Two days short of the equinox, let me cry out, “Happy Autumn!”
Then let me ask the vexing question, “How is your almost-autumn going?”
I bet your answer is some combination of this: damned pandemic, painful racial reckoning, head-exploding presidential campaign, stressful back-to-school challenges, apocalyptic wildfires, tragic hurricanes, climaxed on Friday by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but otherwise okay
However we anticipate this coming autumn—officially here on Tuesday—it won’t be routine or calm, especially with a Supreme Court battle for the ages thrust into our laps
I am breaking it to you gently at the risk of raising someone’s blood pressure in the process
So in this same crazy-making spirit, let’s dive in to today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel, one where the egalitarian wheels seemingly come off the wagon
In our own culture, we’re navigating an extended riff on white grievance, but today we encounter a prototype that we might call ‘laborer grievance’
This parable about the laborers’ wages comes amid a group of stories in Matthew’s Gospel regarding household ethics and practice, including divorce, the role of children, pursing wealth and slaves
Interestingly—and more to come—it immediately follows that zany story about the rich man who asks Jesus how to gain eternal life, where Jesus challenges him to give up his riches, the rich man says, “thanks but no thanks” and walks away from Jesus
In today’s parable, the landowner conducts multiple cycles of hiring day laborers to work in the vineyard, negotiating a wage with the first group but simply promising just compensation to the subsequent cohorts
In telling the story, Jesus goes out of his way to rub our noses in the story’s climax when the steward (not the landowner, who negotiated) calls everyone forward and publicly pays the one-hour laborers the same wage as the all-day laborers
Jesus completely ignores the Human Resource adage that you never share pay stubs among fellow workers
It’s a setup for ranting, resentment, entitlement grousing and laborer grievance!
If we were on retreat and doing Bible study with this passage, I would ask you to decide which cohorts—first or last hired—with which you most identify
Are you the over-achiever that always gets picked in the first round, or are you more of a backbencher who might not be noticed at first?
Are you satisfied with a negotiated wage, or do you start pounding the table when issues of potential unfairness raise their heads?
However we slosh around these wage-and-fairness issues—including our own self worth involving money—Jesus drops a head-banging, paradoxical climax to the story when he announces, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Wow! What’s he smoking?
Lest we gloss over this proclamation, recall that it’s essentially the same sentence with which he finishes the immediately prior story of the rich man chasing eternal life: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Is Jesus messing with our minds, has he veered off on some utopian riff, is he whacking us with a verbal 2X4 to get our attention?
In both stories of the rich man who says no thanks to Jesus and today’s parable of the day laborers, Jesus speaks explicitly about the kingdom of heaven
Jesus uses this term ‘kingdom of heaven’ in both stories, and it’s a phrase that can get lost in all the shuffle of the rich man’s or the laborers’ dramatic narrative
Of course, Jesus employs this image—the kingdom of heaven—in many other parables—some 51 times altogether in Mathew, Mark and Luke—so it behooves us to get a grip on what he’s saying
What does Jesus mean?
What, when and where do we experience this kingdom of heaven?
If Jesus refers to some postmortem fate, good luck to all of us on passing the entrance exam
If, on the other hand, Jesus points to something like God’s breaking into present time and space—right here and now—with a divine agenda that may be very different than the world’s agenda, it might deeply impact all the other whacky dynamics that will confront this coming autumn unlike any other autumn
Starting next Sunday before worship, I’m leading a new Zoom Bible study that will revisit biblical witness to heaven and hell
Put on your safari gear, because we’re taking a wild trek through 2000 years of biblical imagination and debates regarding Jewish, Hellenistic and other takes on immortality of the soul—what’s a soul in the first place—resurrection of the body and what goes where when this earthly journey ends, not to mention when Christ returns again in all his glory
We all have a personal, existential stake in the answer, but we’ll also explore a very different take on heaven that speaks to today’s parable
Here’s the big question: Are we going to heaven (we hope), or is heaven coming to earth?
Like a good Anglican, you can argue for both
But the latter—heaven’s breaking into earth right here and now— speaks directly to today’s parable
It also speaks directly to our Sacred Ground conversations and the deep social unrest that envelops our culture this autumn
When we serve the world in Christ’s name or speak out against injustice, we give witness to the kingdom of heaven that currently is breaking into our time and space
By the way, if you are put off by the word ‘kingdom’ in ‘kingdom of heaven’ as too feudal for your democratic sensibility, go with the original Greek term which is more fun to say: the basileia of heaven
God’s basileia can also be interpreted as ‘reign’ or ‘commonwealth’ (but not as a Brazilian dance from the early 1960s)
Scripture continuously witnesses to the Good News that God’s basileia is at hand, if not in hand as we serve the world and live out our lives
Elsewhere, Paul reminds us that our citizenship (yes, the Greek is politea) is in heaven, and heaven remains the zone from which God’s presence exudes to surround this world
This may not be Aunt Bea’s vision of heaven, but Jesus today and elsewhere beckons us with a new vision of righteousness and justice that breaks into our daily world right here and now, a vision that turns the tables on evil, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and all the other ills that need to be passing away
As followers of Jesus, we want to be on the basileia team that beckons a broken world with justice and reconciliation, which treats the last with the same dignity as the first as witness to heaven, who extends hospitality to strangers and encounters angels unaware
For St Michael’s Sunday next week, let’s all wear tee shirts that say, “I am on the basileia team!”
In the Lord’s Prayer when we say, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” remember Paul’s proclamation that our citizenship—our politeia—belongs in heaven right here and now
This vision of heaven transcends our private subjective inner feelings to capture a transcendent vision of God’s claiming a righteousness and justice that rolls down like waters
In Jesus, we welcome heaven’s breaking into earth and vanquishing hell—perhaps our new red ball caps should say, “To hell with hell!”
Today’s parable reminds us that for Jesus there is nothing timeless or static about heaven, nor does it have to do with some elusive, inner, subjective dream
In the spirit of the Apostles Creed, Jesus is on the move, and he descends into hell to vanquish the power that evil holds over us
By the way, that heavy lift already has been done, it’s history, and it should free us up for acts of creativity and courage
At least 51 times, Jesus proclaims this kingdom as invading the so- called real world to capture our attention and transform the brokenness of human sin
Jesus announces this basileia both as a demand and as a promise
So let me ask, how is your life in this tumultuous world giving witness to a gracious God who demands and promises justice, mercy and reconciliation?
Whether in your personal relationships, your engagement with the vulnerable, your politics—politeia—or your vision of what holds reality together, how do you understand Jesus’ proclamation today that the last will be first?
Whether you feel on top of your world or victimized by it, how might Jesus hold out the promise of radical equality and dignity for our neighbors, not to mention the environment and all of creation?
In a world that feels hellish around its edges, how is heaven breaking into your daily life and our collective lives, how would you know it, and how would you share it with others?
I hope you will join me online after worship to unpack your answer.