Epistle Lesson: 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. 25 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.
Gospel Lesson: 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.”
The Kingdom of God is like…. Oh these are words that Christians for centuries have read, studied, and have based their entire lives around. The Kingdom of God…an ideal of what life could be, of what life is when experiencing God. The Kingdom of God…parables that give meaning and explanation of the characteristics of God: mercy, grace, and righteousness. Parables of forgiveness and repentance. A Kingdom that does not work like the world around us works. A Kingdom that loves instead of hates, a kingdom that when spat upon and insulted offers a gesture of love instead of a sword. A kingdom that seems upside down, inverted from any kingdom we have experienced, one that reverses the expectations of our own.
In this passage from Matthew, Jesus reveals for us a characteristic about God that many of us, both then and now, struggle to understand. I am talking about God’s ability to give equally to both those who work hard, and those who seem not to earn it. Jesus, like often before, speaks to the crowds in parables, taking the ordinary things in life to explain the extraordinary things of God and his Kingdom.
This parable that Jesus speaks today is one that is still very understandable today as it was the day Jesus spoke it. I know that there are some of us that understand the amount of work it takes to work in a vineyard, but let me re-phrase this parable for those of us who do not. I want each of you to imagine the place in which you work or where you had worked prior to retirement. Imagine with me the long days that you put in. Those really tough days. Now, it would be like working for your company for 40 years, both those good and bad days, and then retiring with full benefits and a retirement that would match the 40 years worth of work. Not bad right? But you come to find out that there was another employee, a co-worker of yours who had only been in the company for the last two years and upon retiring received the exact same benefits and retirement that matched your 40 years of work. Alright…so you get the drift.
Now, let’s ask ourselves. Is it fair? What this story is about is God’s characteristic of being a grace filled God, a God who shares that grace equally among His workers. But is it fair for the person who is on their deathbed and has lived a life of sin, a life that completely disregarded what scripture says, to receive all the promises of God when they confess and accept Christ as Lord? Or for that criminal on death row to receive an eternal life of glory when they come to know Jesus awaiting their day with justice?
For many of us in worship today, if we are honest with one another, this parable enrages us. I have not been with this congregation all that long, but I have recognized that many of us take our faith seriously. Through VBS I saw how much effort and work you all put into bringing children to Christ. We have members in this church who put their family life on hold in order to come to meetings. We have members who gave up a secluded vacation and invited the youth group and the church to come and share their campsite to encourage Christian community. I have seen members of this church to go out of their way to do work and upkeep around this worship space so that we can come to a place of worship that is attractive and appealing. There are members of this church that keep up a weekly discipline of putting together our worship bulletins and other announcements. The list of things that are being done around this faith community is at times astounding and as I am sure some may say exhausting. I think we could all agree it is hard work being a Christian. Not only does the world demand things out of you, but when you go home…on your “free” time, the church is asking and requiring things from you as well. I think many of us here today could easily relate to the 6 am workers who complained against the graciousness of the landowner towards those who came later in the day. It just doesn’t seem fair, but why should we be upset with a God who is grace filled? One who shares a daily wage, gives to all their daily food as needed. This land-owner recognizes that whether someone works all day or works only an hour has the same needs. Should we not be instead of grumbling with the one who receives more grace, be rejoicing alongside that one? We live in a society that judges what is fair and not fair by our works, and by the things that we do. But yet, as stated before, we serve a Kingdom that is not like this world, that is thankfully not like this world. Let’s flip this parable around. Last week as many of you know I was on vacation. During this vacation I went to go and visit many of my friends, most of whom are either in graduate school or at least has there Bachelor’s degree from college. As I went and talked with them, not due to their own lack of laziness, it was amazing as to how many of them are still looking for work. Imagine being the worker who did not get chosen until the 5 pm hour. What was racing through their heads as they thought about what they had accomplished that day. How am I going to feed my family? What about paying rent for the place in which we are staying? I did not make anything all day and here it is 5 pm with nothing to show for my waiting. And then come to find that a guy is taking everyone willing to work. Fantastic! I just might get 1/12 of the days wages, that will at least pay for some of my bill….maybe it’ll keep some food on the table. And then imagine, being the first to receive your pay. You expect only 1/12 of the day’s wage and the manager of the field puts a whole day’s worth in your hands. The weight that would feel like, the feeling of relief to know that you can take care of your needs. A man by the name of John Newton felt that feeling of relief once and wrote a song about that feeling. I’d like to share with you a clip from a movie about this man’s story.
Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “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” When we begin to grumble and become divided on what is fair or not, or who is doing more or less work, instead of being thankful for any grace received, then we have truly lost out on God’s great Kingdom. Let us rejoice this day, and celebrate communion not only for the grace in which you have received, but giving thanks for the gift of life that our brothers and sisters, no matter their past, have received! Thanks be to God. Amen.