God Chooses Us

St. John’s NYC
Sept. 20, 2020, Pentecost 16

Matthew 20:1-16

The Holy Gospel according to Matthew. Glory to You, O Lord.

1“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. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 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? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, O Christ.

Grace and peace to you beloveds, from God the Creator, Christ the Liberator, and the Holy Spirit, who is breath. Amen.

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When we read biblical texts, we don’t come to them out of a vacuum. We bring our identities, the stories we grew up with, influences from the culture we live in, as we approach the Bible. These different lenses impact how we understand and interpret the text.

For instance, when I read the Bible, I read it as someone who grew up in a rural area but has lived in big cities all of my adult life, as someone who is white, who is trans, who is college educated. I bring with me my identity as an artist, and someone who didn’t grow up in the church. All of these things layer together and impact which characters I identify with, what passages are particularly challenging to me, which passages I have questions about.

What do you bring with you as you approach the Bible?

What lenses most influence your encounters with the text?

Race?

Class?

Faith formation?

And I wonder if this a question you’ve thought about before?

For the Parable of the Landowner from Matthew, it’s worth naming some of the collective lenses we bring, as folks living and existing in the structures of the United States. Since these structures form the basis of our day-to-day life, I know I sometimes don’t realize the extent that they have impacted me, and impacted my beliefs. Beliefs about whose work is valued and paid, about the importance of profit, and making judgement calls about who deserves access to social supports necessary to survive. 

I am so often tempted to valorize the 9 o’clock workers, and strive to be one myself, because 9 o’clock workers are rewarded in our society-as-is. The people who get to the town square early, who work a full day, who do all the right things. I can understand those workers logic, too, at the end of the day. If I had been working all day, my first assumption would be that the people who worked less hours than me would be paid less than me. I’ve worked in hourly-wage jobs before, and that’s how it works. And when the landowner paid those who worked less hours the same amount that I was expecting, it makes sense that my next assumption would be that I would be paid more, even though that wasn’t the original agreement.

These assumptions are in line with a framework of fairness that is entangled with capitalism. Where our worth is directly tied to our productivity.

But that logic is not God’s logic. Our judgements on people’s labor and assumptions of fairness are not God’s, and thank God for that!

The Kingdom of God in this parable is said to be like the landowner, not the 9 o’clock workers. This is a landowner who stewarded land that was so abundant that there was always room for more people to share in the harvest work. Who actively went out to seek those harvest workers. Who wanted to make sure everyone had their basic needs met, regardless of how long they worked for.

When the 5 o’clock workers are asked why they aren’t working, their response is that “no one has hired us.” And learning from the wisdom of disability-informed theologians, the implication of that line has broken open the text for me in a new way.

What if the 5 o’clock workers are the workers that no other landowners wanted? Because they were injured, or blind, or had limited mobility? Because they were older? Because they were single parents, who couldn’t get someone to watch their toddler until after the first shift was done? Because they were formerly incarcerated? Because they had no experience working in a vineyard?

That didn’t matter to the landowner. The 5 o’clock workers were hired, and paid a fair day’s wage. They were paid enough to survive, no matter how many “productive hours” they worked. The landowner acted from a framework of abundance. A framework of justice.

The 9 o’clock workers didn’t immediately know how to operate in this new world of abundance and justice. They were disgruntled that the landowner “had made them equal.” The 9 o’clock workers are disgruntled that God doesn’t share their framework of fairness, even as God’s Kingdom is really good news for everyone in this story.

Because these worker designations – 9 o’clock and 5 o’clock – are fluid. They aren’t fixed identities. Injuries happen, family crisis happen, people get lost – there will be a day where someone who normally shows up at 9 doesn’t get there until 3.

But that’s okay, and they will be okay, because God keeps coming out of the vineyard to pull more people in. What would it have been like if the 9 o’clock workers rejoiced that everyone in their community would survive another day, and was fed, and was included, knowing that their community was safer and stronger when everyone’s basic needs were met?

God doesn’t leave anyone out of God’s Kingdom, even if other people might.

That is such deeply joyful, and grace-filled news, because it lets us know that we don’t need to earn God’s love. There’s enough of it to go around, again and again. We can be rooted in our identities as beloved children of God. In this passage, we are given the gift of a liberating new narrative – there is enough. You are wanted, and welcomed. The structures that tell you your worth is tied to your productivity are not of God.

It can also be a challenging new framework, because believing that God doesn’t leave anyone out asks us to let go of the judgements we might hold about who deserves food and shelter, who deserves justice, or who deserves to be part of God’s Kingdom. And this includes judgement towards ourselves.

Depending on the identities we bring with us when we encounter the Bible, and encounter God, there might be days where it feels harder to believe that God wants us in their Kingdom, so much so that God keeps coming out of the vineyard to find us. I wonder if any of the 5 o’clock workers tried to hand some of their wages back, saying that they didn’t do enough to deserve them?

I wonder if you, like me, have had days where you try to hand back God’s love, because the powers of the world-as-is are so strong that you think you don’t deserve that love?

But to those 5 o’clock workers who believe they are undeserving, who think their worth is tied to their ability, I imagine the landowners reply to be similar as the reply to the disgruntled 9 o’clock workers: “Friend, am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

And God chooses us. God chooses to love us, and forgive us, and find us, day after day. Even on the days where we feel underserving of God’s love. Even on the days that we make mistakes, and we sin – against others, and against our own identities as children of God.

Beloveds of God, the Kingdom of Heaven is an abundant vineyard tended by a God of justice and grace. And God wants us to be a part of it, to share in the harvest, regardless of our productivity. Regardless of when we show up. Regardless of the judgements and assumptions we carry. May we pattern our lives on this Kingdom. Amen.

Vicar Reed Fowler,
Intern

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