Sunday, September 21, 2014

Matthew 20:1-16 "Equal Rights"

I'd like to apologize for any weird formatting on this. I did something really bad to my computer this week. It was awful and my trusty friend is at the iHospital having some serious surgery right now. I'm having trouble importing files in a way that will play nice with both my iPad and my hubby's computer. The podcast itself is fine, but the manuscript after the jump is a little wonky and I just don't have the energy to fix it right now.

It if helps at all, I'll have another musical piece hitting the podcast in the near future. It's another piece for a class presentation at the seminary and I am really pleased with it. Keep an eye out! In the meantime, here is this morning's sermon.

Psalm 145:1-8
Matthew 20:1-16

I’m all for social justice. I have a feeling some of you may have picked up on that already. My family never had much when I was growing up. As a teenager, I watched my single mom scrape to survive while working full time and raising my sister and I. Later on, a survivor of an abusive marriage, I too scraped to survive as a single mom raising a toddler. I’ve worked with youth in poor neighborhoods as well as youth from the suburbs. All of that has shaped my sense of justice deeply and irrevocably.
That's why I found this passage hard to deal with at first. This is a passage I'm glad I've wound up preaching on because in wrestling with it this week, God has opened it up for me personally. For a long time, I really struggled with making sense of it. At first glance, this parable seems to excuse injustice and unfair pay. In fact, this passage has been abused for many years as a way to excuse injustice. But the moral of this story is not simply, “Life isn’t fair. Suck it up and deal with it.” Like most of the parables we’ve explored lately, this one is not about what it seems to be about at first glance.
There is no doubt about it. . . this is a weird story. Jesus tells some weird stories, but this is weird even by his standards. In a pretty typical scene from the time, a farmer goes and finds some day workers first thing in the morning. Just like the case is today, day
workers had a hard and meager existence in the Palestine of Jesus’ time. But then it gets strange. Later in the day – several times, in
fact – the farmer goes back and finds more workers who haven’t found work yet. Generally, if the workers hadn’t been hired by mid-
morning, they were out of luck for the day. But in a strange twist of events this particular day, they found work later and later in the
day. The workers weren’t lazy, they weren’t avoiding work. . . there just wasn’t any work for them. These men are so desperate for
work that they agree to work without even knowing what they will be paid. The farmer just says, “I’ll pay you what is right.” And at
the end of the day, all of the workers – even the ones who were hired with only an hour of daylight left – are paid a full day’s wages.
This simply does not seem fair. There are those guys who got there first, laboring all the day long and they get paid no more
than those who showed up at the last minute. The workers aren’t paid by how good their work is. The workers aren’t paid by how long
they worked. They are all paid enough for the day. They are paid according to the goodness of the farmer who hired them.
Understandably so, this annoys the workers who were hired at the beginning of the day. They’d toiled away under the sun in
the vineyard from sun up to sun down and these guys who came in at the last minute got paid just as much. So, they go to the master of
the vineyard and they complain about the inequity of the situation. And the farmer’s response is beautiful. “Are you envious because
I’m generous?” Rather than focusing on the generosity of the farmer for hiring anyone at all, they are incensed by the sense of not
having gotten what they deserved and someone else getting more than they deserved.
This story isn’t a how-to on payroll or staffing. It’s not about paying people or even about giving everyone what we would call
equal rights. This passage is not to be used to justify unequal pay or favoring certain groups of people in monetary or other ways. It’s
about the worker’s reactions and upside down ways that God seems to work. The key to this parable is in the master’s response.
“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? The last shall be first
and the first shall be last.”
Rather than being grateful for the generosity of the master, these servants have focused on their own sense of what they deserve.
What this is really about it gratefulness. It’s about thanksgiving for the gifts that God has given even when we don’t understand why
different people are given different gifts.
The problem is not that we shouldn’t stand up for injustice or unfairness because life isn’t fair. The problem is when we are too
worried about whether someone is being unfair to us. The workers in the story were not concerned about inequity or injustice that they
felt was happening to others. They weren’t glad to see the out of work workers find work when it seemed hopeless that they would be
hired that late in the day. They weren’t showing Christian brotherly concern for other workers. They were just worried about getting
what they themselves deserved.
Every worker in need of work in this story is provided with a day’s wages. “Give us this day our daily bread,” anyone? In the
lectionary, this is paired with a reading from Exodus about God providing manna for everyone in the wilderness and not allowing them
to hoard it. God’s provision doesn’t always make sense to us. Jehovah Jirah, our provider provides for us, even when it seems others
have a “better” or “more gracious” gift.
We’ve seen recently that we are to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. Sometimes, that means
rejoicing for those who seem to have something better than we have. It might mean celebrating a gift someone has that deep down
we’d like to have.
This happens all the time in the world around us: jealousy over other people’s gifts, their talents or abilities, their stuff or their job,
all the good luck they seem to have. We ask God, “Why can’t I be as organized as so and so?” “Why does that person have such great
luck with cars and I keep getting these stupid lemons?” “It’s not fair that he’s so musically talented and I can’t carry a tune in a
Listen closely to a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer for a moment.
“Give me this day my daily bread.”
What’s wrong with that sentence?
“Give me this day my daily bread.”
This is what the workers are worried about in the parable Jesus tells in our passage today. They aren't concerned about the
betterment of the people around them or of the community as a whole. They are only looking out for themselves. They are praying
“Give me this day my daily bread” when Jesus taught us to pray “Give US this day OUR daily bread.” We are a body. We all have gifts
and talents that we are called to share with the church. And we are to embrace and share those and to celebrate God’s goodness and
provision in all of our lives.
What are we doing here? Whose interests are we looking to serve? Ours? Someone elses? The community’s? Like the workers, we
are called out into gratitude for the work itself. Are we envious because of God’s generosity or are we grateful for what God has given
all of our family? Are we dedicated to God’s work and building the kingdom or to getting what we think we deserve?
In God’s kingdom, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. That’s not just saying to let other people in line in front of you at
Kennywood. It means that God’s justice is not always what we expect. God’s provision doesn’t always look fair to us and when we’re
worried about whether we’re getting our fair share, we’re missing the point. We’re forgetting that there are other workers who would
have starved if it weren’t for the kindness of the master hiring them when there wasn’t much left to do. God is just and God is gracious
and those two concepts are not easy to reconcile with each other.
What we are left with is Jesus. We are left with the knowledge that no matter what, when these issues are hard to navigate, if we
focus on Jesus and his kingdom, our perspective changes. We are better able to see the other workers around us and God’s goodness to
them as a sign of provision for all of God’s workers, rather than focusing on ourselves and what we feel we deserve.
There is a thing going around facebook right now called the “gratefulness challenge” or something like that. People are posting
each day several things that they are grateful for. I think this is great. We should remember the great things that God has done in our
lives. But I challenge this congregation, all of us here today, to take it a step further even. Spend some time looking at all the ways God
has provided for this church. What talents are out there that we can celebrate? What are the strengths and gifts and abilities that we’ve
been blessed with here as a body? Where has God given US this day OUR daily bread?
I’ve never done anything like this before, but I was on retreat for a few days this week and I’m feeling refreshed and creative and a
little off the wall, so bear with me. I’m giving you homework. Spend some time this week thinking about this. Seriously, thinking
about this. As your new pastor, I want to know what you all love about Liberty. I think it’s important to talk about what this
congregation has to offer God, the community, and one another.
Maybe something comes to mind right away. If that’s the case, please share it during our joys and concerns. Maybe your mind
works a little more slowly like mine tends to. Catch me and share it after the service or sometime this week. Email or call me. Drop by
the office or leave me a note in my mailbox. Whatever works for you. I want to hear about God’s blessings and provisions in this
I’m going to do something with these. I’m not sure what yet. Some sort of list or representation or something. I’ll happily take
ideas for that too. But let’s take time this week to celebrate our daily bread.
God’s provision is not always what we expect. It can take a real effort to shift our focus from my daily bread to our daily bread.
But with prayer and practice, we can begin to shift the focus and the fruit of that sort of gratitude is abundant.

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