The Cost of Living

As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

— (Rev) Andrew Jensen

The Cost of Living


Philippians 1:21-30

Matthew 20:1-16

UCC Universal Basic Income Program and the Moderator’s Letter

Poor old Paul! Actually, he never had the chance to get old, did he? Paul was so avid to spread the teachings of Jesus that when arrested for disturbing the peace by upsetting the crowd, instead of being set free, when offered the chance, he used his Roman Citizenship as a lever to appeal his case to the emperor with the hope of persuading Caesar Augustus of the truth of Jesus’ teachings. He got his chance after a long time under arrest and ultimately was executed by Caesar.

Paul had a lot of time to think about his situation and he was allowed to write letters while under house arrest, many of which we have in our Bible,

Today we see him at an emotionally tough place: he is weighing life and death in the balance. It looks like he is expecting to die and he sees great release and joy in that prospect. He anticipates being at the side of Jesus in the next life.

But look at what he concludes: to live is absolutely worth it no matter what is going on and he encourages the people of Philippi to live lives that are worthy of the gospel, even as they face suffering.

I realized something this week that Paul clearly understood. Our society talks about optimism as being “glass half full”.

Our scriptures set a more enthusiastic standard: talking about “my cup overflowing,” in Psalm 23, that also talks about walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we are called to a faith that isn’t merely optimistic but can find a way to make things better even in the midst of hard times.

We may sympathize with the emotionally fragile Paul right now as we deal with the changes and uncertainties of COVID as we wonder when we might be able to meet again. If we follow Paul’s example through to the end, we won’t give up, we won’t let these challenges discourage us for long and we will look for opportunities to live lives “worthy of the gospel”.

Our Gospel lesson about the workers in the vineyard and the generosity of the vineyard owner is a really challenging example of the teachings of Jesus that we are called to live out.

Sadly, we often dismiss it as a teaching that tells us about God but has little practical application. Obviously God is the vineyard owner and we are the workers and God rewards everyone equally regardless of when they enter the vineyard.

One interpretation has been that this is a lesson in God’s generosity and an explanation for why God blesses the just and the unjust, providing sun and rain for all people regardless of whether they have worked hard or not.

Fair enough, except that if we stop at that level of interpretation, it’s only about what God does. It doesn’t demand anything of us except for a vague example that Generosity is Godly.

But our current situation can be a spur to look at this story as a call to do something really practical.

In the social structure of Jesus’ day, there was no social safety net. The closest you got to an employment office was the local square: if you wanted daily work you went there to be hired and if you looked sturdy, or reliable, or tall enough to reach high vines, or whatever the boss wanted you’d be hired.

The longer the day went on without being hired the less hope you had and the less pay you could earn; which was pretty tough, especially if you were trying to support a family: spouse, children, elderly parents, sick cousin. A day without work meant hunger. It didn’t mean you were lazy, or dishonest or trying to scam the system. It often had nothing to do with you at all! Maybe you were standing in the wrong place or you looked extra tired that morning – coffee certainly wasn’t an option.

And at the end of the parable: the people who worked hardest felt cheated because they had laboured all day and received the usual pay for that work while these other people who only worked an hour got a full day’s wage. Where’s the justice in that? Well, if you chalk it all up to God’s generosity you don’t have to think about justice.

Our current conversation about a basic living wage for all challenges that limit and frankly, for many Christians, that conversation arises from this very lesson and from the vision of justice it presents.

The vineyard owner sees justice as providing a living wage for everyone, regardless of their circumstances. They have to eat, have to feed others, have to have shelter and it wasn’t their fault that they weren’t hired earlier in the day.

I asked Andrea to circulate an e-mail from the national office of the United Church of Canada which talks about the Moderator’s letter calling for a universal living wage as a matter of justice in Canada. (see link above).

As the message points out: this pandemic crisis shows us that people can become unemployed for many reasons, often outside of their control. It challenges the idea that unemployment or even poverty are signs of some kind of laziness, dishonesty or other moral failing. That kind of thinking is poison to really addressing our problems but it has been with us for years.

When I worked on the Church and Society committee in London Conference in the Mike Harris years, a crackdown on so-called “welfare cheats” was happening. Single mothers who were pinching pennies would buy the cheapest disposable razors available: which are the blue ones. Like so many consumer items, make it pink and the price goes up.

If inspectors found a blue razor in a single woman’s medicine cabinet, they would use it as evidence that a man also lived there and would cut off her welfare funds. The injustice of that is so obvious, and so painful! It’s high time we grew up and moved beyond that kind of desire to judge and control others.

The movement to provide a universal living wage is an attempt to do this in a just and humane way. It takes this parable and puts us, as a society in the role of the vineyard owner.

It calls us to follow the example that God sets, not only of generosity, which is good, but of the kind of justice that scripture has called for from Genesis onwards. It calls us to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper: to care for each other; to see that God’s justice calls for us to give everyone the chance to work, to eat, to live with dignity, without moral condemnation, with a desire to make sure that no one is left behind.

It’s not a simple discussion and there is a great deal to work out. But this is a unique opportunity to get the conversation beyond theory and look at ways to make it work.

So I invite you to see what the Moderator is calling for and see whether you feel called to participate in this process. We may be stuck at home but that doesn’t mean we can’t live lives worthy of the gospel.

This parable cuts to the core of the gospel. What are we going to do about it?


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