A reading from Matthew chapter 20, verses 1 through 16.
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning, around six o’clock, to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the denarius--the usual daily wage--he sent them into his vineyard.
When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing around 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, about six o’clock, 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 a whole denarius, the wage of a full day’s work. Now when the first workers came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a single full denarius. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last people worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us -- we who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
But the landowner replied to each one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius each? 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.
Thanks be to God.
I asked for volunteers, both "under-14s" and "over-14s" as Humble Walk knows its children/youth and adults. I had about seven. I asked three of them to come forward, joining me next to the altar, and to stand on one leg. I told them they could switch if they wanted to.
It’s just not fair.
How often do we hear that in a week? Parents, show of hands? From the moment we learn the meaning of the word, we start figuring out what in the world is right and wrong based on fairness. It’s not fair that she gets a bigger piece just because she’s older. It’s not fair that he gets the same size piece when he’s younger! It’s not fair that he gets a bigger allowance, that she gets to stay up later, that his bike is newer.
When I was little, I thought things would get increasingly more fair as I got older. Most of the unfairness was distributed by clearly ignorant adults, but once I was in charge, everything was going to be perfectly fair. And then I got older and it turns out that the world doesn’t get more fair -- it gets more complicated.
Like: is it fair that a book at Barnes and Noble, where I work, costs $2.50 more in store than it does online? Does it matter that stores have to have pretty-looking shelves and light fixtures and free wi-fi and employees who answer your questions? What’s fair?
And on a larger scale, is it fair what's happened in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, and is it fair what's happening with the Vikings and Adrian Peterson, and what about Ray Rice and the charges of domestic assault, and is it fair that America wants to enter Iraq to fight the Islamic State, and … is it fair that these questions exhaust me and I’d rather not think about them?
In the midst of all this I am at least expecting God to be fair. You know? Church is a place that we talk about justice and righteousness. Which sounds something like fairness. Something not like a group project where you do all the work and someone else gets the A. And I would like God to do the heavy lifting on this one. I would like God to figure out what it is fair, and to dole it out in perfect accordance with our work and our lives and our needs and our wants. I would like God to be the grownup I always thought I was going to be.
And then Jesus tells this story: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning…”
I asked for two more volunteers to come forward and stand on one leg.
God sits right down in the middle of us and tells a story that is vastly unfair. In the face of a world that is big and confusing, a world that seems like it is always less than fair, it is just maddening that God tells one more story of un-fair-ness. Of people getting paid way more than they’re worth, while others had to slave under the hot sun to earn the same wage.
Jesus uses money as a metaphor for the kingdom. This is risky, because money and church can make us very, very tense. And money isn’t just doled out for fun -- we get paid for chores, and then cupcakes, and then babysitting, and so on down the line. Money is paid out in proportion to work. And money is limited -- it doesn’t grow on trees. If you pay someone for more than they’re worth -- for two hours of babysitting when they only did one -- you have that much less to go around.
So there’s a beautiful danger in using it as a metaphor for the kingdom, because it reveals two things that I sometimes fall into thinking about God's grace: that it’s deserved, and that it’s scarce.
Much as I will pretend I don’t actually think this way, I know there have been times when I believed that God’s grace was something I deserved. I have believed in my own power. Like this grace thing is nice for everyone else but I am actually one of the few people perfectly capable of earning my way into God’s grace. Which means any time I feel distant from God, or lonely, or hurt, it’s my job to pick myself up off the floor and work my own way back into happiness.
And I have definitely acted like God’s grace is scarce. And I know there have been times when I have seethed at the thought of one particular person getting any grace. There are people in my life who I just do not want in “my” church. Or any church. Or maybe just existing, at all. Simply knowing they are somewhere out there eating lunch or checking Facebook or smiling is sickening. Somehow their joy takes away from mine, like we’re all getting smaller and smaller slices of a limited pie.
Look, it’s simple, I just want God to be fair.
I asked the last couple of volunteers to come forward and stand on one leg.
And here is the stinky, annoying, offensive truth: God is more than fair. Grace is not deserved or scarce. Grace is not a reward for my good work from a limited bag of gold. There is enough in the landowner’s pockets to pay a line of workers from here to the moon, and he will keep right on doling out those coins not because of our hard work but out of foolish, abundant, ridiculous generosity. Grace is enough, is so much more than enough, and God will keep on handing it out.
It is so unfair. And thank God. Thank God that in a world that is so much less than fair, we have a God that is so much more than.
Grace is doled out in offensive doses, abundant and everpresent. Nobody earns it, and nobody can lose it. This is why we talk about dying and rising every single day -- remembering our baptism every time we wash our face in the morning or at night -- because every day we are just as baptized as everyone else. No more and no less. No matter what we did the day before, we all receive the same gifts each morning:
- Forgiveness of sins.
- Rescue from death and the Devil.
- Eternal salvation.
Paid out to each of us, a day’s wage for a day’s work, no matter if we put in one hour or ten. Nobody earns it, and it never runs out.
I hand out, to each one-legged volunteer, a silver foil wrapped chocolate coin.
Rest in that, for a moment. Rest in the offensive beauty of free grace.
As I had the volunteers return to their seats, I passed out chocolate coins to the remaining Humble Walkers.
There is so much there. So much love, and hope, and joy in the land of God which is more than fair.
But it comes at a cost. Well, maybe not a cost -- a challenge. A nudge. A little tugging at your heart.
Because if this grace is really free, doled out abundantly and ridiculously by a landowner with pockets that never run out … that’s a challenge to us, isn’t it? A little nudge to say: Live like it’s not deserved. Live like it’s really grace, like it’s free, like there is not one thing you can do to earn it.
A little nudge to say: Live like it’s not scarce. Live like it’s really free to everyone, even the people you don’t like. Or even the people you hate. Live like we’re all working in the same vineyard, standing in the same line, receiving the same wage at the end of the day. That same wage of forgiveness and deliverance and salvation.
That’s the dangerous offer with grace: there’s that little tugging at your heart saying Live like this table, this communion altar, is a preview of the great big dinner table to come. Where we sit in the kingdom of God with those who’ve gone before us -- our grandparents, and our pets, and all the saints -- but also with those who drive us bonkers. There is a place for everyone.
And there is a seat for you. Not because of anything you did but because God is abundant and more than fair in love.
God’s table is very, very big.
Have a seat.