September 24, 2017 Sermon

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017, Lectionary A, Proper 20


The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard + Rector                                           Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16


“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30


How does it work?


Let us pray. Heavenly, gracious Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to receive the wonderful grace you have afforded us through the cross, so that we might become likewise gracious through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.


ROCHESTER — Gail Evans and Marta Ramos have one thing in common: They have each cleaned offices for one of the most innovative, profitable and all-around successful companies in the United States. For Ms. Evans, that meant being a janitor in Building 326 at Eastman Kodak’s campus in Rochester in the early 1980s. For Ms. Ramos, that means cleaning at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., in the present day.


In the 35 years between their jobs as janitors, corporations across America have flocked to a new management theory: Focus on core competence and outsource the rest. The approach has made companies more nimble and more productive, and delivered huge profits for shareholders. It has also fueled inequality and helps explain why many working-class Americans are struggling even in an ostensibly healthy economy.


The $16.60 per hour Ms. Ramos earns as a janitor at Apple works out to about the same in inflation-adjusted dollars as what Ms. Evans earned 35 years ago. That’s where the similarities end. Ms. Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.


Ms. Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean. She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages. Going back to school is similarly out of reach. There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.


Yet the biggest difference between their two experiences is in the opportunities they created. A manager learned that Ms. Evans was taking computer classes while she was working as a janitor and asked her to teach some other employees how to use spreadsheet software to track inventory. When she eventually finished her college degree in 1987, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology.

Less than a decade later, Ms. Evans was chief technology officer of the whole company, and she has had a long career since as a senior executive at other top companies. Ms. Ramos sees the only advancement possibility as becoming a team leader keeping tabs on a few other janitors, which pays an extra 50 cents an hour. They both spent a lot of time cleaning floors. The difference is, for Ms. Ramos, that work is also a ceiling.


So much for working your way up from the mailroom: That sort of opportunity for professional growth has dwindled over the past few decades, as many entry level jobs now call for skills and experience that go beyond having a good attitude, a desire to work hard, and the ability to push a broom. The New York Times finds that workers in low-level jobs are increasingly stuck in no-growth roles, as businesses hire contracting agencies for the kind of support positions, like janitorial work, that they previously would have filled themselves. This shift exacerbates the opportunity gap and helps explain why many working-class Americans are struggling even in an ostensibly healthy economy” (NYT).


Perhaps one of the most basic questions to human existence is “How does it work?” The question applies to just about anything we can name, especially in this age of technology. Granted, we may not want to know how a computer works or the GPS in our automobiles. We do want to know how the refrigerator, the TV, the AC, or the car works; in other words, how do you turn them on.

The question of how something works may be the compelling and guiding question behind scientific endeavor, especially in respect to medical research. How does it work that the cell growth goes wild, resulting in cancer? How does it work that the cardiovascular system self-destructs, causing a heart attack or stroke? How does it work that a man and a woman can continue to love each other and avoid divorce? How can I get ahead in life? How does it work? How it worked 35 years ago may not be how it works today, as the stories of Ms. Evans and Ms. Ramos illustrates. In many ways neither our society nor the world works the way it used to—from the way we communicate, raise our children, prepare our food, or medicine.


In this morning’s gospel from St. Matthew we again hear Jesus’ baffling parable about the vineyard and how the landowner compensated his laborer. It is a parable about the kingdom of heaven or God, one of several Jesus uses to illustrate how the kingdom of heaven works? Wouldn’t we like to know? Variously, Jesus has compared the kingdom to a mustard seed, a net, a lost coin, a pearl, or a treasure hidden in a field.

The parable in today’s gospel could easily be a page from everyday life—one in which many of us are or have been engaged—the business of making a living. This is no casual matter. Making a living, is how we support our families and assure that they can live because there is food on the table. There is nothing to negotiate in that respect. This is a life or death matter, and our survival depends on it.

Some of you are aware or have seen a man with a shaven head in army fatigues who does work occasionally on our grounds here at St. Elizabeth’s. It was Jim and his son, Anthony, who cleaned-up the church grounds after Hurricane Irma. Jim has been doing that kind of work here at St. Elizabeth’s for a number of years now. He will call me, sometimes once a week, asking whether there is anything he can do for me. He is an army vet from Desert Shield, a very hard worker, age 63, lives in one of the cheaper motels on Highway 17, and travels by bicycle. I suspect that he could easily out bike many bikers in distance and endurance. Some of you may have seen Jim peddling up and down Highway 144.


Jim is not afraid of hard work. I have often wondered why he has not gotten a regular, dependable job, rather than living hand to mouth. Jim would very much relate to today’s parable on a personal level unlike many who get paid biweekly or monthly.


As we heard in Jesus’ parable a landowner went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard—day laborers, much like Jim. They agreed upon the usual daily wage. At nine o’clock the landowner again hired, telling them I will pay you whatever is right. (Would we settle for such uncertainty?) The landowner did not stop there, but did the same at noon, three o’clock, and even five o’clock. When it came time for the laborers to get paid—what a shock! Regardless of how long each had worked or not worked, they all received the same usual daily wage. No, this was not fair! So, those had worked from sun-up to sun-down complained to the landowner.

Would you and I have felt any differently? An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay is the rule, right? Does Jesus seriously mean for us to understand that this is how the kingdom of heaven works? No matter when you show up, no matter how little you have done, you, too, will be granted entry into heaven. Does that sound fair?

Traditionally, in this parable it has been understood that the workers represent the good, religious people who have tried all their lives to be faithful to the God of Israel. They’ve tried to obey the Law of Moses and to do their duty. They’ve been good church-folk, carried their Bibles, and showed up for church on a regular basis. Jesus, though, comes along and welcomes the crooked tax collectors, the prostitutes, the sinners and says that they, too, can get into the kingdom of heaven despite having ignored and disobeyed God’s commandments in the Law of Moses. How is that fair?


We can imagine that some of the Christians for which Matthew’s gospel was written probably felt the same way. They had grown up as faithful Jews and had sacrificed a lot when they came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. They had even been circumcised. Now, here are these gentile converts — pagan idolaters the day before yesterday — who are treated as if they had been obedient to God all their lives, despite having done nothing, nothing to receive such privilege. They showed up at 5 PM, as the work day was coming to a close, yet they got paid just as much as those who had been working all day. It simply was not fair.


Might you and I identify with those faithful Jews? We’ve tried to be faithful, worshiping regularly and taking on tasks to get things done in our church. Then we’re told about the first being last and the last first, prodigals being welcomed, and the shepherd leaving the flock to go and find the one who got lost. We want to be gracious and welcome sinners who see the light, but doesn’t doing what we’re supposed to do, coming to church and serving on committees or teaching children, count for something?


Yes, in ordinary business dealings, the owner would be unfair and the workers would have a right to complain. In the 9-to-5 world, we would expect that those who put in a full day’s work would get paid more than those who do much less at the same job. Jesus isn’t arguing with that. No, He is illustrating to us how the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God works.   In His kingdom, things are very different than in our earthly economies. If it were a matter of earning entrance into that kingdom, nobody would get in. All of us would be out— hard workers and loafers, pious people and skeptics. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” No matter how hard or long we tried, we could never reach such a level of perfection.


What makes the kingdom of heaven different from the economy of the world isn’t just that it’s tremendously valuable but that it costs nothing to get in. The people of Nineveh repented and God forgave them. The latecomers in the parable came into the vineyard at the last hour and got a day’s wage. The thief on the cross was assured by Jesus that he’d be with him in Paradise. None of them earned what they got. It was pure grace.


Some of you may remember the story I once told about our daughter Eleanor. As her senior year in high school was coming to a close, her godfather, Clark Case, called to ask me what she might like for a graduation present. I hesitated, not feeling comfortable with make a suggestion, when he said, “What about a new car? Would she like a new car?” Startled, I said, “Certainly, she would love a new car.” The next week the two of then went shopping at different dealerships. He ended up giving Eleanor a current model Toyota Camry.


Eleanor subsequently told me, “Daddy, I don’t deserve this.” To which I replied, “No you don’t, but that is what grace is all about—a gift freely given.” How fitting that it should be her godfather that so profoundly illustrated that. Such unearned generosity really does touch the very depths of our hearts. It chokes us up because it is such a beautiful statement of being loved unconditionally. It cracks open our hardened hearts, exposing that tender spot, which affirms our humanity.

The kingdom of heaven is a gift, but not a cheap gift. The price of it, the labor that goes into making it a reality, is the life of the Son of God. Jesus told this parable as He and his disciples were on the way to Jerusalem. In the very next verses that follow, he takes the disciples aside to tell them what will happen there: “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”


That is the cost of the kingdom of heaven. It is not cheap. It is given freely to all who hear and believe the promise that God gives us in Jesus Christ. Since it is a gift, since we don’t earn our way in, complaining about what could be perceived as unfairness because others get in, seriously misses the point. God is more than fair. God is incredibly gracious.


It was this graciousness that Martin Luther, the reformer, rediscovered. The Church had lost its way, making salvation a matter of works (you earn entrance into eternal life), rather than a matter of grace. The Protestant reformation pivots upon and is founded on grace.   Another German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would remind us that this grace is not cheap: He observed, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”                          


“Bonhoeffer would argue that as Christianity spread; the Church became more “secularized,” accommodating the demands of obedience to Jesus to the requirements of society. In this way, “the world was Christianised, and grace became its common property.” But the hazard of this was that the gospel was cheapened, and obedience to the living Christ was gradually lost beneath formula and ritual, so that in the end, grace could literally be sold for monetary gain” ( Sound familiar? Has not the church today in many ways lost its way and along with it our culture and society? Who’s calling the shots—our culture or the church? I think we know the answer, and we are the lesser for this loss.

This grace God offers us in Jesus is to be treasured above all else. If we are still thinking we can earn our way into heaven by being and doing good, forget it. That is not how it works. Is that to say that we can do as we please, and not go to church, pray, read the Bible, do ministry and mission, and love our neighbors, by no means? Since God in Jesus has so freely loved us (think of Eleanor’s godfather giving her that expensive car and how that opened her heart), how can we not love Him and our fellow humans? Church, prayer, reading the Bible, ministry, and mission are about loving God, about loving our neighbor, and yes, even about loving ourselves. That’s how it works.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.