Sojourn Sermon – September 24 09/24/2017
Sojourn Sermon – September 24, 2017 – Matthew 20:1-16
I’m a huge fan of the writer Flannery O’Conner. That might be a requirement for pastors I don’t know. I think every pastor I’ve known has referenced her in a sermon at one point or another. And I think one reason for this is that O’Conner’s style of writing is often described as grotesque and tragic. People characterize her work as example of the southern gothic genre. Her characters are imperfect and often down right malicious. Her genius, I think, is that she so skillfully weaves the darkness of the human condition and the beauty of redemption seamlessly into her stories.
One of my favorite stories is a story called “Parker’s Back.” In it, Parker gets a tattoo of a Byzantine Christ Pantokrator – this is the image of Jesus we often see in Orthodox icons. And Parker is rejected for this tattoo, thrown out of a bar by his own friends, and then beaten, and by the end of the story, the image of Jesus is bruised and bloody. The story ends with Parker weeping while leaning against a tree, a very cruciform image.
O’Conner is also known for the ways she depicts Christ figures in her stories. We often think of Christ figures in literature as great heroes: Aslan, Frodo, or Harry Potter. But for her, Christ isn’t some great champion or hero. Instead Christ is the bringer of revelation, someone who causes a dramatic shift in thinking in the surrounding characters, and he comes in some of the least expected character’s. In her story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Christ is a serial killer, who murders an entire family bringing about a sense of familial kindness in an elderly woman.
And in another story, simply titled “Revelation,” Christ is depicted as young girl, a college freshman, eighteen, and described by the protagonist, as fat and ugly, her face blue with pimples.
“Revelation” is told from the perspective of Mrs. Turpin. She is an unkind woman who sits in the waiting room of her doctor’s office, judging everyone silently in her head. She calls one person ugly for example and refers to one simply as the white trash. All the while she brags out loud to those around her about how kindly her deposition is.
The young girl, however, doesn’t buy it. Her scowls are so intense that Mrs. Turpin wonders if the know each other from the past. Eventually, as if she’s heard everything Mrs. Turpin as said to herself, the young girl throws a book as Mrs. Turpin’s face, hitting her in the eye. And the girl proceeds to try and strangle Mrs. Turpin. After a nurse and the girl’s mother pull her off of Mrs. Turpin, the girl looks at Mrs. Turpin and says, “Go back to hell where you came from you old wart hog.”
Mrs. Turpin is understandably upset for the rest of the day. She returns to her farm with her husband, takes a nap, all the while ruminating on what that girl said to her. Finally she goes out to clean her hog pen, and as she does so, she has an internal back and forth with God proclaiming her innocence by way of her merits. How dare this girl call her a wort hog from hell. She gives to charity, works herself to the bone, goes to church – how dare someone call her a hog from hell. Finally, completely beside herself now, she screams in the empty pasture, “Who do you think you are!”
At that moment she has a vision of a great highway that leads up to the sky, to heaven. She sees a horde of people dancing their way up it, and leading the way are the people she’s referred to as white trash followed by a group of Black folks, who by the way she has not spoken kindly of throughout the story, singing and dancing as they go. Behind them are “battalions of freaks and lunatics clapping and leaping like frogs.” And behind them, in last place, are people just like her. People who thought they should be up front. People who thought they had some right to judge or decide the order of things. Their place was last among the others on their journey to heaven.
Here, the unexpected Christ figure is depicted as a young girl who physically assaults an elderly woman while waiting to see a doctor. But this assault causes a dramatic shift in Mrs. Turpin: for the first time in the story, Mrs. Turpin begins to ask questions about herself and not about other people. Mrs. Turpin’s revelation visualizes the surprising character of God’s kingdom: you’re always going to be surprised by who gets in and how far back you are in line.
O’Conner’s story is parable in itself, but it also gives us insight into how to read a parable: They are stories that cause us to look inward and to be surprised by what we find there. Soren Kierkegaard said, “Parables are stories that wound from behind.” Marianne Moore said, “Parables are imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” They are fictional tales inhabited by truthful observations about the world – and often they sneak up on us, and we find ourselves to be the subjects of the lesson.
And so it is with our passage for today. Jesus’ parable of great reversal, where astonished day laborers, who’ve only worked for an hour in the evening, find themselves being made equal to those who’ve spent an entire day in the field, enduring the heat. The real scandal of it all is that somewhere inside us, perhaps in the places that try our best to keep hidden, we feel like those who grumbled have a point, especially if we are a north American. We may not be able to put our finger on it, but something feels off, doesn’t it? Sure the vineyard owner paid those who came to work in the first hour what he agreed to and he paid them based on the work they did. But we find ourselves so often stuck in our meritocratic views of the world: we all have our own metrics and we apply them unflinchingly on strangers, friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers..
The kingdom of God is not like this. Klyne Snodgrass, who is one of the leading scholars of Jesus’ parables and seminary prof of mine, says of this parable, “It will not allow us to construct a scheme for calculating hierarchies, assigning relative values to people or work, and thinking some deserve more.” The kingdom of God is not a meritocracy. We do not earn our place in it. The kingdom of God is the place where God give lavishly out of God’s grace.
Now there is a tendency to make this parable about salvation, and this comes primarily from one of the maxims of the protestant reformation: salvation is by grace apart from works. And while this maxim is drawn from a whole host of NT texts, this parable is often read in light of and evidence for this maxim. See how God’s salvific grace is doled out without consideration for worthiness or merit. And this was important for the theologies of reformers like Luther and Calvin because, for them, sin is so endemic to the human condition that if salvation were based on works, no one could experience salvation. Through God’s grace, God imparts righteousness on the basis of faith because our nature is so inherently sinful.
Many early Anabaptists rejected this theology. For them, sin was primarily volitional – it was a failure to will the same kinds of things God wills. And the life of faith is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ so that our will, the things we desire, are the same.
I draw this distinction because, it is important for how we read this parable. If we read this parable as being about salvation, about God’s unmerited grace as the means of salvation, then the parable teaches us about something that maybe theologically true but it might not be sufficient to affect us in daily life.
But if our view of discipleship is that of being continually being shaped into the image of Christ and reflecting more and more his will, the parable affects everything. It is not just about who we can expect to see at the pearly gates, it is about how we relate to people we see day in and day out.
The context of this parable is key here. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, probably on the outskirts of Jericho in the Jordan River Valley. And in the immediate context of this parable we find four stories of reversed expectation. First, Jesus is teaching, and people begin to bring children to him in order that he might lay his hands on them. Jesus’ disciples try and keep the children away, because this is a society in which age plays an important hierarchical function. But Jesus welcomes the children.
Then a wealthy man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. This wealthy man has kept the commandments from his youth. But Jesus says, sell all you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Because neither wealth nor status can secure your place in heaven.
Jesus tell this parable, and the, James and John, the sons of Zebedee come to Jesus and ask to be placed at his right and left hand when he is crowned king – of course they don’t realize Jesus will be crowned on the cross, but Jesus says to them, “Whoever wished to be great among you is a servant.”
And finally, when he is leaving Jericho, two blind men come and asked to be healed. The people of the town try to keep them away, but Jesus calls them to him and he heals them.
What we find is that the parable of the workers in the vineyard is just one among a number of teachings about reversed expectation that calls into question a merit based world view. What we find is that if we want to see the world the way God does, then we have to abandon our strategies for deciding whose in and whose out. We have to give up our feeling of superiority.
It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, how good we are, whether or not we can check all the right boxes, or even how well we sing Hymn 606. The kingdom of heaven is not like a vineyard owner who pays his workers according to how much they have worked.
The kingdom of heaven is like a vineyard owner who gives, perhaps even foolishly, without stipulation. How often is that true of us? How often do we fill our lives with stipulation and condition? That’s not how the kingdom works.
And this is important to realize – because it is incredibly important when it comes to peace making. I love that the lectionary pairs this parable with Jonah. And I know I talked about Jonah recently, but it is worth looking at his story again. The kingdom of God is not about making sure people get what they deserve.
If we look at Jonah though a meritocratic lens, it makes perfect sense that Jonah is angry. The Assyrians, whose capitol is Nineveh, abused and dominated Israel for 200 years. They deported the people from the northern tribes and destroyed the capitol in the north, and nearly destroyed Jerusalem.
And God decided not to smite them. Jonah like, “Wait. What?”
Listen to what Jonah says, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
He didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew that God doesn’t give people what Jonah thinks they deserve.
So when we feel wronged, and we find ourselves taking stalk of everything that other person did to us and getting more and more anger about it, we should consider God’s question to Jonah. “Is it right for you to be angry?”
The kingdom of God is not like people getting what they deserve.
The kingdom of God is about scandalous love. So often we want to be right. So often we want to dig our heals in for a fight. But that isn’t the kingdom.
This looks weird, and it’s hard. It requires self-sacrifice. And on some visceral level it feels wrong because it flies in the face everything we’ve been taught by our culture.
And this doesn’t mean that we can’t expect justice. Pablo Jimenez writes about this parable from a Latino perspective. And he argues that the Latino community sees in this parable a God who hears the cries of day laborers. A God who cares for the Latina women who care for the children of wealthy families and clean their homes. A God who care for the Latino men who wait outside hardware stores looking to make $20 doing household chores and yard work. A God who care for migrant workers and undocumented immigrants who have little to no protections, and most importantly a God take their anxieties seriously.
But God’s justice isn’t based on retribution. God’s justice is based on distribution. It’s about the equal distribution of God’s grace in the world.
This parable is indeed about God’s justice. And God’s justice permeates everything. God’s justice is macroscopic in its vison for a restored world, where the hungry are fed, where poor are cared for, where captives are freed. It is the ultimate Jubilee, the year of the Lords favor.
But God’s justice is also microscopic in that is effects how we live in community. This parable tells us that we can’t measure others by ourselves. We don’t set the standard. And we also can’t expect retribution because God’s justice isn’t about being right or getting our way.
God’s justice, God’s kingdom, is about grace lavishly poured out. And it’s frustrating – we want to be mad when we feel like people don’t measure up to that grace and want to be mad when that grace is given to people who’ve wronged us.
But in both cases God’s questions are remarkable similar. In Jonah, “Are you right to be made?” And in the parable, “A you envious because I am generous.” And actually Greek, the word translated as generous is “good.” Are you envious because I am good?
God’s justice looks like forgiveness. God’s justice looks like reconciliation.
And its messy. It’s hard. It’s being vulnerable and uncomfortable, and feels alien to our disposition. It’s a lot a Flannery O’Connor story. Sometime it takes getting hit in the face or dying to ourselves or finding ourselves bruised and bloodied from hard work of life in community.
But if discipleship is conforming our will to the will of God, this is what it looks like. Amen.