Tuesday, September 26, 2017

"Is It Fair?"

Sermon Notes for September 24, 2017

Read Matthew 20:1-16, where laborers earn a day's wages for a day -- or less -- of work.

Take a moment right now, and decide if you think this is a fair story.

No, right? Anyone who grows up in a culture where the work is supposed to match the pay, will immediately say that this isn't fair. That fair would be a proportional amount for everyone based on the number of hours they put into the field.

But is it a good parable? Does it make you think? Does it fill you with hope and joy about what comes next? I think we'll find that changes greatly depending on who you identify with. Because if you see yourself as one of the people who were out there at first light, ready and willing to work, this is a frustrating parable. This is a story about working harder for the same pay.

But if you identify with the people at the end of the day, the people who had been looking for work, but just didn't find it, the people who were still in the marketplace and hoping against all odds, this is a story of generosity and grace.

It's important to note what all of them got paid to really understand the story. Each of the workers got a denarii which was what typical day's wage. It was also the typical amount used to feed a family for the day. Everyone got paid every day at the end of the day, so that there would be money to eat that night. In fact, Deuteronomy even tells us "You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them."  What you get paid each day is what you have to live on, so if someone didn't get hired, they and their families probably didn't eat that day.  

So yes, the landowner gives them a full day's wage, which gives them enough to feed their families for that day. Otherwise they would all go hungry.  For the landowner, it's about what they need, not what they deserve. And the landowner gives the people who were there a full day no more or less than he agreed on. They get enough to feed their families too.

It's important to realize that they don't actually lose out on anything they were promised. They weren't cheated out of anything. They don't get less because the landowner was generous, they just don't get more than they were promised.

This God is not obsessed with who deserves what.  In fact, he doesn't even ask why some workers were able to start at dawn and others were not.  All that he cares about is making sure that every last person gets a place in his vineyard — the early bird and the latecomer, the able-bodied and the infirm, the young and the old, the popular and the forgotten.

"So the last will be first, and the first will be last." In other words, the order doesn't matter. All are welcomed regardless of when they show up.  This should sound like good news for all of us. At the end of the day we are all equal in God's eyes. It isn't about first and last, we all are given the same amount of grace.

That's what grace looks like. The grace that you and I and everyone is given and rely on. Frederick Buechner describes it like this:
"The grace of God means something like: ‘Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you.'

There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you'll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too."

And everyone is given that gift, whether they signed on early, or whether they skidded in at the last minute. God is thrilled that each and every one of us, no matter how long our commitment, has come to the party. Because the first laborers are God's Children. And the ones who came next; they are God's Children. And the ones who came last…they are God's Children.

The problem comes when people start to resent the latecomers. Or when they want special treatment for showing up early. This whole story comes from Peter responding to Jesus' message of salvation in the previous gospel.  "Then Peter said in reply, "Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?"  In other worse,  what extras do we disciples get for showing up early?

And the answer is, you get to spend that much more time with your rabbi, learning from him and knowing that what you are doing in life matters. You get to be a part of the building of the kingdom. What you don't get is any more grace than anyone else does. You don't have a mansion in heaven no matter what some people might claim. You get exactly the same amount. What you need.

Truth is there are days when everyone feels like the latecomers,  that they are not good enough, that there is something wrong with them. There are days when we all try our hardest and still don't get picked for the job we know we can do, for the task we know we are up for. And God comes along and says, "You too deserve grace."

Now the landowner insisted on paying the workers in reverse order, making sure that the first workers saw what the last receive, which started the whole argument to begin with.  The landowner, God, wanted them to see what kind of vineyard he ran.  He wanted them to experience radical generosity.  He wanted them to surrender their envy and join the party. He wanted them to go out and do the same.

God wants us to go out and offer grace to others, to know that others are loved just as much as we are. God wants us to not resent God's generosity but instead celebrate with those who have been moved up from last place. And so the parable comes down to the question "given the choice, which would you choose, fairness or grace?"

At the end of the day, God is not fair. God doesn't care about fairness. God instead offers grace in abundant measure for everyone. Because where fairness  counts, grace loses track. Where fairness calculates, grace lets go. Where fairness holds all things in the balance, grace and generosity give everything away, upsetting the balances we have so carefully arranged.

No, it's not fair. But it was never supposed to be. Instead we get everything we ever needed from the God who is eager to offer us grace upon grace.

Thanks be to God! Amen.