“Work and Grace”

September 4, 2011


I Corinthians 3:5-15

Matthew 20:1-6


Several years ago I was worshipping at First Congregational Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was Labor Day weekend and the minister there, the late Allen Happe, was preaching. He was preaching about work, as he did each year on the Sunday before Labor Day.

It was amazing.

“You mean,” I thought to myself, “that you can preach about work, about vocation, about labor?” I’d never heard anything like this before. It was a revelation. And since my ordination nearly 26 years ago, most years on Labor Day weekend I’ve followed Allen’s tradition, exploring faith and work, and in a small way giving thanks for his life and ministry as well.

This is Labor Day weekend. This morning's scripture lessons deal with work. And if I'm going to talk about work—and if you're going to listen—I think you need to know a few things about me. I’ve told some of my story before, but I want to fill in those who are newer or those who weren’t here a few years ago.

Work is important for every family. For the family I grew up in, you could say work was a way of life.

You see, my father was a negotiator for a printers’ union. Growing up in Peoria, Illinois, a city where a large number of people were employed by Caterpillar, I was one of the few who said: “My dad works for the Amalgamated Lithographers of America.” It was a mouthful for a first grader. And most people, when they heard that, would just stare blankly.

Growing up, labor—and unions—were big in my home. In high school I wrote a history term paper on the Knights of Labor—the precursor of the AFL-CIO—in part because we had some books about the organization taking up shelf space at home.

By the time I was 16 I, too, had joined a union. I was a card carrying, dues paying member of the American Federation of Musicians. This meant that not only could I have a good time and make lots of noise playing guitar in a rock band, I could also make union wages. It was a small scale version of what Dire Straits sang about: “That ain’t workin’ . . .money for nothing.”

When Robin first visited my family while we were in college, she noticed that my mother had a UMW meeting scheduled on her calendar. “Wow, the United Mine Workers.” she thought. “This really is a union family!” Well, maybe not all that much. UMW stood for United Methodist Women.

So I always like Labor Day as a holiday. I like the opportunity that Labor Day presents to reflect on the mystery and the meaning of work.

And I like what 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.” I like it because it seems so straightforward and so fair: an honest dollar for an honest day’s work.

That’s what I want to be preaching about this Labor Day weekend: the value of work, the need to pay employees a fair and living wage, a call to justice for those who work; a warning that the income gap between the rich and the poor in our country continues to expand. The Bible and the Christian tradition both speak at length about economic justice—and I could, too.

It’s what we might expect, isn’t it?

Of course, I’ve read enough of the Bible to know that when I find what I’m expecting, I’m probably missing something—something unexpected, perhaps something unwanted. And often enough, what I’m missing is something that is good news.

So, in spite of myself, I’m drawn toward that odd story that Jesus told about the workers in the vineyard.

Now, 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.

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.”


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 deserts of overtime and seniority.”[i]

And yet, Jesus would have us believe that the realm of heaven is something like this.

What’s going on here?

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 an 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.

Grace is something you can never get. It can only be received. Frederick Buechner says that there’s no way to earn grace 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.[ii]

“The grace of God,” he says, “means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.” He imagines God speaking to each of us: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. 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.”

Jesus is talking about grace and about how all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time really don’t like it—especially when it’s given to someone else.

Jesus is trying to make a point here, and as usual those who follow him don’t seem to get it.

As Matthew sets the stage for this story, first Jesus sets a child down and says: “To such as these—the small, the powerless—the realm of heaven belongs.”

Then, after talking with a rich man who decides not to follow him, Jesus tells his disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the realm of God.”

Money, power, stature, and status seem to have little to do with the realm of God. 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.

But perhaps, we think . . . Perhaps if we worked real hard we’d make it as followers of Christ. Perhaps if we fed enough hungry people or sheltered enough homeless or welcomed enough refugees, we’d be on the inside track. Perhaps by doing enough of the right things, we’d get some of that grace for ourselves.

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—the truly amazing grace of God. It is unexpected and maybe not exactly what we would want. God’s abundance poured out on everyone, free for the taking.

So maybe this is about our work after all.

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.

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.

One minister wrote these words to other ministers: If you fill you 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.[iii]

His advice to ministers? “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 here who finds work can overshadow life. So listen once more, this time for yourself.

“Take a long, prayerful, meditative look at your planner. Who are you trying to impress? God? Give me a break. Other people? 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.”

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.

To each of us—to all of us—God offers the same generous wages, the same unconditional love, the same amazing grace. It is here—for the taking.

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

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

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