Fr. Terry Gatwood: What is Right

Sermon delivered on Trinity 15A, Sunday, September 24, 2017 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 16.2-15; Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-6.

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

A landowner is looking for day workers for his vineyard. He goes to the marketplace, first thing in the morning, roughly 6 a.m., finds some willing laborers, agrees on the wage of a denarius for the day, and sends them to his vineyard.A landowner is looking for day workers for his vineyard.

He goes to the marketplace, first thing in the morning, roughly 6 a.m., finds some willing laborers, agrees on the wage of a denarius for the day, and sends them to his vineyard.He goes back to the market place at in the morning, at noontime, in the afternoon,  and again in the evening, each time finding workers and hiring them for what remains of the day. However, unlike the first hiring where a specific wage was negotiated (a denarius), at each of these subsequent hirings the landowner simply promises to pay “whatever is right”. There’s the sense here that the landowner is well known and has a good reputation among the people there—that laborers would be willing to work for “whatever is right”—trusting the landowners judgment to make that determination. There is a high level of respect and trust for this man.

Perhaps that’s why when it came time for the wages to be paid out as the landowner had promised, the surprise wasn’t that those hired later received a denarius, but that those who were hired first received that sum as well.

And those first hired weren’t too happy with this—they grumbled. I can almost hear them saying, “You’ve got to be kidding me! We’ve been here all day and earned our denarius. They’ve only just arrived! This isn’t fair!” I can almost hear them saying that because I would be tempted to say or think that myself.

The first hired laborers had their own notions of what fairness and generosity should look like in this situation and when the landowner didn’t meet those expectations, they complained about his unfairness. To them, this just wasn’t right. This wasn’t just. They felt cheated because of the generosity of the landowner toward the later hires.

It quickly becomes apparent the real complaint isn’t about the landowner’s fairness (because as he points out he did honor the original agreement in full), but his generosity. Even though they received the usual daily wage, the first hired workers begrudged the landowner paying what he thought was right—which was his prerogative it being his money and vineyard. The owner is well within his right to dispense from his treasury as he sees fit.

The unsettling thing about this parable is that like all the others, Jesus starts it with the words “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” and within the following lines, in the words and actions of the landowner and the workers, we hear echoes and see images of life in the Church.

In parallels drawn between the landowner of the parable and God I’ve heard descriptions like extravagant, abundant and lavish, used to describe the generosity demonstrated in this parable. And at one time I would have wholeheartedly agreed with such descriptions—that was until I came to a realization that such adjectives were based on my impoverished image of what generosity looked like—that the only reason this looked extravagant is because my expectations were far too low bar to begin with. Compared to what we might experience from day to day in this middle place, the already-but-not-yet phase of the Kingdom of God on earth, these things may indeed seem to be extravagant, abundant and lavish. But for the Kingdom of Heaven this is the operational standard. And this pouring out of God’s blessing has already begun in our lives in our baptism, and continues in prayers answered, people healed, and every time we feast at the table of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And it will be all the more so when the middle place we live in is finally the final place where we will live forever with the Lord.

We come to Scripture with our own pre-conceived notions of what grace, mercy and divine generosity look like—operating under the illusion that our ideas are somehow close to how God truly works. And then a parable like this shows the Kingdom of God is nothing like we could ever imagine. Not even close sometimes. A God who gives graciously to all, simply because He has decided that is what he is going to do, in the words of the landowner “to pay whatever is right”—that is, right in the Divine economy and not necessarily right according to what makes sense to us.

Consider the history of our ancestors as we recalled in the appointed lesson from Exodus this morning. God had brought our ancestors out of intense bondage in Egypt, and lead them through a place that appeared to be a death trap for them. They were hot, they were hungry, they were wandering through a place they had never known and they wondered why they hadn’t just stayed behind in Egypt and tried to make the best of the thing there. God heard the grumbling of his people there, and he sent them quail, and he fed them with bread from heaven. This bread, which they called manna, was nothing like they had ever seen before. Manna was made into cakes and breads, and tasted like it had been baked with honey. It was delicious to the taste. But it was something unexpected, and something already in the mind of the Lord to give to them to sustain them on their journey. This unexpected blessing to them was called manna, because, as the word literally means “what is it?,” they didn’t know what the thing was. But it fits part and parcel with what we know about the nature and character of the God who saves us and whom we serve. A rich and wonderful blessing, followed by more blessings, not as a result of any extra special thing anyone had done, but because it is how God works in this world to show his great love for us. But they still grumbled about having these great blessings in the middle of a deadly desert later in the narrative of the five books of the Law, this time in Numbers. The manna wasn’t enough for them. Others had fish and other meats; they wanted that too.

And as evidence of our fallen sinfulness, rather that simply being overwhelmingly grateful to be called to live for and serve such a God, whose graciousness is more than we could have ever dared hope or imagine, we get distracted by comparing what we think we have been given by God, with what we think others have been given by Him. Note, the qualifier, “what we think”, because truth be told we have no clue just how much God has blessed us with. And yet we are tempted to try and compare, and then, God forbid, complain should we fear being “short-changed”—begrudging another the blessing of God because we think they ‘got more than they deserved’.

Truth is, none of us gets what we deserve—thanks be to God. Rather we get what God thinks is right. Should you wonder what that might be, the service of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer is a good place to start.

We thank you, almighty God, for the gift of water  to sustain, refresh and cleanse all life.  Over water the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.  Through water you led the children of Israel  from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John  and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ,  to lead us from the death of sin to newness of life.  We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, in joyful obedience to your Son,  we baptize into his fellowship those who come to him in faith.  Now sanctify this water that, by the power of your Holy Spirit,  they may be cleansed from sin and born again.  Renewed in your image, may they walk by the light of faith  and continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Or this prayer after the baptism:

May God, who has received you by baptism into his Church,  pour upon you the riches of his grace,  that within the company of Christ’s pilgrim people  you may daily be renewed by his anointing Spirit, and come to the inheritance of the saints in glory.

You might also want to play close attention to the words in the liturgy for Holy Communion in a few minutes, to hear how Jesus’ very body and blood are given for you. Of course if that’s not enough, and you need more, you can always go to Holy Scripture and read for yourself of God’s blessings. Please do dig into your Bibles at home and rediscover God’s love and desire for you.

Remembering of course that this all unfolds differently in each of our lives—given that we are all unique individuals in various and diverse circumstances this makes sense. We’re gifted differently, have different personalities, and are called to different types and settings of ministry. We aren’t able to fully grasp all that God has done for us, how could we ever expect to figure out all He has done for someone else?

The only time we should give thought to how God has blessed another is if we are remembering them in prayer asking God’s mercy for them, or giving thanks for what God has done for them.

Beyond that, we would do better to keep our eyes on Christ, cultivating grateful hearts for all that we have received, and if there is any dissatisfaction in our prayers, it’s directed toward ourselves, asking that God might help us recognize, use and live fully in the graces bestowed on us as his children. Not because we deserve it but because in His love He determined this is what is right.

Let us pray:

O Lord, You brought us out of bondage and into freedom that we might honor and serve you. You gave a cloud for cover in the daytime, and fire to guide us during the night. Your people asked you for food, and you provided exactly what was needed. Your people were thirsty, and you opened the rock to provide a stream of water, so much so that it flowed like a river in the desert. You remember your promise you made to our father, Abraham, and to his descendants forever. You bring your people out with joy, and we your chosen ones will sing from our hearts. May we ever be thankful for your undeserved and unearned blessings, rejoicing all the way, and stand ready to receive from you what it is you have prepared for us. This we pray through the blessed name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory, with you and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.

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