Sunday, September 24, 2017

Pentecost 16A, 2017: The fairness nerve

Lectionary: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

“Is thine eye evil because I am good?” That’s the KJV of that 2nd last sentence of our gospel. God asks: Is my goodness to someone else making you sad, causing you pain, or annoying you?

Why? Because they didn’t earn it?

This parable touches a nerve most of us have. I call it the fairness nerve. If a person works a full day, they should get a full day’s pay, but if they work only an hour or two, their pay should be pro-rated to the number of hours worked. It’s only fair.

Perhaps that’s true in earthly matters, but this parable from Jesus makes it clear that it is definitely not true in the kingdom of God. There are two important points here: 1) grace is God’s to give to whomever God chooses in whatever measure God chooses; and 2) grace is a gift; not something we earn.

That can be an irritating rub. Deathbed conversions, for example, really bother us. Why should someone get to misbehave their whole lives, repent at the last minute, and still get into heaven? Because isn’t it everyone’s goal to misbehave and get away with it? No. That isn’t the rub. The rub is that they don’t have to work for the kingdom ahead of entering it... like we do.

In today’s parlance: why should someone who doesn’t have a job get welfare, or citizenship, or healthcare? It isn’t fair.

Perhaps we who are Christians might look at all of this differently – from the heavenly perspective given to us in Scripture. St. Paul says, “To me, living is Christ… [Note: what the word ‘Christ’ means is ‘anointed’ to serve the people of God on behalf of God.] …If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me…” In other words, while I live, I desire to live as if I’m chosen and gifted by God (Christ) to serve God’s people.

It isn’t about getting away with anything, and it isn’t about getting something for nothing. It’s about being able to use our gifts, individually and corporately, and every minute of our lives to work to make the kingdom of God a reality on the earth.

How do we do that? The answer is in Jesus’ parable: A landowner (God) goes out to the marketplace in order to find people who have no job. He goes out early in the morning, then again at 9am, then again at noon, again at 3 pm, and finally at 5 pm. To this last group, the ones who have done no work all day, God asks, “Why are you standing idle all day?” They respond: “Because no one has hired us.” In other words, we have gifts to offer but no one will offer us an opportunity use them.

Opportunity on earth is not always fairly or evenly doled out. Neither are rewards. So for Christians, our work is to live so that God’s will is “done on earth as it is in heaven.” Isn’t that what we say each time we pray the prayer our Lord taught us?

And God’s will, according to Jesus in this parable, is to open up opportunities for each life to matter; for everyone’s gifts to be used in the kingdom of God. The landowner went out over and over again seeking those people who had no work, not because the vineyard needed more laborers, but because the laborers needed the opportunity to work…to matter… to be part of a community… to use their gifts.

People needed and God provided –as God always does.

Isn’t that what today’s story in Exodus is all about? God’s people are out in the wilderness grumbling at Moses complaining that they’re hungry. God hears them and provides for them: meat (a real luxury under all circumstances!) and manna – a staple for their survival and a leader to help them recognize this new means of their provision. These flakes were not known to them. Moses had to tell them what it was.

People needed and God provided. It’s what God does.

The provision isn’t always what we think it’ll be though. The manna God rained down on them was new and strange, and it was constituted so that they couldn’t hoard it. They ate eat as much as they needed, then stopped. They didn’t – in fact, they couldn’t – save it or store it up for later use. God provided for their need each day and their journey gave them opportunity to learn to trust that. Our journey does the same for us. See if this is familiar: “Give us this day our daily bread…”

Do you think someone witnessing this Exodus scenario would have complained that the Israelites hadn’t labored for that manna and therefore shouldn’t have been able to eat it? That’s precisely what Jesus is teaching us in this parable. People do complain just like that. They always have… and they still are.

But God is still God, providing as generously as God always does and to whom God chooses. And God chooses those who need – whether they need food, employment, love, community (aka citizenship), forgiveness, or healthcare.

People need; and God provides. And God chooses us to be instruments of that provision today.

We are God’s partners in the work of reconciliation (see the Catechism in BCP) which is why St. Paul instructs the people of the church in Philippi:, “…live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ… standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind…” That’s what church is, and what church does. Church is an unique gift from God, it’s a mystical body that binds us one to another in faith and love. It unites our spirits and provides each of us the opportunity to labor in God’s vineyard – for living is Christ, and living means fruitful labor.

I commend to you a letter our Episcopal bishops sent three days ago asking President Trump and Congress not to end DACA (The Dreamers Act). This is the church in action.

Before you cringe and complain about my preaching politics, hear what Bp. Provenzano, the author of the letter, says: “At times, the teaching and preaching of the gospel can look like it’s making a political statement when it’s really about following the teachings of Jesus. This is what bishops are supposed to do. This is nuts and bolts,” Provenzano said. “It’s not a debatable issue. The kind of protectionism being promulgated in this country is contrary to the gospel.”

As Paul says: “live your live(s) in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ."

Jesus says very clearly – in today’s parable and elsewhere in our gospels - that those who are last in the world’s estimation are first in heaven’s priority; and therefore must be first in ours. Jesus uses today’s parable to teach his followers (us) that our labor must look like the landowner’s: going out over and over, all day long, seeking out those who have need and welcoming them in.

For our God is generous and provides for those who need.

If God desires to provide for those who need, and we desire to be in sync in the will of God, then we must desire as God does. Then living truly is Christ, as St. Paul said. For we have been anointed in our Baptism; chosen and gifted by God to serve in exactly this way.

We are God’s instruments of reconciliation in the world today. We seek out the people who need, welcome them in, and God provides for them.

I have found that in the realm of God everyone wins, so living as Christ benefits us as well. Here’s how: shifting our perspective from an earthly one to a heavenly one as we’ve discussed here today, relieves us of our anxiety about earthly things. Trusting in God to provide the meat and manna to satisfy the world’s needs today, we can focus on our labor, standing side by side, in unity of spirit, working to make the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

We labor in peace and joy and those whom we serve receive the grace of God through the labor of our hands and hearts. It is to that, as our Collect says (quoting St. Paul), that we hold fast and endure through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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