Thursday, September 17, 2020

16 Pentecost, 2020-A: Walking the talk

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

En el nombre de Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

There is a theme in our readings today - and it’s perfect for us after nearly 6 months of COVID-restricted living. Can you guess what it is? 

Grumbling! Right? 

The whole congregation, in the story from Exodus, is grumbling that they’re tired of living in the wilderness. They’re tired of having no meat or bread to eat. They’re tired of not being at their final destination. The promised land of milk and honey seems impossibly distant and the hard work of getting there isn’t worth it anymore. They’d rather die than live like this.

Then in our gospel story, the laborers who worked in the vineyard all day grumbled because they were paid the same as those who worked only the last hour.

Even Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, admits that he’s hard pressed between his preference to die and be done with his labors on earth and his call to live and press on for their sakes.

Walking the Christian talk is hard work. The unfairness in the parable makes a lot of sense to us, that’s because we’re looking at it from an earthly perspective. Jesus is teaching us, however, that what seems true and fair on earth isn’t necessarily what’s true and fair in heaven.

From an earthly perspective, fair payment for work is a justice issue we Christians would be called upon to seek for everyone here on earth. But this story isn’t about unfair labor practices. Nowhere in the parable are the laborers exploited.

The unfairness that grabs us and makes us grumble is the generosity of the landowner who treats the last who are hired equally to those hired first, paying them the same amount - not just the same rate. We can identify with the complaints of the first-hired who worked long hours in the scorching heat, partly because we cling to the values of the Protestant work ethic handed down to us by our ancestors: hard work, frugality, and a lingering sense of predestination, that is, that God creates some people of value and they will be blessed with wealth and riches on earth and in eternity, while others whom God created are of no value and they will be cursed here on earth and in eternity.

These values helped form our current society and economic structure where a few at the top of the hierarchy justify their wealth by their chosen-ness and dismiss, even scorn those at the bottom of the hierarchy, whose pitiable state of existence is their lot - determined by God.

The parable Jesus tells turns all of that upside down and convicts us to examine how we as Christians, are working to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, the kingdom described in this parable, where everyone is chosen, everyone is valued, and everyone has a generous share of the bounty that belongs to God.

The parable presents a question for us to ponder: why is generosity unfair?

If we shift into the interpretation of this parable, the laborers are those whom the landowner, God, has chosen to work in the vineyard, which represents the world. The day represents the time we have on earth doing this work, and the payment for our labor is our eternal reward.

The work the laborers are doing is bringing the good news of salvation to the world. They are doing their part toward the reconciliation of the whole world to God, which, the last time I checked our Catechism (BCP, 855) is our ministry too.

We are the laborers in the vineyard today. We were chosen by God to do this work. and are sent into the world to do it. If we recoil at the apparent unfairness in the parable, then we must ask ourselves: do we resent doing the work we were chosen by God to do, and do we expect more reward than those whom God calls later in the day to work beside us?

Part of the Christian talk we must walk is taking up our cross and following Jesus. There is no ambiguity in that. We know the work is hard at times, that it will feel like we’re laboring in scorching heat.

We chose to answer God’s call to work in the vineyard. We choose it continually.

Let’s look more deeply at what the reward for our labor is. Many might say its heaven, by which they mean going to heaven at the end of our life and labors here on earth. But in the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus says that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (19:29) 

Somehow, we conflated reward with eternal life. They are different things. Our reward, which comes from receiving the abundance of God’s generosity and grace in our lives, happens now in our earthly lives and takes many forms: freedom from anger or oppression, abundant and diverse family, joy, meaning and purpose for our lives.

Eternal life is life in the eternal presence of God, and it is by definition without beginning or end, so it can’t begin at our death. It is our present, not our future state.

When we own that eternal life is our current reality, it changes how we view the present moment. It changes how we view every moment in our earthly lives.

This parable describes the extravagant, counter-cultural generosity of God, and the question it offers us to ponder is: why is generosity unfair?

Let’s pause for an earthly perspective on day laborers. First of all, they aren’t paid well. When a person is desperate for work, the employer can pretty much pay whatever they want. It’s generally an off-the-books cash transaction.

When they do find work, these day laborers will likely get paid just barely enough to eat, sleep, and return the next day to work again. They rarely, if ever, get ahead. They are also vulnerable to the employer who chooses them and many suffer indignities and injustices at the hands of these employers.

So, the parable Jesus tells is a story of amazing hope. The workers chosen last would be the ones no one wanted, no one valued. Their desperation would be so great that they might have reached the point of hopelessness.

Then the employer shows truly surprising generosity - paying them first and for a full days’ work. These last-chosen ones suddenly realize that they are wanted, valued, and have a share in the abundance of their Lord.

The first-chosen, who are us, should be celebrating this moment of reconciliation, joyfully watching as each last-chosen one is welcomed in and made whole by the generosity and abundance of God’s love. We should rejoice that God, who sought and found us, continually seeks and finds more laborers to join us in our reconciling work.

This parable offers us, who are mostly first-chosen in the world, the opportunity to check the structures we have built or accepted from our ancestors, structures that separate us, elevating some while subjugating others. As followers of Christ, we must all be as invested in the welfare of the least among us as we are in our own for that is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Let us pray: Generous God, grant us the grace to dismantle the earthly structures that separate and restrict us that we may be free to receive the abundance you have ready to give to us, remembering that you created us all, you love us all, and you choose us all to be your beloved ones. Unite us into one body by your Holy Spirit, that we may rejoice to serve you, working to make life on earth more like life in the kingdom of heaven. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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