Monday, September 19, 2011

The Honest Labor of Faith

A sermon for Proper 20 A on Matthew's version of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

In your mind’s eye, put yourself on the playground in elementary school. It’s time for PE. Kickball is the activity. The teacher has chosen two team captains, and they’re picking teams. Do you get picked first? In the middle? Second to last? Or were you last?

Who got picked last in elementary school? In my school it was the kids who were small, unathletic, and unpopular—particularly girls, though there always were the boys who got chosen after all the girls who were particularly picked on. You could be unpopular, but if you were strong and athletic, you got picked earlier (that was me). And you could be lousy at sports, but as long as it was one of your friends who was doing the choosing, they wouldn’t leave you to be chosen last because they knew it was humiliating. 

Now reread the Gospel lesson about the laborers who are being chosen at various times during the day. If you had a vineyard that needed tending, who would you choose first? Probably the strongest, right? It’s what I’d do. Once the first few groups get chosen, who is left behind? Who is that 5pm group? Probably the frail, the old, the sick, the disabled—maybe even a few women who needed to work? Some of them were probably people who couldn’t have worked for a whole day, even if they’d been chosen at 6am. But finally the owner of the vineyard comes to them, and hires them, too. Imagine being the feelings of being chosen last on the playground magnified a hundred times, and tie into it the pressure to feed your family. Imagine the relief when you finally did get chosen. 

 And then he pays them “the usual daily wage”—enough for someone to feed their family for a day. It is what they need; perhaps not what they have earned—the laborers who have labored all day are quite clear about that. Those who were chosen last have not earned it. But it is still what they need, and the landowner, in his generosity, chooses to give them the full wage.

Why does the landowner keep coming out to the marketplace and hiring more workers? It’s not at all clear in the parable, but consider this interpretation: perhaps there was just too much work to be done for it to be completed by those who were hired first. Later in the day, the landowner realized he needed more workers, so he hired the next group. And on and on. Even with only one hour to go, a few more hands might make all the difference. 

 That sounds like a parable about the church as well as the kingdom of heaven. Those who have labored all day are strong and vital and necessary to the growth of the vineyard. And they need to be thanked. So if you’re one of the first people “hired” at Epiphany—thank you. Good news: by God’s grace, you are being given salvation for your faith. So are the people who have been “hired” more recently—or who maybe haven’t/won’t/can’t work as hard. By God’s grace, they are also being given salvation. But the vineyard needs all its laborers, and I don’t think it’s quitting time yet, so there are still people who haven’t yet been hired yet. There are people here who are among the first; and there are people here who were hired during the middle of the day. But no one here has been chosen last. Even if this is your first Sunday here, you’re not being chosen last. Because our work is not yet done—every pew is not yet full—the Good News has not be shared as widely as it needs to be—there are still poor and hungry people living on the streets—there is so much to be done! And we need more laborers to do it.

“Why are you standing here idle?” asks the owner of the vineyard. “Because no one has hired us,” comes the reply. Because no one has asked them to work. How many people in this city would like to be invited into a community like Epiphany, to be asked, “Do you want to work? Do you want to labor in Christ’s vineyard?” To me, laboring in Christ’s vineyard means to work—hard—at being a Christian. To learn, to study, to show compassion, to love, and to give thanks. I believe that there are people who do want to be asked—who need to be asked—to do this work, but don’t know how to begin their labor. And there is no advertisement or website or blog that can compete with a friend’s invitation. 

And like the parable, people are hungering for the honest labor of faith. People are broken, people are afraid they don’t have enough to provide for themselves spiritually. They have been left behind by old institutions and alienated by people who would not let them work because of their perceived frailty. And left to themselves, they turn to books and self-help and a variety of things that are not bad in and of themselves but which are no substitute for the rough and tumble and depth of a real church family, where people love you and argue with you and there are things you love and things you hate and somehow it all ends up being more than the sum of its parts because of Christ’s presence. 

You should only make that invitation if you believe that this community is a place for all of those things—leaning and compassion and love and thanksgiving. But if you do believe it, ask with confidence. Remember how it felt in elementary school when you were finally chosen—what a relief. Someone wants me. I have my team now, my community, I know where I belong.

This Sunday, since it’s homecoming, is an opportunity to remind yourself of all the ways in which people at Epiphany do work in the vineyard. They’re not all for all of us—working a full day does not mean belonging to EVERY committee and every ministry at Epiphany. But it’s a chance to learn what other people are doing, and hear about how Epiphany is laboring in our portion of the vineyard. Listen to what pastoral visitors do. Talk to Janette about the challenges facing our homeless feeding program these days. Learn from our youth group about what Christian life is like for teens and tweens today. Go to the choir and music table and get a flyer on our concerts and invite friends to come share in God’s gift of music. Find out what the Altar Guild does—one of the least noticed but most crucial ministries in this parish. And if that’s a vine that you’d like to try tending… let them know. The harvest really is plenty here, and the laborers really are.. I wouldn’t say the laborers are “few” but I would say that the laborers are “just barely enough.”

And finally, at the end of the day, everyone gets paid the same. Everyone is loved equally by God. Which is hard. We like to believe we’re special—and we are special!—but so is everyone else.   

Jonathan and I conceived Nathan through in vitro fertilization, and on the day they implanted the two embryos in me Dr. Chung handed me a photograph of the two embryos in the petri dish just before they had implanted them. He pointed out that one had six cells and the other one had eight cells, and then proceeded to explain that the one with six cells was actually more advanced than the eight celled one because of something about how the cell walls looked. Or something. Anyway, when I was along with my picture of my potential children, I was struck by what an amazing privilege it was to see a first baby picture long before birth and long before an ultrasound. But it was also fascinating that I felt like the doctor was already telling me that one was better than the other. So I looked at the picture and said aloud, “I love you both the same.” I didn’t care if one had more cells than the other, or if one was more “advanced.” They were my hopes, the answer to my prayers, and I loved them.

God loves us all the same and we are God’s hopes, and the answer to God’s prayers. Whether we’re first or last, we are God’s beloved children. God never gives us less than we’ve been promised, and we’ve been promised salvation. So let’s go to the vineyard, and let’s get to work.

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