Proper 20A, September 24, 2017
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
The gospel lesson for today is one of my favorites. When I worked in pastoral care in the hospital, I have to admit it was one of my frequent go-to passages in hospital visits. A visit with one woman I remember very vividly still stays with me.
She was in the hospital for a fairly minor procedure, but she was very distraught. She felt overwhelmed with responsibility. Her school-age children needed her to care for them and wanted her home. Her husband seemed to be lost while she was away, not knowing how to manage the household. Her employer was giving her problems for taking time off to care for her body in the hospital. Being stuck in the hospital bed while so many people wanted her to be working left her feeling worthless. Her value to each of those around her depended on how much she was able to do for them.
The gospel story for today, which she and I started talking about, has a lot to say about what was bothering her. I imagine many of us related immediately to the first group of workers in today’s story. We think “it’s not fair!” as those who only worked an hour get paid the same as those who worked a whole day. But of course those who worked a full day still get paid what they were promised, and the landowner’s generosity to those who came last doesn’t degrade what those who started working earlier will be able to buy with the wages they earned.
But the fact is, most of us tie our worth to our productivity. In the story today, the ones who worked more complain when the ones who worked less get paid the same even though they get paid what they were promised. They tell the landowner: ‘you have made them equal to us.” In the words of one commentator, “Work becomes not simply the means for earning daily bread, but a source of division and competition, a means of reinforcing the categories of winners and losers, superior and inferior” (Feasting, p. 97) When the daylong workers complain “You have made them equal to us” they take us underneath economic concerns into a deeper understanding of where we get our worth, where we are threatened, and where we feel shame if our basic reward of that worth is challenged.
The daylong workers get paid what they were promised, but get upset that others got paid as well. And in doing so they reveal that the grounding of worth is based not on who we are, but on what we do.
“If I produce I am worthy. If I do not, I am not worthy.” I certainly feel that pressure. I imagine most of us probably can. That’s the root of the perceived unfairness in this story.
This view of worthiness is clearly not new, because Jesus told this parable long ago. But social worker and Episcopalian Brene Brown argues that this view of worthiness is reaching more and more troubling levels in our society today.
She is a shame researcher. I hope you have seen some of her TED talks or read some of her
books. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It is the total opposite of owning our story, with all its joy and pain, with all its blemishes and beauty, and feeling worthy in our own skin.
In the case of the woman in the hospital I mentioned just a minute ago, she felt pulled apart in a web of shame because she could not live into the expectation of being a perfect mother, wife, and employee while sitting in a hospital bed recovering from surgery. She felt unlovable as a result. She was not going to be able to produce. In the gospel story, she was going to be forced out of the first group and into one of the later groups. That left her feeling unworthy, feeling shame. According to Brene Brown’s research, women may frequently experience shame like this woman did, as a web pulling her apart, while men frequently express shame not so much as a web but more like a box, trapping them in: expectations closing in around rather than pulling apart.
But this gospel lesson blows that apart, because here’s the thing that the people who came last to work the vineyard learned: your worth isn’t dependent on how much you do, or how much you accomplish. Chasing our worth by believing we will be whole if we get enough done, or if it is perfect enough, or if we make enough, only results in an empty self.
God’s love doesn’t come because we’ve earned it. God’s love just comes. That’s the beauty of grace! Your worth and mine and everybody else’s– it stems from God’s generosity. You are worthy because you are God’s beloved. God loves you not because you got up early and worked hard. God loves you whether or not you were in the faith early or late, whether you’ve been in the vineyard working hard or maybe haven’t even been trying that hard at all because you’re tired and it’s hard. Do you hear the echoes of the invitation to communion we use from Iona: Christ invites you– to be known and fed not because of what you’ve done, or not done, but because of who you are: the landowner in this story provides enough.
It is a gift, freely given. We so easily forget that God isn’t riding our backs to perform. God made us to love us. The work we are called to is a response to that love.
So many of us have experiences of church that aren’t rooted in that: experiences of church or lies about God that tell us that we are not enough and that we can only get to God if we win, if we beat everybody else to the vineyard, or if we work to point out how late everybody else is.
The only way out of those lies that tell us that, out of those wounds, is to be vulnerable about our own humanity.
Because all of us– all of humanity– shares in this one thing. We are not God. We are frail. We cannot win all of the time. The hustle to find worthiness in success by our winning, or by being right, or by blaming others, will not fill us up.
Worthiness comes not in success, but in effort, in willingness to go out in the vineyard, and to try. And when we fail, worthiness come from having the courage to get up and try again. And to be willing not to have our efforts to be perfect, but to share those warts and challenges and obstacles with our fellow human beings. Because the lie of the hustle tells us that we are the only ones struggling to win– but the truth is that it is very hard to find worthiness until we can share enough about ourselves- to be vulnerable enough with a safe group of others- to find that we are not alone in this struggle of being human, and to hear that other people share the exact same challenges. We all have some kind of fear of failure, or a fear of being wrong or not knowing and looking foolish or like a failure. But we all share in that very human experience. And sharing that kind of vulnerability is not weakness. But vulnerability instead opens us to authenticity to our very worth: the worth as God sees us, not for what we do but for who we are: human, God’s beloved, enough.
So I invite you as we go deeper this year into cultivating community to consider this as a journey of vulnerability: a journey into the experience of sharing what it means to be human with each other. And to be gentle with each other, and to wonder what it might be like if that kind of experience were so contagious that it spilled out into the rest of the world.
I leave you with a poem by one of my favorites, Mark Nepo.
I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they resist.
And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when
their wings don’t move.
Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.
We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.
The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.
It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.
When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4. Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2010.
Brown, Brene. Various.