To Serve or Deserve

Sermon for Nov. 9, 2008: Colossians 3:12-15 and Matthew 20:1-16

A Biblical scholar and a prophetic man of action, Clarence Jordan lived out the New Testament in the soil of rural Georgia. A visionary during the struggle for the civil rights of all God’s children, Jordan and his wife Florence co-founded in 1942 an inter-racial and income sharing community in the Sumter County town of Americus. They named the community Koinonia, the Greek word for fellowship or communion.

On the farm, which Jordan described as “a demonstration plot for the kingdom of God”, white and black families worked side-by-side to make a living, following Jesus. The residents of Koinonia experienced a great deal of opposition, persecution and violence (bombings, shootings and beatings) from other Christians who professed to worship the same Lord.

Despite these obstacles, Koinonia continued to flourish as a living symbol of social change, even becoming the birthplace for the internationally renowned organization Habitat for Humanity. The community exists today as Koinonia Partners, a Christian organization that provides assistance to rural neighborhoods in Sumter through mission work that strengthens families and empowers the community.

Clarence Jordan, who died unexpectedly in October 1969, was a powerful preacher who wrote his own version of the scripture for his sermons because he wanted to take the text out of the “long ago and far away” and place it in the “here and now”.  Jordan’s version of the New Testament, The Cotton Patch Gospel-which is planted in the cotton fields of Georgia and the South instead of ancient Palestine-still speaks loudly today as it did 60 years ago.

So I invite you to listen again to Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus’ parable of the “Laborers in the Vineyard” this time as it is told by Clarence Jordan:

“The God Movement is like a farmer who went out early in the morning to hire some field workers. Having settled on a wage of ten dollars a day, he sent them into the cotton field. Then about nine he went to town and saw others standing around idle. So he said to them, ‘Y’all go on out to the fields, and I’ll pay you what’s right.’ And they went. He did the same thing about noon, and again around three. Then about an hour before quitting time, he saw some others just hanging around. ‘Why have y’all been knocking around here all day doing nothing?’ he asked. ‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they answered. ‘Okay, then y’all can go out to the cotton fields too,’ he said.

At the end of the day the farmer said to his field boss, ‘Call the workers and pay them off, starting with those who came last and continuing to the first ones.’ Well, those who came an hour before quitting time were called up and were each paid ten dollars. Now those who got there first thing in the morning supposed that they would get much more, but when they were paid off, they too got ten dollars.

At that, they raised a squawk against the farmer. ‘These latecomers didn’t put in but one hour, and you’ve done the same by them as you did by us who stood in the hot sun and the scorching wind.’ But the farmer said to one of them, ‘Listen, buddy, I haven’t mistreated you. Didn’t you and I settle on ten dollars a day? Now pick up your pay and run along. I’m determined to give this last fellow exactly the same as you. Isn’t it okay for me to do as I please with what’s mine? Or are you bellyaching simply because I’ve been generous?’ That’s the way it is: Those on the bottom will be on top, and those on top will be on the bottom.”

This parable that Jesus tells has always been both difficult to hear and preach.  The message is just as challenging for those of us gathered here on this cool November morning as it was for the folks who sat listening to Jesus on the warm sandy ground of ancient Judea.

I worried all week about how a sermon on this parable of the “Laborers in the Vineyard” might be perceived in the current economical and political climate, especially if you know or have a good guess of who I voted for in the recent presidential election.  With concepts like socialism and redistribution of wealth and government intervention swirling around, it would be easy to immediately associate the parable, the sermon and the preacher with “radical leftist propaganda” that has no place in the church or society.

This parable is most definitely not a message about socialist doctrine or Democratic economic policies or government regulation.  The parable is also not a morality tale about border laws and the intense debate over illegal immigration.

Rather, this parable is about something much more important and bigger than the stubborn held political beliefs and economic theories that divide us.

And I can assure you, that political ideology is not my motivation for preaching on this parable.  Instead, my inspiration comes from God’s Spirit and a call to preach on a story that can speak to the depths of our hearts about the practice of giving and sharing in this post Stewardship season.

With Wall Street on a downward spiral and corporate America slashing jobs left and right, the mere mention of money these days causes much anxiety and frustration. Even good intentioned requests of money through church pledge cards and offering plates is enough to make members squirm in their seats.

Discerning how we should give and share with others seems unreasonable when there is plenty of worry that there may not be enough resources for our own survival.  And it seems extremely offensive to be asked to give and share with those who don’t deserve a reward, whatever the reason, much less hear a parable on the topic.

Author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor once noted in a sermon: “The parable of the ‘Laborers in the Vineyard’ is a little like cod liver oil: You know Jesus is right, you know it must be good for you, but that does not make it any easier to swallow…the parable is one of those stories of forgiveness so radical that it offends, because it seems to reward those who have done the least while it sends those who have worked the hardest to the end of the line.”

The last will be first and the first will be last.

Those on the bottom will be on top, and those on top will be on the bottom.

A difficult message.

A shocking message.

A confrontational message.

A  Jesus message.

A message in which Jesus, says Barbara Brown Taylor, is “scrambling the usual order of things, challenging the sacred assumption by which most of us live our lives, namely, that the front of the line is the place to be, that the way to win God’s attention is to be the best person, the hardest worker, the first one in the vineyard in the morning and the last one to leave at night.”

The last will be first and the first will be last.

Those on the bottom will be on top, and those on top will be on the bottom.

Jesus says these things in the midst of two key events in his ministry-one has happened and one is coming next-that will turn the whole world and life as we know it upside down!

Prior to the telling of this parable, a young rich man walks sadly away from Jesus and the disciples because he has just learned that he can’t be a follower unless he sells all of his possessions and gives all his money to the poor.  Peter then says to Jesus, “Look, we (unlike that other guy) have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”  Jesus promises the disciples 12 thrones in the world to come and then adds, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Then Jesus tells the parable that is the subject of this morning’s sermon. Afterwards the mother of James and John asks Jesus to give her sons the best thrones in the kingdom, one on his left and one on his right.  Jesus politely denies the request and explains that his throne will not be a luxurious gold plated seat embedded with jewels, but a simple wooden cross with nails. The disciples, however, have overheard the mother’s request and they become angry at James and John. They all start arguing over who deserves the best thrones in the kingdom.  But Jesus stops them by saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

The last will be first and the first will be last.

Those on the bottom will be on top, and those on top will be on the bottom.

That is the message and ministry of Jesus.  The purpose of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is not about the establishment of a kingdom and world where the most deserving get all of the power and glory.  The purpose of Jesus-of what God does in and through him–is to create a kingdom community where all people share in the power and glory of God together, forever. And the first to receive that power and glory will be the ones who the world believes are the least deservingthe ones who are pushed out and left alone on the margins of societythe ones who are last.

It doesn’t seem fair to our daily experience of living in this world, does it?  Life is about rewarding those who do the best and work the hardest.  That is what’s fair. Rewarding or treating everyone the same is not fair, right?

Your boss gives everyone the same salary raise even though you think you deserve a bit more because you came in early, left late and took shorter lunch breaks, unlike other employees who did much less work.

Your sibling gets the same amount of toys as you do for Christmas even though you know you deserve more because you weren’t nearly as bad this year as your sister.

Your deceased relative leaves you and your lazy, irresponsible out- of-work cousin a fifty-fifty split of the inheritance even though you feel you deserve more since you left your job and home in another state to take care of Aunt Petunia for a month.

Your math teacher gives free candy to the entire class for passing the exam even though you are certain you deserve more because you studied extra hard to be the only student to get a 100 percent.

Perhaps these examples remind you of situations in your life, or maybe you’ve  experienced something similar to that of the character of Stu Simmons in the 1994 film The War.  The movie is about the relationship between a father and a son.  Stephen, the father, is a damaged Vietnam vet who, because of the violence he witnessed in war, tries to teach his tough and stubborn son about fairness. In this scene, Stu and his father are at a county auction and fair when the large crowds cause the two to get separated.  While looking for his dad, Stu encounters the Lipniki kids who live with their dad in the old junkyard and are known for their bullying and terrorizing of folks in the community:

Like Stu, the laborers who had been working in the vineyard since dawn believe that the other workers are getting a reward they don’t deserve. They are angry that the landowner is paying them the same wages as the crew of workers who showed up a half hour before quitting time:  “We’ve been here since the crack of dawn! And you’re paying us the exact same wage you paid the crew that just showed up. We deserve more than they do. We’ve been slogging in the heat of the sun all day-these others haven’t worked nearly as hard as we have!”

The landowner listens to the protests and says to them, “Friend, no one has been wronged here today. This isn’t about what you deserve…Do you think I don’t have the right to dispose of my money as I wish? Or does my generosity prick at you?…Quit your bellyaching!”

This isn’t about what you deserve.

Deserve. De-serve.  Not to be served.

This isn’t about deserving.  This isn’t about what one gets. It’s about serving.  It’s about what one gives to others.  That’s the point of the parable which is told in between two events where those who wish to follow Jesus believe they deserve a certain place beside him.

To serve or deserve.  Not who deserves the most because of the amount of labor they did or the quality of their work or service.  But all are served regardless of how much they do or how well they do it.

You see if we focus on the number of hours each set of laborers worked in the vineyard, we become tangled in vines. We become tightly bound by prideful and arrogant notions that the most deserving is the one who works the hardest and longest.  And when we become tangled in the vines of selflessness, we miss the beautiful, luscious ripe grape that’s at the heart of the story.

But here it is:  The parable is about God’s generosity. It’s about God generously serving everyone with a big ole plate of grace!

The gift of grace is an invitation to each and every one of us to be a part of something that is bigger than our selves-the fellowship, the koinonia, of God.

The landowner invited the laborers who are waiting for the opportunity to work together, to be a part of the fellowship of his vineyard.  Five times he went to the market to invite the laborers; he invited them again and again and again.  The landowner’s generosity was overflowing.

Clarence and Florence Jordan invited white and black families who were waiting for the opportunity to work together, to be a part of the fellowship of their farm.  They made several trips into the area towns to invite folks of both races again and again and again.  The Jordan’s’ generosity was overflowing.

God invites us who are waiting for the opportunity to work together, to be a part of the fellowship of God’s kingdom.  God continually comes to us, dwells among us, and invites us again and again and again.  God’s generosity is overflowing.

And God invites not the ones who are more deserving but the ones who are serving.  Each of us is called to serve that grace to others in the name of Christ the suffering servant whose life, death and resurrection makes the gift available to all.

As Clarence Jordan reminds us in a sermon preached decades ago:

“The full-time workers forget that they too had benefited from the employer’s generosity when they were first given jobs. Thus we see that the grace of God is meant to be comforting, but it may be discomforting as well. It demands that we receive it as grace, remember it as grace, and grant to others equal access…When we resent God’s generosity to others, we undermine and refuse the grace that comes to us.”

The last will be first and the first will be last.

Those on the bottom will be on top, and those on top will be on the bottom.

Everyone from last to first and bottom to top will receive the generous gift of grace from God.

And because we don’t deserve the gift, is all the more reason we are called to serve it.

Amen.

Resources:

  • The Gospel of Matthew text was read from a new translation “The Voice” a 21st century scripture project by scholars, pastors, writers, musicians and poets, October 2008
  • “The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew” by Barbara Brown Taylor, 2004
  • “Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation” by Clarence Jordan and Bill Lane Doulos, 1976
  • The War starring Kevin Costner and Elijah Wood, 1994

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