September 24, 2023. The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost. Sermon preached by Rev. Mary Lee Wile

Sermon, Sept. 24, 2023

“What you are is what you were when.”

That’s the title of a short film that I watched in a course called “Human Relations in the Classroom” back when I was getting certified to teach public high school. The premise of the film was that what we felt we lacked when we were 10 years old is what drives us the rest of our lives. This film was meant to help us understand our students, their backgrounds and their goals. “What you are is what you were when.”

Watching the film and taking part in the ensuing discussion about our own backgrounds, I was aware that I loved being 10 — 5th grade was my absolute favorite grade at the public school in northern New Jersey where we were living then – and I wondered if my happiness at 10 is why I’m not a driven person. The only thing I wanted more of at 10 was more animals. We had a cat and a dog, but I would have liked a small zoo. But others in the class talked of being ignored by their parents at that age and wanting recognition, or being poor and craving financial security, or moving from school to school and desiring stability. What they were then is what was driving them now.

I thought then of my older sister. When I was 7 and she was 10, our father was still teaching math at a private school outside Chicago. As teacher’s kids, we got free tuition, but we were in classes of another class. I remember going to a birthday party where the door was answered by a butler, and our party favors were life size clown dolls. But I was a little kid, and as long as I had friends to play with, life was good. My sister, though, was old enough to be keenly aware of the social distance between our life in a small duplex and the mansions of our classmates, and she became determined —  “driven,” if you will — to seek that life. She ultimately became a lawyer with an office in downtown Boston with a window that overlooked the harbor. I became a teacher at Mt. Ararat in a classroom that didn’t even have a window.

So what on earth does this have to do with today’s parable? Let’s focus on the word “equal.” The angry guy who worked all day only to discover that the ones hired for the last hour got paid the same doesn’t gripe, “That’s not fair!” but instead he complains, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us…” 

Now, those day laborers, no matter when they were hired, were all among the landless poor. A day’s wages was only a step up from starvation for them and their families. At 10 years old, they would have known they had no status, no standing, no financial security, no recognition. But those who were hired first at least had the bragging rights of being the “chosen” for that day, the ones who were going to go home with enough money to feed their families. Their cry to the landowner was, “Don’t make them equal to me! Let me be the #1 worker today. Let me have some respect, some recognition, more money than those other guys.”

And our human sense of fairness – coupled with a Puritan work ethic — might agree.

But underlying it all is something ugly. The all-day workers would rather watch the children of the latecomers starve than let their fathers receive equal pay.

Sadly, this is nothing new. We see it over and over in our own county. There’s a book called How the Irish Became White that recounts how millions of Irish Catholics who came to America to escape discrimination and virtual bondage under the Anglo-Irish back in Ireland at first lived in the same neighborhoods as oppressed northern Blacks; these Irish immigrants were, after all, at first considered black themselves. But they came to realize that if they behaved with more brutal violence towards their Black neighbors than anyone else, they could “prove” their whiteness and align themselves with the white supremacists of the day. They didn’t want equality for all. They wanted to stop being the oppressed, even at the expense of their former neighbors. Having been considered the dregs of humanity at 10 years old, their drive was to be superior to someone.

I was reminded of this desire to be superior, to be “better than” others, when I read a news report last week about how the vice president of the Seattle police union laughed when he heard that a police car had struck and killed a woman in a crosswalk. “She had limited value,” he said. After all, the victim was Jaahnavi Kandula, a 23-year-old graduate student from India, brown skinned with a foreign name. Not, apparently, considered of equal value to a white male police officer, who laughed.

There was a question asked in Session 9 of Sacred Ground: “Do you think as a culture we really want equality for all?” Clearly, we only have to read the headlines to acknowledge that the answer is “no, we really don’t.”

But what Jesus’ parable tells us is that God does, that God loves all of us equally, no matter who we are, no matter our status or the color of our skin, no matter what happened to us when we were 10 years old. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

And the wider implication here is that ultimately, while the first might come in last, everyone will get there. Everyone.

So again, I hear the voice in my ear, “That’s not fair!” I get that God has a special love for the marginalized and mistreated, but does God also have to love the bullies and the bad guys? The Seattle police officer and the NIMBYs – the “not in my back yard” folks? Equally? They’re invited into God’s kin-dom along with those they brutalized or discriminated against? Today’s parable champions the marginalized, the last and the least. But it also provides a place for those responsible. “The first will be last,” but they’re still in the game.

I know I’ve said this before, but throughout all of Scripture there is no mention of “the adults of God.” We are all of us, always, beloved children of God — because what God sees when gazing at us is that 10-year-old child, all the damage and the delight, underneath what we’ve become. So perhaps one of our tasks as we grow up and grow old is to look back at our childhood, at what lingering effects compel our attitudes and behaviors, and to invite God to heal us of all that harms us and, through us, harms others.

For example, I think because I had such an easy childhood, I don’t always understand the attitudes and drives of those whose 10th year was tough, which makes it easy for me to become judgmental. So whether I find myself judging the “other” or judging the oppressors, I need to cut it out.

All of us are called to participate with God in seeking equality of opportunity, rights, and respect for everyone in this life, even if we can’t find it in ourselves to love them all equally. Just know that God does. Even if we don’t like it.