This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on June 21, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here.
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.”
I had an interesting conversation with a friend this week. They asked me if I think in pictures or in words. I’d be curious to know from y’all, which one are you? Do you think in pictures or words?
I think in words, and so it’s tough sometimes for me to think of things like sermon illustrations, so I often ask others for help. In preparing for today’s message, I asked my sister Ally for a time when we were treated differently and one of us got mad but there was a reason we got different treatment.
Now, I couldn’t make up her response if I tried. Here’s the exact quote of what she said:
“Mom and Dad would make you a plate of melted cheese but they wouldn’t make me one because I was lactose intolerant. I was mad about that.”
It seems fitting that we start our Back to Sunday School series with a story about melted cheese. But in all seriousness, today, we’re confronted with a story that is anything but simple. This story tells us so much about Christ’s message for the world. It’s a story about equity, a story about fair labor, a story about control, a story about being appreciative for what we have, and it’s a story about grace, or at least it could be.
So here is this story about a landowner who needs help with his land, his vineyard. So he goes and looks for people who could do the work. He found a group of laborers, and he tells them how much he would pay them, they agree, and then they get to work. Now the landowner went out again a few hours later, and he found people who were looking for work. So this landowner did the same thing, he set the rate, they agreed, and then they went to work. This continued three more times, at noon, at 3pm, and again at 5pm. The day came to a close, and all the laborers were called in by the manager to get paid. The manager started with those who started working at 5pm, and paid them their rate, then continued in reverse order, the last getting paid first. Those who were there first in the morning watched as each group received the same payment, no matter when they began working.
When everyone was paid, the ones who were there first threw a little bit of a fit. They were mad, because they had been working since 7 or so in the morning, and some people were there for only an hour, and they got the same amount of money. The landowner replies to them and essentially tells them to stop whining.
He says this:
“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.”
Jesus tells this parable to the disciples, and we wonder why, right? Without context, we might be asking what brought Jesus to this conclusion to tell this story in particular.
Something I think we often miss about this story is the first seven words of it. “For the kindom of heaven is like”, the first seven words of this passage. When we hear this phrase, it’s a way of saying, this is how things can and should be. It’s an urge to grow, to make things better, to imagine a world with less hate or shame or pain or harm.
Right now, we live in a wage based system, where we have what society says we have earned, and not a penny more. We live in a society that says, you get what you work for. You have to earn whatever you receive. And in that society model, rules have space, but grace does not.
The wage based system is not the kindom of heaven. It doesn’t leave room for grace. Grace is a gift from God, and can be defined as “the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit”. In this definition our society functions almost as a total opposite of grace, as it places value only in what is deemed deserved and merited. And even deserved and merited are words that apply only to those who are privileged.
If you’ve been anywhere near a newspaper or news outlet online, you know that there is much to lament about. COVID numbers rise in our country, because we simply aren’t getting it, aren’t understanding the seriousness. Our transgender siblings are being told by the leader of this country that their worth is not as important as the worth of cisgender people. DACA recipients and migrants in general were again told by the president that they would not be allowed to stay in the country they were born into, or the country they came to to seek a better life for their families. And of course, we still are witness to black lives being ended, black bodies being shot and killed by law enforcement without repercussion or remorse.
How is any of that ‘fair’?
The truth is, grace is not something that will automatically show up in the world we live in, just like fairness. Instead, we have to demand that it shows up, and often, we need to do it ourselves. We, as people of faith, are tasked with making sure that being treated fairly has nothing to do with what it deemed deserved and merited.
Are there situations you can think of, where grace won? Where have you seen people show up or speak out for grace over rules?
Whether we want to admit it or not, privilege unfortunately has so much to do with the ways we are treated, the amount of times we are given grace in many of the situations we have named. This image sticks out to me as an example of that. Equality is how our wage/law based system is supposed to work, where people work for what they have, and those who work ten hours are all paid the same for those hours they work, right? And then we have equity, which is the system we read about today in our scripture, where grace wins over rules, because there’s an acknowledgment that each person has unique needs and interests. And then the last picture is the reality, where those who have more privilege are given much more, and those with less privilege start from square one, or even lower than square one, then expected to dig themselves out of a society created hole with ease.
Our system is broken, and we’ve been able to see that especially in the last two weeks, as the sins of racism and police brutality continue to be a reality, among other things. The first step in turning that around, in opening spaces of grace, is recognizing the discrepancy between the story we’re being told by authority figures in power, and the reality that we can see from the ground. In other words, we need to be able to see our own privileges and non privileges.
I found this exercise the other day, and I think it’s a helpful one in just scratching the surface to see where we are at. It’s called 10 fingers, white privilege edition. In just a moment, I’m going to ask everyone to hold up 10 fingers, then I’ll read statements, and if they apply to you, you’ll put a finger down. Okay, go ahead and hold up those fingers.
– Put a finger down if you have been called a racial slur.
– Put a finger down if you’ve been followed in a store unnecessarily.
– Put a finger down if someone has crossed the street in order to avoid passing you.
– Put a finger down if you’ve had someone clench their purse in an elevator with you.
– Put a finger down if you’ve had someone step off of an elevator to keep from riding with you.
– Put a finger down if you’ve been accused of not being able to afford something expensive.
– Put a finger down if you’ve had fear in your heart when being stopped by the police.
– Put a finger down if you’ve never been given a pass on a citation you deserved.
– Put a finger down if you have been stopped or detained by police for no valid reason.
– Put a finger down if you have been bullied solely because of your race.
– Put a finger down if you’ve been denied service solely because of the colour of your skin.
– Put a finger down if you’ve ever had to teach your children how not to get killed by the police.
The fingers that are left represent your privilege. Now, this exercise, like I said, only scratches the surface, and it just represents one facet of privilege, but it’s somewhere to start. Without the interrogation of our own place in the world, we aren’t able to fully know where we stand.
We as Christians are tasked to create the kindom of heaven on earth, which means striving for equity, striving for grace, wherever we can. It means we, like the landowner, are tasked to understand that fair is not always equal, that the needs of some may be greater than others.
May we be the church now more than ever, offering grace to all people, grace in our service, through our prayers, and through our social action. May we honor the parable of Jesus, always sensing the spaces for us to grow from the wage based system into the kindom of heaven model. And may we continue radiating the love of God through our words and our works, loving our neighbors well, now and always. Amen.