Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing.Philippians 1:27-28, NRSV
Writing to the church at Philippi, Paul assesses the value of discipleship by calling on the young church to be worthy of the gospel. They are engaged in some strife that is never specifically identified, doing the hard work of committing to a faith that is new to them and not acceptable to everyone around them. Paul offers affirmation of their commitment, but he doesn’t sugarcoat it. They have the privilege of believing in Christ, but also of suffering for him. Will they have the endurance required?
It’s been said that when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. As preachers, if we serve comfortable or privileged or even just majority white congregations, we may be eager to communicate this idea to the people we serve but also worried that a prophetic sermon will shut people down, not open them up. The current polarizing political discourse in the U.S. exacerbates our concerns. We wonder how to explore a difficult truth without causing a reaction that prevents the hearer from understanding it. This week’s gospel lesson offers a way.
In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus tells a story intended to give insight into God’s economy of grace. For God, it doesn’t matter who got to work first, and that sounds wrong to us. We rely on hierarchies. We rely on them in education, in social interactions, in business and professions, any endeavor in which anyone might hope to succeed. We label ourselves and one another, we track success and ability, we assess background and prior activity. We look for the ways we are better than someone else: taller, thinner, faster, smarter, stronger, whiter. It shouldn’t surprise us; we’re all trying to survive in a system that relies on power to run.
But that is not the system Jesus describes, and those are not the values of the heavenly kingdom. Those are earthly kingdom values.
Through the voice of the landowner, Jesus explains the values of the heavenly kingdom:
“’Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”Matthew 20:13b-16
Jesus turns our worldly values system upside down, the one in which we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and winning is everything. Earthly assessments prevail even in the church, as we give preferred status to the biggest givers, or the largest congregations, or the shiniest production values.
How can the church be gospel-worthy?
The laborers hired late in the day had not been offered the opportunity to work. In our current situation, we can look around in our own communities to see who needs work, who is hungry or hungry or without medical care, who may lack the necessary devices or access to WiFi for virtual schooling. We can look at our wider community and world to see who is waiting for the possibilities we take for granted, and who is suffering because our hierarchies do not make their lives, their hopes, and their stories a priority. We can investigate our personal and collective values. Where do we spend our money? What do we consider worth our time? When have we grumbled like the workers who started the day early?
“I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.”Matthew 20:14b
We will be gospel-worthy when we choose to do the same.
For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you, and I hope you will share this post with colleagues who might be interested.