25 Sunday A - Workers at the Vineyard

1.     From Fr. Tony Kadavil’s Collection: 
 1: “That’s not fair!”

How many times, in the course of a given day, have you heard someone protest, “That’s not fair!” Children on a playground shout when they detect a foul play: “That’s not fair!” Siblings doing household chores may complain, “I’m doing more work!” or “My chores are more difficult; that’s not fair!” Students at school may resent the extra attention given to a classmate... “She’s the teacher’s favorite; that’s not fair!” A brother thinks his piece of pie appears to be smaller than his sister’s -- “That’s not fair!” Someone at work receives a raise in salary when another person thinks he/she is more deserving: “I have seniority. I’ve been here longer; that’s not fair!” The coach of the Little League baseball team always puts her child in as starting pitcher; other players are annoyed... “That’s not fair!” Taxpayers bristle at the fact that increasing numbers of people are applying for and receive welfare from the government... “I have to work hard to make a living for me and my family. So should everyone else... that’s not fair!” In each of these several examples, human sensibilities regarding fairness and patience have been offended, precisely because of the fact that they are human. Most of us think that good work, seniority and experience should be rewarded, that all should be subject to the same rules, like “First come, first served,” that everyone should be treated impartially and that there should be no exceptions and no favorites! Therefore, when confronted with a situation such as that put before us in today’s Gospel parable of identical wages for different numbers of hours of work, our sense of fairness in provoked.  (Patricia Datchuck S├ínchez) 

2: Deathbed conversions:  

Conversions at the point of death have a long history. The first recorded deathbed conversion appears in the Gospel of Luke where the good thief, crucified beside Jesus, expresses belief in Christ. Jesus accepts his conversion, saying “Today you shall be with me in Paradise." Perhaps the most momentous conversion in Western history was that of Constantine I, Roman Emperor, later proclaimed a Christian Saint. While his belief in Christianity occurred long before his death, it was only in 337 on his deathbed that he was baptized.  A famous literary genius who entered the Church at the final moment was Oscar Wilde. He had written plays like "The Importance of Being Ernest" and novels, such as "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Wilde lived a notorious lifestyle. He did things that scandalized, even repulsed, his contemporaries. What most do not know, however, is that at the end of life he converted to Catholicism! On his death bed Oscar Wilde asked for and received baptism and anointing of the sick from Fr. Cuthbert Dunne. But he was unable to receive the Eucharist.  As in today's parable he entered the vineyard - the Church - at the last hour. While Wilde's conversion may have come as a surprise, he had long maintained an interest in the Catholic Church, having met with Pope Pius IX in 1877.  He described the Roman Catholic Church as "for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do." Some might consider this type of eleventh hour, deathbed conversions unfair. They might feel like the workers who started working early and received equal wage with the late comers. ( ) 

2.     From 

 One day a rich young ruler came enthusiastically running up to Jesus and asked: "What must I do to be saved?" Jesus answered: Keep the law. "This I have done from my youth up," came the reply. Yet one thing do you lack said Jesus. Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor. Then come follow me. We are told that the young man walked away sorrowfully, for he had great wealth. Concluded the Master: It will be hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

 The disciples had been watching the dynamics of this happening and they were quite disturbed. Jewish tradition had always taught that God had especially blessed rich men and that is why he was rich. In their way of thinking, if a wealthy man could not receive salvation, then how could a poor man have any hope? They asked of Jesus: who then can be saved?
 It reminds me of the movie Fiddler on the Roof. The poor Jewish milkman who lives in early 1900 Russia sings what he would do "if I were a rich man." His wife reminds him: money is a curse. He immediately shouts up to heaven: curse me God, curse me. Jesus has just turned away a wealthy man, and in the Jewish way of thinking it doesn't make any sense. In fact, I am not sure how many Methodist preachers would have the courage to do it. My entire ministry I have been waiting for a sugar daddy to come along.

 But it was Simon Peter who drew the question even more clearly into focus for us. He asked what is on the mind of every one of us, only we are too sophisticated to ask it and too self-righteous to admit that we even think it. Peter didn't have any problem with that. He simply laid his cards out on the table. He said, "Lord, we have given up everything, riches and all, to follow you." What then shall we have?" In others words, what's in this for us Lord. How do we stand to profit? Where's the payoff? 

In response to Peter's question, Jesus told a story. It was the harvest time of the year...

In a world more inclined to take up the sword than take up the cross, let's begin today with a recognition of the power of the cross, the most recognizable symbol of Christianity. When you think of Islam you think of a crescent, even though technically Islam does not have a symbol - the crescent is the symbol of Pakistan. But still, when you think of Islam, you think crescent. When you think of Judaism, you think star of David. When you think of Christianity, you think . . . cross. 

The Logos has a logo . . . two lines that intersect to form a cross. Not a plus symbol. A cross, the symbol of the depths of human degradation and sin, but also the symbol of the heights of divine love and forgiveness. The cross is a paradoxical symbol of death that can be crossed out with life, a symbol of the crossing of opposites: transcendence and immanence, the vertical and the horizontal, a symbol that God does God's best in our worst. 

This is glaringly evident in today's epistle lesson, part of the rich prison literature of the Christian tradition. Some of the most beautiful and exquisite literature ever written comes out of prison...think Cervantes, Voltaire, Diderot, Dostoevsky, Defoe, John Donne, Henry David Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, Jack London. Christianity's prison literature includes classics like Martin Luther's translation of the New Testament into German, John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Letters and Papers from Prison," Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Nelson Mandela's "Conversations with Myself."

 Today's text is from one of the "prison epistles"- Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon - so named because they were written by the apostle Paul during his incarceration in Rome...

God Has Five Aces

In her wonderful collection of poetry called, The Awful Rowing Toward God, Anne Sexton examines her life like someone in a canoe rowing against the stream of life, encountering hazards along the way, and finally docking at the island of God's home. The concluding poem in the book is called "The Rowing Endeth." In it she sees herself called by God's great laughter to join him for a game of poker. When the cards are dealt, she is surprised and thrilled. She has a royal straight flush. She will trounce God and win for herself whatever prizes God has brought to the table. In great excitement she slaps down her cards, claiming her winnings. Nothing can beat this hand!

But God only laughs, a great, rolling, joyful exuberance that energizes everything around. In rich good humor, with no malice at all, God throws down his cards. Five aces! That's impossible! But there it is. And when Anne loses to God, she knows that really she wins. For God is not stingy with his wealth or his earnings. There are never any losers when they sit at table with God. God's laughter is always without malice or one-upmanship.  

This is the gospel according to Jesus' parable. In spite of our good fortunes or savvy playing skills or sheer hard work, we never really win at the game of life when we play it by our own rules. But if God is bending them in the direction of grace, something wonderful always happens.

Wayne Brouwer, Political Religion, CSS Publishing Company, Inc. 
 Generosity Is the Secret to Our Joy 

There is an old rabbinic parable about a farmer that had two sons. As soon as they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields and he taught them everything that he knew about growing crops and raising animals. When he got too old to work, the two boys took over the chores of the farm and when the father died, they had found their working together so meaningful that they decided to keep their partnership. So each brother contributed what he could and during every harvest season, they would divide equally what they had corporately produced. Across the years the elder brother never married, stayed an old bachelor. The younger brother did marry and had eight wonderful children. Some years later when they were having a wonderful harvest, the old bachelor brother thought to himself one night, "My brother has ten mouths to feed. I only have one. He really needs more of his harvest than I do, but I know he is much too fair to renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he is already asleep, I'll take some of what I have put in my barn and I'll slip it over into his barn to help him feed his children.

At the very time he was thinking down that line, the younger brother was thinking to himself, "God has given me these wonderful children. My brother hasn't been so fortunate. He really needs more of this harvest for his old age than I do, but I know him. He's much too fair. He'll never renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he's asleep, I'll take some of what I've put in my barn and slip it over into his barn." And so one night when the moon was full, as you may have already anticipated, those two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity. The old rabbi said that there wasn't a cloud in the sky, a gentle rain began to fall. You know what it was? God weeping for joy because two of his children had gotten the point. Two of his children had come to realize that generosity is the deepest characteristic of the holy and because we are made in God's image, our being generous is the secret to our joy as well. Life is not fair, thank God! It's not fair because it's rooted in grace.

John Claypool, Life Isn't Fair, Thank God!
 We Need Great Trust in God 

Johnny Carson tells a story about the time when, as the host of the Tonight Show, he made a joke about there being a toilet paper shortage in the city. 

The next day there really was a shortage because all the viewers who had watched his show ran out afterward and bought up extra toilet paper just in case. There was no trust in the fact that people, if they chose to work together, could ration out the toilet paper to make sure there would be enough for everyone. People panicked and grabbed not what they needed, but more than they needed, leaving others with nothing at all. When people allow their lives to be directed by this kind of fear and self-love, then they find out when they die and finally have the opportunity to enter into a heavenly community, that it is not really what they want at all.

They shrink back. You see, you need to have a great deal of trust in God and the goodness of others in order to buy into the concept of heaven, and these people don't. They can't anymore, because they have learned here on earth that you take what you can get when you can get it, because if you don't, no one else is going to look out for you. Heaven to these people is a very unsettling place.

Our landowner is like the kingdom of heaven because he seeks to include everyone, he gives freely to everyone so that they each have as much as they need, and he holds up a mirror to the deepest part of our being that asks the question, "are we okay with that?"

Sarah Buteux, The Heavenly Landowner
 Embrace the Sense of Community 

There's a play by Timothy Thompson based on this parable in which he depicts two brothers vying for work. John is strong and capable; Philip is just as willing but has lost a hand in an accident. When the landowner comes, John is taken in the first wave of workers, and as he labors in the field he looks up the lane for some sign of Philip. Other workers are brought to the field, but Philip is not among them. John is grateful to have the work, but feels empty knowing that Philip is just as needful as he. Finally, the last group of workers arrive, and Philip is among them. John is relieved to know that Philip will get to work at least one hour. But, as the drama unfolds, and those who came last get paid a full days' wages, John rejoices, knowing that Philip - his brother - will have the money necessary to feed his family. When it comes his turn to stand before the landowner and receive his pay, instead of complaining as the others, John throws out his hand and says with tears in his eyes, "Thank you, my lord, for what you've done for us today!"

God's justice arises out of a sense of community in which we see the "eleventh hour" workers as our brothers and sisters whose needs are every bit as important as our own.

Philip W. McLarty, The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
 The Worker's Pledge 

Washington Gladden, a pioneer for social justice, realized that changing outward conditions will not bring about a better society unless men's attitude toward their work is also changed. So he wrote what he called "The Worker's Pledge" in which he said: 

"I will not be a sponge or parasite. I will give an honest equivalent for what I get. I want no man's money for which I have not rendered a full return. I want no wages that I have not earned. If I work for any man or any company or any institution, I will render a full, ample, generous service. If I work for the city or the state or the nation, I will give my best thought, my best effort, my most conscientious and efficient endeavor. If I can give a little more than I get every time, in that shall be my happiness. The great commonwealth of human society shall not be a loser through me." 

This is the spirit that has built our country, and when that spirit declines, America is on the decline. There is no substitute for hard, honest, conscientious work under God. 

T.A. Kantonen, Good News for All Seasons, CSS Publishing Co., Inc.
 Monkey Business

It seems that even monkeys, if they could read, would get indignant about this parable. 

In the Australian newspaper "The Melbourne Age," there was an intriguing report from the University of Atlanta called: "Monkeys want to see justice done."

At the University of Atlanta, researchers have been testing capuchin monkeys. They gave them the task of picking up a small granite stone and bringing it to the researcher within one minute. If they were successful, they were rewarded with the wage of a slice of cucumber. The scheme worked well. It was happy lab situation as long as each monkey received the same wage. This turned sour when the researchers varied the pattern. They tried giving one monkey a grape for its reward. Indignation broke out. First the others withheld their labor, and later they even took to throwing away the cucumber and the granite stone. 

It had offended their sense of justice. That's almost human isn't it? We are happy with our lot until we see someone in a similar situation who is better off. Then we cry foul! We want to go on strike and demand an end to such monkey business. 

Brett Blair, Adapted from a sermon by Bruce Prewer.
 The Rules of a Family

The parable of the vineyard workers (Matt. 20) offends our sense of fairness. Why should everyone get equal pay for unequal work? Back in Ontario when the apples ripened, Mom would sit all seven of us down, Dad included, with pans and paring knives until the mountain of fruit was reduced to neat rows of filled canning jars. She never bothered keeping track of how many we did, though the younger ones undoubtedly proved more of a nuisance than a help: cut fingers, squabbles over who got which pan, apple core fights. But when the job was done, the reward for everyone was the same: the largest chocolate-dipped cone money could buy. A stickler might argue it wasn't quite fair since the older ones actually peeled apples. But I can't remember anyone complaining about it. 

A family understands it operates under a different set of norms than a courtroom. In fact, when the store ran out of ice cream and my younger brother had to make do with a Popsicle, we felt sorry for him despite his lack of productivity (he'd eaten all the apples he'd peeled that day--both of them). God wants all his children to enjoy the complete fullness of eternal life. No true child of God wants it any other way. 

Robert De Moor
 Grace and Generosity 

Dr. William Power, a professor at Southern Methodist University, describes an experience he had in Sunday school when he was a boy. His teacher was trying to explain to him and his rowdy friends the meaning of grace, but wasn't getting very far. She tried definitions and abstractions, to no avail. Finally, she realized something the boys had known from the start. She was not connecting. She was not getting through to them. They didn't have the foggiest notion what she was talking about. 

So she took a deep breath and tried again: "Look boys, grace is the break you get when you don't deserve it. That's the simple explanation. But you won't really understand it till you experience it." 

James W. Moore, Some Things Are Too Good Not to Be True, Dimensions, 1994, p. 95.

 This parable goes against the business mentality that dominates our lives. We have always been taught: You get out of something directly in proportion to that which you put in it. Yet, that is not what happened in Jesus' story. In our way of thinking, the laborers who came to the field late got something for nothing. This parable challenges us not to look upon the Kingdom of God, or the church, as a business community. Yet, that is difficult for us to do, because that is our point of reference. What do you think would happen if a person joined the church this morning and immediately after receiving the vows of profession of faith I suggested to the congregation that he or she be nominated as the next chairperson of the Administrative Board. What do you think the reaction would be? Well, I think I know what the reaction would be. The laity would protest as loudly as Simon Peter is protesting to Jesus.

You see, we live in a world of tenure and seniority and it goes against our grain when we hear Jesus say: The first shall be last and the last shall be first. God's grace is not based upon what is fair, but rather what helps.

Sermon Illustrations
 Jesus Was Just Wrong

One Sunday several years ago when I preached on this text, a church member came to me after the service and said, "You know, preacher, there are parts of the Bible that are difficult to abide, and other parts that aren't. The story you preached on today is one that I find totally offensive! It's just not fair to pay everyone the same wage when some have worked hard and some have hardly worked. Jesus was just wrong about that. I think you should have preached on something less offensive." The following Sunday, I preached about the prodigal son. 

Johnny Dean, Exasperating Grace
 100 Points!
A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St. Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in." Okay, " the man says, "I was married to the same women for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart." That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth three points." Three points?"

He says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service." Terrific!" say's St. Peter. "That's certainly worth a point." "One point? Well I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans." Fantastic, that's good for two more points," he says. "Two points!" 

The man cries. "At this rate the only way to get into heaven is by the grace of God!" St. Peter smiled. "There's your 100 points! Come on in!" 

Grace and Generosity

A large prosperous downtown church had three mission churches under its care that it had started. On the first Sunday of the New Year all the members of the mission churches came to the city church for a combined Communion service. In those mission churches, which were located in the slums of the city, were some outstanding cases of conversions--thieves, burglars, and so on--but all knelt side by side at the Communion rail. 

On one such occasion the pastor saw a former burglar kneeling beside a judge of the Supreme Court of England--it was the judge who had sent him to jail where he had served seven years. After his release this burglar had been converted and became a Christian worker. Yet, as they knelt there, the judge and the former convict neither one seemed to be aware of the other...