Matthew 20: 1-6
Good morning and welcome, grace and peace. The turn from summer to fall officially at 10:29 p.m. tomorrow night, but of course with the schools opening in mid-August and the chilly mornings the past couple of weeks and Christmas displays in the Target-- it feels like we’re well along in the season already.
A bit of chill in the air also for Jesus and his disciples since they came down from the mountaintop “transfiguration” experience in Matthew 17 and now are heading into the last leg of the journey--moving on towards the final chapter, as they have come from their home region of the Galilee and entered Judea, moving on with deliberate speed toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Good Friday and the Cross. A long shadow overtaking them. All of which seems in the mind of Jesus as he teaches the crowds who come out to hear him and most especially his disciples. A certain urgency and intensity of focus. To share himself with them and to communicate with them in a deep and lasting way what they would need to know not simply to navigate the dangerous waters immediately ahead but also as they would reassemble and in the power of the Holy Spirit in the energy of Pentecost to begin to live as his Body in the world—to be the church. A “last will and testament” to leave with them, to support and guide and direct them along the way when he would no longer be there in the way that he had been up until now.
So we heard over the last couple of weeks from Matthew 18, as Jesus talked about things like conflict resolution and forgiveness, and reflecting in that his deep love and his prayer for the unity and communion of the fellowship that would be his Body. “That he might dwell in us, and we in him.” As he would say as recorded in John, vine and branches. An organic whole. Drawn together in him and through him, all of his disciples, in the same spirit of love that Paul would write about to the Christians in Corinth. Patient and kind. Not jealous or boastful. Never failing. A love that seeks not its own way, but always instead to be a blessing to the other, and to the whole Body.
As the story moves along Jesus continues as he does so well to preach by means of these parables. Evocative stories. Not to set out his word for us as a series of directives, but to ask us to allow these stories to reach into our imaginations, from the inside out, to touch not simply minds but also hearts.
Here in Matthew 20, Jesus begins, “the Kingdom of heaven is like . . . .” Jesus uses this word all the time in Matthew’s gospel in particular. The “basileia” of heaven.” “Basileia” not really to refer to a particular place but to the expanse of the king’s royal power and sphere of influence. The dominion of heaven, the reign of Heaven’s King. The Kingdom of Heaven IS. Present tense: about what is to come, but also about what is possible, a reality now, for those who live in Christ. Leaning forward into God’s future. Theologians use the term “realized eschatology.” How the end of all things and the purpose and goal of all things is anticipated and made present. The sacrament of the Kingdom we might say. Outward and visible signs here and now of God’s eternal fullness. Back at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Already living in God’s domain, under his rule and authority and protection. A little later on in the Sermon Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about material things like food and drink. “Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
So the Kingdom not simply about some place up in the sky, or about some condition of being possible in the distant future, but about how we live now, about authority and values and character. Who we are now. We may not be in heaven yet, in one sense, but in another sense, yes, we can be, now. We can bow our head and bend the knee and kneel before the one who is at once here and now and always, past, present, and future, King over heaven and earth. To be ourselves, let’s say, outposts of heaven. I picture the 16th century explorer planting the flag in a newly discovered land. That’s a Matthew way of thinking about the church. An outpost of heaven. I had the occasion with my daughter a number of years ago to visit the embassy of Mongolia down in Washington D.C. (Many of you will remember her 2 ½ year Mongolian adventure. Some years ago now.) In any case, kind of the same idea. A small building in Georgetown, a little over four hours from Pittsburgh, but I could say when we got home that evening “Now I’ve been to Mongolia too.”
And if we want to be in heaven, Jesus is saying to his disciples again and again in St. Matthew’s Gospel—if we want to be in heaven for all eternity, in the Mansion prepared for us by the Father from the beginning of time, right here is where that begins to happen. We can move in today. Corner of Hampton Street and North Euclid. But definitely think in a wider frame than that. It’s not about stone walls and gothic architecture, though sometimes things like that can stir our imaginations in this direction. Wherever two or three are gathered in my name. If we’re people Redeemed by the work of Christ and inspired to follow him and through him to be in communion with the Father, dying with Christ and rising with him in the waters of our baptism—then heaven is to begin now to live in God’s presence, his eternal home. The Kingdom of Heaven not simply our future and final destiny but our present reality. And in these parables a way to begin to recognize the landmarks, to internalize our citizenship.
So before us in Matthew 20 this Parable, the Laborers in the Vineyard. A familiar story. A little odd. Some called to work in the early morning, some at midday, some in the last hour of twilight. And the story of how they are paid. Which seems as peculiar to us as it did to the characters in the story. Turning our notions of fairness and equity and justice up on end. It jostles especially the morning laborers, of course, because it challenges their sense of entitlement. But actually it gives all of us a good shake. The old world crashes into the new world, the collision of heaven and earth.
My ways are not your ways, says the Lord, nor my thoughts your thoughts. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts your thoughts.
The pivotal moment in the movie Jaws comes when Roy Scheider finally sees the Great Shark and turns to Captain Quint and says, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” We’re going to need to begin to think bigger thoughts.
Maybe that was what the Holy Spirit was whispering into the hearts of this congregation as the “Opening Doors” campaign kicked off last year. The work we were able to do around the building an outward sign, to say, “we need to be getting ready for something more that God has in mind for us.” Something more. This story of the Laborers in the Vineyard is about catching a glimpse of a whole new way of thinking about what’s important, about value, about justice, about the moral template of the universe. About who we are, about who God is. Just a glimpse—but enough to know that the way we have making sense of things in this old world of ours won’t work in heaven. God has a different calculus. We’re going to need a bigger boat.
In theological vocabulary this is about grace, about the atonement, about the Work of Christ and the Power of the Cross, the Proof of the Resurrection--and in the ordinary language of our lives and relationships it is about faith and forgiveness, reconciliation and hospitality and love. All about what happens when lives are renewed and refreshed in Christ Jesus.
Doesn’t matter what hour we arrived in the Vineyard. No timeclocks to punch in heaven. Not about earning points. Whether our accomplishments seemed great or small. Whether we were well-known or unknown. Diplomas on the wall, Commendations and Letters of Appreciation and applause, heavy bank accounts. How many riches we have gathered into our barns.
If we thought we were something special. If we thought we weren’t good enough. Our secret pride, our secret sins, the trophies on our bookcase, the dark corners of the mind and of the heart. Not about working to pay for a right to be here, but about hearing his voice, and that we would know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads. It was enough for the Laborers, that when the Vineyard Owner called them in, they came.
Catching a glimpse in the parable about what Jesus is sharing with us, over the centuries. About what it means to follow him, to live in him. One of my favorite hymn texts, by the old Victorian English Anglo-Catholic and then Roman Catholic F.W. Faber. The Song of the Vineyard, all around us this morning, and the song-track of heaven. What we might sing while we’re setting new furniture up in our beautiful new meeting space—and up the center aisle on our way to communion.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.