Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the Sundays leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I will be examining the five solaes or slogans of the Protestant Reformation. Last Sunday, I ended my sermon on the principle of Sola Gratia, by Grace Alone, with the statement, that God’s complete forgiveness, by grace alone, leads us to a new life of performing good deeds for the sake of our neighbor. For as Luther claimed, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.” So what does this life of good works look like? That is what I would like to share with you today.
Luther offered many colorful sayings, but none were as pointed as those related to work and vocation. He wrote, “The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays, not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” Even marriage was a part of the Christian calling, “Let the wife make the husband glad to come home, and let him make her sorry to see him leave.” Prior to Protestant Reformation, you see, only the vocation of priest or nun praising God was regarded as an honorable and worthy calling. It was so holy that it should not be sullied by the responsibilities of marriage and the cares of the world.
500 years ago, however, Luther challenged all these medieval teachings. Instead, he taught that everyone has a divine calling. It is offered and ordained in the waters of baptism, and it is in service to your neighbor. By contrast, deeds that were done simply to please God were mere empty works. He wrote, “If you find yourself in a work by which you accomplish something good for God, or the holy, or yourself, but not for your neighbor alone, then you should know that that work is not a good work. For each one ought to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die in love and service for another.” He also noted that work is not to be a weary journey to a dreamy end. There can be enjoyment in work and life. Luther wrote, “He who loves not wine, women and song remains a fool his whole life long.” This is of course, the same man who wrote, “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!” In the parable of the landowner and the laborers, Jesus teaches us how we are live out our calling and vocation in relationship to the family and community.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the daily way, he sent them into the vineyard.” I didn’t realize it, but ten years ago, when our family was sent to Bratislava, Slovakia, we were moving to one of the oldest wine regions in Central Europe. Roman soldiers had cultivated grapes in the region along the Danube River 1600 years ago earlier. Even today, vineyards can be seen along the sprawling highways at the edge of the city. We visited vineyards and wine cellars regularly, and the thing I learned is that a vineyard is more than a single day of work. Wine production is complex. Throughout the year, the vines needed to be tended, fences rebuilt and old vines torn away and burned. The harvesting day, however, was critical for grapes. As the landowner, one waited until the last day before the frost when the clusters of grapes were truly ripe. At that point, the vineyard owner went out to find all the workers for the harvest.
In Jesus’ parable, God is the landowner. He is benevolent and generous. He is not keeping the work to himself and his family. He is inviting others to be a part of his kingdom. The landowner goes out to where the day laborers gathered in the marketplace to invite them to work. Mind you, the landowner’s invitation meant so much more to those who waited for labor than those who worked regularly and were gainfully employed. For the day laborer, the invitation to work provided the opportunity to feed a family and keep a warm, dry roof over their head. That invitation was the possibility of having a future. It was where the laborers found their sense of value.
My friends, that is how important God’s invitation is to you as well. He comes inviting you to be a part of his divine and holy mission. Regardless of the time of day you are invited. Whether you were baptized as a child or came to faith later in life, it is in the work of God’s kingdom that you discover your value and where you labor with others. And the wage, at the end of the day? It is heavenly. Yes, the just wage at the end of the day is eternal life. So really, should the length of time spent toiling in the vineyard, participating in the life of the Church have any real bearing on the gift of eternity? Of course not. Well, that is what we say as good Christian workers on Sunday morning, but that is not how we always feel when we are standing last at the end of the week.
Let us now take a step back and ponder the generosity of the landowner. It really was quite extraordinary that the landlord himself went out to find the day laborers. That was normally the task of the landowner’s manager. But that is how we are to see God’s absurd behavior. He went out himself into the marketplace to find who had been left behind. And who do we think the landowner should meet in the late afternoon? Nothing in scripture suggests that these men were the lazy or irresponsible. The landowner asked them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” And they answered simply, “Because no one hired us.” Yes, most likely, they were the unwanted, the weak, the sick, and the disabled. Perhaps they were the elderly or migrants, and the recovering criminals. And yet, at the end of the day, in front of those who worked through the heat of the midday sun, the landowner paid them all the same wage.
It’s troubling for some Christians that our God, who is loving and merciful and gracious, is inclined to show special generosity to the poor and outcast. It doesn’t seem fair. No wonder the hard working, respectable people get so anxious about this parable. It’s not that they prefer strict justice to grace on matters of eternity. Of course, they believe that the gift of eternal life is a free gift for all. But they would also prefer a God who is orderly and just on the day to day matters. Shouldn’t they be able to feel a little more privileged and entitled?
Surprisingly, Jesus is not speaking to the poor and outcast, in this parable, nor is he speaking to the migrants and refugees. He is actually speaking directly to you and me, the Type A personalities of the church and society, who have been nurtured on the saying, “The early bird gets the worm.” Jesus is challenging us to question whether in the things of this world we shouldn’t try to be more like the landowner and demonstrate generosity and mercy. If our work and vocations are truly God given, shouldn’t we be more God-like in our care for others? Shouldn’t we be more like the generous landowner than the complaining workers?
What would your primary relationships in life be like if they were simply colored by the laws of justice? Yes, what would your life be like if it was satisfied in counting up every slight injury done to you by your partner? What would your life be like if you spent your energy keeping track of every time your child or parent disappointed you?
We know that God cares about justice and fairness. The law, the prophets, and Jesus’ own life and ministry testify to that. But in the end, we also trust that true justice works to make things better. It is love that saves. It is a love shared between people, between brother and sisters, a love shared between parents and children, the rich and poor, a love shared between the last and the first, that ultimately saves. That is why God himself goes out to the market place to find the lost, the forgotten and neglected. It is to bring to those who have not known love in this world into his glorious promise. That is what he inviting you to do as well. Faith, you see, must be woven into the fabric of our work and all our human relationships.
The work of a Christian never ends. Oh, I know we might get tired of God’s encouraging us to another day of work. I am reminded of the elderly woman who would take out her hearing aids every time I came to visit. “Oh pastor,” she said, “At my age I have heard enough.” It is one on my favorite saying of Luther’s. A print of it is hanging on the wall in the narthex. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today.” Reformation scholars debate whether it is authentically Luther, but it is authentically Lutheran. It is a calling and vocation that begins at baptism and it is fulfilled by God’s promised in eternal life. That is your call and invitation as well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.