Sunday, September 18, 2005

Proper 20

Matthew 20
1“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the owner of an estate who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.
3“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. 4So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. 5At noon and again around three o’clock he did the same thing. 6At five o’clock that evening he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’
7“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’”
The owner of the estate told them, ‘then go on out and join the others in my vineyard.’
8“That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. 9When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10When those hired earlier came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11When they received their pay, they protested, 12‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’
13“He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14Take it and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be angry because I am kind?’
16“And so it is, that many who are first now will be last then; and those who are last now will be first then.”

Tomorrow I will sleep in. I feel like such an idiot, working in the hot sun all day. Do you have any idea how heavy a basket of grapes can be? A hand full of grapes is light. Imagine a bushel of grapes, under your arm, while you reach at some impossible angle to find another cluster of grapes in a spot you can barely reach. Now do this for an entire day.

Throughout the day workers continue to appear. Noon and three and five: suddenly the place is starting to fill up. But no matter, the harvest is great. I think to myself "about time these slackers did some real work. Late, but not so late that they won't get a taste of good, honest labour and even take home a bit of change." I begin to think of the parables I learned so well: "Hard work means prosperity; only fools idle away their time." Or another: "Work hard and become a leader; be lazy and become a slave." And a personal favourite:

10A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—11and poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber.

All of that seems rather silly now. Sweating away and repeating proverbs in my head, only to end the day in utter frustration. "Didn't you agree to work all day for the usual wage?" he said. "Can I not choose how I spend my money?" he said. "Should you be offended because I am generous?" he said. Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I am offended. I didn't write the proverbs. I didn't pen the wisdom of the ages only to have it tossed on its head. Here's one, while not in the Bible, maybe should be: "A fool and his money are soon parted." Tomorrow I will sleep in.


One commentator said that this passage is so effective that it doesn't require preaching: simply read the passage and let the message settle on your listener. Now I wonder, does that mean the preacher can sleep in and still expect to get paid? Suddenly the passage is growing on me.

One of the fun things about final sermons is the ability to do crazy things that I wouldn't normally do. In this case, I'm going to quote me from the last time this passage came up in the lectionary. In this way, you will be able to say "high time he left: he ran so short on original material he resorted to quoting himself." Fair enough.

What if the Kingdom of God meant that no matter how much effort we put into our work, the reward is the same? I don’t want to put Kim on the spot, but her baptism this morning may help us to understand Jesus’ point. I was also baptised as a big person, and in the twenty years since I stood at the font in Mount Albert, I have been working tirelessly in the vineyard, with my ordination as only one of aspect of a life largely given to the church. Kim has been baptised now for…let’s see…18 minutes. Will I get a better room in heaven? Will I fly to heaven business class, with a wider seat and an unlimited supply of domestic wine?

The answer, of course, is no. The flight to heaven will be first class all the way, with equal amounts of legroom, and a feast that will break your tray-table. How do I know this? From what primary source did I gather this material? I learned it in church. Or, more precisely, I learned it at Cliffcrest.

At every moment in the life of this congregation you have been welcoming new vineyard workers. At noon and three and five they arrive, and you pay them the same respect and devotion whatever time of day they come.

I can even name names. I'm not supposed to, but being a last sermon, I will. Don and Edna came to this congregation in old age. They moved here from Thunder Bay to be closer to family. They found us and joined our fellowship, and so it began. I recall in one of our Remembrance Day services they took up the challenge of recalling life at home during a time of war and described their experience as children during the First World War.

Edna left us first, and then a few months later Don departed too. The amazing thing, the thing that fills me with wonder and awe is the extent to which they were held. The workers that arrived in our midst at five o'clock received the same wage. Visits were made, meals were cooked, drives offered and given, prayers made, passings marked, and in what seemed like a very short time after Don and Edna arrived they were gone.

When God does an audit of congregational effectiveness it will not focus on the relationship between years of service and rewards offered. The audit will follow the format of Matthew 25: "For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me...and when you did it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it also for me."


Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

St. Paul's words for us today are but one reading in a weird traffic jam of readings for us this morning. Paul's words about standing firm in his absence is part of the lectionary for September 18. So too is the parable of the workers in the vineyard and also the story of manna from Exodus 16. We didn't even read that one, because it was just too much: two of my all-time favourite scripture passages and Paul's farewell words. There's a spirit in the air.

There is no doubt in my mind that you will continue to stand firm in one spirit, that you will live lives worthy of the Gospel and that you will strive side by side for the faith you share. There is no doubt that you will continue to teach your minister more than she or he can teach you. And there is no doubt that the people of South Scarborough will continue to be blessed by your presence.


Tomorrow I will sleep in. Not because I want to arrive late and receive the same wage, but because I can rest easy knowing that the work of the Kingdom continues, that faith will be shared, love expressed and forgiveness extended. New people will arrive and others will depart and everyone will enjoy the same gift that lives in the heart of this congregation: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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