September 18, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16 Psalm 145:1-8
1st Reading: Jonah 3:10-4:11 2nd Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news, and that is that God is generous. It depends on your perspective, right? I want you to put yourself in the story. Can I have a show of hands: How many of you would consider yourselves to be the workers coming to work at 5 o’clock? How many of you would put yourselves in the category of bearing the burden of the day and the scorching heat? How about somewhere in between? Wouldn’t want to be too toot your own horn to much, but don’t mind taking a little credit!
I am a lifelong Lutheran. I’ve pretty much always gone to church. Sometimes I take communion twice in a day—if I visit a homebound person. I volunteer my time for the poor. I visit the sick. I try to follow the Ten Commandments. I try to grow my faith, read the Bible, and pray. I’m a pastor! I’ve dedicated my life to God and the church and God’s people. Certainly I have born the burden of the day!
Then I look out at all of you. Some of you have been at this twice as long as I have! Some of you have been through trials I can barely imagine and come through with a strong faith. Some of you have faced illness, faced cancer, lost a spouse, lost children. Yet here you are. Some of you have served on councils and building projects, slept outdoors in solidarity with the homeless, given away your coat or shoes to someone who needed it. Certainly you have born the burden of the day. My day’s just getting started. Maybe I’ve come in in the middle.
And then I look to Jesus Christ. He’s the only we can truly say bore the burden of the day and kept on working. He threw himself into his work, was completely obedient to God, ignored what other people thought of him and always did what was right in relationship to others—especially the poor. He didn’t think of himself and what was due him as God’s son, as one being there from the creation of the universe, who gave up his throne to walk in dirt and pain and human experience.
And Jesus came to make us all equal with each other and with him. We don’t like to be equal with each other. I don’t mind being equal with those that are better—I don’t mind being lumped in with all of you. But to be put together with the really late-comers seems insulting. We can think of reasons they weren’t there to be hired. Maybe they were sleeping late. Maybe they were hung-over. Maybe they didn’t have it together. They were probably lazy. Why would I want to be lumped in with them?
But if I am to be lumped in with Jesus—which I do not deserve, then inevitably I’ll be lumped in with all of you and all of the late-comers too. It just doesn’t seem fair, and it isn’t fair. But aren’t we glad that God isn’t fair and gives to us generously? We’re glad when God is generous to us but we get grumpy when God is generous to others.
Jonah is so angry in our Old Testament story. Let me tell you, you’re supposed to laugh at this story. It is funny! Jonah is mad that God is so generous to the people of Ninevah because it makes him feel foolish. He told the people God was going to punish them and then God doesn’t do it. It makes Jonah look like a liar. It makes him look stupid that what he said would happen didn’t and that God is gracious “and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” So Jonah has himself a little pity party—a pout fest. He’d rather die than see the people Ninevah repent and God be kind to them.
In the Gospel, those who worked a full day are angry at God’s generosity to those who only worked an hour. They are mostly mad because even though they had agreed to a certain wage, they thought they would get more. They thought they were entitled to more. They thought they deserved more. They feel stupid for working the whole day when they could have worked an hour for the same pay.
The landowner here is giving those who worked an hour as well as those who worked all day a living wage. It is what they’d need to live on, no more, no less. If a person doesn’t have the minimum, they won’t go on living for long and won’t be there to work another day. Having more than the minimum can also be problematic, especially when you start to think it makes you better than other people. God gives us exactly what we need.
If we are all equal in God’s eyes, then why shouldn’t we just be lazy and let others do all the work? Why don’t we sit back and take advantage of all this grace that God so naively gives?
When I think of those who come to the pantry, I would say that almost everyone would rather work than to have to ask for food and help. And all of you in retirement—you’d keep getting your retirement income whether you sat in front of the TV all day or went out and volunteered your time somewhere. Yet you choose to give your time to help other people, your family, your neighbors, and your church. And for those of you who have been housewives most of your life—this counts as work and on top of that, it is without pay. I think most of us would agree that there is so much value that people get out of work besides wages.
Work can make life more interesting. It teaches us about ourselves. It keeps us learning new skills, interpersonal skills and maybe physical or intellectual skills. It gives us purpose and meaning and satisfaction. It gives us goals to work toward and progress to measure, and a way to participate in society and contribute.
And, yes, work brings us suffering. Other people can be a pain in the neck. Our job can get tedious. We will be frustrated at times. We’ll get overwhelmed. We won’t live up to our own expectations and we’ll be disappointed or we won’t to live up to those of someone else. Paul says, “Not only has God graciously granted you the privilege of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” Oh goodie! We get to suffer for Christ!
The sign at Oak Hills this morning says something about the privilege of suffering. They must still be on the lectionary. I tricked you in here with “Welcome Back!” But really suffering IS what we’re talking about this morning, too! Gotcha!
Suffering, for Paul, is a privilege. A lot of times we measure our faith by how smoothly our life is going. If things are going well, we can assume we are being faithful enough and doing everything right, that God is with us and we can just stay the course. Just like the vineyard workers were measuring the value of their work by how much they got paid. But Paul is pointing out that suffering is one way to measure whether we are making progress in the faith. The more we’re suffering, the greater our faith progress. Bearing the burden of the day is a privilege that teaches us something about ourselves and has value in and of itself.
When my life is cushy, I think a lot less about my faith life and taking the next step. Why should I, if everything is going well? It is when I am suffering or struggling, that I remember most how much I need God and my friends and my church and to read the Bible. And when I am struggling, that’s when I am really grappling with my faith and what God means to me. It means I am growing in faith, that I am learning something new about myself. And when I struggle, it reminds me of all the struggling people in the world who have it worse than I do, and reminds me to lend a hand and to give of myself to relieve suffering in the world. We can measure our progress in faith by how much we are struggling.
I’m not going to go so far as wish suffering on you this week. Life brings suffering all on its own. But I hope we learn and grow from our struggles and become closer to God and one another.