“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: the Church is a vineyard, and we are the workers. We are called by the Master to work in His vineyard, to tend it and care for it through our various vocations. Some of you, like me, were called early in the morning; you have been laboring in this vineyard your entire life. Christ saw you, conceived and born in sin, and through the power of His Word and using the people around you as His instruments, you were called to work in the vineyard.
When you were baptized, the Lord promised your wage: eternal life, won by His death and resurrection for you. “After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” That denarius is already yours; promised to you by the Master. You have been reconciled with the vineyard owner, you are brought back to your God through the shed blood of Christ. You labor not to earn the denarius of eternal life; you labor because it has been given to you. And boy, have you labored. You have kept the faith, you have served the Church, from that first hour; you never fell away, you are one of the dependable ones, who has lived an upright life, who has stayed true to Scripture. You have held every office, worked every soup supper, and taught every Sunday School class. In fact, you have labored so long and so hard in the vineyard that you are starting to believe that you are earning that denarius, that your dedication to this particular corner of Christ’s vineyard is getting you in good with your master, maybe even earning a little extra.
Others of you were called at the third hour. You weren’t baptized as infants, but somehow, you and your family, or maybe just you, were called by the Master in childhood. “And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’” Perhaps you came from a broken home, where childhood was a struggle and there was little love. Or maybe you came from a ‘good’ family who simply didn’t believe, who wanted nothing to do with the Church. But the Lord worked through friends, He worked through family, faithful grandparents or aunts and uncles, to call you to faith, to bring you to Church, to take you to the font, where you received your wage, won by Christ your Lord. He gives you “whatever is right;” whatever is righteous, His righteousness, won upon the cross and placed upon you as a beautiful robe in your baptism. And then you go to work, laboring long and hard in that vineyard through the heat of the day.
Others of you were called at the sixth hour. You lived in darkness for years, even decades. Maybe you had been baptized as an infant, and had walked out of the vineyard, maybe you were never there in the first place. Perhaps you fell into sexual immorality, addiction, or greed. There was no place for Christ as you wallowed in your sin. There was a pastor who once said to me: “You young guys, you life-long Christians, you have no idea what darkness is.” He’s right. Those who work from the first hour may suffer and struggle, but they do not know the darkness of total unbelief. You do; you’ve lived in the dark night where there is no hope, you lived a life asking for hell, but Christ called you, He washed you, He sanctified you. He gives you “whatever is right,” His righteousness, and it covers each and every stain. He shone His great light in the midst of your darkness and chased the shadows away. Your past makes you rough around the edges, it makes you different from your fellow workers, the ‘good church people’ who have been here from the first hour, but you still labor beside them, faithfully tending the vineyard.
Others of you were called at the ninth hour. Things were getting late, but Christ is long-suffering, He is patient. Maybe it was the influence of children or grandchildren, maybe it was a parent’s dying wish, but Christ worked through others to call you to His vineyard. You were away for decades, but Christ is persistent, He is stubborn, and He never gave up on you. It took Him so long to convince you of your sin, and to show you that His blood atones for every stain. You were hardened by life, but Christ broke through your tough shell and brought you to faith. Now you labor beside those whom you may have known your entire life, but never in the Church, never in the vineyard.
Some are called at the eleventh hour. These are the death-bed conversions, those who have lived outside the vineyard their entire lives and are called at the very end. “And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” They have been idle all the day, refusing to work in the vineyard for an entire lifetime. They have been working for their own damnation their entire lives, but here, at the end, confronted with the enemy that no man can defeat, the Master’s call gets through. Death has stripped away all that caused them to refuse this call before, and now they are finally baptized, brought into the vineyard. It doesn’t seem like a dying person can do much labor, but Jesus puts them to work, that perhaps even in death they may cause a part of the vineyard to flourish.
As I’ve labored in this corner of Christ’s vineyard these past years, I have known people called at every hour; I have baptized infants, children, adults, and a dying man. I know for a fact that here in this sanctuary today we have those called to labor early in the morning, in the third hour, the sixth hour, and the ninth hour. You know who you are. Your stories are not the same; you each have taken unique journeys to get here today. Your path is not identical, but the destination is. “And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.” The reward is equal, because it was given before any labor was done. The reward is equal, because it is given as a gift. The reward is the fruit of Christ’s death and resurrection, it is life eternal in the vineyard of the new heavens and the new earth. This is your reward, promised to you in your baptism and given to you when you die. Because of Christ, your death isn’t defeat, it is when you are given an eternal treasure. That same treasure is given to all, whether they were hired at the first hour, the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour, or even the eleventh hour.
“Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘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.’” In our sin, we are always in competition, we are always comparing ourselves to others. And when we have labored long in the vineyard, especially when we are those who have worked from the first hour, we deceive ourselves into thinking we are earning something by our labor. If Christ pays the death-bed convert one denarius, surely I’ll get two! And so, tragically, we look down on our fellow laborers, we think that they are less than we are, and when we hear that they will receive the same wage, we grumble against our Master.
But our Master immediately rebukes this complaint. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I chose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” Repent! It is the Master’s vineyard, not ours; He is the one who planted it, and He is the one who calls workers to tend it, in His good time and according to His good purposes. And He is the one who gives out the wage; He has earned that right, because He won the reward by His agony on the cross and His victory over death. And because it is His vineyard to tend, His reward to give, He chooses to give to all who believe the same reward: eternal life.
No normal vineyard master would do this, but Christ is certainly not normal, as we hear from Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” It is Christ’s grace to give, and He gives it in abundance, to the life-long Christian, to the wandering and rebellious sinner, even to the one who was idle all the day. We are all the same because we are all sinners; none of us deserve His grace, whether we are called in the first hour or the last. But yet His grace is given in abundance to you, no matter the hour you were called, no matter what life you lived, because He died for you and He rose for you, and He has called you, every one of you, making you His own in the blessed waters of baptism.
Christ calls at His time, not ours, and no matter the hour you are called in, you are called to serve your neighbor. Your labor in the vineyard isn’t for your own good, to earn the reward, but for the good of others. Paul understood this; in our Epistle lesson, He says that to die and receive his reward would be much better for him, but to live on is for the good of his neighbor. “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” If our reward was all that mattered, God would simply take our life immediately after we were baptized. But we remain, some for only a few hours, some the entire day, for the good of our neighbor, just as others remained for your good, to extend Christ’s call to you, a call that brought you to the vineyard, where the reward is yours. No matter what hour your were called, no matter what your past is, on the Last Day, Christ will pay your wages, and you will receive your denarius, your entrance into a life that never ends with all the saints, called at every hour, but all with the same promise, all with the same reward, bought with the blood of Christ. In the Name of Jesus, the Master of the vineyard who earned your reward with His own blood, Amen.