A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 3, 2017
University Baptist Church
Labor Day. Dinkytown is buzzing with activity. Anxious students arrive, taking those tentative steps out of their comfort zones of home to start a new adventure. These students who are such high achievers are taking the next logical step in their lives. They will garner a great education and then move on to even greater things. The church is here to welcome them, to celebrate their exploration, to offer companionship along the way and to remind them the ancient message of Jesus. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Wait, The first shall be last and the last shall be first? No wonder so few of them step foot inside here if this is the product we are selling.
But it is very good news. This reversal, this paradox is the central Gospel message. What you think you know is great, but there is an even better way. It will mean that people will be set free. They will imagine great things. And they will put into place a grand vision of a great society, that some call the Kingdom or reign of God. And yes, some of those who have lived high on the hog may have to come down a peg or two so that others may eat and live and thrive. We’re going to spend the better part of the year trying to figure out this Biblical theme of reversals. It has implications for how we encounter our lives. It calls into question our privilege. It takes curiosity and a bit of bravery. Kinda like starting out on a college adventure.
And to start it out, Jesus tells the story of a labor dispute. But it’s a parable, which means it has hidden meaning. Jesus knew that if he wanted to make a point, he told a story about what is common for the people to see and then add an unexpected twist. It will subvert the status quo and make people think deeper. And maybe even act better as a result.
As the parable opens, we learn about the vineyard owner who needs to have his grapes picked or his vines tended. Vineyard owners were the elite: the upper echelon, the ones who get all of the tax breaks, the corporate welfare. They have friends in high places and they influence public policy—always in their favor. For good measure they might even serve on non-profit boards and make highly publicized donations to disaster relief. We can imagine that many of the hired hands might have at one time been farmers. Maybe some of them had even farmed land that had fed their families, but like so many rural Minnesota farmers they were one poor weather season away from foreclosure. Wealthy people bought them out at rock-bottom prices and then hired them to work on their own land. But the produce from land the laborers are to work on in today’s parable was not going to feed any of them. It was a vineyard, for the dinner tables of the well off.
The vineyard owner goes out early in the day to hire workers. He settles on a wage with them. He calls it a day’s wage, but we don’t know how much it really was. Throughout the day, the vineyard owner hires more workers. At the end of the day, the workers line up for their pay. The owner tells his manager to pay the last first, meaning the one who worked the least amount of time. He paid him a denarius, a day’s wage.
The next workers, having seen this and having worked twice as long as the first workers, figured they would get two denarii. They got one. And on down the line, they all got one denarius, even the ones who worked ten times as long. It was a flat wage. Equal pay for unequal work. The landowner certainly had the wealth to pay everyone a decent wage, but paying the one who worked the least first served as an insult to everyone else watching. Jesus doesn’t explain this. He just says that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Thanks a lot.
If the vineyard owner was really generous as the parable seems to imply he was, then the longest working people should have gotten paid first, gone on their way and not have to witness the “generosity” of the owner. That would have maintained the dignity of everyone. But the owner did it backwards and rubbed his power in their faces.
When the longest workers gave the reasonable response that this didn’t seem right, the manager told them not to be so uppity.
Like the prodigal son parable, we want to shout with the older brother, “It’s not fair!” We want to take to the streets with them and demand fair wages.
Maybe Jesus was saying that people who are being ripped off have a right to be a bit uppity. After all, the owner really only promised the first group the denarius. Every other group, he promised them he would pay them, “what is right”. What is right according to whom, though? Well, to the landowner, of course.
So what are we to make of this parable? Is Jesus really calling on us to be graciously submissive to the generosity of a wealthy landowner? Is he saying that we need to not argue with the crumbs that fall from the master’s table? Is he saying that we ought to be happy with our lot in life and not make such a big stink about things? If so, this would contradict most of what we know about Jesus.
Jesus always sided with the poor. Jesus always called into question conspicuous consumption. Jesus always called into question the propensity of those who would call for simply an individual relationship with God if it stood in the way of our relationships with one another.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first, says Jesus. The last in this parable are the laborers. The first are the owners. This whole system will be turned upside down. That’s what the Kingdom of heaven looks like. And heaven is not a far off land in the sky. The work of a Christian is to make the earth, the world, heaven-like.
Jesus describes the injustice and says, now hear this. This system will not last. The first shall be last, the last shall be first. This system of equal pay for unequal work will not last forever. There is a better way.
We are to embrace the great reversal of the Gospel. That’s where real salvation lies.
As you know, we took our youngest daughter Becca to school yesterday. We did the now familiar rituals of our life. We made French toast and drizzled it with homemade maple syrup. We packed as much as we could in our little Prius, hugged the dog goodbye and even took one last picture of our daughters in the front yard, the same spot that we took 16 years worth of first day of school photos. We drove the 45 minutes, hyped on nervous energy and fueled by Caribou coffee. We transformed a sterile dorm room into a home away from home for the next nine months. We toured the campus, and avoided the long goodbye until we could not put it off any longer. Like I did three years ago when we dropped off her older sister, I bawled like a baby in the car as we drove off. Proud of her, missing her, wishing her the best. Knowing that this was the right step for her. I know many of you have been there, done that. We now join your club.
And yet, I have to know that this was a privilege that many people do not have.
My mind and my heart went to Jose and his family. Jose came to the US 27 years ago from Honduras, seeking a better life for himself and his family. He met his wife here and they had two children. They are a strong and devoted family. But on Friday morning, Jose was deported back to Honduras. I attended the last of his visits to the Whipple Federal Building near Fort Snelling on Thursday. In a sterile office that looked like a bank, he was told that he needed to go back to Honduras or face 10 years in jail. The fact that he had paid his taxes for 27 years did not matter. The fact that his wife and children needed him did not hold sway. The 25 religious people who showed up to pray with him and support him were not allowed into the private room where his fate was sealed. The precarious health of his family did not matter. He was sent away as if a pariah. This man of faith. This strong and proud father. This pillar of his community. He considered having sanctuary here at UBC, but instead chose to sacrifice himself for the sake of his family. His sons are 18 and 21, the same age as my daughters. They ought to be getting ready for college. Instead, they are now the men of the house. There’s something about this that is not right on so many levels. The immigration system is broken. And so are our hearts.
This man came, perhaps to be a laborer in the field of some vineyard owner. Let’s call the vineyard the United States of America. The owner of the vineyard tells the laborer, “I’ll pay you a decent fair wage.” The owner then hires more and more people, but never raises the minimum wage. But not only that, starts making it more dangerous for people to work in his field. The protections go away. At the end of the day, the wages seem arbitrary. And the vineyard owner wants to be known as a fair and just man. And then he starts telling the people of his status how selfish the workers are. He starts calling them names. He tells people to be afraid of them. He tells people of his race to defend themselves against these people. The workers start having to decide if they will simply take it or if they will rise up.
The parable ends with the owner insulting the workers. But Jesus adds a tag line. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Actually that line also shows up right before this parable in the 19th chapter of Matthew. It’s a bookend.
I was flipping through channels the other day and came across the Spike Lee film, “Do the Right Thing”. Set on a hot day in a deeply segregated section of Brooklyn, the film tells the stories of the people who are pushed to the breaking point. Doing the right thing means something different to different people in the film. Like many of Spike Lee’s films, it has layers of meaning and I encourage you to watch it again. What struck me was the first line of the film. A DJ greets the morning with the words, “Wake up.” It’s the same phrase used by Lee at the end of School Daze when he breaks character, looks into the camera after all hell has broken loose throughout the film and says to the audience, “Wake up.”
The Gospel is one big call for the sleeping public to “Wake up”. Wake up to a better way of looking at a world. Wake up to a reality where might does not make right. Wake up to a reality where morality is the ethos, not meanness. Wake up to a world that no longer rips apart families with impunity, but instead protects them. Wake up to our responsibility to be the arms and legs, feet and hands of Christ. Wake up to a world where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Wake up.
My friends, people are waking up. Charlottesville woke people up to racism and white supremacy.
Houston is waking people up to global warming and it’s insidious and incendiary results. And it’s not just flooding in Houston. It’s flooding in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. It’s wildfires in Montana—symptoms of a diseased planet and our role in it.
People are waking up to the need for a living wage.
People are waking up to say that the church has too long been an apologist for the status quo. It’s time for the church to be a subverter, a reverser of the status quo if that means that the poor and outcast are ignored and harmed. The church is waking up to its role as a truth-teller, even when that truth is inconvenient for some. For God is counting on us to be the bearers of the Good News. The Good news of the great reversal.
God has already set it in motion.
I’m not talking about God creating climactic weather occurrences in punishment for our sinful behavior. I’m talking about God waking people up and having them find their voices. People waking up and fighting for the poor and the downtrodden. People waking up and saying not in my name, not on my watch and not in my community. People waking up and saying this Gospel is good news. Not because it makes rich people poor, but because it gives hope to poor people for the first time.
It says the evil of the world will live for a period of time. But it is not the last word of God. People wake up in their Good Friday world of woe, only to hear the sweet songs that remind them that Sunday’s coming. And we don’t face the worst of our lives alone.
The reign of heaven has a whole lot more to do with eliminating the source of the grumbling rather than the grumbling itself. And the only way to start eliminating the source of the grumbling is to take the scales off of our eyes and see the world as it is. That’s the subversive work of Jesus and all of his would-be followers.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first. In the vision of the reign of God, all things will be fair. Making things fair is a key way we live out the Gospel.
Let’s go out and do it.
Let’s do it by having critical analysis of the world.
Let’s do it by organizing and voting.
Let’s do it by studying the Bible.
Let’s do it by listening to the dissonances of our lives.
Let’s do it by continuing to befriend those outside of our culture or comfort zone.
Let’s do it by defending the rights of minorities.
Let’s do it by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Let’s do it by loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and then loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Let’s do it by being those leaves on the tree of life which are for the healing of the nations.
Let’s do it by embracing our prophetic leadership—unleashing our voices and the wealth of our privilege so that we can join God in the ultimate plan to make things fair.
Let us awaken those long dormant voices of dissent and hopefulness that we all need, for there is a better way. The Gospel points to it and we do our best to follow. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad way to start the year.