A Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16
My mother would have been 85 this past Wednesday, and I've been thinking about her this week. I don't know what it was like for her to raise five children, but for me, she was the spiritual teacher I needed and often did not want. Even in my fifties when I began to serve as an assisting priest in my home church, the parish where I had been a teenager even then, she taught me things. Like how she wanted the rector to be her pastor, not me.
"Honey, now, don't take this personally, but if I have to go to the hospital, or I if I can't come to church anymore, I want the rector to come and bring me communion." She said it with a look that told me she was not going to change her mind. Unfortunately, I DID take it personally. "What? I'm not good enough for you?" I replied, unable to hide my anger. "I'm sorry," she said, "but I've been a member of that church for a long time, and I just think I deserve that."
My mother taught me, in a way no one else possibly could ever have, about entitlement. Mom, who always gave us children everything she could, taught me that some people, who come to church every Sunday (early, mind you) and serve God most days of the week and pay their pledges (on time) some folks just feel like they deserve a little something some acknowledgement of their good works, some kind of reward from their church, from their God and from their clergy, especially the clergy in charge. So I swallowed my pride; I let the rector know my mother would want him and not me; and I got over it.
My mom also taught me about what it was like for longstanding, faithful members of a church to feel, over time, like they were becoming invisible, like they didn't matter very much any more. "Tom, I go to church these days and there are so many people I don't know." She also said more than once, "We buried three of our friends here at Kirby Pines this week. All our friends are dying." She taught me, over and over, that all of us need to have a spiritual or faith community we can call our own, a sacred space and place, friends who make us feel at home, especially in those tough or final seasons of our lives.
But the biggest lesson my Mom taught me was about judgment that is, the destructive power of judging others. In 2003, the heart of the Episcopal Church was broken with the election of our first openly gay bishop. Some of us felt like it was what another one of my teachers calls a "Rosa Parks moment," a breakthrough for equality, an answer to prayer for those who felt marginalized and rejected by their church. Others thought it was just one more step down the slippery slope of rejecting the Bible and all they thought they had been taught.
Maybe what I'm going to describe next has happened to you, too. It definitely happened to my Mom. Clergy weren't the only ones stopped in grocery stores and other public places, confronted by friends who said things like, "What do YOU think about this gay bishop?" My mother was put on the spot more than once that way, and she didn't quite know what to do or to say. She didn't know, because this had never happened to her before. She had never been confronted in that way in public, about her beliefs. Not even in the Bible Belt. Near the end of her life, she also told me that she didn't know what to say because she didn't know what she herself believed.
When, in my teens, our family moved to Tennessee in the early 1960s, Mom surprised me with her strong advocacy of civil rights. Over the years my mother had come to believe women should be priests, because she experienced first-hand the unique array of spiritual gifts that female clergy bring to the table when the first woman was called to serve as an assisting priest at our home church. And yet, she wasn't sure what she believed about the equality of people who were so different from her in such a different kind of way.
So my Mom did what she always did, when she didn't know what to do. She prayed about it. Long and hard. She was a faithful member of the Daughters of the King, like so many women here at All Saints', and she took this troublesome thing to the Lord in prayer. One day she told me, "When people ask me now about what I think, I tell them five things that I know for sure." Five things, I learned, that I could memorize. Here they are: "#1: I love the Lord. #2: I pray for the church and the world every day. #3: I'm not leaving my church. #4: God is in charge. And #5: I'm going to leave the judgment up to God."
Judgment, in its original meaning, is not about being judgmental. It's about making a decision, like a judge would do. God's judgment is always about justice. It's about making the right decision, doing the right thing. All the great movements of our time movements that have challenged those of us with any kind of privilege, movements that provide moments like those my Mom experienced in grocery stores these movements are about the demand for justice for equal rights, equal treatment, equal work, equal pay.
We hear the demand for justice today in Jesus' troubling and confusing parable from the 21st chapter of Matthew's gospel. The laborers who worked so hard from morning till evening, beat down all day long by the heat of the sun, demand justice from the landowner. "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us." Maybe it was said more like a question: "You have made them EQUAL to US?" As one children's book puts it, "It's Not Fair!" Why'd I get the smaller half? Why don't you yell at her? Why did my team lose again?
But the God they worshiped, the God so alive in Jesus; who lived and died with those in the margins of life, who strived for justice and peace among all people; that God back then and our God today is a God both of justice and a God of grace, mercy and forgiveness. And gracious mercy for one of God's children may feel like IN-justice to another child of God. God's amazing grace for others is easy to resent, especially when we "just don't get it" about God's generosity.
Do you know phrases like "works righteousness" or the "Protestant work ethic"? Equal pay for equal work, yes, but work first! And work hard, just as hard as you can, because those who work more, get more. Work hard to achieve your dream, to get your just reward, not just in heaven, but here on earth, too. Finally, after working that hard, all our lives, from sunup to sundown and into the night, don't we deserve "the good life"? As spiritual teacher Parker Palmer puts it in his new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, "When we (Americans) see clear evidence of radical inequality in our midst such as who has the best chance of getting a good education or holding wealth or living a long and healthy life or ending up in jail we explain it away by (saying) All people are created equal if they are willing to make the effort to be equal'" (p. 200).
Dear friends in Christ, Jesus is telling us a different story, a story about equal pay for UN-equal work. Jesus came, Jesus is still coming to create a culture called the kingdom of God, or as some now prefer to call it, the kin-dom of God. God's kin-dom is where equality is not just about work or about pay, important as those are. The kin-dom of God, the radically equal economy of God is one in which all God's children are kin, all created equal. It's just that those who have been told by others they are UN-equal are made equal by God in ways that feel MORE equal or TOO equal to those who have been enjoying equality all along. The kin-dom of God is a world in which there is no entitlement. The kin-dom of God is a world in which everyone becomes wise enough to stop judging and to start loving one another, as God in Christ Jesus loves. Equally.
So what difference might this kin-dom of God make for us here today?
Today is Homecoming Sunday. Welcome home! If this is one of your first Sundays to be with us here at All Saints', your timing is impeccable! You are joining us in the excitement of beginning a new program year. It doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter how early or late you are in showing up. It doesn't even matter whether you are a Christian or an Episcopalian, a person of some other faith or none at all: you are welcome here. We will try our best to make you feel welcome and equal here. But we practice Christian hospitality
IM-perfectly, so please: Be patient with us, and let us know how we are doing!
We also want to help you be equal to the task here. We are a church that needs you and your gifts. We need the time and talent you bring to this table of the Lord. We want to put you to work alongside us! But don't worry it doesn't have to be years of hard labor. You can just be one of the laborers here, in this part of God's vineyard. Help us help you find your place here at All Saints'. Let this be your spiritual home or, at least one of your spiritual homes.
If this is NOT your first Sunday here, if this is your second or third or one-thousand-and-third Sunday here, welcome home! And thank you again for all the labor you have already offered in this part of God's vineyard. The Good News is that many of your friends are here today. Welcome them home, too! The challenging news is that we will need to move over and make room for the new laborers who are also here. The really challenging news is that, in this time of transition in which this parish finds itself, we have to do all we can to make these new laborers EQUAL to us here. That's what Jesus is talking about today. So, move over! Make room in your pew, in your heart and in your life for the new and the not-so-new laborers. Because that's the right, the just and the merciful thing to do. It's the God thing, the Jesus thing to do.
Listen up, everyone! Jesus is reminding us today of a different story, a story about equal rights, equal pay, equal treatment, even equal love for UN-equal work. Like our vineyard owner God, we will need to learn to be generous with each other. We will need to cut each other some amazingly gracious slack. Sisters and brothers in Christ, whether you are new here or have been here since birth, you and I need to learn and to re-learn and to learn again and again, not just about the wonderful traditions of All Saints', but also about the transforming teachings of Jesus, about the kin-dom of God. Instead of rushing to judgment, let us rush toward one another, in the name of the God who loves us all. Equally.