The Parable of the Persistent Landowner

Matthew 20:1-16

In the book Tiny Beautiful Things,
I read a story about a woman named Cheryl Strayed;
Cheryl’s mother dies unexpectedly when Cheryl is twenty-two.
The Christmas before her mother dies,
Cheryl’s mother gives her a warm coat.
The mother has saved for months to buy this coat
and thinks it is perfect for Cheryl.

Cheryl takes the coat and holds it up.
She remarks that the coat is longer than she likes
and it’s too puffy
and possibly too warm.

It is not until spring,
when her mother dies,
that Cheryl sees the value of the coat.

Cheryl’s story reminds us
that there is a depth to things that we forget,[i]
that there is a depth to you and me and this very moment.
Cheryl receives a coat that is puffy and long
and, in that moment, that it is all she sees.
Yet later, Cheryl she sees that that tender, thoughtful gift
was part of a love story,
a love story between a mother and a daughter.

That gift then becomes part of the love story
between Cheryl and the world
when a young adult writes to Cheryl for advice
and Cheryl replies by sharing this story,
and advising the young adult to lean into
these tiny, beautiful moments,
and say thank you.

Do we see these moments?

Sometimes, we are so engrossed by the exact shape of the coat in our hand
that we miss out on the beauty of the gift
that is before us and around us and within us.

One time, over three years,
I was in the midst of preparing a sermon to preach
as part of the interviewing process with this church.
I loved this church and so I worked hard,
spending many hours on what is called a “candidating” sermon.

Around this same time,
I traveled down to Washington DC
to spend Easter with my sister, brother and parents.
We went to an Easter service together.
It started gloriously,
literally with trumpets blowing from the balcony behind me.
Then came the sermon.
I took notes as the preacher spoke
so that I would not miss a beat,
but the preacher simply read through the words and verses of a hymn
and then had the organist play a triumphant cord in between the words.
There was no substance or shape to what he said.
This on Easter Sunday.

My sister, who had witnessed my hours of sermon writing,
remarked on her surprise at the contrast
between my efforts and that of the preacher.
I too was surprised.

Then I became a pastor.

As I pastor, I have learned many things,
including that Sunday always comes.
Sunday comes even when people we love die
or a friend relapses
or our hearts are shattered by the violence of the world.
Sunday comes even when there are many things to do
or we are not yet ready for it.

Sunday always comes.
That is the Good News of the Gospels.
That is the promise of God.

Sunday always come.
God’s grace always come.
God’s love always shines through
and it does not require of us perfection or readiness.
It comes to us again and again and again
because of who God is.
God is a persistent God who sees our worth and our value
in the face of all other circumstances.
God sees there is a beauty to things that we forget,
that there is a beauty to us.

I still think of that pastor from Easter day.
I wonder what part of his story I missed.
I wonder:  Did he stay up late keeping vigil at the hospital for a congregant?
Did he spent his time caring for a child who was throwing up?
Did someone die?  Had he performed a funeral that week?

Yet, whatever had come up in his life,
in the world,
and in the life of the congregation,
this man showed up and cared.

No matter what that pastor had experienced,
he got up and defiantly, courageously and vulnerably preached the Good News
that God’s grace, God’s love, God’s resurrection comes
no matter what your week has brought.

Although words help to us understand God,
it is not the ideal turn of phrase that brings us closer to God.
Rather, it is the realness of allowing God’s love to shine in
and through our imperfections.

For what that God requires is not perfection but realness:
The realness of experiencing whatever the week may bring
and still embodying and knowing and celebrating the truth
that salvation comes and is coming and will come
in it all and through it all.

God’s grace requires nothing from us.

Sunday always comes.
Even if it rises one ribbon at a time like the sun rising in the East.

Sunday always comes.

Sunday reminds us that, even in the messy moments of our lives,
we are part of something bigger and wider than we can imagine:
the love story of God that expands through the ages.
Sunday reminds us that there is a depth to us; there is a depth to this moment.

Do we see it?

God sees it.
God sees us, even in the midst of our folly and fumbling.
God sees us even when we receive gifts from people we love
and can only perceive the faults.

God sees our depth.
God sees the beauty.
God knows that this moment is part of a larger story and so
God comes to us again and again and again,
saying,  “I love you; I see you; and I call you by name.”

God comes to us until we can see what is already true:
that even in our folly, our beauty can be seen,
and that in our tender, vulnerable moments
we are surrounded by a love more profound than we can imagine.

That is lesson taught to us today
in the parable that Jesus tells us
in the Gospel of Matthew.

This parable is often described
as “The Parable of the Vineyard Laborers”
but I think that the behavior of the landowner
has something to teach us about God,
so I’ll call it “The Parable of the Persistent Landowner.”

In this parable, the landowner is preparing a vineyard for harvest.
The landowner goes to the town square to hire workers for the day.
At that time, there was no such thing
as unemployment, soup kitchens or food pantries.
Each person who needed daily bread
would be standing in that square, waiting for a job.

When dawn breaks, the landowner goes to the square and hires all the workers.
Then, landowner returns again
at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m.,
and again hires all the workers in the town square
This is a bit unusual for a landowner,
after all didn’t the landowner have enough workers by now?

Even at the late hour of 5 p.m.,
the landowner returns again to the market place
and says to those there,
have a job for you.

The landowner just can’t keep out of the marketplace.
The landowner, like God, keeps going back
and interrupting lives again and again and again,
coming to the people, leaving no one out.

Then the time for payment arrives
and the 5 p.m. workers get paid first.
Not only that, but they receive the same amount as the other workers:
They receive a denarius,
which would be enough for them to buy their daily bread.

The 6 a.m. workers state how unfair this is,
citing the reality the they have borne
the burden of the day and the scorching heat.

Yet, what if there is a depth to the 5 p.m. workers
that the 6 a.m. workers don’t know about?
What if, in order to provide for their families,
the 5 p.m. workers woke up early and worked a full day’s work,
bearing the burden of the day,
and then when back out into the market place to find more work
so that they could afford daily bread not only for themselves
but for their family?
What if the workers had an ill loved one to take care of?
What if the workers desperately wanted to work and no one had picked them up so they had to walk over from a nearby town?
What if we don’t know the whole story?

There is a depth to things that we forget.

God sees that and reminds us that Sunday always comes.
We don’t need to be ready.
God comes to find us again and again and again.
God comes to find us,
even when we in our folly don’t make it to the work site
because we are wandering around trying to fill a hole in our lives.
God comes to us and says there is more to you than this.
There is more to life than this.
There is a beauty, there is a depth to you and this moment,
beyond what you can imagine.
I can see it even when you cannot see it yourself.
God says to us: I love you. I see you. I call you by name.

And when we finally come,
whether we come early or whether we come late,
God pays us in full, giving us our daily bread.

For we are not defined by our arrival time,
only by our having been come and gotten by God.

God says to us:
Come to this quiet, non-bravado, real place
come with the messiness and hardness and all your mistakes
and find at last what you have been looking for.

Come from your quick fixes and your isolated corners,
come and discover what matters
come and discover that you matter
and that there is a depth and beauty inside of you
that you have never glimpsed before.
You don’t need a more perfect fitting coat
because there is more to life
and more to you
and more to love.

Thanks be to God.


[i] The turns of phrase “there is a depth to things that we forget” and “there is a depth to you” come from Emotional Elegance (p. 239) written by psychotherapist and American Baptist minister Bob Beverly.

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