Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Welcome! Welcome back! Welcome home!
Writing the back-to-school sermon is such an exciting and odd experience for me. Throughout the year, when I’m writing, I’m thinking back to who was here in the chapel the week before and what did we talk about after dinner and what have y’all been up to this week and what’s going on in the world...but for the first week back, there’s so much mystery! I am thinking about returning students and what y’all have been up to all summer—research, internships, summer session, working, sleeping. But also I am imagining the possibilities of new students, and who might be wandering into our little yellow house this week for the very first time.
Perhaps you just moved to Davis a few days ago, or have been here a year or more, but today seemed like the right day to come. Perhaps you saw the sign that said Free Dinner, and that sealed the deal. Whatever brought you to this table, welcome.
Here at the Belfry, you know or will come to know that we get together for a few pretty specific reasons: to eat food, to make friends, to laugh a lot, to sing songs, and to hear stories from scripture. Sounds simple enough.
In the Gospel stories, Jesus has a habit of telling parables—sort of riddles—that cause a lot of confusion. Sometimes, the people to whom he’s telling the story within the story aren’t sure what the moral of the story is; or, they totally get it, and they realize he’s telling them that they are wrong, and they get very upset; or, they get it backwards and they think he’s calling them good when he’s really telling them to get their act together.
And we’re not so different. Sometimes, we hear the words of Jesus and we sit back and say, “huh?” And other times, we hear the words of Jesus and realize that we are not living into the Christian life quite the way we thought, and we feel convicted. And other times, we hear the words of Jesus and we think we’re doing all right but then someone points out that it’s not so simple. Every once in awhile, though, we hear the words of Jesus and something clicks.
I don’t know if tonight’s story puts you in any of these camps, and it’s pretty okay if you’re solidly in the “huh?” zone. That’s where I hang out a lot of the time.
Luckily, many Christians and many scholars have come before us, and they can offer us some wisdom to help us on our way. One of the best people that I like to turn to when I read a parable and go, “huh?” is a professor named Amy-Jill Levine. She’s a Jewish woman who teaches the New Testament to people studying to be Christian ministers. She is very snarky and she is a genius. She wrote a book called Short Stories by Jesus, in which she lays out how the people Jesus was talking to would have heard these parables. Such a helpful lens to look through! She had excellent things to offer me, as usual, about tonight’s.
Let’s think back to a few minutes ago when I read that. In the parable, we’re in a vineyard, with the owner of the vineyard and some hired laborers. He hired some of them first thing in the morning, and promised to pay them “what is right,” a day’s wages. He hired some more at 9 and at 3 and even at 5. He paid them, at the end of the work day, one full day’s wages. Those who had worked since sunrise, since 9, since 3, and since 5.
Now, I think most of y’all have probably worked an hourly job before, and absolutely could not expect to be paid for hours you did not work. And probably would have been upset to find out that someone who worked for fewer hours than you did was paid the same as you were. It is pretty easy to understand the laborers who “grumble” against the landowner.
The landowner has behaved sort of oddly, paying them this way. He gives them all a day’s wages—a right and just thing to do, as these people probably have families to support, and the work they did for him was all the work they could get that day. He doesn’t pay them based on the quality of the work they’ve done, how much they’ve achieved, how effective they’ve been. He pays them what he believes everyone deserves.
Naming this parable “The Laborers in the Vineyard” encourages us to identify with the laborers as opposed to the landowner, whom we are then free to identify as God. Easy enough. No matter what we do, God has claimed us in our baptism and we will all receive grace upon grace. End of sermon, see you later.
Not so fast! What if we change that? What if, instead of interpreting this as “God is generous with salvation”—thought that is true, and a good thing to remember—what if we thought about this as a much more literal example for how to treat one another? I will rarely encourage you to engage in Biblical literalism, y’all, so when we go down that road, it’s for a good reason.
You could interpret this parable as “no matter what you do, God loves you, and so it doesn’t matter.” But complacency is not the best look for Christian life. Showing up at the end of the day and hoping to eke out the same benefits as those who have worked all day is not recommended. Especially when we turn this into a prescription for the work of justice. Looking at a situation that will take a day’s labor, we cannot assume that if we do the bare minimum, that’s “enough” to get the real, long-term work accomplished. We can take it one step further towards the literal, and wonder about who is receiving benefits for whose work.
Amy-Jill Levine, the professor I mentioned before, she puts it this way: “If we refocus the parable away from ‘who gets into heaven’ and toward ‘who gets a day’s wage,’ we can find a message that challenges rather than prompts complacency. If we look at economics, at the pressing reality that people need jobs and that others have excess funds, we find what should be a compelling challenge to any hearer.”
As residents and citizens of the United States of America, we are well aware that there are disparities in our society—racism, income inequality, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia, white supremacy, and more.
A report by PayScale.com and Equilar says that “the average CEO-to-worker pay ratio….stands at about 70-to-1, with some CEOs making more than 300 times the median salary of their employees.” And, for the data-driven among you, that is only talking about cash, before stock options and other compensation provided to many executives.
Truly seeing who is doing the work and who has the most money at the end of the day, this parable does not mirror the way our society is structured. In this parable, the landowner freely gives away his money to those who need it. He seeks out those who need work, and he pays everyone a living wage. Even those who have not done what the rest of the market might deem a day’s work.
This landowner should “not only be a reference to God, for what God does is often what those who claim to follow God should do.”  As Christians, we should seek to be so generous, so just. We should seek to find all those who look for meaningful work, and provide it to them. We should ensure that everyone has enough resources to live well in our communities. We should ensure that even those who cannot work—the chronically ill, for example—are not forced into poverty because of it.
We should notice if any of this makes us feel uncomfortable. We work hard for what we earn. Yes, and we should be paid appropriately for that work. We should not, though, have to sentence a huge segment of our population to a life of poverty because there isn’t enough to go around. There is enough. There has always been enough, and there will always be enough.
God, who is rich in mercy and abounding in steadfast love, serves as an example for us of how well we can treat one another, if we want to. We learn from these stories big truths about God, like these, and big truths about ourselves, too. As we gather at the table for communion, there will be enough. It is my prayer that we will carry that fullness and richness out into the world together.
It’s a new day here in Davis. It’s a new quarter, a new school year. As we go through the motions—get settled into the new schedule, figure things out with new roommates, remember how to ride a bike—we can decide what this new year will be like. We can wonder about how our life and work is related to all the lives and all the work happening around us. It is my joy and privilege to be among you this year, wondering along.
 Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, HarperOne, 2015.