Sunday, September 24, 2023

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
“Everyone Gets a Medal!” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

When they were six years old, our daughters, for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery to this day, decided they wanted to play soccer. It was the one and only time they ventured into the realm of organized youth sports (thanks be to God).

Throughout that long spring season, we’d jump in the station wagon and head down to the town soccer fields on Saturday mornings. Valerie and I would stand there on the sidelines — shivering in cold, damp grayness of early March and roasting in the late May sun — as a bunch of kids ran around in the green grass for hours.

As a sports fan, I really couldn’t see the point of it all — well, at least at first glance anyway. They didn’t keep score, there was no strategy whatsoever, and the kids didn’t play actual positions.

The game, such as it was, consisted of two teams, each comprised of eleven small children, that were differentiated by the color of t-shirt they were wearing (which was helpful because they never ran in any kind predictable direction). And I should say that I think there were eleven of them on each team because no one ever really counted them either). They moved up and down the field together like a giant amoeba clustered around the ball. Well, with the exception of that one kid who always walked around picking dandelions.

There was some crying — due mostly to unintentional kicks in the shins — but the kids, by and large, had a great time. They were just there to run around and have fun with their friends; that was the point of it all.

They didn’t care who scored a goal, and they didn’t care if there was a winner. And once I understood that the rules of this game were different than what I’d expected, it ended up being kind of a glorious spectacle to behold.

But there was one mom who never quite got the picture. She’d stomp around cheering for (and criticizing) her daughter, and trash-talking any poor kid (from either team) who happened to get in her daughter’s way. Everyone else seemed to understand that this was first-year youth soccer, not the English Premier League, but not her.

She remained oblivious to the disapproving scowls of the other parents and to the mortified looks on her own kid’s face as she gesticulated wildly and hollered loudly;

she was undeterred by the reprimands she received from various coaches and league officials about her behavior;

she never noticed that she’d always end up standing there shouting all by herself as the other spectators moved away in disgust and, frankly, fear.

On the last day of the season, the coaches called all of the kids over to thank them for playing and to congratulate them for being good sports (because they all were). There was no league champion trophy, no Most Valuable Player award, no prize for the leading goal scorer (because they didn’t actually count goals);

but the coaches did give each player a participation medal just for showing up (whether they’d been there every single week or just a handful of times). They didn’t have to do this, but they did it anyway.

The kids wore those dime store medals around their little necks as if they’d won Olympic Gold — well, except for one of them that is. I’ll leave it to you to figure out whose daughter that was.

But it’s not very hard to figure out where this kid’s mother might have been coming from.

After all, in the real world, we’re typically not rewarded with participation medals; we’re rewarded for being smarter than other people, for working harder than other people, for caring more than other people, for being better than other people. To the victor go the spoils — at least that’s the way we’ve been taught to believe it’s supposed to go. It’s only fair.

And when things don’t quite work out that way for us or for others (as they often don’t), we tend to believe that something is terribly wrong with the  process or, even worse, that something is terribly wrong with us or with others — and this is an awful thing to believe about anyone.

We’re groomed from a very young age to see a world that functions in the way that the prophet Bruce Springsteen once described, “There’s just winners and losers” and don’t be “South of that line.” And kids who don’t learn that early in life are in for a really rude awakening later on. At the risk of sounding overly generous, I wonder if this might have been the thought process behind that soccer mom’s sideline antics.

And so when this way of understanding the world goes completely out the window;

when the rules of the game change entirely;

when the distinction between winners and losers disappears altogether;

when everyone gets a medal regardless of how much or how well they’ve played;

when everyone receives the daily wage regardless of how hard they’ve worked;

we just don’t know how to process it.

And when this happens, we feel vulnerable; we grow angry; we become defensive; we get frustrated; we complain that the whole situation is just not fair — which makes sense, because it’s actually not fair.

This is the situation in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Here, Jesus tells his disciples yet another parable in order to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like. Suffice it to say, it’s a bit different from what they might expect in light of the way the world generally works.

The actual details of the story that Jesus shares seem straightforward enough: a wealthy landowner goes out early in the morning to hire laborers to work in his vineyard, agreeing to pay them the usual daily wage of one denarius. For the record, no one was getting rich off a single denarius, which was only enough money to feed your average family for a day.

The landowner soon finds that he needs more help and goes back into town at nine and noon and three and five in order to hire additional workers, agreeing to pay them all “what was right.”

At the end of the day it’s time for the landowner to settle up with all of his laborers. Instead of paying them based on the amount of work they’ve done, which would have been the fair thing to do, the landowner instructs his manager to pay everyone the usual daily wage; those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” receive the same amount as those who “worked only one hour.” Unsurprisingly, the former are none too happy about this.

Their complaint, again unsurprisingly, is grounded in the premise of fairness: Why should those who did a relatively small amount work get paid the same amount as those who did far more? And if one accepts the validity of this essential premise, then it’s really hard to take issue either with the force of the argument or the rightness of its conclusion.

Much of the discomfort we might feel with respect to this parable stems from the fact that we cling to the idea of fairness — that everyone should get what they deserve — as if it were our life-raft on life’s stormy sea, as if it were a way for us to impose some sort of control upon a chaotic and capricious world. 

But the landowner doesn’t accept the validity of the essential premise; for him, this is not fundamentally an issue of fairness. And so he responds to the disgruntled workers by saying this:

“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?”

In other words, the landowner has decided that something other than fairness is the fundamental principle here — call it generosity, call it goodness, call it grace, call it whatever you will. And so, in his vineyard, everyone seems to get a medal just for showing up.   

I say this in a purely figurative sense, because the landowner isn’t actually handing out medals, he’s doing something much more essential: he’s giving these workers — one and all — enough money to feed their families.

To be clear: We’re not talking about the people who worked only an hour or two getting bonuses to buy those big screen TVs they’ve had their eye on — we’re talking about everyone getting what they need.

Jesus’s point in telling this parable is to show that this is the way the kingdom of heaven works. God ensures that all God’s children have what they need, not because of what they’ve done but simply because they are.       

Way back in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, and one of the things he told them to pray for was this: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Not: “Give me this day my daily bread.”

Not: “Give us this day our daily bread, but give me more than you give that guy because I earned it and he didn’t.”

Not: “Give us this day our daily bread, but also give me a nice house with a two car garage (and two cars to go in it) because I worked hard and that would only be fair.”

Give us this day our daily bread.

We can have confidence that God will provide us with no less and no more.

Because the kingdom of heaven isn’t a meritocracy. And, at the end of the day, we should probably be thankful for that.