Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's Not Fair!

I am always indebted to the thoughts and writing of preachers and friends who are smarter than me. I stole the title and the refrain outright from Rev. Dan Hayward, who also gave me at least one wonderful phrase to use in the text of the sermon. The work of Ira Brent Driggers, the Rev. Barbara Beam, the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, and the Rev. Sarah Robbins all provided direction, inspiration, and instruction in writing this sermon. No, it isn't fair. Thank God, it isn't fair at all.  

Exodus 16:2-15 
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him — what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

Philippians 1:21-30 
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well — since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. 

Matthew 20:1-16 
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 

This is the Word of the Lord.

A lot of times, Jesus’ parables use the same storytelling techniques that make for good joke-telling. Start with a believable premise, then as you build, it gets more and more unlikely, building toward the hilarious punchline. Only when Jesus gets through with this story, no one is laughing.

A little background: this parable takes place immediately after the familiar account of the “Rich Young Ruler.” A man asks Jesus, “what must I do to be saved,” and as the conversation progresses he is told, finally, to sell all he has and give it to the poor.

Peter brings up the fact that he and the other disciples have, in effect, done just that, forsaken all they had to follow this itinerant rabbi. “What, then,” he asks, “will there be for us?”

Peter is, in effect, asking “What’s in it for me?”

I can imagine Jesus doing a face-palm, taking a deep breath, and says, “Pete, didja hear the one about the vineyard owner who went to hire some workers?”

It starts simply enough, with a guy negotiating a wage and hiring workers for his vineyard. Then going and hiring more workers… only this time, he’s kinda vague about the wages. “I’ll pay you whatever is right,” he says, and he says it again when he goes out for yet more workers, and again for more workers, and he even goes out an hour before quitting time and gets another batch!

And then – and then! – he passes out the pay, starting not with the ones who had been picking grapes since the break of dawn, but with the guys who had been there barely long enough to break a sweat! But the others suddenly don’t care, because they see the one-hour guys getting a full days wages. They put their heads together and start doing the math, and they like the numbers they’re coming up with! Now I can get that big-screen TV I’ve been wanting!

And their smiles start to fade as they see the guys hired at three o’clock getting – a day’s wages. The guys hired at noon? A day’s wages. By the time the nine-o’clockers reach the pay window, the back of the line is grumbling. All that work, and they’re gonna end up getting no more than the guys who worked maybe an hour! Ridiculous! Unthinkable! Criminal! Unfair!

Of course it’s unfair.

One of the things that I find interesting here is that the landowner never mentions needing more workers when he goes out at nine, at noon, at three and at five. In fact, one could argue quite the opposite. The workers who lined up at the crack of dawn would have been the most able, the ones who could jump to the front of the line. As the day wore on, the pool of capable laborers would have been getting smaller and smaller. Older, perhaps, with some infirmity that made them not as quick, or unable to lift as much of a burden. It wouldn’t make sense for someone who needed labor to hire the ones left over at three or five in the afternoon.

But in that day and age, and in that area of the world, many people lived far below the level of what most of us would consider “abject poverty” today. Hand-to-mouth wouldn’t even begin to describe the situation for most families, who depended on day-to-day employment for their very survival. If you worked that day, you and your family ate… and if you found no work, everyone went to bed hungry, and hoped that they might be able to eat something tomorrow.

Imagine living in that stark reality. And imagine, as the dawn breaks, the landowners come and hire the most able-bodied, the strongest, the fastest… and leave, and you’re still standing there.

And about nine o’clock, a few others are hired. But not you. Noon? You’re still waiting there, thirsty, hungry, wishing the cloud of doom hanging over your head would at least provide some shade. By three o’clock, the only reason you’re still in the marketplace is the dread of going home empty-handed and facing your hungry children.

Then that landowner comes back, walks up to you, and asks, “why have you been standing around all day doing nothing?” You don’t even bother to look up. Can’t he see? “No one hired me” is all you say.

“Go to the vineyard, and I’ll pay you what’s right.”

You shuffle off. “What’s right” for an hours’ work? Maybe enough to buy some bread for the kids, you hope. It’s something, anyway.

Now imagine standing at the front of the pay line, staring at your hands as the manager hands you a full days’ wages. Suddenly, unfairness is a good thing, isn’t it?

Peter is interested in what’s in it for him. After all, success is judged on who finishes first, who gets the promotion, who gets the trophy, who gets the corner office. Winners keep score, and all that. And he’s not alone among the apostles. We read in the Gospels that James and John wanted to sit on either side of Jesus in his kingdom. They deserved it, after all, they had worked hard and sacrificed much, and they should be rewarded for their efforts!

But our Gospel reading begins, “…the Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

What if the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where there is no contest? What if “fair” isn't even a word that can be used, because each and every one of us is Abba's beloved child, equally loved, equally valued, equally undeserving of the grace we have received?

The idea of “first” and “last” make very little sense in a place where all truly are equal. The weakest and the lowliest and the most forgotten has the best seat in God’s kingdom, and so does the strongest and the best-known, because we have that place which Jesus has prepared for us.

Peter and James and John and the rest have the same viewpoint that we all too often do: If you work hard, if you show real effort and determination, if your dedication to the cause is solid and without shadow of turning, then you should be able to earn a better place than the folks who come later, right? And the very idea that someone who is late to the game, or who doesn’t meet our expectations, would be given the same grace and forgiveness and salvation and inclusion in the Kingdom that we enjoy, why, that’s not fair!

The mistake we make is thinking that our labor for the Kingdom, which is a gift from God, is rather a benefit to God.

But we know better, don’t we? It may not be fun to admit, but we know that God’s grace, that salvation, that citizenship in the Kingdom of God cannot be earned. God’s generosity is not tied to any of our human notions of fairness or equity. Far from it – the last shall be first, everything we thought we knew has been turned on its head! God figures our merits with a calculus of grace that is far beyond anything we can comprehend. God’s love is so overwhelming and generous that all we can do is receive it and share it with others.

The love and grace of God isn’t contingent on our abilities, our popularity, our possessions, our bank account or our good looks. Like those last poor souls who the landowner found an hour before quitting time, we only have to be present to be included, because that citizenship, and the grace and salvation which are part and parcel thereof are a product of God’s infinite, indiscriminate, abundant and, yes, even unfair generosity!

It isn’t fair, no. But that’s Good News, isn’t it?

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