Like many of you, I’ve had reason to talk to FEMA this past week. We were concerned about a few very minor things with the church building, and we wanted to be on the safe side, so we registered. One step in the registration was having to sit at that table, and call in to a call center somewhere to talk to an agent. When I got her on the phone, the conversation went something like this:
Her: Are you the business owner?
Me: No. I’m the pastor.
Her: Well, who owns the business?
Me: Well, we’re a church, so not a business, so no one owns us.
Her: (Increasingly confused.) I’m going to need a business owner’s name.
I was trying to be respectful of the fact that these people are working very hard to help us in a natural disaster, and are doing a good job. So, even though there were so many possible snappy responses about who owned the church, I just explained once again that there was no “owner” of the business. The matter was finally settled when it was accepted that while I was not the “owner”, I was the “responsible party”, and that was good enough.
The part of me that was seeing some humor in all of this, though, really wanted to answer her “owner” question with something like, “well, I guess that would be God. Or, you could put in Jesus Christ, which in the computer might look something like Christ, Jesus. And no, I don’t have his taxpayer ID number either.” In the end I decided not to subject her to either a theological commentary or my humor.
But, I was thinking about that encounter a little when I read this week’s Gospel passage. Jesus tells a parable about a business owner. He talks about the owner of a vineyard who hires workers for the day. In the early morning he goes out and finds people who will work and agrees to pay them a living wage. They go out to the fields and start to work.
Around nine he goes to the square and finds more people, and this time he says “I will pay you what is right”. They go out to the fields too. He does this again at noon, and then at three. And at five he goes out and finds people who haven’t been hired yet, and he hires them and sends them to the fields.
Now, when it comes time for everyone to be paid, he starts with the ones who came at 5pm. And they get a full day’s wages. Now, can you imagine being those folks who were hired at 9am? The people who were hired eight hours later got a full day’s wage. They must have been waiting thinking, “If they got paid for the full day, we are surely going to get even more!”
Except they don’t. They get the full day’s wage that they agreed on earlier in the day. And they grumble about how unfair it is. You get the same pay whether you worked one hour or nine, hard hours.
The owner of the vineyard answers, “I did you no wrong. I paid you for the day. Are you angry because I was generous and gave what was mine to give to the others? The last shall be first. And the first shall be last.”
If you’re like me, you read this parable and you feel a little uneasy. It doesn’t seem right that the ones who came at 5pm get paid as much as the ones at 9am. It’s not what we’re taught our whole lives. It’s not fair. That vineyard owner had it all wrong.
Except we know that just as in all Jesus’ parables the main character, the business owner, really represents God. And the workers in the vineyard, whether they came at daybreak or 5pm, really represent us. And we know that Jesus is trying to teach us all something about God, and one another.
We like to believe that we will be rewarded, that we can make sure everything will turn out okay, if we just work hard enough. It’s what we have heard since we were in grade school. If we worked hard enough, we could do anything we wanted. And so many of us burn ourselves out, run ourselves into the ground, in order to try to create the future we want.
Now, I don’t fault hard work. I often work long days, and have a hard time disconnecting when I should. I check email when I’m out with friends, I pick up the phone on my day off, I have an inability to shut off. I am, like many of you, a bit of a workaholic.
But, like many of you, I sometimes find that despite my best laid plans, despite my hard work, in the end things don’t always go exactly my way. And sometimes that feels really unfair. Especially when we see someone else get something that we feel like they haven’t earned.
I think I would have been grumbling right along with those early workers that day. What’s the sense of working hard if other people get what they don’t deserve?
And then I think about it more. And I remember that the vineyard owner is God. And I remember that none of us gets what we deserve. Instead, we get a whole lot better.
Throughout the history of our faith, there have been those who have said you can gain God’s love through work. Do the right things, pray the right way, make the right sacrifices, and you can find salvation. It has come up again and again in the course of Christian history.
And yet, that’s not the point of the Christian life. That’s not the point of God’s grace. We don’t do what we do as Christians to earn God’s love. We do what we do because we already have God’s grace, and we are so filled with gratitude for that grace that we can’t help but glorify God through our actions.
We don’t donate to the food pantry to get to heaven. We donate because our souls were hungry for God and we were fed. We don’t build a house with Habitat for Humanity because we fear eternal damnation. We build a house because in God’s kingdom there are many houses, and we are welcome in them all. We don’t hand out water to volunteers to earn God’s love. We hand out water because Christ himself has given us living water.
We do all these things not because we were the workers waiting at the vineyard at sunrise. We do these things because we were the ones God went out and found at 5pm, and we were chosen to go into the vineyards anyways. And we were not treated fairly. We were treated better than fairly. We were treated with grace.
The biggest relief in my life came when I realized I didn’t have to earn God’s love. The biggest relief came when I realized I already had it, that it was inside of me, and that nothing I could do would separate me from it. And that relief, that freedom from the fear of a God who I could never be good enough to be loved by, turned from relief to joy. And from that joy came gratitude.
I still work a lot. It’s a growing edge. But now I don’t do it to earn God’s love. I do it as a response to God’s love. I do it as a kind of paying forward of what has already been given to me. I do it because maybe, if I meet the right person on the right day, someone else will look through what I do, and see what God has done in me, and in you, and in all of us.
There is a phrase that many of us have heard: there but for the grace of God go I. That phrase used to upset me. I used to look at whatever unfortunate person was being pointed out and try to come up with some reason in my mind why what happened to them would never happen to me. That works for a while. Until it doesn’t. And then you find that you are the one who is in need of grace. It’s a humbling experience.
But, in many ways, it can also be a freeing one. It can be freeing to know that in the end, God’s grace is not dependent on us. It’s only dependent on a God who loved us first. You look around at your co-workers in the vineyard, and you realize that that grace is not yours to withhold. And that is often the most powerful example of God’s grace in you. When God’s grace is so great that in your joy you feel compelled to do things that share that grace with others, you know that love has won..
And when you really feel that grace for the first time, when you really believe it, you are free. You are free from fear. You are free from worry. You are free from the illusion that you are always in control. And you are free in another way too. You are free to serve. You are free to give. You are free to love. You are free to labor in a vineyard where all are paid not according to the work they do, but according to what God does. You’ll never find another business owner who will pay you like that.
Now if I could have just written that all in on the forms I had to fill out this week, maybe I could have answered that question I was asked. Who owns this business? Not me, and not you, and not any of us. This is God’s. And it’s not like any business we’ve ever seen before. Indeed, this is the best place we will ever work. Amen.