Category Archives: covid-19

Guaranteed Basic Grace

GOSPEL: Matthew 20:1-16
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

Today, as we continue into the second half of this long season of green, we hear a familiar parable. The parable of the landowner and day labourers. 

It is a familiar parable for most folks who have spent years sitting in pews, listening to sermons on the parables of Jesus. This parable caught my attention from an early age. I can picture sitting in church as a child, hearing the pastor talk about this story… even when listening to sermons wasn’t all that interesting to me yet. The way it sets itself up to challenge our assumptions, even when we know the story. The upside down way it treats how the world is supposed to work. They way it speaks to ancient labour practices and yet still seems so applicable and current with the way we understand work today. And the familiar indignity of the workers who worked all day contrasted with the surprising generosity of the vineyard owner. All of these parts of the parable grab us every time we hear it. 

But these days we have new ears to hear and the parable comes to us from a different place and with different questions and challenges for us. So much of our focus is on the dangers and risks around us in the world. We hear about massive fires burning far, far away but still sending smoke our way. We read the news about outbreaks at schools in our neighbourhood community. We get blasted with the constant election coverage of our neighbours to the south and the election question is being asked of our own government. 

This is a parable that points back to so many of the questions we have faced in the past few months and questions that we are about to face in the coming ones. Questions about privilege, equity and equality, question about justice and human dignity.

When we hear the parable again today, we remember the familiar elements. The landowner hiring workers for his vineyard. Early in the morning, again at 9, in the middle of the day, at 3o’clock and against just before day’s end. We envision this well-to-do landowner coming back again and again to the marketplace, the agora, the centre of a town’s economic and social life. 

The day labourers are waiting for work, just as they probably did each day. They waited in the marketplace, hoping to be hired for the day so that they could earn enough to support themselves and their families. The basic currency of that world, the Danarii was based on a day labourer’s wage. Enough money to pay for food and shelter for one day. 

We don’t have many similar systems here in Canada, but if you know the right places to look, you can still find day labourers. The first time I saw a group waiting for work as when I was a teenager. Our church youth group travelled to San Diego and then across the border to Tijuana to build houses in Mexico. We stopped at a Home Depot to pick up some supplies  and there was a group of men waiting to be hired. As we sat in the van while leaders went into the store, we watched as pick-ups pulled up to the group waiting on the sidewalk. The drivers would call out a number, and the equivalent number of workers would hop in the back. 

The first part of the parable would have been a common and easy to understand circumstance for Jesus’ hearers. A landowner goes a hire some labourers first thing in morning, discovers after the a bit, the harvest isn’t progressing quickly enough, so goes to get some more. 

But once the owner goes back a third time at noon, this should be setting off our spidey sense. It would be strange to go a hire labourers for half a day, and strange that the labourers were still waiting at noon. 

Still the parable gets more strange. The landowner keeps going back, at 3 and 5 o’clock. Why would he keep hiring? How much work could those latecomers do? And why were they still waiting, who did the labourers think would hire them in the middle of the afternoon and at day’s end?

But then we get to the important part. The part that we cannot help but identify with. The part when the landowner pays all the workers the same wage. 

There is a part of us that enjoys the indignity of the full day grumblers. We identify with these ones, the ones who feel entitled, who have worked all day and recognize what they have earned. Even if landowner doesn’t pay the extra, the grumbling workers know they have earned more. 

They see themselves as the dedicated hard working ones who have put in the time and should reap the reward. 

And nearly every sermon I have heard on this parable admonishes faithful Christians in the pews not to complain (even if deserved because of hard work) about those who might come to faith a the end…

Yet, certainly this year, this chaotic and unprecedented 2020 year with natural disasters, protests against racially motivated police violence, and a pandemic… certainly this year is challenging our established understanding of this parable and ourselves. 

It is easy for us to think we are the hard workers and the others are the lazy ones looking for a free ride. We rarely attribute our situations to opportunity and good fortune. 

Surely, the grumbling workers knew what is was like to be passed over for work. Surely they knew what is was like to wait in the marketplace for the chance to feed their families for another day, only to wait and wait and wait for nothing to come in the end. 

Surely, they could see that the latecomers where not lazy layabouts who are taking advantage of a generous landowner, but rather that the early workers were the lucky ones, the ones who could rest easy for the day knowing they their needs would be provided for, that their families would have roofs over their heads and food in their bellies. 

If this global pandemic has taught us anything about fairness and privilege, it is often those who are perceived as lazy and taking advantage are often the least advantaged and some of the hardest working. We have see many all of sudden be without work and have nothing to do but wait. We have seen how it is often the poorest least advantaged who are forced to work the front lines of a pandemic world. 

And we have heard our own Lutheran Bishops, along with Anglican Bishops write political leaders in support of Guaranteed Basic Income, which is receiving a lot of attention in the news, in legislative halls and around kitchen tables. As the CERB, the Wage Subsidy and other programs kept food on the table and the lights on… we have discovered that there is a lot of luck when it comes to earning a living and hard work is no guarantee that you will have enough. 

And so as the workers who worked all day grumble about not getting more than they needed and agreed to work for, the landowner replies to them,

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The landowner, the one standing in for God challenges the perspective of privilege and entitlement. The landowner challenges it with generosity, with a generosity that gives not based on merit and worth, but based on need. The landowner provides all the workers, the lucky ones who were picked first and the ones who had to wait all day, enough. Enough to eat, enough to feed their families, enough to live. 

Guaranteed Basic Grace. 

This challenge to the way we understand the world works, this reminder that hard work is often born of opportunity and circumstance and that those who are left to wait and who are left out are the unlucky ones. 

And yet Jesus’s challenge to us also reveals the generosity and abundance of God’s grace and mercy given for us. 

That God’s approach to us is not to measure us by our hard work or merit, not to give us what we deserve… because we are certainly all lacking and all fall short. 

Rather God’s approach is to give us what we need. To show us the mercy and grace that will get us through to another day. God’s approach is to extend life where there only seems to be death. Where there would have been empty bellies and unsheltered heads, God extends life once more. 

God’s way with us is to keep life going, to give us one more day. One more day that carries us to the third day, to the day of resurrection, to the day of grace and mercy when life extended.  indefinitely. 

And this year, God has challenged our sense of fairness, our understanding of opportunity and privilege. God calls us again to consider not what each one of us is worth nor what we think we deserve…. But to consider what each one of us needs. And God reveals the generosity that is given to us. 

And however unfair that feels, God gives all the grace and mercy needed for one more day and for life eternal in Christ. 

Having only Bad Choices – God’s Third Option

Matthew 18:21-35
21Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
(Read the whole passage)

I wonder what was going through the minds of the Israelites standing on the banks of the Red Sea… an army chasing them down from behind and turbulent waters ahead of them. No good options, only bad ones. 

Here we are, into month 7 of this global pandemic, and it feels strange to be preaching again about a virus… and yet this illness that spreads so easily and makes just enough folks really sick has changed life and the way we live it. It is in the news every day, it has become an important factor in nearly every decision we make from how to buy groceries, to visiting with family, to going to work or school or even coming to church. 

We have been walking along side the stories of God’s people during this entire pandemic in a new way, a way different from before when we likely felt degrees of separation from the struggle. Again and again we have found the world and story that we have been living out in real time is one that is already told and experienced in the bible. From Abraham and Sarah and their descendants making their way in the wilderness, to the disciples cluelessly following Jesus, to Moses and the Israelites preparing to escape Egypt. 

We are firmly in the back half of this long season of green. 15 Sundays into Ordinary Time, and there are only ten or so left before we flip the calendar on a new church year in Advent. Yet, even now, those ten weeks seem like they are still a lifetime away, the predictability of our lives has been taken from us as we wait each day to hear whether or not this pandemic thing is getting better or worse. 

Along side the the story of the Israelites feeling Egypt’s armies and crossing through the parted waters of the Red Sea, Peter asks Jesus how many times ought he to forgive. Peter’s guess was a number he thought to be quite generous. 7 times. But Jesus responds by multiplying that number 70 times 7. Which is not to say 490 times, but forgiveness ought to be offered more times than Peter imagines possible. 

There is something about the Israelites standing on the brink of destruction or disaster that goes with Peter’s question about forgiveness. 

As the people of Israel, the community of God’s people stood there on the banks of the seashore, the feeling of helplessness and defeat must have been overwhelming. There was no good choice to make, only bad options. Options that both include death for many. Death at the hands of Egyptians soldiers, or death in the waters.

In the same way as Peter considers forgiveness, he too stands between hard choices. Forgiveness really exists at the edge of a difficult choice, to let go of harms and wrongs done. Does forgiveness condone bad behaviour? Does it simply allow for more harm and abuse? Or does not forgiving hold us in bitterness and judgment, in resentment and anger? There is no easy answer or obvious choice. 

The people of Israel and Peter are standing at the precipice of bad options and choices all around. Not dissimilar to where we are stand theses days. We too have been struggling with how to move forward in life when there are are only bad and unsatisfactory options all around us. Do we stay home or risk seeing family and friends for the sake of mental health and wellbeing. Do we go back to workplaces and jobs risking exposure but needing to support businesses and the economy? Do we send children to school with untold numbers of contacts or do we risk their growth, learning and development. 

And of course, do we begin gathering in-person for ministry and worship as churches once again? Is the community that we share in this place worth the risk of transmission? Do the restrictions placed on how we worship (masks, no singing, no visiting, socially distant and brief) justify the effort to be together inside of a beloved church building and church home?

Today, the Lord God of Israel and Jesus the Christ offer third options. A parting of the waters, a new and unexpected pathway to salvation. An understanding of forgiveness that expands far beyond what seems generous and reasonable at first. 

Yet, as Moses raises his staff and hands over the sea and the waters part… I am not so sure that stepping into the newly revealed sea bed would have felt any safer. I don’t think I would have been the first to follow the path between the two walls of water, not knowing if or when they might come crashing down. Salvation and rescue doesn’t always feel low-risk and secure. Being safe isn’t always comfortable.

Yet, as Jesus speaks of forgiveness beyond what Peter can imagine, forgiveness that is not just generous but abundant and lavish. Forgiveness that extends beyond close friends and family, that is given for the whole community, for all of creation… I am not sure I would want to walk away from the ability to hold others accountable, to hold them in my judgment… who knows how that might be taken advantage of. Letting go my judgment and resentment doesn’t feel natural or straight forward. Setting feelings and gut instincts and coping mechanisms aside isn’t easy. 

Yet, the Lord God of Israel brings the people through the waters to safety to other side and on their way to the promised land. 

Yet. Christ goes to the cross and even while hanging there in the final judgment of humanity, prays for mercy and forgiveness for all of us. 

For you see, God reveals something beyond our impossible choices, beyond the risk of armies and raging waters. God pours out forgiveness, release from judgement and condemnation that cannot fathom. 

God invokes options and futures that we cannot conceive of. Christ shows us the way to abundant new life beyond ourselves, and beyond what feels safe. 

And for us, for the church as we face a world full of bad options, full of risks and stress and anxiety about what the right thing to do is, God is working among us already, parting waters that will send us on our way to the promised land – there just might be 40 years in the wilderness first. 

And Christ is exhorting us to forgiveness knowing that resurrection and new life have begun already in our world, even if the cross of Good Friday comes first. 

God in Christ promises that even through this pandemic, even through the separation of communities, friends and family, even through the limitations on the way we worship and the way we can gather… that the transformation and salvation of God’s people has already begun… that there will be parted waters ahead for us, that there’s abundant forgiveness waiting for us… that a new way of living and being in the world for this pandemic church of 2020 is on its way. 

We might feel stuck to between bad choices theses day, but God is with us, God is beside us, God is among us… carrying us to the new and unexpected thing that we cannot imagine yet. 

Because God has already brought God’s people, and will bring us, through the struggle and to the other side, 

to the promised land 

of mercy and new life.