Working Class

Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 9/9/2020

During the boom of the Industrial Revolution, workers weren’t guaranteed weekends off, lunch breaks, 8-hour shifts, access to fresh air, safe job sites, or sanitary facilities to relieve themselves. And starting at age 5, children were expected to follow their parents down into the mines.  Until 10,000 workers in 1882 took unpaid leave to storm the streets of New York and march from City Hall to Union Square demanding more humane treatment.  After the first unions formed, Congress, 12 years later, adopted Labor Day as a federal holiday.   

Long before any recognition was hard won for the contributions of workers, fishermen without a net and line cooks without a kitchen, orderlies without a patient and fruit pickers without an orchard, camel drivers without a caravan gathered on the streets of ancient Palestine near the city gate where traffic crosses in both directions.  There, organized in small labor pools, they prayed for daily work to buy daily bread.  On one particular day, a landowner showed up at 6am and 9, noon and 3, and again at 5 with an empty farm truck looking for help.  When it came quitting time, an equal wage was paid for unequal work despite the protests of those first in the fields.      

While today’s parable is easily one of the most inflammatory, especially to those of us who want to earn our salvation, I’m also curious, as another Labor Day has passed, what does Jesus teach us about work?  

Matthew 20:1-16 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘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. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Congregational Responses:

Jesus destroys the hierarchy money creates. 

Working fulfills our created intent, part of our spiritual design.

In 2001, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, the 2167-mile verdant footpath connecting Georgia to Maine.  Over those seven months of solitude, I was serenaded by loons and accompanied by abandoned hunting dogs, freed from the tyranny of time and set in sync with the biorhythms of nature, wrapped by the stars and gently awoken by the sun.  But for every lingering contemplative vista, there was a roadside hustle of logistics.  To eat on the A.T., hikers do one of two things: either plan out their meals, package them beforehand at home, and mail drop a week’s worth of nourishment ahead to small post offices uptrail or they hitch hike into town and devour whatever is available to buy off the shelf.  I, multiples times a week for seven months, stuck my thumb into the wind.  Few experiences have left me more vulnerable to the whims of passing motorists or dependent on the kindness of strangers.  Standing in my boots straddling the white line, sometimes for hours, I would shift my weight to assume a posture that most communicated trust, untie my bandana to reveal more of my face, unshoulder my backpack to appear smaller, smile and wave to disarm, do anything to be more approachable as cars approached.  With every driver there was a moment when our eyes would meet and I could see them consider the situation, make an assessment of my character, and wince at the split-second decision: pick up the suspect hiker or hit the gas pedal.  Even after so much practice on the asphalt with passing taillights, and the very legitimate reasons not to pick up a traveler, every drive by still felt like a rejection, a public plea for help gone unmet.   

Rightly, this parable is typically preached from the perspective of the early arriving laborers.  The sweat equity disciples who have lived out their faith dutifully, toiling under the sun of over achievement, counting the seconds until the whistle blows when their hard work will be rewarded with a fat paycheck and a front row seat in heaven.  But come time to settle up, turns out the boss is an irresponsible business owner who doesn’t care about balancing the books.  God cheats the very people who plead for fairness and grumble over grace.  But if we over identify with the shock of being wronged, then we miss the plight of the late arriving labors.    

Far worse than being denied while trying to thumb a ride, is painfully waiting every day holding a sign saying, “Need Work.”  There are few things more publicly shaming than standing idle, for all to see, with your bib overalls on and tool belt tightened, announcing your unemployment with no takers.  The humiliation- despite resumes folded in your back pocket and references ready to share an affirmative word- of getting passed by over and again. 

What Jesus teaches us about work is that while the world might not be taking applications right now, God’s always hiring.  5 times a day, from sunrise to supper, upper management is driving through town in a beater farm truck, head hanging out the window, announcing with a smile for every laborer to hear, “There’s a vacancy in the vineyard. Come on. I need you.”        

Hear the Good News, there’s no unemployment in the kingdom.  The gift of the parable is less the wage and more the chance to work. The indiscriminate invitation that goes out to all of us to participate in ministry.  You’re hired.  You’re hired.  You’re hired.  Regardless of whether we’ve been laid off or denied another entry level position or got disability, we’re all working class to God.      

While the rights of workers will never fully be realized in the marketplace, everyone has a job in the vineyard.  So get in the truck; the harvest is near; the time is now to clock in.