Sermon: Sunday, September 24, 2017

There once was a little girl

Matthew 20:1-16
September 24, 2017

There once was a little girl. She loved school but hated it when she was in gym and it came time to pick teams. She was a skinny, quiet girl, and wore glasses. And no matter what game they were playing: kickball, keep away or her least favorite– dodge-ball– she was always the last one picked for a team. She could see the kids look at her with barely concealed contempt. She wasn’t fast, she wasn’t competitive, and she was scared the ball would hit her in the face and break her glasses. She hated it when the team captains sighed just before they grudgingly said: “OK, I’ll take Lisa.”

I know what it’s like to stand on the sidelines while others are chosen first. And even when you are finally chosen it still doesn’t feel like you’re quite as good as those who are chosen first. You are on the team, but still NOT on the team, if you know what I mean. Except with this parable. Except in the Kingdom of God. That’s why I love this parable.

But I do understand the tendency to see this parable as unfair, unjust.

So let’s do a little impromptu straw poll — we’re going to see who we most resonate with in this parable.

Who completely understands the feelings of those who got up early, and worked all day in the fields– and thinks it’s just a little unfair that they got the same wage as the ones who didn’t start working until 5?

Who thinks maybe they weren’t there at the crack of dawn– maybe they partied the night before– and they maybe got chosen at noon?

OK- Who thinks they were among the last ones chosen?

I admit, I have a strong work ethic and an even stronger sense of fair play.  Polls tell is that most people in the United States believe that hard work, early rising and fair play ensure success in life.

There’s a term for this: the Protestant Work Ethic– and it’s very strong in our country.

The Protestant work ethic –or the Puritan work ethic as it used to be known– is a concept which emphasizes hard work, frugality and diligence as a barometer of a person’s Christian faith.  How hard we work, our lack of laziness, and the notion that work = success is all part of this Protestant work ethic. This ethic came about in contrast to the focus on religious attendance, confession, and ceremonial sacrament in the Roman Catholic tradition. Our Protestant ethic informs the way we think and act in the USA– sometimes even making us less compassionate to the less fortunate– “They just need to work harder!” I mean, look at the way many people react to this parable! People really get put out over the “slackers that didn’t get up early and waited until noon — or five– to work.

Actually, those motivations aren’t anywhere in the parable. Nowhere in this parable does it say that anyone was lazy. Here’s what it says: And about five o’clock [the master] went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, `Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.’  Mmm. They weren’t chosen.

What if this is not a parable about the Protestant work ethic? What if this is not a parable about pay, or fairness? What if this is a parable about the constant generosity of God who chooses us all, and blesses us all equally.

So– just for today– let’s try to stop seeing this parable merely in terms of work & pay scales– because the parable is much richer than that. It’s about second and third chances.

I wanted to work in the church since I was 12. I wanted to be a priest, but women were not allowed. Women were not chosen.

By the time I was 24, women had begun to pursue holy orders. I applied for postulancy– and was not chosen because I was too young. You see– in the 80s– in many dioceses– they geared their postulant searches towards older adults – people with “real life experience.”

I went to Seminary anyway and earned my Masters in Theology. I put aside my calling to be a priest.

I decided to pursue my call again in the 90s. But now I was married to a priest, and the rector of the church I attended felt that my pursuit of ordination would be harmful to my husband and to his career. Without a rector’s support you can go no further.

By the time I reached my 40s- I figured it was too late for me.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to try again. “Third time’s the charm,” my supporters would say.  “Three strikes and you’re out,” I would tell myself. I couldn’t stand it if I were not chosen again.

But this time I was.  I’m one of the 5:00 people who was finally chosen and told to get in the game. I love this work, and the chance to be doing this– at whatever age. And I am so grateful that I have been given the same work, the same trust, the same reward, as if I had been a priest for 20 years. So grateful.

So let’s look at the parable today from a different perspective– from the perspective of those who often go through life being someone’s second, third– or even last– choice.

Many people come to things later in life- a vocation, marriage, a job they love, new understanding about people and issues.

People have their own stories, their own timing , their own lives, and not everyone’s path to work, to love, or to God is the same. But all people– each and every solitary one– is equal and blessed in God’s eyes.

The Protestant work ethic may have merits, but at the end of our days no one will ever wish they had worked harder, or put in longer hours. That old work ethic won’t matter at all. On that day we will finally understand that it wasn’t about the pay at all, it was about the invitation to come and be chosen to be equal members of the kingdom of God.  Amen.