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Laborers – Matthew 20: 1-16 – September 18, 2011

Four or five months ago I checked my twitter account, like I do most everyday. In case you don’t know what twitter is, it is a social media tool, in which you can post short, 140 character messages. People use twitter for many different things. I use it to share articles with friends and keep up with info about my favorite sports teams. One of the features of twitter is “trends.” Twitter shows the top ten words or phrases that are being posted from around the world. On this particular day, I was struck by name “Rob Bell” in the trends list. Rob Bell is a pretty well known pastor and writer in some circles, and I was surprised to see a pastor’s name on the list.

Twitter trends often fall to the lowest common denominator. I feared the worst. Usually when a pastor’s name shows up it is because he or she has been caught doing something inappropriate. Instead, I was surprised to find that a firestorm of an argument had ensued among Christians and non-Christians alike.

Apparently, this argument revolved around a video Rob Bell posted on his website, advertising a forthcoming book of his called Love Wins. In this book, Bell struggles with a subject that Christians have struggled over throughout the history of the church: who’s in and who’s out, especially in an eternal sort of way. While not getting us too lost in the struggle within the book, Bell’s book tends to err on the side of grace in such matters. What was surprising to me was not Bell’s struggle, since such questions are part of the life of most every Christian. What surprised me was the reaction and the argument that lasted all weekend on long on twitter. And all of it started with three words: “Farewell Rob Bell.”

Another well-known pastor had posted these words along with his thoughts on why Rob Bell had gone off the theological and biblical reservation. Tons of other people jumped in, defending or condemning Bell. It was fascinating to see so may people openly wrestling with a theological and biblical challenge on a social media that is often full of folks proclaiming their love of Justin Bieber. But it was also troubling. It was troubling to watch fellow Christians so quickly jump on their brother. To declare him “out” so quickly, when Bell’s book had not even come out yet!

They were convinced that he had done away with hell, that he had done away with God’s justice. They were convinced that Rob Bell had forsaken his calling as a pastor because he was surely going to lead people astray. Yet, as I watched the conversation proceed and even added some of my own comments, the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel lesson this morning crept into my mind.

This landowner goes out early in the morning to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. He and the laborers agree on a wage. Oddly, the landowner heads back out several other times during the day, and he agrees to pay more laborers “whatever is right” for their work. Even more curiously, he heads out at about five o’clock, which would have left an hour of daylight for work. He hires these laborers as well. At the end of the day, the landowner asks his manager to pay the laborers. The manager is to begin with the last, and work his way back to the first.

The order of payment is important to set up the scene. One wonders what the laborers hired early in the morning were thinking. The guys hired later in the day were receiving what they were promised. Perhaps the landowner was going to give them more? This would not be an unreasonable thought, right? This landowner appears to be a fair guy. We sense their shock when the guys hired later than them get the exact same wage.

I love the way Jesus describes their reaction. They “grumbled against the landowner.” They say, “These last only worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day of the scorching heat!” Understandably, what they want is justice. They worked harder and longer than anyone else. How dare this landowner give the same wages to these other guys?

This is the image that came into my mind when I saw all the people who were angry with Rob Bell. For all of their biblical and theological concerns, for all of their comments about Bell leading the flock astray, for all of their claims about upholding God’s justice…at the end of the day I just get the feeling that what really makes some folks demand that somebody, someone has to get punished, is that they have been doing all this work, and it just isn’t fair that unexpected folks might turn up in heaven.

The landowner replies to the grumbling, reminding the early laborers that his agreement with them for the daily wage was still fair because that is what they agreed on. Further, the landowner asserts his right to do what he wants with what belongs to him. He is allowed to be as generous as he wants to be. Jesus finishes the parable with “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Jesus’ words here don’t definitively settle the debate between Rob Bell and those who don’t buy what he was selling. The conversation has been one that has existed throughout the Christian tradition.

However, what Jesus is making clear here is that as much time as we spend in our minds lining up who deserves to be at the end of line, and who will be at the front of the line for whatever reason, at the end of the day, we will be surprised with who we find. Folks we did not imagine might be walking before us. It is a guarantee that there will be folks that we didn’t expect because we aren’t God. That is what I kept wanting to say to all those folks who were jumping on Rob Bell. “Have you read the parable of the laborers in the vineyard lately? There are going to be folks who are subjects of the Kingdom of God that we never could have dreamed of!” God can do what God wants to. It is up to us do what we are supposed to, to be the workers in the vineyard. By the way, this worked out famously for Rob Bell because everyone wanted to read his book so badly that he released it early, and I’m sure he made a ton of money on it! Everyone was so ready to read the book and figure out whether they could praise or condemn him.

In the parable of the vineyard, Jesus sets us within the tension between God’s justice and God’s grace. It is the tension between the need for our responsiveness to God’s grace and the reality that God’s grace is available and free to all people. When we get caught up in all of this work that we are doing and what we deserve, we lose that tension. We lose sight of the reality that we are always working in grateful response to God’s graceful invitation. Grace means that wear are going to be put to work, but that at the end of the day it is a gift. We lose sight of the reality that the gift is the labor itself because God is growing us into the kind of people we were created to be.[1] The gift to the guys at the beginning of the day is that they got to do good work all day. The gift to the guys at the end of the day is that they didn’t have anything to do, but they still got called in to be laborers.

It is not work that we do in order for some pie-in-the-sky reward. Rather, it is our share in a kingdom that is already breaking into this world as we speak.[2] It is a kingdom we receive glimpses of when our children lead us in worship, when we head out on mission trips, when each and every habitat house goes up, and even now, now in such a place when we worship the living God in this place. This is the profound gift of who we are as Christians.

One thing that has struck me over the past few weeks is how often the posture in which we find ourselves as a response to the Gospel is utter and profound gratitude. Gratitude to be called in as laborers. Gratitude that comes as we stand face to face with this grace that comes to us, doesn’t leave us the same, and enables us to be instruments of God’s shaping of a new kind of people in the world, one that will bless others as a sign of God’s love in the world. The gift as well as the reward comes in the midst of the labors we are called to carry out, not in some far off place. This is not about what we deserve, but it is what we have been given!

As I considered this reality this week, I realized that we don’t just do this with regard to eternal considerations. You know that Consecration Sunday is next week, so I’m supposed to say something about stewardship. I supposed to find something good to say about it. And I realized that we do this laborer stuff with stewardship. Because we get focused on what we deserve in response to our labor, when in fact that labor is the gift. The giving, the act of returning is the gift. But it’s difficult because I’m supposed to say something about stewardship. It is uncomfortable to talk about stewardship.

No matter how many times someone tells us that Jesus talks about money more than anything else. Every time we hear that, we say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay.” But then we sort of let it go. Then, as I considered this scripture, I started to get a sense of part of why it makes us uncomfortable. Stewardship is uncomfortable to us because it goes against the grain of how we are taught to think about money. We are told that our money is ours. We are told that money is the power we get when we invest it in something. We are told that money is private. We are told that there is not enough money, and so we better get as much of it as we can, and we better hold on to it tightly.

Yet, life in the body of Christ turns this understanding on its head. The very word “stewardship” sounds strange in the midst of what we usually hear about money. Instead of our money belonging to us, we are told that all we have comes from God. It is to name that isn’t ours. It’s God’s. We are told first and foremost that rather than accumulating power through wealth, power is instead made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12.9). We are told that instead of our money being a private matter that in the early church followers of Jesus Christ did not hold on tightly to their money, but that “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). We are told that there is enough, and we are simply told to ask not for everything, but for our daily bread.

This doesn’t just feel counter-cultural. It grates up against everything we have ever heard about money. It shatters our egos that are often shaped around what we own. It shifts our vision of what our contributions to the church look like because it becomes a sign of our willingness to be the answers to the prayers of another. It contributes to our understanding that nothing we have belongs to us. It shatters this vision that we have that because done all this work, because we have given all this stuff, that somehow entitles us to something else besides the grace that we don’t deserve in the first place.

This is thin ice…because I’m supposed to get up here and say that, and then I’m also supposed to say, “But please don’t get too mad at me. We still need you to give some money!” That is the precarious place in which we stand. We need that money, but it cannot be something that we lord over one another. Rather, it is a gift. The giving is the gift! This sharing is the gift. The growing, making, and sharing of the bread is the gift. That is the reward. We are, in those moments, investing in being the answers to the prayers of another.

Often as United Methodists we complain about our apportionments, but even they are a gift. They are a system in which we can easily become the answers to the prayers of another through our gifts! The offering is always after our prayers because what we put in the plate is a sign of our unity with one another, and with Christians all over the world, for whom we have prayed. The money we put in the plate, while a most of it stays in the local church, also goes to churches, missionaries, the boards and agencies of the church, our episcopal leadership, and all other manner of the work of the United Methodist Church all around the world!

I got to see first hand the many different ways that we are able to reach across the globe in order to be the answers to the prayers of another just this week. I was in Chicago because I serve as a board member of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. I got to see the amazing ways that we work towards the unity of the church all over the world! The gift is in the giving.

Let me try to give you a vision of what I mean by this. In the worship service, notice where the offering comes. It comes after the prayers of the people. What do we when we get together for worship? We hear what God has done. We hear the scripture proclaimed and explained. We hear what God has been up to. And then, in the prayers of the people, we ask God for an encore.[3] You know what an encore is, right? A band or orchestra or some other performing is playing…I like to think of when rock bands are playing it. It is in some ways a silly ritual at concerts, where the band will say, “All right, thanks! Good night!” Then they will go off the stage…but we all know that after about five minutes, if we clap loud enough, if we chant their name, if we chant “encore, encore, encore!!!” finally the band runs back out onto the stage. “We’re going to do a couple more songs!”

Maybe the Styx encore wasn't such a good idea.

But that’s the part of the concert where they play all the stuff you’ve been waiting to hear. Except for one time I went to see Styx, and they didn’t play Mr. Roboto, and I was furious about it. That was really the only song I wanted to hear. But usually that is where the band plays the best part. And so we get together, and we hear the Word, we hear the sermon, we hear what God has done. And we say, “God, we have heard what you have done, and we want more! We want an encore. We want to see more. We want you to be a part of our lives, present with people who are hurting, present with our homebound folks, present with our missionaries, to be present with those on our prayer list, and present with us!” And then, after we have done that, we take the offering.

What we’re doing when we put that check, that envelope, or that cash in the plate, we are saying to God and to each other, “I want to be a part of this. I want to be a part of God’s encore. I want to be a part of the labor. I want to be a part of the gift. I want to be the answer to somebody’s prayer. I want to be the support of a missionary. I want to be the answer to making sure when we get together for worship that the lights are on. I want to make sure that I’m a part of what God is up to in this encore!” And we are not offering just our gifts, but our whole selves in those moments. That is what the offering is.

It’s as if the band calls us up onto the stage to dance with them and participate in the encore. I’ve seen a couple of bands that have done that. There was one guy in particular who invites have the crowd up on the stage, and he’s got people on his shoulders, and he’s dancing with everyone, and all of these people on the stage. That is what we are doing in the offering. God is inviting us onto the stage to be part of the encore. To be included in the best part. To be the part of the things that nobody knew was going to happen. That is what we are doing.

For all the complaining about the apportionments, they are part of the gift! The giving is the gift! It is who we are. It is this invitation that God gives to be part of God’s encore. And again, the only word I can find is gratitude. The gift is in the labor. The gift is in the giving. Thanks be to God.


[1]Kathryn D. Blanchard, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 96.

[3] Kelly S. Johnson, “Praying: Poverty,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p. 228.

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