“Work and the Realm of Heaven”

August 31, 2014


I Corinthians 3:5-15

Matthew 20:1-16


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.”

Working 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.

The message to others: “Don’t be afraid. We have rights and groups like CWJ can help.”

The 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.
The 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 the vineyard.

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!

And impractical.

Business leaders 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.”

Union 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 of life.

He’s talking about “grace.”

Now, grace is one of those religious words that is often used but less often understood.

Frederick 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.’

“There’s only 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.

The problem 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 life.

One minister 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]

The advice? “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 sniffing.

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 same grace.

[i] Frederick Borsch,  Many Things in Parables, pg. 33.

[ii]Niebuhr, Justice and Mercy, pg. 55-56.

[iii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg. 33.

[iv] William Martin, The Art of Pastoring, pg. 9.