Sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on Sunday, September 24, 2017 on Matthew 20: 1-16, it can be heard here.
Perhaps I have spent too much time in seminary, but when I first read the gospel passage earlier this week, I had one visual that I could not get out of my head: a man, sitting with his knee propped up, stroking his well-maintained beard with one hand and a pipe in the other as he pontificated about what the kingdom of heaven might look like. In our gospel passage today, Jesus attempts not to go on and on and impress everyone with his wit at crafting a metaphor, but to explain to the disciples what the kingdom of heaven will be like with a common scenario with which the disciples would be familiar, and in doing so goes into a metaphor that doesn’t follow our expectations of how the world works.
In this parable, the landowner comes to the marketplace to hire people to work in his vineyard; “go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right” is the instruction given to those who agree to labor in his vineyard. The landowner starts out this process in the morning at what would be the beginning of the work day, and returns to the marketplace three more times before the work day is over, each time the landowner finds people standing idle, yet to be hired, and each time he gives the same instruction. At the end of the day, he has his manager pay those who worked only hour receive their pay first; likely to their surprise, they received a full day’s wage for their short hour of work. When those who had worked from 9 till 6 came to receive their wage, they, after seeing how the landowner paid those who worked only part of the day, it seems, were expecting a wage more than the agreed upon daily wage. They were upset, and understandably so; the landowner’s elaborate generosity is not how we expect landowners to act, but the kingdom of heaven is not a space in which our expectations are met.
When we pray the words of the Lord’s prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” the sort of radical justice and generosity that we see in our gospel reading today is what we are praying that God bring about. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come upon this earth, our prayer is that the whole world, that all people, be treated with this sort of elaborate, abundant generosity. And when we take a moment to reflect on the reality of what we are asking God to do in this world, it hits us just how hard of a prayer this is to pray. It is easy, of course, for us to ask God’s generosity to be bestowed to us or to those whom we love. It might even be a little easy to ask that the abundance of God’s love and grace be known to those people we hardly know, but with whom we don’t quite get along. But to pray for this kind of grace for those with whom we struggle to be in relationship, or those who we feel may not value the same things we do, or to pray for those who only worked one hour, when we have worked nine, this is much more difficult. It is much harder to desire abundance for others when we perceive the distribution to be unfair.
I’m convinced that one of the great diseases in our society today is that of scarcity; it’s one of the biggest lies that we believe without questioning. Driving most marketing campaigns, scarcity tells us that there is not enough for everyone, so we must be better than others to earn love, or contentment, or to secure our place in society. Scarcity says that I must have more than you to feel like I have enough, despite our actual needs. Scarcity fuels the fear that if there is room for them, then there won’t be room for us (whoever them and us are in the moment). And this is as true in politics as it is a high school cafeteria; as true when aiding those in poverty as it is on social media; as true when welcoming refugees as it is driving down Scottsville Road at noon. Scarcity tells us that we must care for ourselves first, and others second, because otherwise we will be left out, that we won’t have enough to survive or to be loved or to grow, but this is not the kingdom of God.
God’s grace and generosity cannot be calculated at an hourly rate, and just as the landowner’s offer for workers to come and work in the vineyard remained opened throughout the day, so also God’s grace remains open for us. It is something we receive, not a contract into which we enter with God. We cannot negotiate our way into God’s grace and love, because it is abundantly given, and it is given with abandon to all who come and follow Christ.
Today, we welcome Maddox into the household of God. We will join with him and his sponsors in renewing our own baptismal covenant, we will pray prayers for the Holy Spirit to be present in this water with which he will be baptized, and then, after he is marked with the sign of the cross, we will pray for his new life of grace. We will pray for him to have courage, perseverance, joy, and wonder as he begins this new walk and begins to follow the way of the cross. We will pray these things because to welcome a newly baptized member of our family is to welcome them to a long road, it is to welcome them into a life of hard work, challenging prayers, and difficult choices, but it is also to welcome them into deep and overwhelming hope and joy of the resurrection life. It is to welcome them not just into salvation, but into the continual transformation brought about by the redemption and grace that we experience every time we catch a glimpse of what the kingdom of God will look like.
God’s calls us to discipleship, which comes with it the call to spend our lives bringing about the kingdom of God. As we spend our lives attempting to bring about the kingdom of God, we must do the hard work of praying for God’s grace to be abundant for all and making sure that, in whatever ways we can, we model our lives after this generosity as well. Our efforts to bring about the kingdom of God require us to choose every day to walk the path of the cross; it requires us to choose to not be Christians in name only, but for our lives to be so shaped by the life and death of Jesus that “Christian” isn’t just the religious label we wear, but is woven into the very core of who we are.
To be a Christian and to spend our lives bringing about the kingdom of God is to live a life not marked by scarcity and the fear of what others may take from you or the anxiety that you may have less than someone else. No, to be a Christian is to live a life marked by the free-flowing grace found in the baptismal waters and in the abundance found in the bread and wine at the altar. To be a Christian is to celebrate that God’s love and grace is bigger than our own; it is to give thanks that while we may struggle to imagine the redemption of a certain person or group of people, God can.
When we leave this building today, we go out into the world having renewed our baptismal covenant and we will have welcomed a new laborer into this work. We leave today not with the promise that everything will work out fairly and equally for those who follow Christ, nor with the belief that because we have shown up today for worship today that we are counted among those who went to work early in the morning, but rather we leave reminded that we are all people standing in the need of God’s abundant grace and love. We leave reminded that there is much work to do to bring about God’s kingdom in this world; may we choose to do it every day with courage, perseverance, joy and wonder.