“Work and the Realm of Heaven”
August 31, 2014
You know that
Labor Day is one of my favorite holidays.
I agree with Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American
Federation of Labor who pointed out that “Labor Day differs in every essential
from other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a
more or less degree connected with conflict and battles of prowess over others,
of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation
over another. Labor Day is devoted to no one person, living or dead, to no
sect, race or nation.” Indeed, as Peter McGuire said, “It is dedicated to peace,
civilization and the triumphs of industry. It is the harbinger of a better
age…[when] labor shall be best honored and well rewarded.”
Yes, this is the
weekend when my union background is most obvious. My father worked as a
mediator for the printers’ union. In high school and college I was a
card-carrying member of the American Federation of Musicians, whose motto proclaimed,
“Live Music Is Best.” It was “money for nothing” in those days.
Of course, money
for something is the way it works for
most of us. We work. We get paid.
Paul writes to
the Corinthians: “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common
purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.” That is
straightforward and fair. Like the old union poster said, “An honest dollar for
an honest day’s work.”
A couple of
years ago a member of our congregation suggested to the Mission Board that this
church should become an affiliate member of the Center for Worker Justice of
Eastern Iowa. The combination of my union background and my understanding of
the Bible made me eager to support that partnership. After all, the Center unites workers and community allies to stand up for the
dignity and basic rights of all workers.
One of the harsh realities of life in Iowa City that the
Center is addressing is wage theft. One example: Two workers at an Iowa City
factory came to the office of the Center for Worker Justice for help. They were
each owed hundreds of dollars in unpaid wages for their hard work on an
assembly line, but their manager wasn’t paying them. One of the workers told what happened: “When I asked for
the pay I was owed, my boss said, ‘Immigrants like you don’t have the right to
a paycheck. Forget about your check.’ But I had worked hard for my wages.”
with Center for Worker Justice staff and volunteers, the workers reviewed the
facts of their case, and agreed to send a delegation of allies from churches,
unions, and community groups to speak with the manager.
It worked. The workers recovered
nearly $1,000 in wages they were owed, and the employer learned that its
workers are no longer alone.
message to others: “Don’t be afraid. We have rights and groups like CWJ can
support of this congregation has helped people recover more than $5,000 in
unpaid wages; it has educated low-wage workers about their rights in the
workplace; working with the Department of Labor, it has improved practices in
recovering unpaid wages.
Bible and the Christian tradition both speak at length about economic justice.
And news reports are constantly telling of ways in which that biblical mandate
is ignored. So I give thanks for the decision of the Mission Board to heed the
call for justice, to support paying employees a fair and living wage.
The support that
our congregation gives to such actions is not a solution to all the problems.
New challenges will continue to arise. But our commitments are a sign that what
Jesus called the realm of heaven is breaking into our world, that justice is
possible, that work will be rewarded.
Now, since I’ve chosen
to preach from the central portion of Matthew’s gospel this summer, we hear
this morning not only Paul’s stirring call to fairness and justice for workers
but also that odd and troubling parable that Jesus told about the workers in
This is probably
the least favorite Bible story for union people—an example of the
capriciousness of employers and obviously an indication of the need for a
better contract. If we heard a story like this told by workers in Iowa City, we
might think it was another account of wage theft.
It’s not fair!
“These last have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who
have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
It’s not fair!
hear this parable and say: “Well, that’s an interesting story, but you can’t
expect us to operate our business that way. It would lead to chaos among the
work force. The hardest workers wouldn’t have it.”
representatives respond: “We’re always glad to hear the Bible, but you can
expect people to give up the just desserts of overtime and seniority.”[i]
Now, from the
point of view of the owner of the vineyard, this is a story about just wages. Each worker was paid and all the
workers were paid the wages to which they agreed. But there is something about
this parable that troubles us.
If you were in worship about a month ago
you might remember that we then heard the parable of Jesus about the weeds and
wheat—about a landowner, who, on discovering weeds had been planted in his
field said leave the weeds alone and let them grow up with the wheat. And I
told you how the twentieth century social ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr said of
this tale: “This is a parable taken from agriculture to illustrate a point of
morals, and it violates every principle of agriculture and of morals.”[ii]
What we heard
this morning is a parable taken from the world of work to illustrate a point of
justice that violates every principle of labor and justice.
Once again, as
we listen to Jesus we’re left asking: What’s going on here?
Jesus would have
us believe that the realm of heaven is something like this. And once more I
need to say for those of you who weren’t here during the summer, as well as for
those who were, that when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he is not,
primarily, talking about what will or won’t happen to us when we die. This is
not a story about being “rewarded” for our work or our faithfulness after
death. This is a story about the way in which God’s realm of justice is coming
into our broken world and our broken lives even now. This is a story about the
strange yet compassionate way in which God is at work in our world and our lives.
The more I
listen to this passage, the more I get a sense that Jesus is not just talking
about work. He is talking about how we live and about our attitude toward all
Now, grace is
one of those religious words that is often used but less often understood.
Buechner says that grace is something we can never get. It can only be given.
There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about—any more than we can
“deserve” the taste of fresh blueberries or “earn” good looks or bring about
our own birth.[iii]
He adds, “The
grace of God means something like [God saying to us]: ‘Here is your life. You
might never have been, but you are
because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.
Nothing can ever separate us…I love you.’
one catch, however. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if
you’ll reach out and take it.”
The realm of
heaven is about justice—getting what we deserve. And even more, the realm of
heaven is about grace—getting what we don’t deserve, those times when the last
become the first.
arises because all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time really
don’t like it when that happens to someone else.
Jesus is trying to make a point here, and as usual
those who follow him don’t seem to get it.
We can’t buy or
push our way into the love that God has for us. Our standing in the community
makes no difference at all. What we know or who we know does not make us
greater recipients of the grace of God.
But perhaps, we
think . . . Perhaps if we worked real
hard. Perhaps if we fed enough hungry people or sheltered enough homeless or
welcomed enough refugees or recovered even more wages for workers, we’d be on
the inside track. Perhaps by doing enough of the right things, we will enter the realm of heaven before others.
And when the
wages are given out, we’d find . . .
Well, we’d find
that “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.”
We would find,
in short, the grace of God—grace that is amazing, yes, and disturbing and
strangely comforting. It is unexpected and maybe not exactly what we would
want. God’s abundance poured out on everyone, the early risers and the
latecomers, the first and the last, free for the taking.
Then this might
be about work after all.
“The last will
be first and the first will be last.”
Even now those
who are paid low wages and even having those wages stolen from them, those who
are doing work that no one notices, no one rewards, those who are treated in
ways that we would call “unfair”—even now they are participants in God’s great
reversal. It’s happening. It’s happening even here in Iowa City. This is what I
meant when I said that our support of the Center for Worker Justice is not a
solution to all of the problems faced by workers in our community. But it is a
sign that the realm of heaven is coming near, that difficult, life-denying,
soul-destroying situations can turn around. It can happen for other people. It
can happen for you.
And this is even
about our work, your work.
The good news is
this: we can let up on our earnest striving. We can do our best, give our
utmost—and then let it be. That is to say, we can work with grace. Our work can
be a channel toward life.
Look at your
calendar. It says volumes about your spiritual condition, your values, fears,
and ambitions. It tells who your bosses are, whom you love, and how much value
you place on your soul. It tells you what is first and what is last in your own
wrote these words to other ministers: “If you fill your calendar with important
appointments you will have no time for God. If you fill your spare time with
essential reading you will starve your soul. If you fill you mind with worry
about budgets and offerings, the pains in your chest and the ache in your
shoulders will betray you. If you try to conform to the expectations of those
around you, you will be forever their slave. Work a modest day then step back
and rest. This will keep you close to God.”[iv]
“Take a long, prayerful, meditative look at your planner. Who are you trying to
impress? God? Give me a break. Your congregation? Possibly. Yourself? Bingo.”
The suggestion? “Now,
cut some big chunks out of each week for family, rest, meditation, prayer, and
flower sniffing. When you’ve done that, we’ll talk more about the path to God.”
It’s advice for
clergy because we can overwork along with the best workaholics. But this is
also sound advice for anyone who finds work can overshadow life.
Cut some big
chunks out of each week for family, rest, meditation, prayer, and flower
Be open to the
grace of God in your work and in the rest of your life.
If you have been
working hard, if you are worn out—God offers you grace and rest.
If you have
arrived later in the day— God offers you grace and rest.
To each of us—to
all of us—God offers the same generous wages, the same unconditional love, the
Frederick Borsch, Many Things in Parables, pg. 33.
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg.
William Martin, The Art of Pastoring,