

We then took some time for sharing and then sang the hymn.

Ancient and contemporary rabbis describe Psalm 145 as the “prayer of all prayers” and the “entryway to the psalms” to be prayed three times each day by the devout. According to the Talmud, “everyone who repeats the Tehillah (which means praises) of David thrice a day can be assured he or she is a child of the world to come.”[ii]

This assurance of being a child of the world to come is not simply because one recites, but in reciting, one learns by heart and is formed by what has been taken in, memorized, and repeated. Those who are thus shaped express their faithfulness through mitzvahs, acts of kindness and justice toward others. And so I invite you this week, to bring this Psalm home with you. To repeat it three times a day, and to begin to notice how this praise of God’s goodness begins to flourish in your daily life, in the ways that you treat others, and in the ways you begin to notice the goodness, justice, and kindness expressed by those you meet.

 

[i] Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year A. (Westminster John Knox, 2013).

[ii] Robert Cathey, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3 (Westminster John Knox, 2011).