September 20, 2020
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I started coming to Seekers Church in 2008, and made my first commitment probably the following year. I haven’t recommitted every year since then, but most years. And, occasionally, I’ve preached the sermon. I can’t recall a sermon that has been more difficult for me to get a handle on than this one. I have plenty to say, but somehow the message just kept slipping out of my grasp. It might become apparent, in what I say to you this morning, why this was happening.
My focus is on the parable we just heard from Matthew’s gospel, and I’m going to ask three questions:
- What is Jesus saying to us, today, through this parable? Or, as Peter asked in a recent mission group meeting, “What is the Creator putting out there for us to learn?”
- What is the good news, for us, today?
- What does this have to do with commitment to Seekers Church?
I will share some possible answers, and I encourage you also to listen for your own answers, because yours might be different from mine.
A landowner goes out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agrees to pay each of them a denarius, the typical wage for a day’s labor. He goes out later and hires more workers, at various times throughout the day, and promises to pay them “what is fair.” Now it’s reasonable to assume that “what is fair” will turn out to be some portion of a denarius, and no doubt that is what people thought, as they listened Jesus tell this parable. At the end of the day, when the last-hired, the ones who worked only one hour, are each paid a denarius, we think, “Oh, the owner is being generous,” and we expect him to pay the other workers more than a denarius, in proportion to how long they worked. That would be fair and just. But that’s not what happens. And when the first-hired workers — those who worked twelve exhausting hours in the heat of the day — when they, too, are paid a denarius, we sympathize with their complaint: “This isn’t fair!”
But, as the estate owner points out, it is fair: they were paid exactly what they were promised.
There’s an appearance of injustice here. If the owner is generous to the last-hired, shouldn’t he also be generous with everyone else, especially those who worked so much longer and harder? Yet no injustice has been done. He did what he promised, he hasn’t cheated anyone, and he paid all the workers, as he said, “what is fair.”
If there’s a problem here, it’s with our idea of “what is fair.” People who do backbreaking work for twelve hours should get paid more than people who labor for only one hour — right?
This is a way of thinking that assumes limited resources — whether of money or property or privilege or education or achievement or any kind of strength or advantage. If you are ahead, then I am at least potentially behind. This up-down thinking is not bad, it’s not sinful, it’s just our ordinary way of thinking. In the book Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault says that “this is simply part of the biochemistry of egoic thinking. . . . When I experience myself as separate from everyone else,” she says, “it creates an automatic mentality of scarcity and . . . competing for limited resources” (pp. 45-46). She calls this parable of the laborers “a devastating satire of that way of thinking — the compulsive need to keep track of more and less. The catch is, just like a Zen koan, as long as you are in egoic consciousness, you will not get it” (p. 46). Which might explain why, all this past week, I would “get” this sermon for a minute or two, and then lose it again.
Jacqie Wallen, in her sermon a few weeks ago on “Liminal Space,” helpfully defined “egoic thinking” as “the tendency to experience one’s personal identity as uniquely important and separate from the cosmic whole.”
Richard Rohr calls this your “small and separate self,” as contrasted with your “True Self” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Aug. 30, 2020). And Thomas Merton wrote, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. . . . We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves” (p. 34).
All of our sense of scarcity and threat, all of our hurts and feelings of being offended or misunderstood or down and out, all of our pride and our shame — all of this comes from our “small and separate self.” And, as Bourgeault says, “To get out of the turmoil, according to spiritual teaching, you actually have two options. You can either stay in the egoic perception and try to deal with the problem at that level, or you can shift to a whole new way of perceiving. . . . Deeper than our sense of separateness and isolation is another . . . way of knowing” (p. 47).
The workers hired early in the morning complained to the landowner (and so do we), “You have made us all equal!” By our hierarchical standards, this is not right. We are not all alike, and we haven’t all earned the same. But Jesus shows us that our human standards don’t apply in the kin-dom of God.
Many commentators have interpreted this parable as being about justification through grace, as Paul argues in his letter to the Romans (Romans 3:22-24). Bernard Brandon Scott, in his book Hear Then the Parable, agrees with this but says that the metaphor for grace is not in the owner’s generosity but in his urgent need for workers in the vineyard (p. 297). Grace is in the call, the invitation.
The owner needs all those workers, and they all are equally worthy. The distinctions between them are dissolved in their common purpose.
And this, for me, is both good news and good reason for me to commit myself to a community — to this community of faith. The work of God’s kin-dom is too big and necessary and urgent for me to do by myself. For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, I can’t seem to get out of my small, separate self for more than a minute or two. Teresa described this problem well, last Sunday in her response to the question for Recommitment season, when she said, “I want to see the spark of God in others, see with the eyes of Jesus, . . . and the next minute I forget.”
And Michele said, in her sermon on forgiveness, “I don’t really want to be better than you . . . I want to be one with you.”
This community, this Seekers Church, is about the Mind of Christ, showing up, as John said in the Gathering Circle this morning. This community can inspire each of us, can remind us of our faith and hope, can teach us how to love. We can experience the Holy One, among us and within each of our hearts. The spiritual practices of my inward journey help me to know myself, and then to connect with you. But sometimes I can’t connect, and I don’t have the energy to remember who I am. That’s when it’s most important that we are on this journey together. If today you have extra energy, extra inspiration, send it out. If today you are low on energy, receive it.
Yesterday, after our Sligo Creek cleanup, I walked with Margreta back to her house. In her front window I saw the sign she carries at the Friday evening demonstrations in front of Seekers Church. The sign’s headline reads
“Matter” Is the Minimum
Underneath that are three lines:
Black lives are worthy.
Black lives are beloved.
Black lives are needed.
I don’t want to veer off into “all lives matter” because that has become such a politically charged sentiment. Right now I just want to focus on those three words: Worthy. Beloved. Needed.
All of us, together. And thanks be to the Holy One that we are all in this together.
May it be so.
Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God, Cynthia Bourgeault (Cowley Publications, 2001)
Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, https://cac.org/true-self-separate-self-2020-08-30/
New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton (New Directions Book, 1961)
Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, Bernard Brandon Scott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989)