Sunday, September 14, 2014

On Night-Crawlers and God's Vineyard

Matthew 20:1-16

 I was out on my early morning walk today.

It had rained most of yesterday, and so there were still night-crawlers on the pavement --- forced out of their underground homes.  I never see a night-crawler on the ground without being taken back to when I was 10 or 11 years old and such as these were summer's gold.

For you see, when we were kids, this was how we earned our vacation money.

My folks set up the 'business' for us.  They went out and bought an old refrigerator and plugged it into an outlet in the garage, where the bait was stored by the dozens in paper cups and tin cans. They even had a professional sign painted --- white with red lettering --- which announced that night-crawlers could be had for 75 cents a dozen.  It leaned against the maple tree out in front of our house.

And so it was when it would storm, we would be out in force --- all four of us --- with flashlights and buckets.  Forty years later I can remember it like it was just last night, the gentle, persistent technique it took to take a hold of those overgrown worms who had come up for air and get them into the bucket in one piece.  And the crick in my neck from bending over like that for long minutes at a time. Funny, it didn't bother me then --- not the feeling of the night-crawler or the dirt beneath my fingernails.  I think I would be more squeamish now.

And then vacationers and others on their way for a week-end's early morning fishing would pull into our long driveway and offer to purchase a dozen or two.  And seventy-five cents at a time the money would pour in --- stored for the time being in a German beer stein whose home was on the top shelf in the kitchen.   The week before our annual family vacation would begin, we would take down the stein, pour the money out on the table and divide it into four equal piles.

Here is what strikes me now, especially as I consider the story Jesus tells today: I don't remember there ever being any debate about it.  None of us ever accused another of having captured fewer worms and thus being somehow less entitled to an equal share of the coins and dollar bills in the stein.  More than that, it's altogether likely that on any given night, one or another of us was not out there. Even so, in the end, we all got the same.

It could have been different, of course.  And normally in life it is.  We expect to get paid for what we do.  We don't expect another will be paid the same for doing less.  And I suppose it's easier when we are children before we find ourselves so dependent on our earned wage for actually paying for life's essentials. Even so, I think back on that time and find it unusual, for it reflects precisely the opposite of what plays out in the parable Jesus offers now.

For of course the world doesn't work like it did on South Main Street in the 70's or in Jesus' parable now.  In fact, I expect that most of us can relate to those who had been out there early and who had labored hard through the heat of the day.  It comes as no wonder that they were unhappy with those who didn't bother to show up until later, but in the end, received the same wage that they did.

And it goes without saying that it's really not fair.  Just like in a family where all are loved and valued equally, nobody gets to be loved more --- not even if they work harder.  Or if they've suffered more.  Or if they've achieved greater things.  Or obeyed more completely.  No, in the world Jesus describes, the owner of the vineyard sees them all the same.  In the world I grew up in, moms and dads loved all the same.  Just as God does.

And oh yes, the vineyard and the payroll belonged to the owner of that vineyard, after all.  In the same way, my folks owned the land from which the night-crawlers crawled out as well as the refrigerator and the garage that housed it. They purchased the sign that advertised our live bait and they made sure the electric bill was paid every month.  It really was all theirs. They just gave us a share in it on stormy summer nights.  Again, like God does, don't you think?

For t is so in the Kingdom of God as well --- and perhaps, from time to time, in the world where God's people seek to be part of making that kingdom come.  For it is, first and last, all God's isn't it?  I wonder what it would look like if you and I were to start to act like that were so, don't you?  I wonder what it would look like if you and I began to live as though the last were actually first, in the words of Jesus now.

You know, this happened to me in a small way today.  I found myself traveling from a graveside service to an unexpected hospital call out of town.  It was noon.  I was hungry and so I did what I seldom do any more, I drove through McDonald's.  Now I didn't order much. In fact, I had $3.39 pulled out of my wallet ready to hand the young woman at the drive up window.  When I pulled up she slid the window open and laughing with glee she announced that the person in front of me had paid for my meal.

Now in my experience, one never gets that kind of over-the-top glad greeting from folks at drive up windows.  It was pure joy for her to tell me that my meal was free.  Not because I earned it or deserved it.  But only because I happened to be next in line.

Now don't you think you and I would also have a great time being part of something like that?  And yet, of course, we get to be part of that all the time.  For you and I are called to announce to the world that the greatest gifts God intends for us are ours just because God wants us to have them.  God wants you to have them.  Even you who showed up late in the day.  Whether you're first in line or last in line.  Even you. Even me.

  • I offer the example of our childhood night-crawler business as a parallel to what Jesus offers now.  What examples can you think of which would parallel Jesus' story?
  • I wonder how it would play in our communities, our neighborhoods, our congregations if we actually lived as though the last were first.  Indeed, what would this look like on the football field, in the classroom, at the office, at church committee meetings, or, for that matter, in our national immigration policies, don't you?  Think for a moment about who 'the last' are in your world.  How might this parable be lived in a way which would actually change their world?
  • When have you found your status changed from 'last' to 'first?'  How did you react?  What would it be like to be able to offer that gift to another?  When do you see yourself doing so next?