The story we have heard in this morning’s Gospel is a disturbing one…actually, many of Jesus’ parables are disturbing, disruptive; they were for those who heard him in person, and they are for us today, as long as we can really listen to them with fresh ears, peeling back the varnish of familiarity and layers of interpretation. The parables are designed to give us pause, to bring us up short. So what is it this time?
In telling this story of the land owner and the workers in the vineyard, our fundamental assumptions about what is fair gets turned upside down – in fact, fairness doesn’t even enter into it!
The land owner goes to the central market where the day laborers gather and makes an agreement with the people he hires, and off they go to work. Four more times throughout the day the land owner does the same thing – at 9 am, at noon, at 3 pm and at 5 pm. And at the end of the work day, at 6 pm, when the wages are paid, each worker gets the same amount of money…and boy, does the first group of workers complain! “You meant to tell me that even though those guys worked only one hour they are getting the same as us, who slaved away in the hot sun all day?”
You can understand why they are upset, it doesn’t seem fair or right; and yet the land owner chides them: “Why are you upset? I paid you what I told you I would; I’ve been honest with you. I can choose to make a different arrangement with other people. Or is the real reason for your anger your resentment of my generosity?” As Americans, fairness is ingrained in us; our Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal,” and that is a wonderful premise upon which to build a nation and our political institutions.
However, Jesus tells this parable – which we might best title “The Parable of the Landowner’s Generosity” – in order to describe to us what the kingdom of God is like, what God’s nature and character are, and how we who are part of God’s Kingdom are called to act.
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard…and [at the end of the day] said, “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?”
Generosity is not about fairness, or who has earned what, or who deserves what, or whether everyone is tor gets the same. Generosity is about an unexpected gift that has no strings attached, that can’t and shouldn’t be paid back, or reciprocated, or that should create a feeling of indebtedness, or even be “paid forward.”
Generosity is about the nature and character of the giver; it is, Jesus tells us, part of who God is, and that divine character overflows in God’s action and relationship with us, God’s creatures – that’s what grace is all about. And because we are made in God’s image, we are to share God’s character; because we have been baptized into Christ, the grace of God lives and grows in us as we grow in faith.
Generosity isn’t measured in what is given, but in how it is given; it’s not about writing an enormous check and then getting a gold-plated “thank you.” Instead, generosity is about approaching life with an open heart and an open hand, knowing full well that it can make us vulnerable to being hurt, being taken advantage of. Generosity is about entering the world with the eyes of God, and actively imagining with God the goodness that can be created and called forth in the lives of other people, and then doing what you can to make that happen.
This is what the Kingdom of heaven is all about, and it’s what Jesus is holding up as a model for Christian action; since God is generous, and we are to be like God, we should also be generous – whatever that may mean in our particular circumstances and in the lives of those who cross our path.
Yesterday was our annual Rummage Sale. It is our largest fund-raiser of the year, and each year everyone’s hard work and dedication pays off, and I am very glad for that. I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said that the income from the sale doesn’t matter to funding the operations of the church’s ministries. But if that was the only reason for having the Rummage Sale, then we might as well open a campaign with Go Fund Me or any of the other on-line crowd funding websites and be done with it.
Instead, the Rummage Sale gives us an opportunity to practice generosity on many different levels.
First there is the generosity of all the items that are donated. Now in some cases donors are just glad to have all that stuff out of their house and can’t get rid of it fast enough; but in other cases, people have made hard decisions as they have down-sized or made room in their lives for the next stage, and so getting rid of kid’s toys, or a particular piece of furniture, or a picture, or set of dishes is hard because it represents letting go of something dear to you. Offering it to the Rummage Sale can be a way of giving thanks for what has been, and letting the Spirit do with those memories and possessions whatever God will do next. And so we who work with the donors can be gentle with those memories, and gracious in our response, even when we have to say “No, I’m sorry, we don’t take books and clothes” or “That piece of equipment needs to be cleaned before we can accept it.”
We have an opportunity to practice generosity in the way we interact with our shoppers, treating them with dignity, kindness and respect – even if they are being cranky and difficult, not to allow ourselves to be taken advantage of, but at least making our default position being one of open-heartedness. You never know – a kind and helpful word or deed extended to a rummage sale visitor may be the only thing that’s gone right for them that day; you can make difference.
Another way in which the Rummage Sale gives us an opportunity to practice God’s generosity is the way it helps to build community – not just among us as parishioners, but in our neighborhood and in our town. Having the tents up, being outside, creating a festive atmosphere where people can enjoy mixing with one another and being together says: this is what human community should be like, regardless of financial ability, race, age, social class or any of the other usual social dividers; we all gather under the tents and on the church lawns, All Saints’ providing a container for it all.
And finally, we practice God’s generosity in the way we share ourselves. It’s far more than “service with a smile”; it’s about being open to seeing and hearing what God is doing in the world all around you, all the time. The Rummage Sale brings people to our doorstep, and you never know: maybe someone comes to the sale thinking that they are looking for a frying pan or a bureau, but deep down they are actually looking for God.
Or even more to the point, perhaps the person who comes to you for help in trying to figure out the price of a bedspread says to you – in the course of your discussion – the very thing that God knew you needed to hear. Your act of generosity opens the door for the Holy Spirit to bless you, as much as you might bless someone else.
We have no need to be envious of God’s generosity, thinking back to the parable; it is abundant, un-looked for, and surprising. As faithful disciples, then, we need to practice generosity, day by day, bit by bit, in whatever ways we are able to.
Let us pray.
You call us to work for you, and you surprise us with your generosity; make our hearts and souls to be a reflection of your character and goodness; and help us to make our actions and presence in the world a gift, and not a demand; a blessing, and not a curse, that your holy Name may be glorified, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 21, 2014