Homily for Sunday, September 24, 2017 preached by the Rev. Todd Miller
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Last month in a beautifully-written article in the Times, Norwegian-American biologist Hope Jahren tells of visiting Norway and picking wild blueberries. “When I was 23,” she says, “my Norwegian relatives taught me how to sit still.”
During the long sunlit evening in the summer of 1992, my cousins would lead me across the farm to the edge of the forest, each of us lugging a folding chair. There, in a scraggly bramble of wild blueberries, we would set them down a few yards apart, each in our own little patch.
For hours, we faced south, bathing our faces in the golden Arctic light, a dreamy brightness that persisted past midnight. Every few minutes, we’d reach down, pluck a berry and pop it into our mouths. You could find us there most every night during July, starting at 10 o’clock.
Ms. Jahren tells that this Norwegian way of picking berries went against her American tendency to be always working and “useful”:
At first, I couldn’t tolerate it. In my Scandinavian-American family, we were conditioned never to sit… I was endlessly going back to work… American in my bones, I… longed for being useful… and turned berry picking into a chore… We… regarded sleep as a reward for exhaustion, always to be deferred until after the sun goes down.
“But because the sun wasn’t going down, my cousins finally convinced me… so I could sit.” And so she sat, every few minutes reaching down to pick a berry and pop it into her mouth.
That summer Jahren learned that, “finding berries (as with love itself) is about getting enough, not about getting it all.” (And how could you get all of them, with an estimated 40,000 berries per acre!)
Today’s passage from Matthew is about picking berries – and about work, remuneration, and comparing ourselves to others. I wonder if this passage is in the Scriptures because the Holy Spirit knew that we in 21st century North America would need a corrective in regards to our attitudes about work and money and comparing ourselves to others.
For many of us, work is about getting as much done in as little time as possible. Work is about efficiency; it’s fast-paced; it’s about the bottom line. I remember watching the strawberry pickers where we used to live in California: They moved quickly down each row, stooping and moving crabwise from plant to plant until, their box of berries full, they would RUN back to the beginning of the row to leave their box with the truck and pick up a new one. They picked like this for eight or ten hours a day. If modern berry picking is similar to first-century Palestine, it’s no wonder that those in the parable who had worked all day were upset! “These last worked only one hour, and you’ve made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” I’d be upset, too!
But there is a different way of “picking berries,” of doing work. There is a different way to look at remuneration. And there is a different way of regarding our neighbors in which we don’t feel the need to compete or compare. (Where does it ever get us, comparing ourselves to others?) Today’s parable contains the seeds for us to see these things in a new and healthier light.
In his encyclical Laborem Exercens (which came out 26 years ago this month) Pope John Paul II speaks of work and remuneration, and touches on our very human tendency to compare ourselves to others. Of work, the Pope says that, though we often think of work as toil and drudgery–“By the sweat of your brown you shall eat bread,” God said to Adam as he kicked Adam and Eve out of the garden–yet God initially placed Adam in the garden of Eden “to till it and keep it.” Work was part of being human even before the fall; work is integral to the human experience. As Pope John Paul II wrote:
[Work] is a good thing for humanity. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something… that expresses our dignity and increases it… Through work we… achieve fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, become “more a human being.” (Laborum Exercens, 9)
Work was not intended to be about picking as many berries in as little time as possible. Work is intended to express our human dignity.
As for remuneration, pay is the expression of a relationship and is a matter of justice:
The key problem of social ethics… is that of just remuneration for work done. In the context of the present there is no more important way for securing a just relationship between the worker and the employer than that constituted by remuneration for work. (Laborem Exercens, 19)
As for our tendency to compare ourselves to others, in this encyclical the Pope challenges us to think differently of “ownership.”
Christian tradition has never upheld [the right to ownership of property] as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.
“Goods are meant for everyone,” and–as with the berries in Norway–there is plenty to go around.
I wonder if today’s parable might help us to think differently about work, remuneration, and our tendency to compare ourselves to others. Maybe, as this parable suggests, there is another way to live that is healthier and more life-giving. Maybe there is a way to live in which neither haste nor fear nor the desire for surplus material goods are motivators for work. Maybe there is a way of “picking berries” that “expresses our dignity and increases it.” Maybe remuneration is an expression of a relationship, a “just relationship between the worker and the employer.” Maybe there is a way to live in which we don’t compare ourselves to others (because where does comparing ourselves to others ever get us?). Maybe we can begin to understand that “the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use” and that “goods are meant for everyone.” Maybe this parable can help us learn that “finding berries (as with love itself) is about getting enough, not about getting it all.”
To help us as we wonder, God has given us a sacrament of picked berries. Here, as we eat this bread and drink this cup, God reminds us how much we are loved and that it is enough. In this “fruit of the earth and work of human hands” God reminds us that our work is a joining in God’s work, and together we re-create the world. Here, in this sacrament, we learn that our worth does not depend on what we’ve done or left undone, we learn that with God we receive far more than we deserve, and we learn that we own nothing, not even ourselves, but have been bought with a price. And that is a healthy and life-giving way to live.