23 October 2008

Matthew 20:1-16

A sermon by Miller Hoffman

There is a magical place in Brooklyn called the Park Slope Food Coop. It is a grocery store owned by its members and committed to making healthy, affordable food available to everyone who wants it. Everyone pays a one-time non-refundable fee, about twenty bucks, and a one-time refundable investment, about a hundred bucks, which you can pay over time, and you become a shopper and a co-owner of the organization. You’re one of more than twelve thousand other owners, but you get to suggest and vote on things if you really want to, like whether or not to sell meat and beer, or whether or not to allow non-members to shop, like they do at the coop in Ithaca for an extra mark-up, or whether or not to stock the Creme Freshe in the dairy case or with the juice and Fresh Samanthas.

Famous people are members of the Park Slope Food Coop, like John Turturro and his wife Catherine Borowitz, who I stalked once, sort of, and Sapphire, who wrote the novel Push, who I just said hi to, quietly, in my head. Total nobodies are members, like me and Corrine. People are members from Brooklyn and other NYC boroughs, and from Long Island and Westchester and other suburbs, and even from Connecticut. You do the fee thing, take an orientation, and work a two-hour-forty-five-minute shift once a month. Even John Turturro. Everyone is the same. It was founded by a bunch of 60s and 70s hippies, like our sensei Annie Ellman, who came here in March to talk about her other wacked out, radical ideas: peace, breath, centeredness.

The Park Slope Food Coop is a little bit like home for me and Corrine, maybe for Sean and Loren, too. (They were our squad leaders, a long time ago.) It’s a little bit like home for me, and I think a little bit like heaven. Not because it’s idyllic. You can actually live the dream of finding non-genetically modified breads and cereals, and buying affordable fresh, organic produce, even in the middle of Brooklyn, New York City. You can buy twice or three times the cheese there as I can get here for the same price, in as good or better a variety. Manchego and Glouchester with Stilton were my favorites. You can buy a Nikki McClure calendar right there in the stationary section, an artist who does these incredible wood cut prints of people connecting with the earth, and which we can’t get anywhere here but online. So you can do all of this great stuff and buy all of these great things that can’t be done or bought here, but it’s not, you know, utopian.

Boy, you should see how pushy and nasty and annoying people can be when they think they’re part owners of something. You should see what ridiculously petty, minute things people really want to suggest and vote on. Ask Sean sometime about how obnoxious the people there could be. (He has this great very funny and somewhat shameful story about having an argument with a shift worker and getting nowhere, and so he just spontaneously started to speak to them in French.) But it is sort of like heaven because everyone is the same, even though they’re all different. Everyone has to work. Everyone owns it. Everyone has the same say in matters. And the staff, when they start, they get paid the same as everyone else doing their job, no matter how long those other folks have been doing it.

If you get hired as a Receiving Coordinator, you get paid the same as any other Receiving Coordinator, even if they’ve been working there for ten years. You get paid the same to work in the office as everyone else in the office doing your job, no matter how long they’ve been there. I don’t know why. Most members don’t even know this is the case. I’d like to believe that it’s a response to the discrepancies in pay between men and women, between white folks and people of color, doing the same job. I’d like to believe that it’s connected to building cooperation and teamwork between co-workers, rather than competition and hierarchy. I’d like to believe that it’s a correction to the myth of the meritocracy.

You know, the meritocracy. The illusion, the tall tale, that says that if you work really hard you will be rewarded. The lie that says we all get what we deserve. The fiction that says bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. Meritocracy is a deception that, I believe, is part of oppression, part of the line that the regular folks get fed by those in power. Keep working hard. Keep giving us your sweat and tears, keep making money for us, your turn will come. Soon. Then you can name your own price, be your own boss. It’s part of the hustle to keep things the way they are: Keep working hard. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t question the system, because the system is going to reward you. Scout’s honor.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, President Bush will hire and defend the bungling of his pal Brownie, who had no more business overseeing the Federal Emergency Management Agency than it seems he had overseeing the International Arabian Horse Association. Sarah Palin will give out high-paying state positions to her high school friends who are not experienced or qualified for the job, like the State Department of Agriculture job, which paid something like $95k, that went to her childhood pal who “liked cows.” I’d like cows, too, for $95k. Palin, herself, will become the Republican Vice Presidential nominee after a shockingly brief and narrow record of public service. Mayor Ryan has similar credentials, for Pete’s sake. These examples sound totally partisan, so please know that, even though I spent twenty minutes googling Democratic nepotism and came up with squat, of course it happens there, too, of course it does, and the liberal media machine is just covering it up, like they do. But my point isn’t that only Republicans are schmoes. I’m trying to say that meritocracy is a myth.

Here, within the contours of my own, personal world, a good friend of mine has the pedigree. Her dad’s a lawyer who has defended political protesters and activists since the 70s. Her sister is named after her godmother, one of the Weather Underground. She went to a good, selective, private university where Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison are former faculty. Her dissertation was a intelligent and incisive look at the race riots in 1919 Washington, DC ... and she’s nevertheless been getting jerked around by one academic institution, even as she’s being courted by another, more prestigious, one. I know that there are folks in this room who are connected to higher learning, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful to you, but whatever the academy uses as its criteria for acquiring and advancing faculty, it does not use merit. I don’t know what it uses.

Bad things happen to good people, talented people, hardworking people. Good things happen to bad people. Good things happen to random people, people who got there first, who were in the right place at the right time, who knew the right people, who went to the right school, who married into the right family, who dressed right, who fell down the right hole.

It’s not totally haphazard, of course, or it wouldn’t work. It works the same way fat-phobia works: Average people gain and lose five or ten pounds over the holidays or when their eating habits change, and that gets generalized and Imbued With Deep Meaning until all people of size are assumed to be people who eat too much, gluttons, food addicts. All of them. Instead of just getting to be fat people with the same mix of healthy or unhealthy or ambivalent relationships to food as slim people. Hard work has to pay off in some cases, in enough cases, to take on its Deep Significance. So we get to hear stories often about folks like Abraham Lincoln, who read his law books by fire light, and Rockefeller and Cinderella to keep us invested in the system, keep us buying into the myth, keep us believing in merit.

I don’t know whether you are persuaded. Maybe you are picking up what I’m putting down, or maybe you’re still on the fence. But, ultimately, you don’t have to agree. The parable of the vineyard owner in today’s text insists that it’s irrelevant. The world of the parable rejects merit and assumes a universal wage. According to Matthew’s Jesus, heaven’s commonwealth discards the system of reward based on who worked longest, or hardest, or through the scorching heat. The kingdom of heaven pays everyone the same, whether they labored for the full twelve-hour day or only part of it, even just an hour. Even just the one hour, for pity’s sake.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll admit that my instinct is to side with those workers that got picked up at six a.m., who worked through the long day and the hottest hours of the day, just like it’s my impulse to sympathize with the older sibling in the parable of the Prodigal. I was here all day, all along. I work all. the. time. Where’s my party? Where’s my bonus pay? Even at the magical, home-ish, heaven-like place called the Park Slope Food Coop, everybody has to work their shift. And it’s always a two-hour-forty-five-minute shift. Everyone gets paid the same, and everyone works the same. It seems reasonable to me to ask, even to ask with a little attitude, maybe hands on the hips, maybe with a little stamp, “Dude, what’s my angle? Why on earth would I show up at six a.m. if we’re all going to get the same thing in the end?”

But of course that question assumes that everything is all about the end. What if it’s not? What’s fair, after all? What if everything is all about the work itself? About being brought in? About having what we need?

It’s no accident, I think, that the wage paid to every worker in the parable is one denarius, which is understood to be the amount of money that a family in poverty needed at the time to exist for one day. The New Revised Standard Version of the bible translates the amount as “the usual daily wage.” The vineyard owner isn’t paying every worker ample, or abundant, but enough. One day’s worth of rent, shoes, bread. One day’s worth of what they need. This generosity is not measured in surplus, but in sufficiency, for everyone.

With so few details provided – for example, why aren’t all the workers out at six a.m.? Did they have good justification for coming out late, are they lazy? – with so few details provided, every piece of information takes on greater impact. So it’s certainly no accident, I think, that the owner goes out so frequently throughout the day and picks up all the workers who are waiting for work. There is no discrimination, no application process, no hiring criteria. Whether they are experienced, inexperienced, fit or out of shape, young or old, if they are out waiting for work, they are hired. Everyone who wants to work gets work. And it doesn’t seem to matter why they weren’t there earlier. Nobody asks whether they have a good justification. Everyone is brought into the kingdom. This generosity is not extended by invitation, but through radical inclusion.

I’m as big a fan of hard work as anyone. “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” “God helps those who help themselves.” “Never put off until tomorrow...” and so on. But if we think that hard work is a means to an end, if we are expecting to be rewarded somehow for working hard, doing the right thing, being good, paying our taxes, turning out lights we don’t need, flossing, if we’re waiting for someone to say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you and only you may now enter into my heaven...” Well, I think we are starting to figure out, if we didn’t already know, how that’s going to turn out. According to Matthew, and Jesus, and all.

What if everything isn’t all about the end? What if it’s about the beginning? What if it’s about bringing everyone in and giving everyone what they need? Even if they’re on welfare? Even if they’re one of those jerks who seem to get all the breaks? What if what they need is to know, with certainty, that they are valuable and beloved? What if the denarius we’re supposed to pay them is opening our hearts and our pews and our right speech to people who don’t “deserve” it? Being kind and patient and gentle with people who haven’t “earned” it? Giving people what they need, loving them, showing them love, in all the ways that love feeds people, even if they haven’t worked for it?

How many people that you love actually earned it? Earned your love before you gave it them, I mean? Especially you folks who have children in your life. Some slimy, discolored, wrinkly creature comes out screaming, pooping indiscriminately, relentlessly wanting something or needing something. Did you wait until those kids had demonstrated that they were worthy of your love before you gave it? Did you wait until they were successfully potty trained? Did you wait until they actually did their chores? “I didn’t love you until now, child, but you have made your bed well.” Or our lovers, your partners. Did they really do anything to earn our love before we started loving them? Of course, they have deserved it and not deserved it hundreds of times since, but love doesn’t really operate in a meritocracy. Love thinks it’s a myth, too.

You know what the good news is here. I think we know it, even as we might be stubbornly insisting that we’ve been there since six in the morning, we have worked through the long day and the hottest hours. The good news is that, no matter how hard we work and try to do the right thing and be good, we aren’t always. We can’t be, it’s not humanly possible. We can’t always “deserve” to be loved. Corrine could make the argument that I barely manage to deserve it most of the time. But in the kingdom of heaven, it doesn’t matter. Merit isn’t the criteria for reward. Everyone, everyone, gets what they need .

That’s grace. That’s the meaning of it. Free. Fundamental. For everyone, without exception. We show up at six a.m. some of the time, because we value the work, because it feeds us and energizes us, because it’s worth doing. And some of the time, no matter how hard we’ve tried to be “good” the rest of the time, we don’t get out there until five in the afternoon. And heaven and the things of heaven and the people who buy into heaven’s way of being pay us anyway, enough. All of us. What we need. Earning and merit and desserts are not part of the equation, only grace: mercy, reprieve, blessing, love, forgiveness, sometimes just enough for the day. Sometimes just barely enough.

Welcome home.

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