Election Sermon #2: Value Judgments
Homily preached by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge Church of the Intercession, NYC
September 20, 2020
Texts: Exodus 16:2-15, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week when we began a series of Election Sermons, I told you that we would be challenged to think differently than common wisdom about some aspects of the state of our nation right now; I also warned you that these sermons might be hard to hear and their messages even tougher to embrace. I know that last week I found the topic of forgiveness a tough one to say the least, but that theme might seem sweet, even warm and cuddly compared to this week’s theme: value judgments. And while last week’s gospel likely made us cringe, this week’s gospel will probably make us angry. Again – I’m warning you.
I’ve mentioned before that I think that the TV show that shows us the most about our inability to judge value is PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow.” If you’ve never seen it, here’s a quick description: the Roadshow holds fairs all over the country where folks can bring in various possessions to be appraised by experts. You can bring in artwork, crafts, toys, jewelry, furniture, memorabilia, pretty much anything to have it appraised by experts; that way you can get a realistic assessment of value from someone who has a wider knowledge of the field than you do. So you could bring in that vase that your aunt Sally left you in her will – Aunt Sally always said it was valuable but it is so ugly that you’ve stowed in the attic until the Roadshow comes to town. Then you retrieved it, dusted it off, and brought in to be appraised. The appraiser asks you what you think it’s worth,” and you answer, “I really don’t know, maybe a couple of hundred dollars.” But then appraiser tells you that the ugly vase is worth $15,000! – and you gasp and shed tears of happiness.
Sometimes, though, the reverse happens. You think you have a possession of tremendous value, only to find out that it’s an imitation, a forgery, or just junk worth only pennies. That’s much worse to watch or to experience: the awful deflation when you find out your value judgment is so wide of the mark. Here are the questions: How much do your really know beyond your own feelings, opinions and experience? If you have no reliable frame of reference, like an expert appraiser does, you’re pretty well guaranteed to be a poor judge of value. Today’s lessons teach us the consequences of only relying on our own judgments, instead of God’s.
Which is exactly what Israel did in first reading today from Exodus. The new nation of Israel had been liberated from Egypt, where they were accustomed to a certain lifestyle, even though they were slaves. Although they were oppressed and abused, scholars agree that they were not destitute – they had decent houses and they ate reasonably well; so that was their frame of reference. But once they crossed the Red Sea, everything changed. They were free, yes, but everything they knew was gone – we can relate to this because it bears some resemblance to what we are going through today, with the disruptions due to COVID-19. Like us now, the Israelites were disoriented so they began longing for the past –so much so that their partly
delusional memories of the past overtook even the miseries of slavery in their minds.
God’s response to Israel’s longing for the past is fascinating; he provides miracles of different kinds, not to show off but to teach. The splitting of the Red Sea was an incredible miracle, but it was a one off and it was quick – the sea parted for only the time it took for the nation to cross it, then it went back to normal. But now when the Israelites need food, they don’t get a quick miracle, they get a sustained one that will continue for forty years. This teaches us a great deal about the scope and magnificence of God’s frame of reference versus ours, and our inability to get beyond our own value judgments; it also poses a test.
What fell from the sky to feed them was so weird that the people said, “Manna?” which literally means, “What is it?” I think we imagine this “Manna” as breadcrumbs that were strewn on the ground the way we feed pigeons, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Manna was true Wonder Bread, gorgeous to look at, like glistening dew at dawn, and it was so nutritious that it was completely absorbed by the human body – many Jewish scholars believe that it generated absolutely no waste. While the best food the Israelites could imagine was hunks of meat with onions and bread, God had perfect food for them instead.
But this Manna came with some guidelines, rules which God gave the nation in order to train them in trust, true justice, and the importance of submission to God’s will. Manna had to be gathered daily – it would rot if you tried to preserve it – this was to teach Israel to rely on God literally for their daily bread. And each family got different amounts of Manna according to the number in their household – this was not equal distribution of an asset; it was just distribution of an asset. Finally, Israel was asked to submit to God’s menu for their diet instead of their own cravings.
You probably know – or could guess – what happened next: people tried to gather more than one day’s worth of Manna, then they tried to take more than their fair share, then, in the most obnoxious slap of all at God, they all started complaining that they were sick of the Manna and longed to have meat. So God, who was ticked off at their ingratitude and their non-stop complaining, sent them meat – You want meat, I’ll give you meat!! – he rained down so many quails on them that their craving made them sick. It turns out to be so hard for people to give up on their own values and desires that they will even spit on the miracle of Manna.
This brings us to today’s troubling gospel reading, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. I think I speak for all of us when I say that I identify with every one of those farmworkers who was furious at not getting paid more than the workers who were hired at the end of the workday. Shouldn’t wages for day laborers be based on the amount of work? What kind of boss is it that would be either incredibly cheap to those who had worked all day, or insanely generous to those who had hardly worked at all?
Well, the God kind of boss. Let me explain. This is a parable, so it’s symbolic; therefore the landowner, the boss, is God. As before, the problem is our faulty frame of reference – we calculate our value with reference to our efforts, but God views work differently than we do. God does not want us to earn his favor – that would mean that our value is due to our own efforts, and we can never work hard enough to be worthy of God’s love. Elsewhere in the Bible,
in John’s gospel, Jesus states this very clearly. When the crowd that had partaken of more miraculous food – the multiplied loaves and fishes – asks Jesus: “What must we do to perform the works of God?”, Jesus answers them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
That’s it, that’s the work: believe. Believe in him whom God has sent. And the wage for that work, the reward, is Jesus himself. So now we can see what Jesus was getting at in that difficult parable of the workers in the vineyard. If our framework has changed from our definition of work to God’s, it becomes clear: since the reward for our work – our belief – is Jesus, then it is impossible to get paid either more or less, no matter when you begin the “work.” To translate this into our lives: whether you believe from a young age or convert on your deathbed, the reward is the same. The boss, God, is paying all a perfect wage in the vineyard – just as God provided Israel perfect food in the wilderness. The key to understanding this is learning to live here on earth trusting in God’s values, not our own.
The person in history who did this best is Paul; he understands that our own experiences do not reflect their true worth in God’s value system. What’s fascinating is that in our reading from Philippians, he speaks of the difference between the two types of frames of reference as a difference in value: He says, “to me living is Christ, dying is gain” – that’s a value judgment. In other words, living is to share in the ministry and in the sufferings of Christ, which is good, but Paul judges dying to be even better because it takes us out of suffering and away from those lesser experiences to the fullest possible life, one completely in Christ. Paul is not saying that our lives here do not have value – not at all – what he is saying is that this life is not in the least comparable to life in the next. In fact, it was Paul’s ability to give priority to God’s frame of reference over his own in the here and now that enabled him to experience this life fully, without fear, and always rejoicing even in the worst of circumstances.
That is the skill that we as Christians need to bring to our lives in our world today, in our very disrupted time, in this very hostile election season. Longing for the past is worthless, it is only in accepting God’s value judgments that we will find a way forward. We know all too well what we are experiencing in our world, in our frame of reference: all kinds of injustice – racial, ethnic, gender; income inequality – plus climate change, growing autocracy, and a lethal disease that is still loose in our land. All of that is truth, and the tremendous harm and suffering they are causing is real.
But that is all in our frame of reference, not God’s. In order to live and minister in our world the way Paul did in his, we must be like Paul, but how? The way Paul did, by doing that one work that Jesus gave us: believe. Believe in him who God has sent.
If we believe, we can remain joyful at all times, the way Paul did in prison, because he knew God had him and he had God no matter where he was or what people were doing to him. If we believe we lose our fear, all of the “what will happen if . . .” because Jesus promises us to be in everything that we go through in this world – no exceptions, everything. If we believe, we can quit complaining which will sustainable results, because complaining without God’s power is a demonstration of our own weakness, not God’s strength. But if we believe that we can walk through this troubled world joyfully, we can access God’s power, the power of the Holy Spirit,
the way Paul did to effect true and lasting change in our world. Remember, there is no other person in history – aside from Jesus – who did more to change the world by changing the world’s frame of reference to God’s, than Paul did.
So Church, as we move towards this year’s presidential election, let’s prioritize. Let us believe as Paul did, and band together in God’s power to create true healing and lasting change in our world. That is of eternal value, to us and to God.