The president of Seattle University, Stephen Sundborg, was talking with a group of faith leaders last Tuesday. The 7000 students who were returning to campus this weekend were on the mind of this university leader who has watched students come and go for 20 years now. And so were the challenges he sees the younger students facing in particular. The culture they have been raised in, he suggested is so overpowering, so ubiquitous, so non-stop, that it sometimes seems inescapable. It is so “thick” that “I’m afraid we don’t think our own thoughts anymore, and we don’t even realize that the thoughts we have are not our own,” he suggested. It constantly whispers its assumptions, this culture—in the technology that brings us non-stop media, in the wall-to-wall messaging that keep us from thinking for ourselves, in the forms of alignment that keep us in our bubbles of reason, in the striving and the acquiring.
President Sundborg is a Jesuit priest, steeped in Ignatian spirituality. At the center of this spirituality is the Examen[i], the simple daily practice of replaying the events of the day to become increasingly aware of God’s presence, and of our own spiritual centers, of the Spirit’s voice that speaks from the center of who we are. Ignatius understood, in other words, that a deeper knowing of ourselves leads to a deeper knowing of God and of the culture of heaven as it compares to the thick cultures that shape our mindset and compete for our loyalties.
Culture, it turns out, is a pretty good modern translation of what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of Heaven, as he does setting up the group of parables Matthew strings together, including over these several weeks of Sunday readings.
And then today we get this most unsettling of parables, a parable that clashes with our own thick culture: the culture of heaven is like a landowner who went to the Home Depot throughout the day to hire laborers and then paid them all the same, paid them a day’s wage, enough for their daily bread, no matter how long they worked.
It’s a stinging parable. It goes against so much of our culturally-shaped sense of fairness, against our faith that we earn what we make and we deserve what we get.
But, of course, we don’t. Descendants of four hundred years of American slavery know better. Dreamers know better. Even Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson seems to know better. Perhaps you saw the news this week that he is suing the for-profit prison company GEO Group for the free labor it squeezes from its prison population. Detainees prepare food, do maintenance, clean common areas and restrooms and just about every job except for security in the Tacoma facility that provides GEO with some $57 million dollars in revenue each year.
“Let’s be honest about what’s going on,” said Ferguson at a Seattle news conference. “GEO has a captive population of vulnerable individuals who cannot easily advocate for themselves. This corporation is exploiting those workers for their own profits.”[viii]
These are not convicted criminals, although I’m not sure that even this would matter to the landowner who pays all his employees what they need for the day in the culture of heaven. These are detainees who are going through civil immigration proceedings. These are already vulnerable adults, often with vulnerable families waiting anxiously at home for them. And all they receive for their work is a dollar a day and maybe a snack.
Now, no one is suggesting that GEO is violating federal laws, which, again, is part of the problem, part of the thick culture that keeps us from thinking for ourselves, from listening to the voice of God within and the culture of heaven it longs for.
Federal standards only require payment of $1 per day for prison labor, leading Michelle Alexander to identify these federal laws as a new form of Jim Crow, the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States and an extension of the 400 years of slavery that have denied a massive segment of our population their civil rights simply because of the color of their skin.[ix]
Bob Ferguson agrees with GEO, that they are not violating federal law. But he knows that they are violating all sorts of moral laws, and so has gone after them by suing for detainee rights to receive Washington State’s minimum wage.
Old Testament theologian Walt Brueggemann knows that Pharaoh can represent more than a long-ago, long-dead historical king. Pharaoh is everything that traps us, that keeps us down, keeps us from thinking our own thoughts, keeps us from being present to the truth of ourselves before God. Pharaoh is everything that draws us into a system that mangles the culture of God. And in our first reading what we find is a people who, at the first sign of trouble, begin to long once again for Pharaoh’s thick culture as if it had been some sort of Club Med vacation.
Will we share with one another? Will we trust in God’s providence, God’s provision? Or will we go it alone? Will we scratch and claw for what this culture tells us is ours? Fear and anxiety, Brueggemann notes, disable trust and keep us strangely trapped and tied to systems that oppress all but the few at the top. And we find ourselves identifying with that system, whether we realize it or not.
So Brueggemann reminds us that we must pay attention to what we eat and who feeds us.[x] This, by the way, is why the shape of Christian worship centers around two primary acts, our engagement with this word, and our gathering around a meal at which we are guests, and the crucified one is the host. To practice this meal is to help us to find our way from the thickness of this current culture to the freedom of the culture of heaven. It is a way of making the culture of God thicker.
And the lack of practice, the lack of familiarity that most young adults entering college now have is partly what worries President Sundborg so much. To ask it another way: do our faith communities and our religious institutions practice the values of this culture of heaven clearly enough to even grab the attention of generations so thickly wrapped in the present culture that we don’t think our own thoughts and we don’t even know it? How do we open our minds to what is lasting and true and life-giving? How do we open ourselves to the Spirit of God?
This is, in essence, one of the big questions of this time. It is one of the big questions that the coming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation invites us to consider again as we pay attention to the changes and forces that have so suddenly shaken the institutions that we have relied on for stability. We’ll be talking about these forces beginning next week during Aftertalk. I encourage you to be a part of that conversation.
But the good news for us today is that this way, this culture of heaven that Jesus proclaimed not just in words, but in flesh and blood and in self-giving sacrifice is a lasting culture. We affirm this every time we pray for our daily bread, and for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is, as it is in heaven. Heaven knows daily bread and fair wages, and our Christian memory is thick with it too—from the manna that, undeserved, covered the ground and provided just what the Israelites needed each day, to the bread that we break as we pray for God’s culture to rise in us as it does in heaven.
[i] Here’s one summary of the Examen: http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen.
[ii] Matthew 13:24ff.
[iii] Matthew 13:31ff.
[iv] Matthew 13:33ff.
[v] Matthew 13:44.
[vi] Matthew 18:23ff.
[vii] Matthew 18:4.
[viii] Nina Shapiro, “State AG Bob Ferguson sues firm that operates a Tacoma detention center for immigrants over $1 a day wages” in the Seattle Times, September 20, 2017. Retrieved September 22, 2017 from: http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/state-ag-bob-ferguson-files-lawsuit-against-company-that-operates-northwest-detention-center/.
[ix] See Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press), 2012.
[x] These ideas are drawn from Walter Brueggemann’s book Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles (Westminster/John Knox, 1997).