Saturday, September 23, 2017


In the Parable of the Vineyard,
       some work dawn to dusk,
       some work noon to quittin’ time,
       others work just for the last hour of the day;
       but they all get paid the same.
Jesus says God’s Kingdom is like that.

I first read this story about 50 years ago,
       and it didn’t make much sense to me then.
I studied it in seminary and I’ve heard
       at least a dozen sermons on it.                      
In fact, I’ve preached a few myself.
But I never felt like I got it until this year.

It clicks for me now because I’m looking at it
from a new perspective.
My new perspective comes from a lot of years
       laboring in the vineyard of the church
       and from the novel I’m reading these days.
Sometimes literature can shed light on Scripture.

So let’s start with the novel.
I am reading Larry MacMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
The principal characters in Lonesome Dove 
        are driving a herd of cattle
from the Rio Grande Valley to Montana.
Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the mini-series,
       I’m sure you get the picture.
The crew has to work together, hard work,
       dangerous work, facing and surmounting hardships.
There isn’t any room for ego-pampering.
There isn’t time for jealousy or competition.
There isn’t any tolerance for whining.
The only thing to do, day in day out,
       in good times or in bad,
       is to cowboy up and get on with the drive.
The heroism of Augustus, Captain Call, 
      and the other characters,
when they are heroic, is just this:
they get the job done.

I have always read this Gospel lesson
       from the standpoint of the laborers
       and I have accepted unquestioningly
       that their purpose in working is just to get paid.

But let’s look at it for a minute from the perspective
       of the landowner.
His goal is to produce a crop of grapes.
He may have paid those who worked an hour
       the same as those who worked all day
              out of some eccentric view of justice.
But more likely he just wasn’t that interested
       in his personnel costs.
He didn’t want to buy a time clock,
or hire a human resources department,
       a comptroller, and an EEOC compliance officer.
He didn’t bother to keep track of the time sheets.
He was just trying to grow some grapes.
If it doesn’t help you to imagine this guy
       as Robert Duval in Lonesome Dove,
       then try Henry Fonda in Sometimes a Great Notion.
Sometimes you have to just get the job done.

Now what do the laborer’s care about in today’s parable?
At their best, the real heart and soul cowboys
in Lonesome Dove cared about the cattle drive.
They cared about the cattle
       and in their cantankerous Texan way,
       they sometimes even cared about each other.

Would it be too much to hope that vinedressers
       might care about the vineyard?
Sure they would expect to get paid what was promised,
       but assuming that was done,
       their minds might be on the vineyard
              instead of competition.

They might be more interested in whether
they had properly pruned or tied the vines,
       than in how the landowner kept his books.
When they begin whining about someone else
       getting too much pay, the landowner replies
       in a way that sounds to me a lot like,
       “Just cowboy up and get on with the drive.”

Jesus is teaching a religion here,
       but it isn’t the one we may think of as Christianity.
He’s talking about the Kingdom
       which turns out not to be a reward for our morality
              but a way of life committed to doing God’s will.
 God’s will is to give us a mission.

We Anglicans spell out that mission
       as five fundamental projects.
1.  To proclaim the Gospel to the world – that’s evangelism.
2.  To Baptize and educate new believers – that’s Christian formation.
3.  To respond with mercy to suffering – that’s charity and pastoral care.
4.  To challenge unjust social structures – that’s prophetic advocacy.
5.  To sustain and renew God’s creation – that’s earth stewardship.

At stake are the lives of children.
A child dies of hunger related causes every five seconds
while more of our foreign aid goes to buy guns
than to buy food.
At stake are the hopes of people falling into despair
in a culture grown cynical and grim.
At stake is the survival of our planet.
Our mission is bigger than a grape crop,
bigger than a cattle drive.
There is no room in it for pettiness, jealousy,
or ego-agendas.

Yet the typical parish church spends half its energy
and attention making sure everyone
who wants their way gets it often enough.
I have seen church people at each other’s throats
       over the kind of floor covering to put in a parish hall,
              while the polar ice caps are melting.

Likewise, dioceses dissipate their energies
making sure this parish does not feel slighted
by some attention to that parish.
Then there is the competition of denominations,
       and jockeying over moral superiority
       or whose theology can be more orthodox or erudite.

When I look at Church squabbles, I hear Christ say,
       “Cowboy up and get on with the drive.”
Unless and until we do that,
       I don’t know why people outside the church
              should get mixed up with us.

I used to think the pettiness, jealousy, and bickering
       in churches was just human nature.
Maybe it is, but I think there is also something wrong
       with our religion that makes these vices worse,
not better.
Too many of us have gotten the idea that Christianity
       is about doing something, or believing something,
or having some kind of experience that is our ticket on the Wonderland Express of salvation.

It may be moral living or orthodox thinking
       or spiritual giddiness
– but the idea is to earn some spiritual wage,
       to get the gold star of God’s blessing.
And we would like to be more moral, more orthodox,
or more spiritual than the next guy
so we can get more of the blessing
or be more sure that we have our religious nest feathered.

But Jesus says in this parable, “it isn’t about that.”
The kingdom of heaven is not like Oz at the end
of the yellow brick road.
It is like this story of the vineyard.
The kingdom is laboring in the vineyard
for the sake of the vineyard.
We don’t save the planet to get a Nobel Prize.
We do it because we love the planet.

We don’t share the gospel to show how good we are.
We do it because we love the gospel
and the people we share it with.

Suppose we lived -- not just our church lives --
       but all of our lives without so much concern
              for getting our fair share of credit.
Suppose we lived like Dorothy Day,
Martin Luther King, Jr.,  Theresa of Avila
or any of the saints who were so caught up
in the mission they lost themselves in it.
Suppose we found our true lives
       by losing our egos in God’s Kingdom.
Then we might come into ourselves and live life fully,
       enjoying the game for the thrill of the game,
       not distracted by keeping score.

That kind of life would be living in God’s Kingdom.