Serious Laughter and the Evil Eye

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 20, 2020

Matthew 20:1-17

I want to begin this morning with something I read that expresses where I am, where I think so many of us are today.

I watch the news some nights, and I listen to reports about COVID…I also watch our beautiful western states burn. I watch Black lives and blue lives being taken unjustly. I watch fear-mongering and listen to … brazen lies.

It’s all so…heartbreaking.

Cameron Trible, ‘Piloting Faith”, email on September 16, 2020

Here’s my question: in these days of heartbreak, how do we find joy? How do we respond to whatever the day brings? Every day is a basket of occasions; every day has threats and opportunities and invitations to praise. Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers is about a day when some grumbled, and some laughed. Can we join the laughter?

Let’s start with the end and work back to the beginning. Imagine these workers going home; what do you think the conversations were like? Think of the last first. All day long these sat around the dusty corner where day laborers gather. They talked, hoped, gradually gave up. They saw friends get work but they never did. Then, at the last moment, at the moment when they were hopeless and just avoiding home where there wouldn’t be anything to eat, this amazing chance. Five o’clock!—and a guy comes looking for help picking grapes. Who cares what he was offering to pay? Something is better than nothing, anything is better than nothing. So off they went to the vineyard, hoping for just a little, maybe some gleaned grapes. Imagine their surprise, imagine their “it can’t be true” joy when they walk to the pay table and the manager hands them a whole drachma, a day’s wage. I wonder if their eyes widened, I wonder if one by one they slunk away, thinking the guy must have made a mistake, wanting to get away before he figured it out. Think of them grinning as they walk in the door at home and someone looks up, eyes questioning. Think of the grin as they hold out a whole drachma, enough to pay for dinner and breakfast tomorrow both. Imagine the hug and the laughter, the serious laughter.

Now think of the first hired. Tired, hot, dirty after a long day in the fields. Farm work started then as it does not at dawn. They were smart to get down to the corner early, and their smarts was rewarded. A full day’s work but more importantly a full day’s pay, just as agreed. I wonder if they felt a little smug, seeing others who didn’t get to work until noon or later, knowing they wouldn’t get full pay. So imagine their anger, their grumbling, when—impossible!—the manger starts handing out drachmas to everyone. “How was your day?”, their families ask, and the answer is grumbling about the unfairness of the vineyard owner and the pay tossed on the table. Which home do you want to live in? Can we choose?

Go back to the beginning. It’s September; well, I know it’s September here but in this story it’s September too: that’s the grape harvest. You know what September is like? One bright, warm sunny day immediately followed by thrashing rains and cold temperatures. Harvest is a crisis because grapes all get ripe at once, the vineyard is ready now, and if you wait, even a day or two can mean you missed the moment. So this vineyard owners goes out at daybreak to hire some day laborers. Every farming community has a corner where these guys hang out. He finds a group, he contracts to hire them for a day’s wage, a denarius, paid as a drachma, a standard coin. So they go to work. Imagine the owner working with them, correcting some of them, helping and realizing it’s not going to be enough, there aren’t enough of them. So at noon he goes and hires more. The same thing happens. He’s getting more frantic so he goes at mid-afternoon, hires more and as the evening starts still more. These others don’t have a contract, he just tells them to trust him, he’ll pay what’s fair. They know they aren’t working a whole day, they’re glad to at least get a few hours.

At the end of the day, the owner’s tired but he’s happy; the grapes are picked, the vineyard is harvested and he makes a decision. He tells his manager to pay everyone, and to start with the last hired first. This is really the central point of this parable and it’s why Matthew, the only one to tell this story, has it here. It’s connected to the spiritual facts Jesus preaches, that God doesn’t play by our rules and that the last are going to be first. So the laborers line up, just as ordered. And the manager starts paying them: one drachma for you, one drachma for you, one drachma for you.

It doesn’t take long for them to figure out what’s going on. I wonder what the guys at the end of the line, the ones hired first, who worked all day, thought as they saw these others get paid. Day laborers lived day to day and a day’s pay meant just that, they got through the day, they had enough to eat for the day. One day for you, one day for you, one day for you, on and on the pay goes until the first hired, the ones who had a contract finally get to the head of the line. Did they assume they would get more? Wouldn’t that be fair? What do you think? They worked all day, they bore the heat of the day; on the other hand, they agreed to work for—one drachma, one day’s pay. And that is exactly what they get.

Third Sunday After Pentecost – A

Small, Swift Birds

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Third Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 25, 2017

Matthew 10:24-39

Click below to hear the sermon preached

If we were asked the most important thing in our lives, I suspect many of us would reply, “My family.” Families in the best sense are where we learn love: where we are accepted, where we are nurtured, where we are accepted even when we are unacceptable. In The Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost imagines someone saying,

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, 
They have to take you in.’ 
‘I should have called it 
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve. 

That’s our dream of family. It’s a good dream and a wonderful reality when it happens.

Of course, we know not all families are like this. Families are where we are meant to love but where sadly sometimes there is violence, sometimes there is oppression. Not all families accept each other. So many of people have stories about being fearful coming out to family. My own family included a deep story about my mother’s upbringing and she never lost her bitterness and feeling that in the gendered values of her family, she was less important, less valuable, than her brother. So families are a mixed bag. And today we’ve heard Jesus say some shocking things about causing division in family. What does he mean? What does he intend us to get from this?

Putting Jesus’ Words in Context

We need to put these sayings in context. When we say, ‘family’, we really mean a mother, father, kids, perhaps a few close relatives. But the family of Roman times was a much larger unit, a whole household. It was usually headed by a senior male and included adult sons and their wives, their children, perhaps other relatives, the senior male’s wife and slaves. In well to do families or households all these would live together; in poorer households, they might occupy an apartment building.

Roman religion and Jewish practice all centered on this pyramid of power. Women were not allowed to eat with men or talk to them at meals in most places. Slaves were an intimate part of the household but had no power. Babies could be exposed and killed at birth; children were not always prized. The decision, as in all household matters, was left to the head of the family. So when we hear family here, we need to think of this pyramid of power, this household with slaves and children at the bottom, women a little higher up, sons higher still, and finally at the top an older man.

Contrast this with Jesus. We hear almost nothing about his father and he disregards his mother and brothers and sisters at various points in the gospel stories, reuniting with his mother at his death. Instead, Jesus constructs a household. When his own family tries to bring him back from preaching and healing, he says,

And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ 
[Mark 3:34-35]

He invites a group of men and—shockingly!—women to come with him on his journey of healing and preaching. The gospels focus on 12 men but Luke mentions 70 people and lists a group of women that traveled with him. John has a set of stories that focus on Mary and Martha and makes it clear that he has a prior relationship with them. We know from a wide variety of stories that Jesus’ practice was a source of constant criticism. Over and over again, we read, “He eats with sinners”, a category that includes women, gentiles, and people who don’t observe the codes of family and religious life.

Jesus himself relates this here: he says, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”. Beelzebul is a demonic figure. He understands that if he is criticized, those who follow him will be as well. His solution is simple: everything will be revealed. His solution is to give away being part of this new family: show it and share it.

…nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. [Matthew 10:26f]

Everything is going to be revealed, everything is an open invitation.

This Is Invitation!

That is the most important thing to understand about this text: it is invitation. Just before today’s reading, Jesus teaches his disciples how to go out and spread the good news of this new household he is creating. Their mission, he says, is to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. He tells them some places won’t let them do this; just go on, he says. He tells them some people will oppose them; just go on, he says. Here in what we read, he focuses on the fact that even some members of their own families will oppose them. Just go on: make this new way the most import fact of your life, make this new household, the most important relationship in your life.

Why follow Jesus, if it’s going to cause such division and heartache? Because where we follow him is into a relationship with God so loving, so intimate, so particular that nothing else compares. He says, “…even the hairs of your head are counted.” Think of this: think what it would take to count the hairs of your head, think how intimate you would have to be with someone to do that, to sit with them, listen to them talk, through that process. That’s the way Jesus is God with; that’s how Jesus invites us to be with God. It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it? Yet this what gives life, he says. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Following Jesus

It’s not an easy way because it means changing yourself. It means learning a new way of looking at the world. Years ago, I was the pastor of a church much like this one, a big old building needing constant cleaning. We hired an organization that employed differently abled people and every day their crew would come in. The one I remember most was a young guy with some mental challenges who liked to engage me. I wore shoes with laces in those days and when he would see me, he would say, “Tie shoe!” and then laugh hysterically. At first I would politely smile, and go on with whatever I was doing. But this was a constant thing and it began to make me wonder and to be honest, annoy me a little, because he wasn’t satisfied to just let it go; he wanted me to laugh too. Finally I mentioned it to the supervisor. He said, “Oh, he had a problem learning to tie his shoes, so we used to tease him about tying his shoes. Somewhat chastened, reminded I was supposed to be a loving Christian, the next time he said it, I forced myself to laugh too. I learned to be more patient; I learned to laugh. Finally, one day, I discovered: I got the joke. I laughed, real laughter. He had taught me to stop, laugh, be there with him for a moment. I was healed.

This is what we are about: healing people. There’s a lot of talk here about growing the church and I’m just like you, I love it when the pews fill up. Now the 1950’s model of church growth was to find a place where people were moving, open up there, and they will come. That worked—in the 1950’s. It’s not going to work here.

A more modern way of growing a church is to market it like a new kind of toothpaste, or bread or anything else. The model of these large mega churches is Bill Hybels. Bill Hybels didn’t start out by figuring out what Jesus said; he started out going around to people in an area outside Chicago and listening to what they wanted and then creating a church that would tell them what they wanted to hear. Today you do this by finding someone who will use great music, great pictures, and great words to tell people they are right and good just as they are. That might work; I don’t know, I’ve never tried it.

Because Jesus doesn’t say one word about getting a lot of people together. He says: go out and heal. And that’s what we are doing, what we are meant to do. Most of the people who visit here and come here have been hurt; some are sick. They come here with scars, they come here with the hope that we can offer something that will help them. And we can.

At the center of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is this:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. [Matthew 10:2-31]

Small, Swift Birds

Two sparrows: this is the food of the poor, this is the common bird no one notices, this is the little bit of almost nothing that flits and isn’t appreciated. Yet here is Jesus telling us that God cares about the sparrows. If we really believe that, if we act like it, if we live it, how can we help caring for others too? How can we not learn to laugh with the “Tie shoe!” joke? How can we not help and heal?

One of my favorite bands has a song called, Small, Swift Birds. It uses this image to teach us to appreciate how important every encounter is, to teach us to appreciate each moment.

I have heard about the lives of small swift birds.
They dazzle with their colour and their deftness through the air.
Just a simple glimpse will keep you simply standing there….
And then there’s the day we look for them and can’t find them anywhere.

The song reminds us of the value of each small moment. Each day, every day, Jesus invites us to live as members of his household. He knows it will cost us but he knows that what he offers is priceless. Each of you is so precious to God. Each other person out there is just as precious. He gathered us to share God’s love; he sends out to heal God’s people. This week, this month, every day: remember that you are on a mission from God to be the image of God’s love.