Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Letting Grace Rule

Scripture for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 16:2-15; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

When was the last time you were queued up in a long line, and someone cut ahead of you?

How did you react?

At the Post Office, it’s a small thing… at least if there are two clerks behind the counter, I wouldn’t lose more than a minute or two of my day. I could handle that.

But what if, at the end of the line, there isn’t enough to go around? What if everyone in line believes there’s free beer (or a limited number of something even more desirable), to the first however-many reach that counter? What if it’s Black Friday at Best Buy? Or the customer service desk at Delta Airlines, after a cancelled flight?

Then we might see some passion stirred, anxiety felt, and anger rising—as happens in our Lord’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard. More accurately, it is a parable of a generous landowner. We’ll get there in a few moments, but at first blush it looks like there’s more heat to be had if we get in line with those workers.

The early-birds have put in a full day’s work, bearing “the burden of the day and scorching heat,” and it was with a strong work ethic and a keen sense of how much they could earn that day that they had set their alarm clocks to get them out on that street corner, ready for the landowner’s first drive-by in his pick-up truck.

Imagine their shock when they witness the last shift, the johnny-come-latelies who hadn’t shown up until five o’clock in the afternoon, called out first to get paid, and get paid the very same wage that the early-birds had computed on their pocket calculators! “What is happening here?” they ask one another. “Are we going to receive more than we expected?”

When they do not—when they receive the same wage, each and every shift the same wage—their shock turns to anger. Shift by shift that anger grew as they saw no discrimination: each was paid the same. And when the first crew received their wages, they grumbled against that landowner. You bet they did. What screwy kind of way was this to do business?

Here’s where we’d better recognize that this parable is primarily about the landowner, not so much the workers. “I am doing you no wrong,” he says to the early-birds. “Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last (shift) the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Feel the heat as the lesson of this parable is taught: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” As often as we’ve heard that saying, and recognized it as somehow central to Jesus’s message, and perhaps admired it as being about justice… have we appreciated how painful a lesson this can be?

At the same time, this landowner had it in mind to ease the pain of the last shift. Who were those who were last? “Because no one has hired us,” they answer, when the landowner asks, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”

They are unemployed. Not lazy sleep-abeds… they’ve been at that street corner all day, waiting for their chance, daring to believe (even at five p.m.) that there might be an opportunity, and they’re ready to take it. That approach to job-hunting may seem passive to us, but in those days (as is still the case in many places in our own country) day laborers gather at certain street corners in what is truly a buyer’s market. Taken simply (and parables are meant to be taken simply), they were unemployed through no fault or shortcoming of their own. There just weren’t enough jobs. And not enough landowners who cared to go out of their way to give workers a break.

Why did they need a break? Beyond the unemployment rate, were there more reasons? It’s still taking the parable simply to imagine certain age-old factors: that this last shift included some who were physically or mentally challenged, some who didn’t speak the dominant language, some who couldn’t provide a proper form of identification, some who were very young, some who were old. Some forms of discrimination just don’t change much, do they?

At the heart of this parable is a landowner who is generous. He is not capricious: every single one of those workers went home adequately paid in keeping with the handshake made upon hiring. No, that approach would never agree with union guidelines; and that’s because there’s a higher passion at work in this story than the power of earning. The power of grace is pulsing through this parable.

The Prayer Book defines grace as “God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved.” There’s the rub, there’s the source of the heat in this parable: the arithmetic of grace is not the calculation of earning. The landowner is a champion of grace. The landowner is God. And when you queue-up at God’s table, there is enough to go around to all. There is abundance.

Our Sunday menu of readings often shows us how the scriptures speak to one another. Today that story from Exodus, manna from heaven, quails falling into the stewpots of starving refugees, drives home the nature of God as we meet God in the Bible: generous, gracious, merciful, passionately devoted to finding the lost and saving the endangered.

With that in mind, our parable asserts that it is the power of grace, not the power of earning, that makes the Kingdom of God go ‘round. Christian Socialist Vida Dutton Scudder said it ever so much more elegantly and boldly. Writing before and after the first World War, she scolded American Christianity for carelessly depending on a generally affectionate God and practicing “a domestic religion… calculated to make life pleasant in the family circle—but curiously at ease in Zion,” by which she meant avoiding all agonies of social conscience and all agonies of the inward life.

In 1894, as a brand-new professor at Wellesley College, Scudder attempted (with little success) to stir up the faculty to protest a large gift from the Rockefeller family because it was tainted money, gotten through unjust competition and unfair labor practices. She put the Episcopal Church (and Wellesley) on notice that her agenda for the Church and for the Academy was to move people beyond philanthropy and beyond social reform, and on to social transformation, changing the structures of society that cause poverty. In Vida Scudder’s view, everyone needs transformation: socialists and capitalists, religious and atheist, workers and landowners.

It’s customary to understand today’s parable as talking about religious transformation. The early shifts represent the law and the prophets, the last shift are the johnny-come-latelies of the Jesus movement, the parable showing an evolution that brought even non-Jews to the abundance of God’s table. But for Scudder, this wouldn’t be enough. This wasn’t where she felt the heat of our Lord’s teaching. His gospel must speak to present-day society.

And any attempt at transformation that would apply Christian principles to social and industrial and political life, limited only to a spiritual sphere, would contradict the sacramental philosophy of Christianity. Hear her own words: “The very point of the great truths radiating from the Incarnation (of God in Jesus Christ) is that one harmonious law runs through all spheres of being, wherever the grace of God controls the world; and since our business is to regulate earthly dealings by this divine law, we have no right to deny economic significance to this parable (of the landowner and the workers in his vineyard).”

I take her to mean that we are obligated to labor on so as to make sure that the last are put first, even at the expense of a good deal of grumbling by the first as they get asked to pay higher taxes and to reconsider why they need more of a daily wage than do the poor. And that the last should be put first is not a matter of allowing them to cut in line: it is a matter of ushering them to the front of the line. It is a matter of stitching up the many holes we’ve torn in the safety net that Vida Scudder and her generation stirred this nation to create in the last century.

That’s the kind of talk that generates heat and pain, isn’t it? Without that, thinks Scudder, there will be no transforming of anyone.

I want you to hear one more passage of her own thought, this from her 1921 book “Social Teachings of the Christian Year”: “We are not allowed to forget that our industrial system virtually says, Cursed are the poor, Cursed are the meek… Christian manufacturers, instead of giving unto the last as unto the first, are likely to buy their labor as cheap as they can get it, and are often disposed to fight a living wage to the finish… The permanent contradiction between Christian morals and world morals is a puzzle, and a permanent disgrace.”

Our parable today, being timeless, is perfectly well-timed to be heard in a great and global recession, and well-suited to be considered in a presidential election year. At its heart is the one harmonious divine law that with God, grace rules; and our obligation is to see that it does—to run our shop, school, parish, family, personal life in ways that emulate the landowner’s commitment to engage and advance all who need a break, emulating the practice of generosity that starts in the abundance of God and causes us to recognize that in addition to the bottom lines of profit and losses there is in business a third bottom line: responsibility for transforming society, letting grace rule.

(Vida Scudder's words are cited in Richard H. Schmidt's "Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,2002. Schmidt's essay on Scudder was useful in the preparation of this sermon.)