What is your Location?
Exodus 16:2-15 Philippians 1:21-30 Matthew 20:1-16
What do you call a group of birds? A flock. What do you call a group of whales? A pod. What do you call a group of wolves? A pack. What do you call a group of sheep? A heard. What do you call a group of alligators? A congregation. What do you call a group of Presbyterians?
That last one was a trick question. The answer is that it depends on the location. If we are gathered in our Sanctuary, then it’s the congregation at FPC. If we’re not, then we’re just the church, or followers of Jesus, or believers in God. I have one more question for you. Who is the head of the Presbyterian Church (USA)? Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, and we are part of the body of Christ.
I say all of that to acknowledge that, particularly in our scripture readings today, location is an important part of understanding. Yet, at the same time, there are some truths that do not change no matter where you stand or sit or move about. By location I mean two different things. I mean the physical and historical reality in the reading, and I mean the place in your life where you have received these readings today.
For the Israelites, they were physically in a no man’s land. They were free from the whips of slavery, but they were also free from the provisions of basic necessities. They were in a state of anxiety and desperation, and they cried out to God as a people who had nothing left to lose but their lives.
Paul, on the other hand, seemed downright cheery to be facing death, as though it were a friend rather than an enemy. He had nothing left to lose, but he also knew that he would soon gain the only thing that had meaning to him – to be in the presence of God through the faithfulness of Jesus. In fact, Paul wanted the Christians at Philippi to know that the love of God revealed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was at the center of all things. He wanted them to know that they, in a city bathed in the wealth and power of Rome, had a special role in proclaiming Jesus, and not the Caesar, as Lord. When Paul wrote, “since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had,” he was acknowledging their lack of power as a good thing. It was a way to prove that they knew what he had been through, and that they were on the right track. You know, kind of in that vein of thought that says, “If someone isn’t mad you might not be doing it right.”
Now, so far you may be picking up on the fact that we’ve been talking about those characters in the drama of scripture who are on the ropes with nothing left to lose, and their’s one more I want to explore – the laborers in the vineyard. We don’t know anything about their story other than the fact that they are day laborers.
They are part of the new economy under Rome that is different from the Old Testament ways of Sabbath keeping, and the forgiveness of debt, and landed families that married between tribes. They did have foreign slaves, but they were treated as members of the household with specific roles to play. So, we know that under Rome there were more day laborers, and all we know about the ones hired later in the day is that they had not yet been hired. They, like the others, had no more power before they were hired than after.
But what about those on the other side of the denarius – the ones with everything to lose? I mention them because they are in the backdrop of this parable of Jesus. In chapter 19, a rich young man comes to Jesus saying that he has fulfilled all the commandments and wants to know what else he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell all he has, give it to the poor, and follow him. Then he says that anyone who does that will enter heaven, but the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Then he goes on to tell this parable about the reign of heaven that involves equal pay for unequal work and follows it with, “So, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Clear as a bell, right?
I think that the problem most of us have with this is that we live in a world based on accumulation or scarcity, and value is placed on a person by what they do. This parable was told to people that lived in a world where some may profit more than others, but it was usually at the expense of someone else and all under the thumb of Rome.
There is yet an unchanging thread in all of this, and that is – of course – the active presence of God and the economy of God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom, the people cry out and God responds. In God’s kingdom, the economy is built on sufficiency and equity –there is enough for everyone – and it moves toward Sabbath rest. In God’s kingdom, grace and mercy are poured out in a way that is entirely unfair but essentially just and right.
Throughout the scriptures justice and righteousness are always hand in hand, and in God’s kingdom we are not moved so much by what is good for ourselves as by what reflects the heart of God in our work together!
So, we, as God’s agents in the world; as land owners; as co-conspirators with Christ, we must be willing to listen for those who are crying out today. That’s what we are about in our work with the PDA and Rebuilding Together Acadiana, because there are still over 600 homes on the list. That’s what we’re doing with CUPS, and Meals on Wheels, and the Wesley, and Family Promise, and the Okra Abbey, and the Young Adult Volunteer Program, and all the ministries of our Presbytery and denomination!
But we can’t stop there. We can’t stop listening. We can’t just turn off the love of God, for it is always expanding, and we must continue to place ourselves in the center of it – for this love is the unchanging truth amongst all perspectives. Being grounded in God’s love is the location that gives us the understanding that we need when we talk about issues like just compensation or food scarcity or gender inequality in pay.
Maybe we have to sit in someone else’s seat from time to time – like in my undergrad sociology class. I remember the teacher daring us to sit in different places in our other classes to get a different perspective and to see how quickly people revert to grade school when someone sits in their seat (or dare I say, pew).
Regardless of how we get there, Paul reminds us that we must live a life worthy of the gospel by striving side by side to live out the love of God. For the reign of heaven is like this – a flawed person, like you or me, became able to make decisions that constantly included and equally valued others. And we will know that we are doing it right – that we are living as citizens of the kingdom that is to come – when others come out in force against us for doing that.
Now, I have to say that I don’t believe that God wants us to suffer. And there is plenty of suffering in the world that has nothing to do with standing up for the gospel. In Paul’s case, he did suffer for the gospel, but in ours we have to careful about inventing suffering when people disagree with us. The truth is that we can all be a little like the all-day laborers who resent the three-hour laborers for getting only what they needed for that day.
The deeper truth in this parable is that the last go first. That means that the ones who came first have the privilege of standing aside to demonstrate how amazing the grace of God can be in the lives who have only recently come to faith. Or, you might say that we who have had greater opportunities might rejoice when one who has not is still taken care of.
Our friend Marilyn over at CUPS said it this way when we talked the other day about disaster recovery. You know we do flood disaster, but she deals with the disaster of poverty all the time. Anyway, she said, “I think that in all of these storms and disasters, God is telling us that we have to rely on each other. We actually have to love one another the way that we should have been all along.”
The good news is that God’s providence is with us, God’s promise of salvation through Jesus is sure, and we have each other to turn to; to strive with; and to encourage so that all that we do and say might be to glory of God! Amen.