September 20th: Proper 20, the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for Sunday, September 20th, was based on the below manuscript. The gospel text appointed for the day was Matthew 20.1-16.

In criticizing academic white feminism
that rose during the 1970s,
self-described black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lord wrote,
“the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
They may allow us temporarily
to beat him at his own game,
but they will never enable us
to bring about genuine change.”
Although Lorde’s words
are not about today’s passage,
today’s gospel passage
tells us how different our impulses are
from what God’s reign is like.

After Jesus tells the disciples,
“It is easier for a camel
to go through the eye of a needle
than for someone who is rich
to enter the kingdom of God”
Peter says, “We gave everything up for you!
What will we get?”
Jesus answers by telling the disciples
about their rewards,
and continuing by taking about the rewards
for all Jesus’ followers.
He draws a contrast, too,
in this parable.
Peter is looking for rewards and special treatment,
and Jesus tells him that God’s abundant grace
is more special treatment than we can imagine.

A landowner has gone out to find day laborers
needing to harvest his grapes
and to get the work done.
He hires folks
and it turns out there aren’t enough.
So he goes back again
and again
and again.
He’s agreed with the first workers
to pay them a day’s typical wages.
He tells the later additions
that they will get what is right.
At the end of the day,
they all get paid
a day’s wages.
Those who started first in the morning —
or perhaps those who started following Jesus first
or early in their lives —
expect to get paid more
although there’s been no indication that they will be.
The property owner replies to one complaint,
“Friend, 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…
Are you envious because I am generous?”

It’s been a hard year, huh?
Global pandemic,
wildfires and smoke,
named storms in the Atlantic and Gulf,
flooding in the Midwest,
a presidential election year,
and the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday.
Whether you’ve done work around elections,
just worn a mask and stayed inside like you’re supposed to,
driven a Prius or electric car
or cut down on meat
or taken other actions to effect climate change
you may feel like Peter asking Jesus,
“How long Lord? What do we get in return?!”
With the political landscape as it is,
the temptation to grind our enemies under our heels
is strong — no matter who we view as our enemies.
They got us to where we are,
let’s try to undo it the way they do.
Jesus makes it clear today,
that that’s not what God’s reign is like.
As Lorde taught us,
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
The cycle just keeps going.

What Jesus makes clear today
is that in God’s reign,
there is more than enough.
Starting with God’s love and grace
being more than we can ask or imagine.
I am very fairness and justice minded,
so most reads of this passage over my life
have rubbed me wrong
and made me uncomfortable.
“Yes, Jesus, I am envious because you are generous!
I have worked and worked,
and just all these people get the rewards too?
That’s obnoxiously unfair!”

In time, however, I’ve come to see
just what a blessing that unfairness is.
I like to imagine myself
as the early worker,
but I’m late to the game of anti-racism work.
I like to imagine myself
as the early worker,
but every day I fail in some way or another
to keep the promises of my baptism.
I “got saved” and baptized when I was six,
that’s pretty early!
There have been breaks along the way though,
and at the end of the day,
God gives everyone
from God’s generosity.
Salvation doesn’t come
because we’ve worked harder and longer
because we’ve earned it.
Salvation — the full restoration of life and health —
comes because of God’s goodness
and Jesus’ self-sacrifice.

The disciples were looking for a military leader,
someone to overthrow Rome.
They were looking for the master’s tools
to dismantle the master’s house.
God’s reign,
manifest in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension,
doesn’t do that.
Peter wants to know about rewards
and how they’re earning anything.
Jesus tells him that the last will be first,
and the first will be last,
just like the day laborers are paid
in the parable.

It’s been a hard year.
Global pandemic,
wildfires and smoke,
named storms in the Atlantic and Gulf,
flooding in the Midwest,
a presidential election year,
and the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday.
I feel like Paul writing not in next week’s passage,
but in today’s from Philippians,
“If I am to live in the flesh,
that means fruitful labor for me;
and I do not know which I prefer.
I am hard pressed between the two:
my desire is to depart and be with Christ,
for that is far better;
but to remain in the flesh
is more necessary for you.
Since I am convinced of this,
I know that I will remain and continue with all of you
for your progress and joy in faith,
so that I may share abundantly
in your boasting in Christ Jesus.”

In the difficulty of this year,
I want to give up,
to stop trying, to stop caring.
I get caught with my compassion down sometimes.
Yet, God’s reign is at hand,
and God’s reign, Jesus tells us,
is where the last are first
and the first are last.
God’s reign doesn’t rely on the master’s tools
to dismantle the master’s house.
God’s reign is one of self-sacrifice, modeled my Jesus
not might making right
or grinding enemies under the heel.
God’s reign has an abundance of goodness, love, and grace
not a scarcity of any of that,
for everyone who comes
no matter how late they arrive.

Activist, educator, writer, and thought leader
saved by God’s generous, abundant grace
Brittany Packnett Cunningham said yesterday morning,
“I choose the discipline of hope over the ease of cynicism.
I choose fortitude over fatalism.
I choose to be who my ancestors protected
and my creator formed.
I choose strategy and organizing
as the container for my anger.
I choose to be more than a conqueror.”
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,
and in God’s reign the last are first and the first our last.
Following Jesus’ example,
may we choose to be more than conquerors,
looking for a reward
or frustrated with God’s abundant grace. Amen.

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