Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 20 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Last week’s parable, about some unpleasant people, and the route to eternal punishment through attempts at violent debt collection, was, as I mentioned, introduced in an ambiguous way, with Jesus saying something like “the kingdom of heaven has been compared to this.” Today, he is much more straightforward – introducing this parable, he simply says that the kingdom of heaven is like this. And today’s parable is a fine illustration indeed of the way that the kingdom violates all the common sense of the world, even those priniciples, like paying people for the work they’ve actually done, which are, in the normal way of things, fairly good advice. In this parable, a vineyard owner, who seems to be not very good at forward planning, gradually hires more and more labourers over the course of a day, and at the end of the day decides that he will simply pay everyone a full day’s wages, whether they’ve actually worked since dawn or only been there for half an hour. This makes no economic sense for him, and not a great deal of sense according to any known social code, and it is hardly surprising that those who’ve put in a a full day’s work are less than pleased.

But this is not the logic of the world but the logic of the kingdom, and the logic of the kingdom is always a bit mad—because it is the logic of radical equality, a vision in which we are all of equal importance, and all have precisely enough. It is a principle which is almost unknown in the world, only glimpsed in a few utopian moments. But it is the entire principle by which God operates. A kingdom in which we are all, every desperate needy one of us, of exactly the same, exactly infinite value.

Those labourers who come at the end, those men who’ve been, to put it in contemporary terms, standing in the parking lot of the temp agency all day, hoping that someone will come with an offer, and just about out of hope as the sun goes down, are given, not the worth of their labour, but the worth of their being. Hungry and desperate, probably, they expect a few coins which might buy them a bit of bread and nowhere to sleep. But they receive what everyone else receives. This is the kingdom, the kingdom of the out of luck and overlooked, the kingdom where everyone has enough, and no one has more.

We see the same thing in the story of the manna. As many commentators have pointed out, the children of Israel could have gotten from Egypt to their promised land in a short and efficient hike. They did not actually need to spend a whole generation walking around in circles eating mysterious bread from the sky and complaining to Moses about it. But there is a pedagogy of the wilderness. The years of lost wandering are a part of the long narrative of God trying to form a people who would be different, a community based on values as distinct and as strange as the behaviour of the vineyard owner. God’s people must be made and re-made, displaced and confused and given new stories. The lectionary, unfortunately, partly obscures this story by where it chooses to end the reading. If you go on for a few more sentences, you learn something crucial — you cannot stockpile the manna; it will simply and rapidly rot. No one can have more than anyone else; the very nature of God’s gift will not allow it. But nor can you fall short, because you don’t have as much strength to gather as the next person, or as many hands to help you. There will always be enough, and never too little or too much. The manna will provide each person with the food they need.

We live in a society which encourages us to think that there is never just enough, an economy which depends upon us in our identity as “consumers” never being satisfied, always finding something else to want; I remember once I riding a bus in North Toronto past some kind of retail establishment which had, prominently emblazoned in its window, the slogan “INVENTING DESIRE.” I remember, more recently, that as soon as the pandemic restrictions began to ease in the spring, the first thing I saw was huge line-ups in front of Holt-Renfrew and Aritizia. This is, in some ways, the motive force of our whole society, an economy which must never cease, not even in a pandemic, not even at the cost of human lives, for the imaginary structures of capital and debt forbid it. But our scriptures are about the end of invented desire, about a fulfillment that does not depend on more and yet more, where the strong profit at the expense of the weak, as the richest have grown richer even through these last few months, while the vulnerable have, in many cases, fallen off the cliff of deprivation. We must learn to desire differently.

Of course, we all have days when we feel like the labourers who arrived early. We have given all that we have to give, and been unrecognized. The diligent mask-wearers, the front-line workers, the people trying to look after children at home and earn a living at the same time, the people who haven’t seen their aging parents for six months or more, as the case numbers creep up and we seem to be sleepwalking into a second wave of the virus. Or just the people who work to their limit every day to try to live well and love their neighbours. We are tired, we are spent, and we want to be acknowledged, to be seen, to be loved. And we want this to happen not indiscriminately but preferentially. This is that hard knot in human nature—that, all too often, we can only feel valued if we are valued more than someone else, rewarded more than someone who seems not to be trying nearly as hard. There is that part of us which keeps on whispering that infinite love is no good if _everyone gets it infinitely. But we cannot make God work that way. Infinite love goes on being infinite and indiscriminate, and challenges us to try to turn the human world in that direction.

For everyone will, at some time or another, also be like the workers who arrived at the end of the day. Not very useful, not expecting much, too close to the edge. We are too sick, too sad, too old, too young, we do not have the right abilities, we may be too confused or traumatized or resentful, we may believe even in ourselves that we do not deserve enough to live, don’t really deserve life or love. But there is in God’s love never lack nor wavering, and the failures in the eyes of the world are exactly equally precious in the eyes of God. The original audience for Matthew’s gospel may have read this parable as being about the Gentiles, suddenly included in the covenant they had preserved for generations; but there are always outsiders, incomers. And we are always sometimes outsiders ourselves.

Every now and then we glimpse it, that vision of God’s economy. In those rare and amazing moments in all our lives when we manage, for a few moments, to be part of a beloved community, a place where everyone, really everyone, is really at home, with no need to invent desires, to accumulate tokens of status or pretty toys stained with blood. In a protest camp or a parish hall, with another person or with God alone; for that too can be a part of community. Sharing food, sharing play or work, creating art or music, in a warm place or by a green tree, simply speaking, or not speaking but only being, a part of the general dance. When we understand, a little bit, the foolish extravagant welcome of God. It is transient, messy, strange, and when we know it, we usually know it poised on the cusp between discomfort and joy. But it is the place to which all our loves are turning, whether we can recognize it or not. The wilderness, the kingdom.