Sermon for Sunday, May 29, 2016 || Proper 4C || Luke 7:1-10
I have a simple question to begin this morning’s sermon. How much is an hour of your time worth? If you work at an hourly job, this question is easy. If you are in a salaried position, then you’ll have to do some math, but you can still figure it out. If you are retired, then your time is…priceless, right? The State of Connecticut sets a minimum threshold for how much an hour of time is worth. Does anyone know what Connecticut’s minimum wage is for 2016? $9.60 on its way to $10.10 next year. The federal minimum wage is a paltry $7.25 and holding.
The practice of wage setting is so ingrained in our society that we never think to question it. We do our jobs. We get paid. We buy stuff with our money, which in turn provides jobs for others. They get paid. They buy stuff. And so the economy goes. Even in the Gospel, Jesus doesn’t question the practice of wage setting, and he talks a lot about money. “The laborer deserves his wages,” Jesus says a few chapters after today’s reading. And in one parable, the workers in the vineyard all get paid the agreed upon wage, even though some are dissatisfied with it.
We never think to question the practice of wage setting because we live in a world in which everything has a price tag. I grew up watching The Price is Right at the house of one of my sister’s friends. We’d watch the show with her grandmother and shout numbers at the screen along with everyone in the studio audience. It’s strange though, right? An hour of television dedicated to trying to guess the price of stuff? The show is, of course, one big glorified commercial, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.
When I was studying political theory in college, I learned a principle that states, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” In other words, even if something seems like it has no cost, there is always a hidden price tag in there somewhere.
At the CREDO conference last month, I met with a financial planner, who wanted to know how much I was worth. Of course, what he meant was what financial assets were at my disposal. But he asked how much I was worth. Let’s pause for a moment and really think about that question, in the light of the financial systems that seem to rule our lives.
How much are you worth?
When we look specifically at the economic transactions that turn our education and skills into marketable employment, then apparently some people in some states are only worth $7.25 an hour (about $15,000/year). Others who are concerned with their billable hours make that same figure every minute (about 900k/year). Still others who sit in corner offices in New York skyscrapers make that same figure every second (about 54 million/year). So when we look at the economic realities of the world, we find that some people are just worth more than others. It’s a no brainer, right? And yet, this line of reasoning has led humanity into disaster time and time again. Others have been judged worthless for one reason or another, and they have been debased or enslaved or eradicated.
So let me ask the question again: how much are you worth? Or put another way, which perhaps separates the question from its economic implications: Are you worth-y? Are you worthy?
In today’s Gospel reading, an important servant of a Roman centurion is ill, and the soldier sends some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask for help. The elders praise the centurion’s resume and give him a good reference: “He is worthy of having you do this for him.” Jesus goes with them, but when he gets close to the house, the centurion sends others with the message: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.”
So which is it? Is the centurion worthy or unworthy? Or is this even a question we should be asking at all? Everyone in this story is concerned with the worth of this Roman soldier. Everyone, it seems, except Jesus. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus shows us the fallacy of separating people into groups based on worthiness. He looks with love upon the rich young man and offers the water of life to a disgraced foreign woman. He forgives his Roman persecutors and tries to open the eyes of the Jewish elite. He rubs shoulders with kings and rulers and spends most of his time with people mired in poverty or disease or hopelessness, those whom others judged supremely unworthy.
I think Jesus ignores this leveling of society for a simple reason. He knows that one of God’s greatest gifts is the gift of worth. He sees people as God sees them: as shining vessels into which God has poured grace, dignity, and love. Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, “God does not love us because we are lovable. We are lovable because God loves us.” In the same way, we can say, “God does not care about us because we are worthy. We are worthy because God cares about us.” All of us. From families living on less than a dollar a day in Haiti to the corporate executive in the Manhattan high rise.
When we confess our sins in a few minutes, we will say the same words we always say, but today I invite you to pray with the specific intention of confessing our complicity in the broken system that assigns worth to people based solely on economic realities. Jesus’ actions in the Gospel and the Holy Spirit’s call in our lives prompt us to raise up the worthiness of all people, no matter what. So pray for the vision to see those whom the world judges unworthy and help them claim their God-given worth in the eyes of the world. Pray for the generosity that will enable you to enjoy others for who they are and not for what they can do for you. And pray for the courage to be part of Jesus’ narrative, the grand story in which people have value, but not price.
After all, this is one of the ways we participate in God’s mission. In our baptismal covenant we promise, with God’s help, to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Dignity is not earned. Dignity is the indelible mark of worthiness in God’s eyes, which God yearns for us humans to recognize. Respecting dignity leads us to ignore worthiness as the world sees it – as a succession of zeroes after a number on a paycheck. Rather, respecting dignity leads us to welcome all people with open arms regardless of their status. This is hard work, which is why we promise to strive for it with God’s help.
Can you imagine a world where people had value, but not price; had dignity without needing to prove it; had worth for no other reason than that they are beloved children of God? Can you imagine that world? Jesus could. And he died and rose again to help us get there. How much are you worth? How much is any person worth? Well, all I know is this: the Son of God gave everything for you.