You Also Go Into the Vineyard...
Sermon for Sunday, September 24, 2017 (Proper 20)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
“All things come from you oh Lord; and of your own are we giving you"
Today’s parable of the grumbling workers comes after a sequence in Matthew in which we hear about the Rich Young Man, who turned away from Jesus grieving because the young man was unwilling to sell his possessions and follow Jesus. Jesus turns to his disciples and says “How hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven." The disciples are stunned! If a rich person cannot enter the kingdom, then what hope is there for us? They see God as transactional. They think the rich are rich because they are righteous and are blessed by God. They think the poor are poor, the sick are sick, and the drunk are drunk because they are unrighteous and cursed by God. This is not an uncommon idea then or now. The whole Book of Job is about this very notion. Job’s friends argue with him “Obviously you have sinned since all this calamity has come down on you… just confess and get it over with!" And don’t think for a moment that we are immune to this idea here in modern America. There is a whole “Prosperity Gospel" among many American Christians that argues that God wants to bless you with wealth… you just have to work hard, support the right political candidate, give large pledges to the church and wait for your fortune to come in. And if you don’t get that wealth, well… that’s evidence of your lack of faith right there. I have heard this argument from someone recently: “God is punishing my mother with sickness because of my mistakes." Hospital patients will say things like “I was given cancer by God because I had an abortion when I was 16." Many people believe that God is transactional. Peter sums it up this way: Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" Peter and his companions see God as transactional, so Jesus tells the vineyard story as a response to this notion.
Matthew is brilliant in the way he tells this story. The first workers are hired by the landowner early in the morning for the “usual daily wage"; one denarius. For the workers hired at 9, noon, and 3, the landowner doesn’t specify a wage, just “what is right". The last workers are sent into the field with no promises at all… just “you also go into the vineyard." By the way, these last were idle all day long and it makes you wonder if these were the ones that no one wanted to hire. Maybe they had some mental health problems, or were substance abusers, came from bad families, or maybe they were from a hated class like Samaritans. The parable doesn’t say, but you have to wonder.
When it comes time to settle accounts, the last hires are paid first and generously; one denarius. When the first workers are paid, they are clearly expecting to be paid more because they see the landowner’s payment as a transaction that should be proportional to the amount of time and effort expended in the field. Matthew really wants us to feel the perceived injustice of that payment. “What!? Just one denarius?" But you have made us equal with those scallywags and lay-abouts who worked for only an hour!" You have made us equal. You have paid us only our daily bread.
This story sounds remarkably like Luke’s story of the Prodigal Son. The younger son takes an early inheritance, squanders it, and ends up feeding the pigs. Some of you might have prodigal sons or daughters in your own families, or you may be one yourself. After the son “comes to himself" he returns home. When the father sees him in the distance, the father goes running…. RUNNING to embrace his lost son. The son is forgiven and embraced even before he gets his confession out. So the motor-cycle-riding, mohawk-wearing, marijuana-smoking younger son ends up in the middle of the celebration party. And that’s where the older son comes in (the one I relate to by the way). This is the Boy Scout… probably did his Eagle project here at St James… did all his homework in high school… was the star quarterback… went to UCONN to get an advanced degree in Agriculture… has worked like a slave in his father’s fields all his life, and he is pretty angry at Dad. He thinks Dad’s generosity should be transactional; proportional to the effort each son has expended. “This son of yours devoured your property"… see he can’t even see his younger brother as a brother. The father pleads with him to come into the party. This is shocking, and the parable ends without resolution. Which son is at risk of being left alone on the doorstep by his own choice? It’s the Boy Scout, not the hell-raiser.
There’s something not quite right about God’s economy it seems. God separates the work I do from the reward I am given; it’s un-American! I pray for daily bread, and that’s what everyone gets… old-timers and newcomers alike. You may have been slinging fried-fish around this church for fifty years, but the one who joins us next February is going to get the same pay; daily bread. I wonder if my vision is the one that needs recalibrating. Maybe, I shouldn’t focus on the transaction… the denarius I get at the end of the day. Maybe instead, I should focus on the experience of working in the vineyard. Lets think about that.
The sun is hot and the work is hard to be sure, and those first hires were at it from early morning to evening. There is soil under their fingernails from working the ground… their hands are stained purple from the grapes … their backs are sore from picking up baskets full of fruit to put on the wagon. They are ready for Sabbath rest. That sounds hard and it is, but those who have done manual labor also know that it can be exhilarating; there is an energy… a life force that can be felt during outdoor labor with others. There is more than that going on too… they shared stories with one another all day long. And those stories strengthened relationships. “Carol, how’s your family?" “What ever happened to that young cousin who took an early inheritance and rode his motorcycle out to California?" “Zeek, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother’s cancer…" And, they formed new relationships as workers came in during the day. “Hi, my name is Margaret, what’s yours?" “Welcome friend! There’s some water and sandwiches under the tree over there when you’re ready." God’s economy seems to have a lot more to do with our experience of work in the vineyard and the transactions-of-the-heart that happen throughout the day… being WITH one another… than it does with the payment of daily bread at the end of the shift.
My experience in this Parish so far sounds a lot like that. Just standing back, listening to the buzz of conversation during the fish fry, or during coffee hour on Sunday, or during the OWL lunch, I get the sense that life here is far more relational than transactional. As you pray about your pledge for this year, I hope you will see it the same way. Whether you offer a lot of money or none, whether you know all about the Parish budget or not, we will all get our daily bread, every one of us. It’s not about the transaction in God’s economy; it’s about the experience of work and the relationships. You have the chance to touch someone’s heart here and so many of you do. You have a chance to see the face of Jesus in someone else’s face… to heal someone who needs healing… to reconcile two brothers who need to come back together… to restore someone whose spirit is broken. And the practices-of-the-heart you get in this Parish… the love story you tell here… is something you carry out with you into your neighborhood… into the vineyard of the Lord. Pledging is a spiritual practice that has a lot more to do with pledging relationships than it does with pledging dollars. May it be that way for you. Amen.