The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - September 24, 2017
Scripture Reading: Matthew 20:1-16        
Sermon Title: Workers in the vineyard

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     This morning we read a familiar parable of Jesus.  We all know it pretty well.  A vineyard owner goes out early in the morning and finds workers to pick his grapes.  The time is not mentioned, but there seems to be an urgency to his need, probably hires all that he can find at that early hour, and agrees to pay them a day’s wage.  About 9:00 in the morning he goes out and finds some more, hires them.  Then again about noon, and about 3:00 in the afternoon.  For each group he agrees to pay what is right for their labor.  And then we get to 5:00, maybe an hour until quitting time.  And Jesus pauses for us to picture those in our minds.  Were they really there all day long, and nobody hired them?  Maybe they showed up at 4:00, so they could say that they were looking for work, but didn’t really want it.  But heck, someone is willing to hire them at 5:00.  You can do almost anything for an hour, and put a little money in your pocket.  

     And then quitting time rolls around and the landowner asks for those last hired to come in to be paid.  We all know that this whole thing could be avoided by paying those who were hired first before those who were hired last.  It is all based on expectation or anticipation.  Those last hired get a whole day’s wage!  Wow, that is generous. So those who were hired earlier in the day would obviously get more.  Maybe those hired early didn’t hear correctly, maybe it was a day’s wage per hour.  They worked one hour, I am going to get 10 maybe 12 days’ wages by the time I quit for the day.  Awesome.  I am already imagining what I am going to do with that extra money.  I will bring home a bottle of good wine, maybe flowers for my spouse.  Maybe I will even take a day off, after all day laboring is not easy.  

     As each group is called in, their pay is the same.  One for you, one for you, one for you.  What the heck, I worked all day, and you are giving me the same amount as you are giving those just hired at 5:00, that is not fair.  The landowner explains that those hired first in the day agreed to a day’s wage, and that was what they got.  They should be happy, they got exactly what was agreed to.  For those that were hired later, he was generous.  

     And we all know the traditional interpretation.  God is like the landowner, freely giving out grace.  For the early readers of this gospel this was great news.  You are a 60 year old Gentile, a non-Jew.  Never really felt the need to go to the temple, never made a sacrifice, but God’s grace is freely given even to those like me who came to the vineyard late in the game.  Grace is given to all just for showing up, even if it is late.  

     But here we are.  How many of you were here last week?  How many have served on a committee in the past or are serving on one now?  How many of you were here last year?  How about 5 years ago?  Or 10 years ago?  Or 25 years ago?  If we are expecting pay based on time working, it’s not fair.

     Secretly we all believe that, as those who have been around for a while, we deserve a bit more than someone who walks into church next week.  When we all get to heaven, we will have slightly bigger rooms than those who just walked into church the week before they arrive.  We will be on a higher floor, better view of heaven.  And our rooms will overlook the courtyard, or woods, or ocean, our choice, certainly not the highway.  God’s house has lots of rooms, even those who came to know God late in life will have a room, we will just have a better room.  

     My great uncle taught me that life is not always fair.  Everyone has, or should have, a great uncle like I did.  He was born in LA, and married a young lady from Hollywood just before he left to fight in World War II.  He was a flying ace, awarded a bunch of medals, even told us how he got shot down once and was able to land on an island, where he was rescued a few days later.  He was shot down by one of his own squadron, but still shot down, and survived.  After World War II, he got that first marriage annulled, or that was what he always told us.  Went on to marry several more times, have a few children and ended up working as a chemist for Rubbermaid.  He developed the rubber that was used, and may still be used, in mud flaps for big trucks.  His name is not on the invention because he worked for Rubbermaid, and so he got a “Thanks” and they made a lot of money.  He went on to develop panic bars, like you find on most commercial building doors now.  His name did appear on that patent, but again was working for a company that took his invention, left him with a “thanks.”  When he retired he designed and built a house that used hinges.  It was built on the ground, where it was safest, and then when complete, a crane would raise the house.  Some inventions do well, others never take off.  Interesting note, however, that house, in Florida was one of only a few left standing after a major hurricane went through several years ago.  Although he never came out and said it to my knowledge, he never caught a break.  Good and bad, but never fair.  And just to show us that life was not fair, he would always send my sister and me a Christmas check to split between the two us for something like $31.43.  And we would fight over it.  It was a penny, really nothing, but it certainly was not fair that she should get a penny more than me.  She also felt it would not be fair for me to get that extra penny.  Life is not fair.

     In reading the scripture in this way, it upsets us.  But let me present a different reading.  We always tend to look at this in relation to us, God is always the father, or the landowner, or something like that, and we put ourselves into the lowest position.  Well not necessarily the lowest, at least in this reading. Maybe we are not those who were out at 6:00 in the morning, despite our Protestant work ethic; maybe we were the 9:00 am group, or at least the noon group.  But maybe this is not about us yet, but about the disciples first.  

     Jesus knew that he would be killed, I believe that.  And he did tell his disciples that this would happen.  When Jesus was killed it was going to be left for his disciples to carry on his message and ministry.  Now certainly Jesus did have his favorite disciples, those who seemed closer than the others.  But he needed all of them to do what he needed them to do.  Yes, even Judas, he served a role and was replaced after he committed suicide.  Jesus needed 12 of them to carry on the ministry and message.  

     And once he was gone, it would be so easy for them to get into squabbles.  Sure Peter, you were probably one of Jesus’ closest disciples, but Jesus never put you in charge.  Thomas, you never believed anyway, you go off and do your doubting, we got this covered.  The early church would have fallen apart.  So maybe Jesus was telling his disciples that this pay was not a reward for hanging in there, but maybe Jesus was telling his disciples that he needs them, the church needs them, no matter what time they arrived, they still have work to do.  The reward will be fair.

     You all probably know by now that I don’t know what happens to us when we die.  Because of this, I feel we are called to live our lives as best, as full as we can.  And our life is fullest and best when we are in relationship.  I am not talking about a romantic relationship, although those can be important, but I am talking about friendships, working relationships, all those people in our lives who make our lives full.  Jesus knows this also, and he wants to assure his disciples that the reward for all their work will be that full life.

     Showing up is important.  Glenn started High School a few weeks ago.  There are only 3 main rules they have and rule number one is show up.  One of the other rules is be nice, and I think the other is work hard.  But show up, number one rule.  We were all that age once, many of us knew or know someone that age more recently.  Glenn’s first bell in the morning rings at 7:30. Well, they don’t use bells, they use “passing music,” but the passing music ends at 7:30 and he is supposed to be in his first class sitting down.  This school draws from several nearby towns, so Glenn is lucky, he can walk out our door at 7:15, walk to school and show up for 7:30.  Kids from other towns might have to leave their house at 6:30, maybe earlier.  A 15, 16 or 17-year-old kid out of bed, dressed and ready for school by 6:30 or before.  Sunrise today was 6:39 am.  I would place a bet that very, very few teenagers were up at sunrise this morning.

     But what do they get for showing up?  Attendance does count for a tiny bit of your grade, but affects you more because you cannot participate in the class if you are not there, so that class participation grade is affected.  But it also affects others in your class.  In one of Glenn’s classes the teacher gives oral tests, one person gets to answer for the class, and the whole class gets that grade.  One grade, whole class, so if you want to do well in that class, you want to make sure whoever is called on, can answer all the questions asked correctly.  So they are given preparation time.  “Our oral test is going to be on Egypt,” they are studying Africa now.  And side note, if you were wondering, all those African countries you and I had to memorize when we were in school, most of them are now different countries.  But they start to talk among themselves, what kind of government do they have, what is their prominent religion and how does that affect their way of life, what problems are facing that country today.  And then, once they feel everyone knows what they need to know the teacher calls on one student to stand up and, without help from the class, answer questions for the class test.  You want your fellow students to show up, because maybe you forgot to talk about something that he will ask.  That kid that misses a few days here and a few days there, shows up late to class, who was not present, they might get called on.  Their “not being present” is going to hurt your grade.  

     In a less “grade based” approach, each student has something to share with the class.  Kids in Language arts are reading different books, and will be sharing about those in class.  In Science, they just had to find a current event article having to do with science to share with the class.  In Math, maybe one student will see a different way to do a problem, that she can explain to other students and help them.  With each student showing up, each gets to hear different ideas and views, and ultimately they learn more and get more out of their education.  In all those interactions, relationships are formed, friendships are formed, and the students have a richer life.  There is a reward for showing up.

     And it’s same thing for the church.  Each of you have something to contribute.  You have been and will continue to be invited to work in this vineyard.  And your reward will be the fellowship and friendships of those sitting around you.  Your life will be fuller through your participation.  And that benefit, that pay if you will, is not greater for those who were invited here first. It is the same for all of us.

     And those friendships, those relationships, both with God and each other, are not limited.  Unfortunately, we live in a world where we view things with the idea of scarcity.  If you have more of something, it means that I will have less of that, and we all want more.  More money, more food, faster internet, bigger TVs, better cars.  But in friendships, in relationships, there is no scarcity.  You may have more Facebook friends than I have, but that is not a real measure of friendships.  There is no measure of the relationships you have with others and with God, but church is a good place to build those relationships.  And in fact, with each friendship I build, the others in that friendship are also getting more.  I guess it would be the exact opposite of scarcity, the more you have, the more I have.  

     We should not read this passage with disappointment.  Jesus, in my mind, was not talking about the early comers not getting their fair share.  The world is an unfair place, some people are lucky, others are not.  And really, we are all lucky and unlucky in different ways.  Life is never going to be fair.  But I believe Jesus was talking about relationships.  To his disciples, they had to stick together once he was killed or this movement was going to die with him.  And to us, maybe we were hired early, maybe we were hired later, maybe we were hired at 3:00, but we should welcome those who come at 5:00, we should invite them to come and work in this vineyard because their presence builds relationships.  Relationships and friendships lead to the fullest life, which is our pay and our reward for being invited to work in God’s vineyard.