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The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/24/2017  

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Proper 20 Year A 1st option 9-24-17

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Exodus 16:2-15; Ps. 105:1-6, 37-45; Phil. 1:21-30; Matt. 20:1-16


In the wilderness we cry out, O God, and quails appear; you satisfy us with bread from heaven. You open the rock and the waters flow; the river runs in dry places. Help us to remember your goodness. Help us to give as generously out of our own abundance, which comes only from you. AMEN.


OK, buckle your seatbelts, all: we’re going to have us a little bit of bible study! Today’s parable about the laborers in the vineyard – the second in a lectionary line-up from Matthew’s Gospel that will continue all fall long – is a part of the collection of Jesus’ stories that bible scholar Robert Farrar Capon calls, “the parables of judgment.” Capon wrote three books about Jesus’ parables and titled them “The Parables of the Kingdom, The Parables of Grace, and The Parables of Judgment.” While we’re pretty eager for parables that assure us of the presence (or coming) of God’s Kingdom, God’s realm of shalom, and we’re always right ready to learn about the parables of grace from stories that overwhelm us with the generosity of God, the parables of judgment aren’t quite so high on our list of desirables. Judgment is a less-popular topic! And well we should be leery of them: they lead us straight to Jesus’ Crucifixion. And Jesus’ Crucifixion is “the scandal” that confounded the disciples and continues to confound us regularly in the spiritual life. Because we want our mighty God straight-up, no ambiguities about him. None of that giving-up of power. None of that putting aside of swords. We want to be the first into the vineyard, earning a well-defined “wage” of salvation. We want “fire and fury” to solve all our problems (just so long as we’re not on the receiving end). So we tend only to want to hear about judgment when it applies to “those other people,” the ones who are “wrong,” the ones who showed up too late to earn a living wage.


Sorry to tell you, but we’re in for a whole line-up of judgment in the coming weeks, and it’s not going to let us off the hook. Jesus’ parables of judgment are “equal opportunity;” we’re all implicated. Much as we would like to get “on the right side of God” and stay there – much as we’d like to be able to “earn” our salvation – life is much more problematic than that. The rain doth fall upon the just as well as the unjust. Just because we love God doesn’t mean we are spared. Things fall apart; the center doesn’t hold; and we are left to pick up the pieces and make sense of it all. We can’t do that very successfully as long as we’re trying to live into a “prosperity gospel” or a “works-righteousness” gospel. The minute we’re up against an intransigent adversity such as flattened the islands of Barbuda (under Hurricane Irma) and Dominika & Puerto Rico (under Hurricane Maria), our linking of our own effort to the reception of God’s goodness easily becomes a punishment and an anguish instead of life-giving. It leaves us little option but to give up on God.


So how CAN the parables of judgment be life-giving? If our efforts to be good don’t buy us salvation, how CAN we participate in God’s goodness… or even BELIEVE in it? Sorry to tell you, it’s all about baptismal dying, dying into Christ.


Capon teaches us this: “The theme of judgment – of crisis, of decisive, history-altering and history-fulfilling action on the part of God – is present in Jesus’ teaching from the earliest days of his ministry. At first, his pronouncements about judgment are couched in more or less traditional language: like the stock apocalyptic scenarios of the later prophets and the revivalist movements of Jesus’ time, their imagery implies that God will intervene in history at some final day and settle its score not only with a bang but with plenty of whimpering on the part of the world. In a word, Jesus starts out sounding like John the Baptist. But as he develops the theme, this judgment, this “krisis” [in Greek, “krisis” means judgment, accusation, even damnation], this “krisis” gradually becomes more complex. Simple intervention on God’s part is replaced by puzzling images of nonintervention. Direct, right-handed action that rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked is downplayed in favor of a mysterious, left-handed dispensation that indiscriminately exalts the last, the lost, the least, and the little – a dispensation, in fact, that achieves its goal by the vast leveling action of a universal resurrection of the dead. So much so, that when Jesus finally comes to deliver his formal parables of judgment, he tells [all the judgment parables] in the last few days before the crucifixion. Therefore, if there is a single, major subtext to his developed teaching about judgment – if he has in mind any unifying, governing principle in these parables – it is sure to be something closely linked to his own death and resurrection.” [Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI]


Sure enough, if we look back over our Gospel passages of the last few weeks, they are launched by Jesus’ first two predictions of his impending trial, torture and crucifixion – predictions profoundly unpalatable to his disciples, who have been anticipating his successful seizing of power, as any good Messiah would, from the imperial Romans. And today’s Gospel passage from Matthew Chapter 20, which is a bit of a leap from last week’s passage from Chapter 18, comes right before Jesus’ third prediction: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” [Matt. 20:17-19]


And Chapter 19, the one the lectionary skips over this time around? It winds up by foreshadowing the final words of TODAY’s passage, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.


The “last will be first, and the first will be last.” If we could frame the fundamental theme of Jesus’ parables of judgment, this would be it. Today’s story is no exception. Even were we not living in a time when we know undocumented immigrants have often lined up on specific street corners and town squares across our country, hoping to be hired for day’s labor at whatever wage the “landowners” or business owners choose to offer, and even if we were not living in a time when it is now too dangerous even to seek work in this visible way for fear the Immigration & Customs Enforcement officers will show up and cart you away for deportation, separating your from your family and consigning you to years in detention and a return to an economically hopeless context in your country of origin, we would know that those last, waiting workless in the hot late-afternoon sun, are what Capon calls “the least, the last, the lost & the littlest.” Today, they would be the unluckiest of all in our society, mostly people of color, many without even a command of American English, certainly possessing little opportunity to improve their lives or even support their families decently. And we know that our undocumented immigrants are perennially “the last:” the last to have arrived and therefore somehow the unworthy of the economic blessings of the American context. Unworthy, now, even of medical care, of education, of any future whatsoever.


Yet Jesus’ story is unequivocal. The last ARE hired, and in the end, the last are paid the same as the first. The first, having “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat,” knowing that they have earned every penny of their day’s wages, are understandably pissed off. Never mind that at the story’s beginning, they had negotiated their salary with the business owner, who had “agreed with the laborers for the usual daily wage,” says Matthew’s Jesus, and that is precisely what they’ve received. It’s the fact that these others have only worked six hours, three hours, even just one hour, that makes the earlier laborers so angry. What justice is this? Any ten-year-old with an allowance knows that the five-year-old shouldn’t get the same amount!


Friend,” says the landowner in the parable, “I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?


This – this senseless magnanimity, this scandalous generosity – is what manifests the presence of God’s realm of love. The parables of judgment lay bare our unwillingness to rejoice that others might be recipients of that generosity, that love. They expose our clutching desire to maintain our right to whatever largesse (or advantage) we possess. As Robert Farrar Capon says, they reveal our bookkeeper’s approach to life, maintaining the constant ledger that tots up our right to our privileges. (Or, worse yet, consigns us to perennial disadvantage because our ledgers don’t add up.) Yes indeed we are envious. And our envy mandates and extends the inequities of situation and privilege through millennia of human history. And imprisons us in its accountant’s logic.


Jesus tries so hard to talk us out of this. The closer he gets to Jerusalem, the harder he works to persuade us to give up our advantages, to see every other as worthy of equal consideration and blessing. The more vivid his probable fate, the more he tries to convince us to throw out the ledgers altogether, and realize that WE ARE ALL are qualified equally for God’s love, no matter how many hours we’ve worked in the vineyard. We remain obtuse. In the end, the only way he has to make the case is to give himself up entirely. Capon writes, “There is no way of leaving what Jesus actually did as the final act of his ministry out of our assessment of what he thought and taught about the ultimate action of God in judgment. It says that the “krisis,” the judgment, is precisely one of forgiveness, of a saving grace that works by death and resurrection. For at the consummate moment of God’s mysterious intervention in history, he operates by nonintervention – by a hands-off rather than a hands-on policy. On the cross, with nails through his hands and feet, he does all that judges needs doing; and he does it all by doing precisely nothing. He just dies. He does not get mad. He does not get even. He just gets out.” [Op cit., The Parables of Judgment]


To accept so radical a salvation is to accept death – the death of our own calculations, our own accounting, our own insistence upon our “just deserts.” “God gave up on salvation by the books,” Capon says. “He cancelled everyone’s records in the death of Jesus and rewarded us all, equally and fully, with a new creation in the resurrection from the dead. And therefore the only adverse judgment that falls on the world falls on those who take their stand on a life [that shuts God’s generosity out] rather than on a death [that welcomes God in]. Only the winners lose, because only the losers can win: the reconciliation simply cannot work any other way. Evil cannot be gotten out of the world by reward and punishment: that just points up the shortage of sheep and turns God into one more score-evening goat. The only way to solve the problem of evil is for God to do what in fact he did: to take it out of the world by taking into himself – down into the forgettery of Jesus’ dead human mind – and to close the books on it forever. That way, the kingdom of heaven is for everybody; hell is reserved only for the idiots who insist on keeping nonexistent records in their heads.” [Op cit., The Parables of Judgment]


Quails and the manna-bread: the generosity of God is freely given, yet recognized only in the wilderness. Now, in this time when the bookkeepers are manifestly in charge of the world and shouting imprecations at each other, is the time for us to die to our own advantages, and rise to a new life lived in God’s generosity – to support the undocumented; to advocate for immigration reform and criminal justice reform; and most immediately, to extend the hand of generosity to the Antiguans and Dominicans, the Puerto Ricans and Houstonians, whose lives have been flattened or drowned by hurricanes, to Mexicans crushed by earthquakes. This is the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says in Matthew. This is God’s divine, eternal banquet, God’s party! And you, beloved, only have to die to your own advantage to be welcome there, along with everybody else.  “Heaven,” writes Capon, “is what all the rednecks and [immigrants], all the [workers] who never showed up – all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who just gave up winning – simply waltz up to the bar of judgment with full pay envelopes and get down [to the party] that makes the new creation go round.” AMEN. [Op cit., The Parables of Judgment]