Transcribed from the sermon preached September 21, 2012
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
This morning Jesus compares the Kingdom of heaven to a landowner hiring laborers for his vineyard. He makes an agreement with some workers at the beginning of the day and they start working. The landowner went out at 9, noon, 3, and 5 clock and hired more workers each time, saying, I will pay you whatever is fair.
At the end of the day the landowner paid all the workers the same. The early starters grumbled, but the landowner said, “Did I not pay you a usual daily wage?” It is my choice to pay these later workers the same. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?
This story is a similar to that of the lost sheep, the parable of the prodigal son among others. The 99 sheep are present and accounted for, so God leaves them and goes after the one lost. When he finds the lost sheep, he rejoices. And in the parable of the prodigal son, one son stays home and works diligently, while the other takes his inheritance and burns it in riotous living. When he finds himself in the mud with the pigs, the son repents, and returns home. The father rejoices and throws him a party.
Before this morning’s story, the disciples are jockeying for position in the kingdom of heaven. They wonder about their reward for traveling and working with Jesus. Will they get the cushy place at Jesus right hand for being his disciples? So Jesus tells this story, and says the first will be last and the last first.
We can identify with the early morning workers sense of unfairness. My children sure would. They were constantly bargaining and arguing about who did the dishes last, who was the one who worked earlier so shouldn’t have to work now.
But the followers of Jesus are following a servant. Jesus is going out to those who have been left out. He wants them to come and serve. And to convince them he will serve them. Question: Why are the later workers left out from earlier trips? We are not told. Maybe they are left out because they don’t think there is a place for them. Maybe like the prodigal son, rather than helping with the dishes they went to eat at restaurants where servants washed the dishes. Or maybe they were never taught they could be a part of something. Maybe they were lazy. Or maybe they were there early, but there was only so much room in the wagon. Maybe they just came to the area hoping to find work, and they had to ask around to find out where people who needed an extra hand or two came to look. Maybe they were hard working people just hoping and praying there was a way they could earn a day’s wage to feed their children. Whatever the reason, they weren’t there in the beginning and they were in the end.
Jesus begins the story saying, The Kingdom of heaven is like… and we are reminded that Jesus teaches us to pray, Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. So we know when Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven, there are some down to earth applications; there are socio-political applications. Are the disciples thinking the new kingdom will be like the old ways here on earth? Do the Israelites escape Egypt only to create a little Egypt in Israel?
There is a bit of irony here in the story because those who correspond with the early workers would be those who think they have been a part of the nation and followed the law for generations. If God is the landowner, the early workers are like the landowning class, a privileged people who think they deserve their privileged position. Yet being landowners, they would understand the freedom of the landowner to do what he wants with his wealth.
And if the guy had more work to do and needed more workers, then naturally he would go back for more. If he were like me he would have had to make five trips to Home Depot where the workers hang out anyway. So why not put a few more workers in the truck?
It is very common for the people who have been around a while to think that there is not enough room for more, that those who come later should not even be allowed to come. They are too late in the day. They are lazy, maybe criminal, and will get more from our society than they deserve. They bring a different culture, different values, little education, disease, and they will have more babies than us. Those babies will destroy our way of life. There is not enough to go around. We have to protect what is ours, our place blessed by God.
Such thinking is neither new nor limited to the USA. The Egyptians thought that same thing about the Israelites. So they oppressed them but the oppression backfired. God heard the cries of the oppressed and liberated them. They fled from the land of the oppression but found the immigrant journey perilous. They wondered how they would survive. They doubted God and thought at times they would have been better off staying in their Egyptian home. Horrible as it was, at least they knew what to expect. But God gave them enough in the wilderness. God provided. They learned to be thankful for the little things. They learned to trust that if they were faithful, God would see them through.
There is reasonable fear in the nationalist anti-immigrant arguments. Logic tells us that any ecosystem or economy has a carrying capacity. The carrying capacity is a term from biology for the maximum population size of a species that an ecosystem can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other resources available. If the needs of a species exceed the carrying capacity, systems begin to break down and both the species and the environment decline.
There are a lot of people on the planet earth, but carrying capacity is not just determined by population. Consumption is another factor. And our consumption levels are high and increasing. The logic of the anti-environmental folk is that we have worked hard to build a society where hard work and creativity are valued, worked hard to create and apply the technology that makes us wealthy, so we deserve it. Why should we concern ourselves with the needs of other people, or future generations who are late to the game?
There is at least one problem with that line of thinking for Christians, for those who purport to follow Jesus. Jesus tells us that we are welcomed into the kingdom of heaven to serve. If service means the end of us, then so be it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul? The bible teaches us that God will provide, and it is our job to be thankful and to help provide for others. The first will be last and the last will be first is not a threat here, it is the vision, which allows a people to rise together. It is not thwarting individual creativity, but giving it direction.
Last night I was poking around the Internet looking at websites related to immigration and diversity. I ran into multiple websites, which trace the decline of the US to the civil rights legislation, which attempted to integrate schools, housing, and public places, and to the legislation, which eliminated racial quotas for immigration. But, is our nation and culture built on the self-evident truth that all men and women are created equal or not? It seems to me this is the basic Christian and American value we take all the way to our death, all the way to the kingdom of heaven. Now we are engaged in a culture war, testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. It may not, but it certainly will not if we do not have faith, if we circle the wagons and hoard the manna as if God will abandon us tomorrow.
I believe in people and I credit that belief to God, but also to the nation in which I live. I am terrified of the evil humans are capable of. I do not understand why it seems so easy that people commit evil, real evil, so readily and easily. And I want my nation’s protection against it. And we are all sinners in need of grace and forgiveness. But I believe that people are hungry for good, honest living. People hope for hope that they can grow up and contribute and share in something good. And most people, from the poorest of the poor to the big banker want to work, they want to do a good honest job, and they want their work to be good for them, for their family, and for all. The key to it being so, is that people have faith that it is so, that it must be so. Against all the evidence, we have to have faith that we will have enough, that at the end of the day, God will see us through the wilderness.
There is no turning back. We are not sure how we will make it going forward, but we are not going back to Egypt, with its quotas and racial prejudice and oppression. We may die in the wilderness, but if so let us die going forward with the hope that love and service and freedom have a home on earth as in heaven. And heaven will be there, soon and sure enough.