Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 24, 2023
[sermon begins after three Bible readings]
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.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am 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.”
Jonah 3:10-4:11 When God saw what [the people of Ninevah] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
6The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Philippians 1:21-30 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
27Only, 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, 28and 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. 29For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—30since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Sometimes all we have is a leap of faith. A leap of faith means that we don’t know what’s going to happen. For some people, leaping in faith means getting out of bed in the morning. For others, leaping in faith means changing careers. Heck, life is a leap of faith. Life choices and events beyond our control all take leaps of faith. In Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, a.k.a. the Bible book of Philippians, he took a leap of faith in sending that letter. He encoded it with words that the Roman authorities would see as meaningless – gospel of Christ, faith, salvation, grace, joy and suffering.1 The church folks would know the hidden code, that God turns things upside down. Paul was writing from prison to people who had everything taken away from them by Rome. They knew that suffering didn’t have the last word. Challenging times make it difficult to feel joy much less acknowledge joy. But there’s Paul talking about joy in faith and their faith in the gospel. Trust is essential for experiencing joy in the middle of trauma, political or otherwise. Many people tell me that they don’t know how they would live life without their faith. I know that my faith and the faith of so many others kept me going over the last few months.
The faith that claims us is of a God who “is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” While the psalmist is praising God for those qualities, Jonah gives God the stink eye, accusing God of grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love.2 How dare God be God with those horrific enemies?! How dare God extend beauty to people Jonah can’t stand, even if they did repent of their murderous ways? Jonah’s stink-eyed grievance is legit. As non-Jews, the Philippians may not have known the story of Jonah, but Paul as a Jewish Christian did know the story of Jonah. He planted churches with faith in Jesus who revealed God’s grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love. Paul formed these churches as a leap of faith in circumstances that were less than favorable because he believed in the God of his ancestors from whom Jesus was embodied, took flesh, and launched a ministry of grace and God’s kingdom. Jesus wasn’t a professor in front of a classroom. He taught his followers as life presented itself.
Parables were part of Jesus’ teachings. Parables are stories that are open to interpretation and slippery when it comes to direct answers. Just before our parable today in the Matthew reading, Peter had asked Jesus what the benefits of following him were. Jesus gave a convoluted answer but then launched into a parable to try to explain his answer. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…” Then Jesus goes on to say that the landowner hires several groups of people in town. The first group he hires early in the morning committing to paying them a daily wage. The next three groups he hired with the promise that he’d “pay what is right.” At the end of the day, he hires the last bunch without one word about payment. We know the drill. The landowner starts with that last bunch who worked an hour by paying them a full daily wage. The story is absurd. No landowner would have stayed in business if word got out that you could make a daily wage working for an hour.
Let’s go with it for a minute though. Imagine the last hour workers’ joy being able to feed their families for a few days. Imagine their joy. But each group was paid a daily wage, and the early morning group was furious. They were angry. If we read closely, we hear their reason, they said to the landowner, “…you have made them equal to us.” “You have made them equal to us.” A scathing rebuke from the workers to the landowner. It gets better. The landowner questions the workers, “Are you envious because I am generous?” In the Greek, this question more precisely asks, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” In other words, the landowner asks, “Are you giving me the stink eye because I’m good?”
Does anyone relate to the stink eye wielding workers? Maybe a teacher gave everyone an “A” after you studied, actually got an “A,” and they didn’t. Maybe your gifts and skills aren’t recognized or reimbursed in a way that leaves you feeling overlooked and undervalued. Are we inclined to give the stink eye to people who haven’t worked as hard as we have or, even better, to give the stink eye to God for God’s generosity or to people who keep harping on God’s generosity?
We could read this parable and argue for workers’ rights, tying the United Auto Workers’ and The Writers Guild’s strikes against corporate greed to the lesson today. We could also argue that this parable isn’t practical guidance but theological argument for God’s grace available in Jesus Christ to all people at all times. I’m more interested in arguing that we are like the workers – skeptical, cynical, and worried about being declared equal to other people who aren’t. This may be part of the reason we get concerned about helping people. We can think that if we help them too much it won’t be good for them. That rabbit hole contains sticking points that make it hard to leap in faith.
I’ve gone back and forth about talking about Augustana Homes and Bless the Build as a leap of faith, but I think it’s worth the risk. Construction begins in October and this afternoon at 1 p.m. in the Sanctuary we’ll have a brief program that ends in Augustana’s Community Park, right next to the site of future affordable homes built by Habitat for Humanity Metro Denver on land leased to them by you, the Augustana congregation. The land lease keeps the cost of the homes affordable. The project began five years ago.
In March of 2018, four Augustana folks went to a breakfast hosted by Interfaith Alliance and heard about the Congregation Land Campaign. Interns at Interfaith Alliance had been assigned the task of calculating how many unused acres of land in Metro Denver were available on faith community properties. 5,000. 5,000 acres across Metro Denver that could be used to build affordable housing as one piece of Denver’s housing puzzle. After the breakfast, these four folks met with the pastors to share what they learned. Each tiny, incremental step, the congregation’s team made headway, led by retired Pastor Ann Hultquist. A team was formed in the congregation to imagine the use of this land for housing. In 2019, over a year after the Interfaith Alliance breakfast, the congregation voted for the project. With other options to sell the land, I call that a leap of faith. By December 2019, we selected Habitat for Humanity as our construction partner out of three possibilities. And we all know what happened in March of 2020 when the world shut down.
While the pandemic slowed the progress, the team persisted, engaging the congregation and neighbors in ongoing discussions for updates and feedback. There were behind-the-scenes tasks that Habitat and the congregation picked away at with the city and the neighborhood association – rezoning, water issues, build size, you know, the fun stuff. Why all these details? Because ultimately families will have affordable homes because of the inspiration to dream and the determination to see the dream through the details. Families will have homes. That’s the dream. Today is as much about celebrating breaking ground on Augustana Homes as it is about inspiring other people to dream about other empty land with potential for homes. If we can make this audacious leap of faith as a large-ish, reserved, and responsible congregation then maybe other faith communities can dream it too. Building affordable homes is one piece of the housing puzzle in Denver. For the eight families who will own Augustana Homes, it’s THE piece that will make their dream a reality.
It would have been easy, and perhaps even advisable, for the congregation to make a different decision. In light of today’s readings, we could argue that the leap of faith we’re taking is the kind of thing that we’re called to do. We can argue it till kingdom come. In the meantime, we’ll catch glimpses of the kingdom that is like a landowner whose generosity earns the occasional stink eye when generosity is on the line. Thanks be to God. And amen.