When People Need More

Hi all!  I hope everyone is having a wonderful weekend.  It kind of feels like summer came back around for one final hurrah – we were debating robing this morning!  Not that I’m wanting it to snow or anything, but I’m definitely ready for fall.

Here is my sermon from this morning.  This was not an easy text to preach on!  I am always grateful for the opportunity to use preaching as a way of deepening my own faith and listening to the bold and radical call of God in my life.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 24, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16

When People Need More

When my sister and I were little, my mom did the very best she could to make sure everything was equal for us.  She was obsessive about it; to the point where on Christmas morning she would tally up the amount of money she spent on gifts for each of us and whomever she spent less on, she would cut a check for the difference.

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable that raises up questions of what equal looks like:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.[1]

In the parable, a man who owns a vineyard goes out first thing in the morning and agrees on a daily wage with a group of laborers before sending them out into his vineyard to work.  A few hours later – it is now 9AM – the landowner sees a group of people in the marketplace not doing anything and tells them to go the vineyard and work for the rest of the day.  At noon, he does the same thing; then again at 3PM and 5PM.

That evening, the owner of the vineyard tells his manager to bring the laborers in for the day and pay them.  But he asks the manager to start with the laborers who began working the latest in the day.  The 5PM laborers come in for the day and get paid the daily wage the vineyard owner had agreed on with the laborers that started first thing in the morning.

Then the 3PM laborers come in.  They get paid the same daily wage.

Then the noon laborers.  Same wage.

Then the 9AM laborers.  Do you see where this is going?

And finally, the early morning laborers. Same wage.

Now wait a minute – how is this fair?

The early morning laborers ask the vineyard owner the exact same question.

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.’[2]

This kind of reminds me of doing group projects in high school.  There was always that one person that never did any work and yet they still got the same grade as everyone else.  Did that ever happen to you? It just never seemed fair!

But, like many of my teachers in high school who told me to suck it up, take my grade and get over it, the owner of the vineyard has some tough love to share with his laborers.

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?[3]

Technically, the owner of the vineyard has a point.  He agreed on a daily wage with the workers who went out first thing in the morning and he paid them that wage.  He did not change the terms of their original agreement.

And yet, there is part of this whole thing that just does not seem fair.

This passage is an allegory; it is meant to make us think about salvation, reminding us that God’s grace is available to all people.

But I think it has a lot to teach us about life on earth, as well.  Very much like my high school teachers who told me to stuck it up, take my grade and get over it, this passage reminds us that in life and in faith, we should not necessarily be keeping score.

This idea of what is equal comes up a lot in our country today, especially when we talk about things like healthcare and social services.  It comes up in our church a lot when we talk about pledging and where our money then goes into the operating budget.  It came up in my family as my sister and I got older and our circumstances grew different from one another and my mom struggled to still try to make things equal for us.

And while I do not necessarily have any answers about how to make things equal in the world, here is the conclusion I think I am starting to come to:  I do not think equal and fair are necessarily the same things. I also do not think equal and just are necessarily the same things. I think so much of what we give depends on what people are going through; what they need; what we can give back.

I think there are moments when some people need more than others. And I think in those moments God is far more concerned with things being fair and things being just than with things being exactly equal.

We do not know what was going on in the lives of all the laborers who started later in the day. But for some reason, the owner of the vineyard felt compelled to pay them all the same wage.

I cannot help but wonder if perhaps he knew that, for whatever reason, they needed it.

Was the compensation the laborers received at the vineyard that day equal for the amount of time they all worked?  No.

Was it fair? Was it just? That is not for us to decide.

This is a challenging parable to read because it goes against the American dream that the harder we work, the more we will gain. But I think it forces us to realize that sometimes life is not about the bottom line; it is not about compassion, mercy and justice.

I was listening to a podcast on Thursday and the host was interviewing a woman who lives in Houston.  She was talking about Hurricane Harvey and the ongoing relief efforts that were happening through her church.  As I listened to her talk, I thought about the devastation that Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and now Maria have caused in less than one month’s time, the horrifying destruction in Mexico following the earthquakes this week and of the people in our own community that are hurting in real and heartbreaking ways.

And all I could think was:  They need more right now.

I think at some point, I think we have to ask ourselves the hard, but necessary question:  Are we trying to make the world a better place or are we trying to make our world a better place? This text challenges us to look at the needs of others and prioritize those needs over our own desires. This text boldly calls us to prayerfully discern what God is calling us to do and who God is calling us to be – as individuals and as a church.

In the parable, the owner of the vineyard says to his earliest laborer:

‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’[4]

Generous. We serve a generous God:

A God whose grace is abundant.

A God who is just and fair.

A God who sees the needs of everyone, even if they are not necessarily visible on the outside to the rest of us.

A God who never walks away.

A God who calls the human race to rise up and help one another in their times of need.

And that time is now.

As I said earlier, the older my sister and I got, the more my mom struggled to make sure things were exactly equal for us. I think she finally gave up; and not because it was a lost cause or anything, but because she realized that at different points throughout our lives, we were simply going to need different things – sometimes less, sometimes more. And so now she just tries to meet those needs as best she can, knowing that in the end, it will all even out.

Friends, there are great needs among people in our own community, throughout the country and around the world. The depths of these needs we may never understand; but what we do understand is that God boldly challenges us to meet these needs in ways both big and small and to demonstrate generosity in our lives.

So I would encourage you to think today about how God is calling you to give back and serve those who need more right now.

For starters, come to the Soup Supper next weekend – not only is it a delicious night, but all of the proceeds are going to Hurricane relief. As with most natural disasters, the relief efforts will continue long after the storm is over. I believe this is only the beginning of our church’s outreach to the communities hit hardest. Remember that we can rise up to God’s spirit of generosity in our service.

I would also encourage you to connect here at the church and tie into the life of the community. The fall is a very busy time; there is a lot going on and there are so many different ways and places to serve. Come to our congregational meeting next Sunday after church, hear the proposal of the task force and be part of the conversation envisioning what our church structure could look like.

And here’s the thing: This text also reminds us that – in the end – God will still give us what we need. The early morning laborers received the wage they agreed on; the fact that the owner of the vineyard showed generosity with the other laborers did not mean he took anything away from the ones that started in the morning.

It is in reading this text that we remember we have nothing to lose when we show what God’s generosity can look like here on earth.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Matthew 20:1, NRSV
[2] Matthew 20:12, NRSV
[3] Matthew 20:13-15, NRSV
[4] Matthew 20:15, NRSV

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