It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere (Sermon)

“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”

Matthew 20:1-16 

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/3/21

“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 usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

And about five o’clock he 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.’

He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’

When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NRSV)

         The longer I sloshed around in this story, the more it became a kind of chattering brook. Then the brook became a river, and the deeper I waded into the river, the more urgently the flow tugged at my whole being. Then it became almost a flood, a force pulling me deeper and pushing me further. Anything I might have expected, anything I might have fished for in that river began to rise and converge into an insistent cataract of holy purpose. And at least for me, it became a call to ever-deepening transformation—personally, spiritually, vocationally.

         As a Christian, I’m committed to the intentional community called the church. And as a pastor, I have a very personal stake in the well-being of the organization. It’s in my own best interests to maintain the integrity of the institution as well as its message.

Problems arise, though, when church leaders, both professionals and lay people, allow that personal stake to become the guiding influence. It leads us to work to maintain the church rather than to serve God. Now, pastors know that if the church falls apart, so do our careers. No more salary, or benefits, or self-actualization. Pastors and lay leaders alike also know that if the church falls apart, certain very comfortable arrangements of authority could disintegrate and leave us feeling powerless.

         At some point, almost all institutions—governments, corporations, universities, congregations, denominations, and religions in general—face the temptation to exist simply to survive. When infected by selfishness, institutions focus on maintaining the arrangements that benefit those who hold authority. And when that happens, the institution exits for its own sake. As such, it becomes little more than a ravenous beast who aligns itself with worldly power and consumes far more in resources than it produces in benefit for others.

Think of the tobacco and the fossil fuel industries that knowingly market products which, in the big picture, diminish the lives of its customers and which, in the process, stress local communities and the global environment. Such institutions make healthcare much more expensive, but since it’s all about money, and since money is all about power, the status quo continues unhindered.

And since I’ve never asked if my investments or the investments of any church I’ve ever served are benefitting financially from such institutions, I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth here. That makes me part of the problem. 

         Pharaoh, Jezebel, Caesar, the Pharisees—all of these are biblical metaphors for political, economic, and religious institutions infected with individualistic greed, fear, and denial.

Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus—all of these reformers and transformers are, in some way, products of their institutions, yet as enlightened, inside agitators, they become gifts of God for the people of God, whether God’s people understand and welcome them or not.

Through the prophetic words and actions of these human gifts, God reveals God’s presence in, with, and for the creation. The trouble with the most faithful prophets is that they seem, at first, to represent far more in the way of threat than hope. They call institutions into question and call people to live lives transformed by new depths of perception of and trust in things like loving and being loved, offering and receiving compassion, and sharing—for the well-being of all—the God-given, material and spiritual abundance of the Creation.

As prophet and agitator, Jesus tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard to challenge the greed and individualism of his own day and to reveal the deeply communal nature of the realm of God

         The kingdom of heaven, he says, is like a landowner who chooses to give as generously to workers who labor for one hour as he does to those who labor all day.

         This scandalizing parable challenges everything that we’ve been taught lies at the foundation of our institutions. It dares to reveal that God’s true prophets are known by their connection to an autonomous and gratuitous Generosity that gauges individual worth on the basis that every person is a God-imaged human being, and not on his or her relative productivity.

‘That’s irresponsible!’ we say. ‘If such reckless open-handedness were to become standard, it would ruin everything. Everyone would show up at 5:00pm expecting a day’s wage for an hour’s work!’

         There may be truth in that. So, how else might institutions adopt more gratuitously generous practices? Offer a minimum wage that is at least a living wage? Offer longer maternity leave? Offer paternity leave? Offer more vacation time? While some economic arguments against these kinds of measures may have institution-maintaining merit, Jesus’ parable clearly lays the foundation for biblical advocacy of such generosity.

I can’t impact many decisions in institutions beyond the small community of this congregation; but, as the saying goes, “It’s always five o’clock somewhere.” It’s always time for you, for me, for us to express our faith in God by living more generously than we might think is warranted or healthy.

Five o’clock urgency has been on us for the last two years of pandemic. In my opinion, wearing the mask when you’re inside and around others, getting the vaccine, continuing to be careful about physical distancing are not threats to “individual liberty.” They’re simple acts of generosity.

Five o’clock urgency cries out in the form of Afghan refugees seeking safety and new beginnings.

Five o’clock urgency is, every day, sending people in search of help at food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters throughout the world.

It’s five o’clock all over God’s creation. And institutions that exist for their own sake will simply dismiss each critical moment with anemic “thoughts and prayers.” Unless they discern some clear financial reward or political advantage for taking positive action, institutions that exist for their own sake will do nothing.

We are all of us, in some way, part of those institutions. As followers of Jesus in a season of five o’clock struggle, it’s always time to act as enlightened prophets, as inside agitators. It’s always time for us to enter the rising river and to offer gratuitous generosity on behalf of a suffering Creation. As the physical violence and the violent rhetoric continually remind us, participating God’s realm of undeserved kindness can be perceived as weakness. Then again, it can also be the difference between life and death for many people. And I firmly believe that, in the long run, no weapon will ever make any person or community safer than gratuitously generous practices of faith, hope, love.

Jesus’ parable says that the kingdom of heaven is not manifest in some new world order imposed by some powerful institution. His followers manifest the kingdom of heaven in their daily willingness to actively engage and witness to Jesus’ alternative way of life—a life marked by a generosity so profound that few institutions (including, sadly enough, the church) dare to participate in it.

As we come to this table on World Communion Sunday, we proclaim yet again (Even if we don’t know how to enjoy it fully!) the boundless, and the perfect and perfecting love of God.

So, all of you, come to the table. Enter the rising river, and embrace the overwhelming generosity of God’s Christ.

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