Hope Center Sunday
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
When I was growing up, occasionally my dad needed help doing heavy work around the house. On those days, I can remember him saying to my mother, “I’ll go by the Lazy Iron and see if I can pick up someone to help us.” At first, I didn’t have a clue what the Lazy Iron was. But I would come to learn that it was place in our small town where unemployed men would gather and wait to see if someone who needed day labor would come and hire them. Here in Raleigh we have our “Labor Corner” downtown – in fact, we have a number of places where people who need a job stand and wait to see if somebody will employ them for a day’s work.
But “Labor Corner” isn’t nearly as descriptive as the “Lazy Iron.” You hear what is implied by this reference: these are people who don’t really want to work. They are lazy. If they really wanted to work, they would be employed. In fact, that wasn’t universally true when my dad used the term and it certainly isn’t true today in this period of high unemployment. Yet the stigma remains. If you’re standing on a street corner at six o’clock in the morning waiting for a construction supervisor or a homeowner to offer you a days’ work, something is wrong with you.
In our text for this morning, Jesus tells one of his more challenging parables about just such a place. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, a landowner hires laborers early in the morning and agrees to pay them the normal daily wage. Then successively throughout the day at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours, the vineyard owner goes back and hires more workers. We don’t know why he keeps returning. Perhaps the task was bigger than what the original group could do. Perhaps it was more than that. What we know is that he kept going back to the marketplace and finding more people who were not working. When he asked why they were idle, the answer was simple: no one has hired us. So throughout the day the owner sends new crews of workers to the vineyard, promising the later arrivals only that he will pay them “whatever is right” – that is, a fair wage. Then in the evening when the work is done, the owner instructs his manager to settle the accounts, paying those who had worked only one hour the same as those who had worked twelve.
Even without reading the rest of the story, you know what the response is going to be. The ones who went to work early in the morning are very unhappy. They grumble that they have worked all day in the scorching heat, yet those who worked only an hour received the same wage. You can hear their complaint. “It’s not fair.” You can feel their complaint. It’s how most of us would respond. “Oh, but it is fair,” says the landowner. “You received the wages you were promised. You have no complaint.” And then he adds that line that pierces the empathy we feel for the early arrivals: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
What the vineyard owner does here is very un-American. Steeped in a heritage of rugged, hard-working individualism and a capitalist economy, we have been taught that a hard days’ work deserves a fair day’s pay and little work deserves little pay. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. This “you have to work if you want to eat” philosophy motivates us all in positive ways. For the most part, it keeps our economy going.
But the parable is not a moral lesson about labor relations. Rather Jesus takes a familiar situation then and now, that of unemployed people looking for a job, and depicts the nature of God. Out of pity for the unemployed and their families, the employer generously gives a full day’s wages to everyone. In fact, this is what God is doing throughout Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes, the poor and the outcast, an equal share with hard-working, righteous folks in the kingdom. It’s what liberation theologians refer to as “God’s preferential option for the poor.” Remember the first line of our text: For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. This is not just an interesting and provocative story for his listeners to ponder. Jesus explains that God’s kingdom is like this. “Pay attention,” he says. “This is how things work in God’s household.”
So what do we do with this story? Is it a call to set aside all of our rules and boundaries and give away the store? How do we know when to bend the rules; when to set aside what feels fair to us; and when does our supposed generosity turn us into enablers of bad behavior? I wish I had a clear answer to these questions I could offer you this morning, but I don’t. One of the demons I wrestle with a genetic code that makes me want things to be fair.
I’m also aware that it’s easy for us liberals to romanticize the poor. We want to “help” everyone. I’ve spent the last ten years on this staff responding to endless requests for help from poor people who need something they think Pullen can give them. We had 25-30 calls this week. And I spent a decade before that representing the same population (and, in some cases, the very same people) in legal disputes, an exercise that taught me the countless ways people get in a bind because of their poverty sometimes combined with bad decisions. As Christians we are supposed to act like Jesus toward everyone we meet. Yet I admit that there are days when I think, “If one more person interrupts me to ask for something, I am going to scream.” So I profess no great wisdom or holy capacity to interpret this story for you, and even less ability to embody the vision of God’s realm that it portrays.
But this I do know. Our calling as people of faith is to be godly, that is to say “to act like God” in as many ways as we can. And a primary characteristic of the Holy One, perhaps the trait that sets God apart from humanity the most, is generosity. I’m talking here about the “amazing grace” we sing about. We can never match God’s graciousness. But if we’re going to try to be gracious, if we attempt to be generous as God is generous, I believe we must live in the awareness that all we have and are is a gift which is not of our own making.
“But I’ve worked hard all my life to have the things I have,” we say. That’s true. So has the woman who spent her entire working life doing minimum wage labor, only she retires to live on a small social security check. And many of these workers suffer from health problems directly caused by what they had to breathe or lift or handle in their work. We are not the only ones who work hard. I think about it this way. You’ve heard me say this before. I was born white into a two-parent, middle class, loving family. My parents had above-average IQ’s and my mother received good pre-natal care. They did not do drugs nor did they even drink alcohol. I had absolutely nothing to do with any of these characteristics of my birth but they have profoundly impacted the opportunities that have come my way. Have I worked hard? Sure. But I entered the world way ahead of most of the people who ask for my help every day. That means I have a responsibility and indeed a calling to do my very best to mirror the generous God I say I believe in and come here to worship each Sunday.
There are many ways that we all try to embody God’s generosity at Pullen. We feed, house, and support all kinds of people here in Raleigh and around the world. That’s why many of us are part of the Pullen family. Because it’s one of our newer ministries, today I want to be sure you know that The Hope Center at Pullen is one of our best efforts to mirror God’s generosity. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons the door is open for anyone who needs help accessing the statewide employment database or writing a resume or just being encouraged that something good will happen soon. In the last fiscal year, the Joblink Access Point in the Hope Center had 643 guests, more than all of the other 16 access points in Wake County.
As you heard from Diane and Judy, the Job Readiness program targets people who are homeless, most of them chronically homeless, who want a different life and are open to addressing the things that are getting in the way of this goal. The target population of this program was intentionally chosen. There are other jobs programs that work with people who can show up on time and ready to receive job training. For those who really want to work but need a lot of help getting there, the Hope Center’s talented staff and volunteers stand ready to provide that assistance. In matters of theology and justice, Pullen Church has gone places other churches won’t go, and the Hope Center’s programs are another example of this. Helping chronically homeless men and women into the workforce suits us. It’s hard, but it is important work that includes a dose of holy generosity.
At the Hope Center, it’s OK if you’re late getting to the vineyard. If growing up in foster care means you didn’t show up until 9 am, that’s alright. If addiction or domestic violence held you up and you don’t show up to work until noon, it’s OK. If a prison record or the lack of a high school diploma delayed you so that it’s three o’clock before you’re ready to go to work, there’s still some fruit for you to pick. And if living through all of these prompted you to make so many poor decisions that you don’t appear until the work day is almost over, you’re welcome anyway. Whenever you show up to work on changing your life, there’s a place for you. Our culture’s rules prescribe that those who arrive late receive less. But that’s not true at the Hope Center. Whenever you show up, you get what those who arrived earlier receive – a warm welcome and effective tools to create a stable, healthy life.
It’s hard to offer the kind of generosity Jesus was describing in the story of the vineyard owner. But the Hope Center comes close. It’s a gracious place for people whose lives have not seen a lot of grace. So it needs the support of people who dare to oppose the loud voices now claiming that we all should be able to take care of ourselves without any help. It needs the support of people whose fairness gene is overwhelmed by an awareness of gifts that are unmerited. It needs the support of those willing to create a household that imitates God’s. There’s no Lazy Iron here. Instead the Hope Center at Pullen is a faith community of hospitality, affirmation, and justice where God’s generosity is the model and transformation is the goal. And like the workers, volunteers and supporters who show up to work at any hour of the day will be welcomed.