A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 20, 2020
I want to begin this morning with something I read that expresses where I am, where I think so many of us are today.
I watch the news some nights, and I listen to reports about COVID…I also watch our beautiful western states burn. I watch Black lives and blue lives being taken unjustly. I watch fear-mongering and listen to … brazen lies.
It’s all so…heartbreaking.Cameron Trible, ‘Piloting Faith”, email on September 16, 2020
Here’s my question: in these days of heartbreak, how do we find joy? How do we respond to whatever the day brings? Every day is a basket of occasions; every day has threats and opportunities and invitations to praise. Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers is about a day when some grumbled, and some laughed. Can we join the laughter?
Let’s start with the end and work back to the beginning. Imagine these workers going home; what do you think the conversations were like? Think of the last first. All day long these sat around the dusty corner where day laborers gather. They talked, hoped, gradually gave up. They saw friends get work but they never did. Then, at the last moment, at the moment when they were hopeless and just avoiding home where there wouldn’t be anything to eat, this amazing chance. Five o’clock!—and a guy comes looking for help picking grapes. Who cares what he was offering to pay? Something is better than nothing, anything is better than nothing. So off they went to the vineyard, hoping for just a little, maybe some gleaned grapes. Imagine their surprise, imagine their “it can’t be true” joy when they walk to the pay table and the manager hands them a whole drachma, a day’s wage. I wonder if their eyes widened, I wonder if one by one they slunk away, thinking the guy must have made a mistake, wanting to get away before he figured it out. Think of them grinning as they walk in the door at home and someone looks up, eyes questioning. Think of the grin as they hold out a whole drachma, enough to pay for dinner and breakfast tomorrow both. Imagine the hug and the laughter, the serious laughter.
Now think of the first hired. Tired, hot, dirty after a long day in the fields. Farm work started then as it does not at dawn. They were smart to get down to the corner early, and their smarts was rewarded. A full day’s work but more importantly a full day’s pay, just as agreed. I wonder if they felt a little smug, seeing others who didn’t get to work until noon or later, knowing they wouldn’t get full pay. So imagine their anger, their grumbling, when—impossible!—the manger starts handing out drachmas to everyone. “How was your day?”, their families ask, and the answer is grumbling about the unfairness of the vineyard owner and the pay tossed on the table. Which home do you want to live in? Can we choose?
Go back to the beginning. It’s September; well, I know it’s September here but in this story it’s September too: that’s the grape harvest. You know what September is like? One bright, warm sunny day immediately followed by thrashing rains and cold temperatures. Harvest is a crisis because grapes all get ripe at once, the vineyard is ready now, and if you wait, even a day or two can mean you missed the moment. So this vineyard owners goes out at daybreak to hire some day laborers. Every farming community has a corner where these guys hang out. He finds a group, he contracts to hire them for a day’s wage, a denarius, paid as a drachma, a standard coin. So they go to work. Imagine the owner working with them, correcting some of them, helping and realizing it’s not going to be enough, there aren’t enough of them. So at noon he goes and hires more. The same thing happens. He’s getting more frantic so he goes at mid-afternoon, hires more and as the evening starts still more. These others don’t have a contract, he just tells them to trust him, he’ll pay what’s fair. They know they aren’t working a whole day, they’re glad to at least get a few hours.
At the end of the day, the owner’s tired but he’s happy; the grapes are picked, the vineyard is harvested and he makes a decision. He tells his manager to pay everyone, and to start with the last hired first. This is really the central point of this parable and it’s why Matthew, the only one to tell this story, has it here. It’s connected to the spiritual facts Jesus preaches, that God doesn’t play by our rules and that the last are going to be first. So the laborers line up, just as ordered. And the manager starts paying them: one drachma for you, one drachma for you, one drachma for you.
It doesn’t take long for them to figure out what’s going on. I wonder what the guys at the end of the line, the ones hired first, who worked all day, thought as they saw these others get paid. Day laborers lived day to day and a day’s pay meant just that, they got through the day, they had enough to eat for the day. One day for you, one day for you, one day for you, on and on the pay goes until the first hired, the ones who had a contract finally get to the head of the line. Did they assume they would get more? Wouldn’t that be fair? What do you think? They worked all day, they bore the heat of the day; on the other hand, they agreed to work for—one drachma, one day’s pay. And that is exactly what they get.