We have before us a very challenging parable this week, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, a parable that challenges our notions of what is just and right and fair.
You may remember that last week I talked about how all these readings over the past many weeks have been showing us how to be the church; and that being the church means being part of an alternative reality, a community very unlike the communities we normally participate in. Being part of the church means being part of a community that doesn’t operate the way the world normally operates.
This is a theme in today’s parable, where people who have worked for one hour are given a full day’s pay, the very same amount that is given to those who have worked for maybe ten or twelve hours, through the heat of the day. That causes some resentment, a resentment with which we might sympathize.
But of course the kicker in this is that the vineyard owner in this parable is presumed to be God: this is a common biblical image for God, as keeper or owner of the vineyard. In this biblical metaphor, God’s people are the workers in the vineyard, charged with tending the vines and producing fruit.
So we have a story in which this radical unfairness, this apparent injustice in the payment of wages is attributed to God. God is radically unfair.
Something else that I said last week is that these stories remind us that God’s ways are not our ways. That goes with the idea of the church being unlike the world. God’s ways are not like our ways, and participating in the kingdom of God, working in the vineyard, being part of the church means participating in a community that is very unlike the world around us.
I suspect that this might make some of us—many of us, perhaps all of us—uncomfortable: the church being so unlike the world; the church being so potentially unfair; the church being a place where the last will be first.
Think about that for a moment. How comfortable are you with this idea of the last being first; of the latecomers being given the full day’s pay; the new arrivals being accorded all the rights and privileges—and responsibilities—of membership in the community?
I mean the last will be first is all right in theory, it’s a lovely idea, but in practice—? It means relinquishing some of our privilege, the status we’ve attained through long experience, toiling through the heat of the long day, putting in our time and sweat.
This year I marked the tenth anniversary of my ordination. Now, when I was ordained, people around me in the church thought that I had promise, that I might make a good minister some day. As a newbie I was warmly welcomed, and more seasoned members of the church generously made room for me, for the exercise of the gifts God has given me. As the years went by, I developed a reputation—a good reputation, I should say!—and got asked to serve the church in a variety of roles, particularly with our BC Conference.
More years have gone by, and now I see that a whole new crop of leaders has emerged in our church, some of whom look to me as a wise elder. I’m honored by that appraisal, and hope to continue to earn the respect of my colleagues. But it also comes with a dawning awareness that I’m no longer the newbie that everyone’s excited about; that the reputation or stature I have earned will start to fade as the reputations of newer leaders start to shine more brightly.
I am becoming the old hand, the competent, experienced one whose task is to generously make room, and celebrate the ways that God has gifted these newer leaders.
Now: maybe this is just my midlife crisis talking, but this process gives me some insight into this notion of relinquishing privilege, and of welcoming and not resenting, those whom God has recruited into the church.
Ultimately that’s what this parable is about: God as a relentless recruiter, ever seeking to bring more and more people into the kingdom, into the church.
And then inviting those newcomers into full participation in the life of the church, with full privileges, allowing them to change the nature of who we are as a community.
That can be uncomfortable for us, because it threatens our sense of stability, the stability we long for in our church family. Not only are many of us uncomfortable with the whole notion of actively recruiting others to join our community; we’re also deeply ambivalent about the impact that an influx of new people might have on our community.
Hmm. God’s ways are not our ways, and the church is not meant to be like the world; it’s meant to be different. Different in a way that may be uncomfortable for us.
We’ve become comfortable with the idea of the church as primarily a community designed to meet our needs. Our needs for fellowship and care, for spiritual nurture and spiritual growth. We’ve tended to become inwardly focused, and God has become for us a kind of patron, a distant figure head who inspires our values and actions.
I sometimes think of those old faded portraits of the Queen I remember from my childhood, hanging high on the walls of public buildings. I think we sometimes think of God like that: a distant constitutional monarch of our religious life. Not so in this parable: God is a relentless recruiter, seeking to make a new family out of strangers, always stretching the boundaries of community.
There’s a story in the book of Acts that also describes God as a relentless recruiter, extending the boundaries of the vineyard. Peter, the rock, the leader of the disciples, is invited to the household of Cornelius, a gentile. While he is there sharing the story of Jesus with the gathered crowd, the Holy Spirit descends upon the gathering, astonishing Peter and his Jewish colleagues. They thought the Holy Spirit was just for insiders.
Seeing this sign of God’s active, relentless seeking out of strangers to become new members of God’s family, Peter asks, “‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Baptized into God’s family, made full members, with all of the rights and privileges and responsibilities; offered a full day’s wages even though they’ve only just heard the story of Jesus Christ. What a radical change that must have been, and how uncomfortable: gentiles and Jews in one family, one church.
The next part of that story involves Peter going back to head office, to Jerusalem, to account for his action in baptizing these outsiders. He explains how the Holy Spirit came upon the gentiles, and he says, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” And so it is for us: who are we to hinder God?
Today you have been part of this story. Today we have lived this story. The Holy Spirit came down again and extended the bounds of our family. God, that old relentless recruiter, has made a new family out of strangers. Marie, Marcia, Torrie, Heather, and Ruth-Anne, we welcome you and celebrate all the ways God has gifted you. Come share your gifts in this place and change us; help us to be more faithful to God’s calling!
Ella, Andrew, and Maxine, we give thanks to God for you, for the sign you have shown us that God is not finished with us yet. That God is not some distant patron of our settled congregational life, but that God is alive and active, roving amongst us even today, issuing invitations: “Come, come, take your place and do your part in the kingdom of heaven!”
Let us pray:
“Lord Jesus, make us more closely resemble you in what we do and say. Preserve us from speaking as if the bounds of your kingdom begin and end with our congregation. Save us from talking as if our faith is the result of our efforts or our goodness or our decisions.
Guard us from loving, seeking, and serving only those who are within this church. Help us to care as you care, caring for all—and not only caring for but also searching and seeking all, inviting and welcoming all to gather with us to praise your name and seek your will.
Give us some small portion of your passion to seek and save the lost, to invite and welcome all into your embrace.” Amen.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Seaton reserves all rights © 2017. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.
 Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource.