Sermon: Sunday, September 21, 2008: Time After Pentecost, Lectionary 25

Texts: Jonah 3:10-4:11  ;  Psalm 145:1-8  ;  Philippians 1:21-30  ;  Matthew 20:1-16


I was up on a ladder in the yoga room yesterday afternoon with a cup of green paint in one hand and a paint brush in the other, cutting in from the ceiling to meet the block of color that had been applied with a roller by other painters, and I was thinking to myself, “what am I preaching tomorrow?”

All around me there were friends of mine, members of St. Luke’s, people who regularly volunteer around the church. Some arrived just after I did at 9:30 – when some of you were here for the “Green Team” meeting or the Property Committee meeting. Some showed up just before lunch. A few arrived in the early afternoon, then another late in the day, and still I’m thinking, “what am I preaching tomorrow?”

At one point someone asked if I’d finished my sermon yet and I said no, that I was looking for an illustration, an organizing image for the day. “What’s the scripture,” they asked. “Oh, the laborers in the vineyard,” I replied. “You know, some came at 9am, some came at noon and others at three – and they all get paid the same.” Then I laughed, “kind of like y’all,” I said to this group of volunteers. “You’re all getting paid exactly the same.”

It was kind of funny, the way life was imitating scripture. There we were, acting out the passage for the day, laborers arriving in shifts to get the work done. The difference being that, because we weren’t getting paid there was no nasty ending to the story – no moment when anyone asked why the people who showed up at the end of the day were getting the same as those who showed up at the beginning. Instead, we all got paid exactly the same: we got to spend time with each other, we got to catch up on the goings on in each other’s lives, we got to take pleasure in dreaming together a little bit about the future of this room – and the great things that are going on in it, we got to see a space transformed by our labor. A nice reward.

I actually imagine it would have been a very different kind of day if we’d been paying people to help paint the room. There would have been a sign-in sheet or some way of tracking the hours. There would have been someone, maybe me, in charge of keeping people on-task so that we weren’t paying people to stand around. There would have been some grumbling, perhaps, that we weren’t paying enough to stand around inhaling paint fumes. There would have been careful attention paid at the end of the day to who was getting paid and how much they were making. In short, we would have had the ending to the story our parable gave us.

I called in some favors to friends to recruit some extra help for the day, sending out an email earlier this week asking folks to lend a hand. At the top of the message I included a quote from the second chapter of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, the one I think my edition titled, “Tom and the Fence.” You know the story here, right, how Tom gets assigned the job of whitewashing the fence on a beautiful Saturday morning, and how he wants to be out with the other boys enjoying the day. So he begins recruiting others to help with the work by convincing them that it’s actually fun – that he’s happy to be doing it. Twain narrates the story and peppers it with little philosophical observations on the nature of work and play like the following,

“Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do…”

He goes on from there to observe that people will pay great sums of money to do difficult things if they think it’s play – think of extreme mountain-climbing – but as soon as you pay them to do the same thing, it’s thought of as work – think of the Sherpa people in the Himalayas that people pay to haul heavy loads during extreme mountain climbing excursions.

All of this points towards a couple of really basic elements of our human experience:

First, we are surrounded by a world of beauty and pleasure in which some of our greatest joys can come very simply from choosing to be engaged. Whether you travel great distances to teach English in Malaysia or stay right here to feed families in Logan Square, there is great joy to be experienced every day in just doing the things that are in front of you, with the people beside you, knowing that it is needed and that you are a part of something larger than yourself, and that you have the capacity to help.

Second, that much of life’s joys are removed by the anxious comparisons we make between ourselves and others. Money is often involved in this. If our work is so good, so joyful, then how come some get paid more and others less? Is it really more useful to the world that automobiles get manufactured than that children get educated? Is the unpaid work of a parent really less valuable than the paid work of a coal miner? Because we attach wages to worth, we are often fooled into thinking we are worth what we are paid – the trap the workers from the parable this morning have fallen into.

But look what God has done here. God has paid each one the same. Whether they work a whole day or just the end of it, God pays the workers in the vineyard the same wage because in God’s eyes it isn’t the wages, or even the work, that give the worker value, it is the fact that they are God’s and God loves them and wants there to be enough for each of them to feed their families and pay their rent. They are equal in God’s sight, and equally loved.

Anxiety about worth bleeds into so many areas of our lives. Because so many of us have been made to feel anxious about our worth based on what we get paid, or even made to feel ashamed because we don’t get paid for the work we do, we look for places where we can feel central to the action, where we can feel as important as the folks with the expensive cars and the box seats at the game. We look for places where we can be the ones who call the shots and say to newcomers, “get in line. I was here first.”

We see it in our nation’s immigration debates, as a country of immigrants living on land that was never theirs tries to close its borders to the next wave of arrivals. We hear it in our neighborhoods, as people bristle against the presence of newcomers and the cultural and economic change they bring. We hear it in our own congregation as redevelopment brings new people, new interests and new priorities. Anxiety about rank and place replaces the joy that comes from working playfully on the task at hand with the people beside you.

Today we are saying goodbye and praying God’s blessings on two of our members, Ben and Joy, who are moving away to begin the next chapter of their family’s life. Even as we celebrate with them, we recognize the loss that it is to us. Ben and Joy came to St. Luke’s at the beginning of our redevelopment two years ago. They are among the laborers who arrived at noon – after many others had been working this vineyard, and before the many others who have and continue to arrive. We are so thankful for the various forms of service each of them has offered this community, and for the spirit of joy in their labor that they have brought to that work.

That is what we can continue to offer each other. Rather than asking what time each of us arrived in this place – this church, or this neighborhood, or this nation – we can endeavor to make it clear with our words and our actions the we are working in a vineyard where there is no status more important than “beloved of God.” We can go about this work playfully, even joyfully, knowing that its va
lue isn’t measured in dollars or titles but in the pleasure that comes from spending time with each other, being involved in each other’s lives, dreaming together about the future – God’s future, and all that God is doing to bring that future into being now – and watching the world transformed by our participation in God’s emerging creation. A nice reward.


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