This sermon is based on the readings assigned for Proper 20 Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
I’m tempted… I’d like to say that this is a universal experience… but that might not be true. It may be that some of us here today don’t know what it’s like to be sorted, to be sifted, to be evaluated, and to be found wanting, to be sorted out.
I remember my first foray into official, organized sports. I was 11 years old in 1971, sitting on the concrete bleachers at the boys club overlooking the baseball field. There must’ve been 200 boys sitting there on those steps and a dozen baseball coaches standing there looking up at us. This was our first gathering together and the day that we would be assigned to teams, and the schedule would be organized, and the season would begin. So those coaches standing up there looking at all of us started pointing at kids, one at a time, and calling them down out of the stands to stand behind them as part of their team. I think about three rounds into this sorting process one of the coaches smiled and asked us all to stand up, and then to turn, around and face them again. All the other coaches laughed. They said, “Aw, you’re cheating!” But they didn’t ask us to sit back down. And so one by one these coaches repeated this ritual, and selected kids to come down and join their teams. I don’t know what they were looking for that day. They were looking I’m sure for the tallest, the largest, maybe people with a particular twinkle in their eyes… but I do know that I was one of the last to be chosen for a team. Now that turned out to be okay. We didn’t know it yet but I really needed glasses! And so standing there in the batter’s box as the pitcher hurled a ball at me that I couldn’t see was not an easy thing for me to do. But I stung. That sorting process hurt and I carry that with me for that whole season. It is with that in mind that I enter into today’s gospel reading…
So let’s flesh today’s story out a little bit. A landowner goes into the marketplace to look for laborers to work in his vineyard. Now the marketplace would be the spot where people who needed to earn a day’s wages, day laborers, would come and hope to be selected by one of the many landowners who would come out in the morning gathering people to come and help work their crops. These are people who don’t always get to work, don’t always earn that day’s wages, don’t always get to feed their families at the end of the day. So there is some real anxiety here as the sorting, sifting, and the evaluation process begins. I’m sure that those landowners came in to the marketplace and they selected the people with whom they had a history, people whom they knew, people who had worked for them in the past. They would also make sure that they picked the largest, the strongest, the most agile, maybe people who have a certain air about them that they knew what they were doing. Whatever their criterion was by the time they finished they would take those workers off to their fields and others would be left behind; people who in that sifting and sorting and evaluation process had been sorted out.
It’s that group of people who are still standing there in the marketplace when the owner of our vineyard returns. He finds these people standing idle, there on the margins, sitting on the bench, and he invites more of them to come join him working in the vineyard. He comes back again at noon. He comes back again at three. And each time he comes back he gathers more of these people who had been sorted out and he takes them into the vineyard with him. Then at 5 o’clock so no more than an hour left in the working day, he comes back to the marketplace and he finds more people who have been sorted out. I think the exchange that happens between the landowner and these workers is key to our understanding of the story.
He says, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” Their response is, “Because no one has hired us.” Not because, “Well we got here late and we missed the first call.” Not, because “We just didn’t really feel like working today and so we didn’t put ourselves out there. We didn’t put ourselves forward.” They are still standing there in the marketplace without the opportunity to earn what they need to feed their families for that day because no one has hired them.
The next scene in our Gospel story today is, I think, the place where we spend most of our time and most of our energy because it rubs us the wrong way. These people who have worked less than an hour get paid the same wages as those who started the day in the vineyard early in the morning. But I have to ask this question… Do we really believe… because Jesus has said the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner goes through this process… do we really believe that God’s grace and love are doled out in different measures because of our merit or because of something that we’ve done. I don’t think that’s even on the table for us. I think we understand and know that God loves each and every one of us equally and that we are all beloved in God’s sight. So if you take a piece off the table then the real key to this story is God’s affection for the marginalized, those who have been sorted out, those who have been left on the margins, or on the bench. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who returns again and again and welcomes everyone into the vineyard!
On Facebook this week there’s this video that’s been making the rounds and in fact I posted it to the church is Facebook page this morning with a little teaser that I would be featuring it in the sermon this morning. I don’t know if any of you have seen this video yet. It’s a series of short vignettes and in the first one there’s a young man sitting on sort of the circular sofa. It looks like maybe he’s in an airport or shopping mall. He has several bags and it looks like he’s about to eat lunch. Another young man who looks very different from the first, clearly a different ethnicity, comes and sits on that same sofa. Suddenly beside the person who was there first is this sort of vaguely threatening, vaguely dangerous looking guy with long unkempt hair and haggard face and he whispers into the young man’s ears, “You’re not going to stay there are you?” and he gets up and leaves. The young man who was sitting on the sofa first moves a little further away from the man who has joined him. The man who arrived on the couch second looks up and notices, sort of raises his eyebrows for a moment, and then goes on with his business.
In the next vignette there is a person who is standing behind a cash register in a convenience store when someone walks in the door who looks very different from the proprietor. As she’s walking to the coolers in the back of the convenience store suddenly this threatening, dangerous looking person is standing next to the proprietor and he says, “I wonder what she’s really up to.” The proprietor looks at her again and when she gets her milk out of the cooler and walks back she knows by the look on that man’s face that she has been sorted, sifted, and evaluated… and sorted out. You can see the pain on her face when she recognizes that’s what’s happened.
In the next vignette a professional woman, well-dressed, sitting in a very modern office with big windows behind her at a nice clean table, a sheet of paper in her hands, is talking to a person who is clearly a job applicant. The applicant looks very different from the interviewer. This time that strange, threatening, dangerous looking person pops up out of nowhere next to the interviewer and says, “Can you really depend on her?” The interviewer’s smile turns to a frown. She closes all the papers into a neat pile, places her hand on top of them, and the young woman who’s hoping to get that job knows without a doubt that she has been sorted out.
In the last vignette; a crowded bus, a young woman gets on, walking down the center aisle. A man of color is sitting far down the bus. He picks up his laptop case and puts it on his lap so that she will have a place to sit. The dangerous character shows up again and whispers in her ear, “Don’t make eye contact.” She stops, turns her back on him, and holds onto one of the rails.
I think that the key for us in today’s gospel passage is that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes into the vineyard and isn’t afraid to invite into that vineyard people who are different, people who might not normally get the first call. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who returns again and again and without bias or prejudice invites everyone to join him in that space. I think that this gospel passage today is calling us look deep within ourselves and recognize those places where we unconsciously flinch, turn away, refuse to make eye contact, slide a little further down the couch, and let the person in our presence know, sometimes in subtle and sometimes in not-so-subtle ways, that we have sorted them out.
The videotape that I’ve been watching on Facebook this week is sponsored by the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience, a group of folks who work with high school students and with college students giving them mentors of their own ethnicity, their own nationality, who can help them to overcome the impact of having been constantly and consistently sorted out. The last words in this video… A narrator’s voice comes over the screen and says, “Discrimination leads to depression and anxiety in indigenous Australians. No one should be made to feel like crap just for being who they are.” The three words appear: Stop, Think, Respect. If we want to help realize God’s vision and dream for creation, if we want the vineyard to be here and now, then we need to be like that land owner. We need to look deep within ourselves and find those places where we turn away, where we don’t make eye contact, where we slide down the couch, and we need to acknowledge them and learn to resist. We need to return again and again to the marketplace because the people whom we have sorted out and left on the sidelines, on the margins, are not able to earn the daily wages that they need to feed themselves and to feed their families and God’s children are going unfed. We need to be sure that everyone in the marketplace, everyone in the vineyard, is loved, respected, and upheld because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, children of the loving God who has created us in God’s image, Stop. Think. Respect.